Leadership in Action: Abdul Sattar Edhi

The American Pakistan Foundation celebrates the life of Abdul Sattar Edhi, a Pakistani humanitarian who passed away last month at the age of 88.  Known as Pakistan’s “Angel of Mercy”, Maulana Edhi was the founder and head of the Edhi Foundation and ran the organization for over sixty years. The foundation is Pakistan’s largest welfare organization and runs almost entirely on private donations.

Edhi was born on January 1, 1928 in Gujarat, British India.  His interest in social service began early when his mother would give him money to buy meals for himself as well as for a local beggar.  When Edhi was eleven years old, his mother suffered a stroke that led to paralysis.  She passed away when Edhi was nineteen.  Edhi’s experiences caring for his mother during her illness led to his subsequent interest in developing systems to provide services for the elderly and the sick.  After Partition in 1947, Edhi and his family migrated to Karachi—the capital of the newly established Pakistan.  Edhi initially found work as a peddler and later became a commission agent selling cloth in Karachi’s wholesale market.  A few years later, he established a free dispensary with help from the local community.  As he recounted to NPR in a 2009 interview: “I saw people lying on the pavement… the flu had spread in Karachi and there was no one to treat them. So I set up benches and got medical students to volunteer. I was penniless and begged for donations on the street. And people gave. I bought this eight-by-eight room to start my work.”

This dispensary eventually grew into the Edhi Foundation. The generosity of the Pakistani people allowed Edhi to expand his work by rescuing 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitating 50,000 orphans, and training 40,000 nurses.  Edhi Foundation run welfares centers are present all over Pakistan and provide services for abandoned women and children.  Edhi served humanity without regard to identity or background.  He once stated, “So many people come to me.  I don’t ask them about their religion.  I consider them human beings.”

Most notably, the Edhi Foundation operates the world’s largest ambulance program that regularly comes rushing into scenes of chaos.  The foundation also provides operates internationally and provides humanitarian assistance when disaster strikes. For example, the foundation provided assistance when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Edhi has been awarded both Pakistani as well as international awards and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize.  He became the only Pakistani without state authority to receive a State funeral. His funeral prayers were held at National Stadium in Karachi and attended by high-ranking officials of the Government of Pakistan as well as the Pakistani military. Edhi is survived by his wife of more than five decades, Bilquis, as well as by his four children, Kubra, Faisal, Ilamas and Kutub.