In the New York Times recently Mohammed Hanif commented on the philanthropic practices of Pakistanis.
Hanif—a Karachi-based novelist—doesn’t hide his disdain for his country’s literalist interpretations of Islamic charity rules. Despite the fact that Muslims are meant to have to zakat (an annual 2.5% tithe to the poor), Pakistanis have a complicated relationship to giving.
During Ramadan, Hanif explains, “the government is entitled to collect zakat from people whose assets reach a minimum threshold, and place it in a welfare fund for the needy.” The compulsory Ramadan zakat often causes wealthy Pakistanis to grumble, since they are the ones who, during the rest of the year, are most able to skirt the country’s notoriously inefficient tax system. Rich Pakistanis, it turns out, don’t trust their government to handle the donations effectively. In addition, during Ramadan, the religious significance of any prayers or pilgrimages to Mecca is multiplied seventy-fold—many super-rich would rather spend their money on a down-payment towards the afterlife than fork over a share to unscrupulous bureaucrats. Hanif again:
If we give to the government, the logic goes, it’s just going to steal some more. And after stealing from us, government officials will head off to Mecca to redeem themselves in the eyes of God. So why not just go ahead and do our own stealing and redeeming?
This leads to a surge of giving during holy periods like Ramadan—when beggars will flock to major cities in order to collect cash—but a trickle of philanthropic activity otherwise.
To be sure, it’s true, as Hanif notes, that many social services are run by private outfits: ambulances, medical care providers, schools, and even morgues often serve the poorest of the poor in the form of charitable trusts. But this fact only really underlines the evacuated sense of civil society at play in the country at large: trust in government is low, and thus the safety net remains fragile and frayed.
And increasingly so, apparently. In April of last year the country’s ruling party announced that some 60 million Pakistanis—a third of the population—are living below the poverty line.
For those starving in the street, the once-a-year generosity of the country’s rich doesn’t put food on the table.
The Hudson Institute’s 2015-2016 Index of Philanthropic Freedom rates Pakistan as “one of the region’s better philanthropic environments.” Considering that this includes neighbors like China and Afghanistan, however, this isn't very encouraging. If Hanif is right, part of the problem is this strange mix of religious contractarianism and low social trust.