Pakistan raises awareness of 'safe charity' ahead of Ramadan

By Zia Ur Rehman

Karachi residents May 5 drink water at a heat stroke prevention centre set up by Saylani Welfare Trust, a local charity. A number of charities and civil society organisations are raising public awareness of trustworthy charities ahead of Ramadan. [Zia Ur Rehman]

Karachi residents May 5 drink water at a heat stroke prevention centre set up by Saylani Welfare Trust, a local charity. A number of charities and civil society organisations are raising public awareness of trustworthy charities ahead of Ramadan. [Zia Ur Rehman]

KARACHI -- Pakistani civil society organisations are working to ensure that charity donations given during Ramadan go to genuine welfare organisations and not into the pockets of militant groups.

Their efforts are meant to raise awareness among Pakistanis, who contribute generously during the Muslim holy month and following Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha.

The Pakistani government last year banned radical organisations from collecting zakat and sadqa-e-fitr or fitrana, a donation specifically given during the holy month of Ramadan.

Militant groups who have experienced resulting financial hardship are devising new ways to deceive the faithful, say observers.

Exploiting Pakistanis' generosity

Historically, Taliban militants have exploited the generosity of Pakistani Muslims during Ramadan.

Militant groups form phony charities and seek to collect zakat and fitrana, supposedly to help the poor, while in reality the money funds terrorism and the purchase of weapons.

Private donations in Pakistan amount to about Rs. 554 billion ($5.3 billion) annually, mostly going to seminaries and mosques and to the poor and homeless, according to Individualland (IL), an Islamabad-based advocacy group spearheading a "safe charity" awareness campaign.

"About 78% of Pakistanis give charity, while 69% give charity in the form of money," IL director Gul Mina Bilal said May 3 during a Safe Charity Seminar organised at the Institute of Business Administration Karachi.

"During our research, we found that it was difficult to know whether the public donations were going to authentic organisations," she said.

Only 2% of Pakistanis are aware that their generosity might end up funding militancy, she said, while 26% say they are unaware how the recipients spend their donations.

Bilal stressed the importance of raising awareness among the public and urged the government and civil society to play a pivotal role in encouraging Pakistanis to donate only to fully vetted charities.

'Safe charity' awareness campaigns

Pakistani Muslims annually donate billions of rupees in the form of zakat, usher and fitrana, said Abubakkar Yousafzai, who works with the Karachi-based Sustainable Peace and Development Organisation (SPADO), which is also holding safe charity awareness campaigns.

"The main challenge is that donors do not know enough about the fundraising group or what their money supports," he told Pakistan Forward.

Militants have found ways to circumvent the government's admittedly effective ban on their fundraising, he warned.

For example, they pose as charities to solicit money door to door from businesses and in residential areas, he said.

"It is high time to educate the people," he said.

For this purpose, SPADO and other civil society groups are arranging meetings with elected local officials, elders, youth groups and police, as well as organising seminars and lectures in academic institutions, he said.

A team from SPADO met with elected local officials in the Hijrat Colony neighbourhood of Karachi May 3 to sensitise them to the notion of "safe charity" so they can impart that knowledge to residents ahead of Ramadan.

Residents need to inquire about organisations or individuals taking their money, said Abdul Qayyum Salarzai, the Hijrat Colony Union Committee vice-chairman.

"To curb terrorism in the country, Pakistani Muslims should give only to genuine charities or seminaries," he told Pakistan Forward. "As elected representatives, we will help the residents of our area identify [which groups are legitimate]."

Militants face 'financial crisis'

The nationwide ban on the collection of donations by outlawed organisations is intact, a Sindh Home Department official told Pakistan Forward. He requested anonymity because he lacked authorisation to talk to media.

In the past, extremist groups used to set up donation collection camps during Ramadan in Karachi, but for the past three years, no such camps have appeared, Pakistan Forward has observed.

"Choking financing for terrorist and terrorist organizations" is one of the 20 points of the National Action Plan (NAP), the government's counter-terrorism policy adopted following the deadly Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.

This and other measures have impeded militants' ability to fund major terrorist attacks, say security analysts.

"[Taliban groups] have been facing a severe financial crisis due to the measures taken by Pakistani authorities to stop them from collecting donations and cut off their main source of income abroad," Karachi-based security analyst Raees Ahmed told Pakistan Forward.

"The ban and other moves by the government have enabled genuine charities to collect donations that will benefit underprivileged segments of society," said Yousafzai.

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