KARACHI, Pakistan | A grim reminder of Pakistan’s economic crisis arrived in the last 10 days of November, when three mothers from the same extended family abandoned eight children in one day at a welfare center.
The sobbing children clung to their mothers desperately, grabbing their shawls and wailing miserably. One little boy cried hysterically, refusing to let his mother leave.
Eventually, the mothers left, saying they were unable to feed the children and begging the Edhi Foundation to take care of them.
Bilquis Edhi, wife of the foundation´s patron, Abdul Sattar Edhi, told journalists that in all her years of serving the poor, this incident was the most shocking.
“So many children of living parents being left at a center in one day is unprecedented,” she said. “It’s never happened before. I almost cried myself as I saw the mothers and children cling to each other.”
As tensions rise between Pakistan and India over accusations of Pakistani involvement in the recent terrorist massacre in the Indian city of Mumbai, Pakistan’s economic crisis has a security as well as a humanitarian dimension.
Nonprofit groups here say the situation has worsened in recent months with a sudden peak in the prices of food and fuel and a new civilian government unable to provide sufficient subsidies.
The Edhi Foundation is the largest nonprofit humanitarian organization in Pakistan. Funded solely by donations, the foundation provides 24-hour emergency assistance in many cities, women’s shelters, free schooling and medical care.
The eight children who arrived at the center recently spent their first few hours huddled in corners, refusing to talk or eat. The crisis was resolved when the center gave each mother the equivalent of $1,200 and they agreed to take their children home.
A thousand dollars is a fortune for the poor in Pakistan, where according to the World Bank almost one-third of the population — about 40 million people — live below the poverty line.
Less than 24 hours after the eight children were sent home, five others were abandoned at the same center.
A father from Tharpakar, a district in the Sindh province, which borders India, brought his four children. Another child, a Pashtun, was brought in from a refugee camp in Karachi.
Mr. Edhi said the father begged him to take his children, saying that he was unable to feed them.
“‘I don’t want them to die from starvation,’ he told me,” Mr. Edhi said. “He said it was just not possible for him to buy food for six people anymore.”
The Pashtun girl, Laiba, was brought in by a woman. The girl’s parents had passed away, and the woman said no one would buy milk for her.
Mr. Edhi said that the number of children being abandoned owing to abject poverty was unprecedented. “I’ve never seen the Pakistani public so broken down and hopeless,” he said. “Never.”
Teresita Schaffer, head of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former U.S. diplomat based in Pakistan, said the problem of abandoned children in Pakistan is not new. “The current situation is a function of rising food and fuel prices,” she said.
Since a civilian government took office in February, the prices of wheat, rice, sugar, gasoline and compressed natural gas have spiked. According to Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Statistics, inflation rose 31 percent during the first week of July alone. The bureau also said that between July 2007 and July 2008, there was a 32 percent increase in the prices of goods and services for the lowest income group.
“No one thought the situation was going to get this bad,” said Rafiq Ahmed, an economist and former vice chancellor of Punjab University. “The main reason for the inflation is that the government used to provide subsidies worth 490 billion rupees [$5.9 billion], but in the last budget, subsidies were reduced to 290 billion rupees [$3.5 billion].”
After weeks of talks and Cabinet meetings, Pakistan finally received the first installment of a $7.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Nov 27.
The 23-month package is to be handed out in six installments. In return, Pakistan has agreed to phase out energy subsidies, boost taxes and implement other reforms. The IMF has said the loan is intended to “ensure social stability and adequate support for the poor and vulnerable in Pakistan.”
But Pakistani economists worry that the handout, while helpful in the short run, will add to debts in the long term.
Economist Qais Aslam said he still hopes the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — which Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visited on Nov. 24, will provide assistance with fewer strings. During the tour, agreements were reportedly reached on steps to encourage private and public investment from the UAE in energy, agriculture, construction and infrastructure.
“That’s what we need more than any loans,” Mr. Aslam said. “Real help, which will bring in real investment and help us improve our foreign-exchange deficits.”
Ms. Schaffer said she also worried about the conditions attached to the IMF loans. “How do you square the conditions the IMF has imposed with the grass-roots impact?” she said.
While Pakistanis plead for help, their plight is getting desperate.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 1,000 people have committed suicide between January and May of this year, compared with 153 in all of 1996.
During the first week of June, five people attempted suicide on one bridge in Karachi, nicknamed the “suicide bridge.”
Even those above the poverty line are being affected by the economic crisis.
“Women are renting out jewelry instead of buying it or are going for artificial sets instead of gold sets on the wedding day,” said Salman Hanif, a jeweler. “I’ve never encountered this trend before.”
Shumaila Khalid, 32, said her family just canceled a vacation and has switched to a cheaper private school for her daughter. “Everyone nowadays is worried about making ends meet,” she said.