Saturday, October 8, 2005 was an unfortunate day in the history of Pakistan. The entire country was convulsed by an earthquake that registered 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale. The tremor ravaged the entire Kashmir region razing almost every building to the ground, a large part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan province, and caused a high rise housing tower to collapse in Islamabad. The loss, both human and material, was colossal. The death toll crossed 100,000, and rendered 3.5 million displaced. The injured were innumerable and everywhere.

The said earthquake in Pakistan, just like earthquakes anywhere else in the developing world, caught disaster response institutions off guard. They were unprepared, lacked the essential rescue equipment, training, and resources. On top of it was the damage caused to road and rail networks, which were no more usable, not at least without major repairs.

In the face of this massive catastrophe, when the state institutions were stuck in Panic, these were the common people who took upon themselves the duty to do whatever they could to save their brethren strangled under rubble and debris. Their efforts rescued over 138,000 of injured stuck under collapsed buildings, and saved many more helpless women, children, and elders who lost their families in the calamity. Had it not been for their efforts, most of the injured would have died by the time government rescue teams reached them with a delay of 78 hours.

Attending a panel on ‘Disaster Protection through Preparation’ at the ‘Points of Light’ Conference in Atlanta, and learning about the role volunteers played in Nashville in saving people and properties during 2010 floods, and later on helping the city clean up and recover, I could not help but think about the role volunteers played during the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. They not only helped minimize the damage, paced up the rescue, recovery, and rehabilitation efforts, but also left the affected communities more united and self-reliant.

However, a major difference in incidents of Nashville in United States and Kashmir in Pakistan was that volunteers were better prepared, connected, and organized in the former. Though the incident in Pakistan ensued in creation of a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) – but it was more of a government body, acknowledging and allowing no role the volunteer organizations and individual could play. Had it created an active pool of volunteers, it would have exhibited better performance during the floods in 2010 that inundated two-third of Pakistan, and of course during the on-going war on terror that have killed over 50,000 of civilians and military personnel so far.

While at the conference, I was also amazed by the vastness of the concept ‘volunteerism’ is employed in almost all kinds of community services in the United States. Contrary to Pakistan where it mostly relates to disaster response, here it includes a wide range of social services including health, education, youth counseling, unemployment, poverty, civil rights, and many more. I now realize the huge potential difference that volunteer efforts can make in these sectors in Pakistan.

For societies like in Pakistan and in South Asia at large, where social differences are stark, ‘volunteerism’ in all and any capacities should be taken and promoted as a collective and individual obligation. As a local adage goes, “If you know it, (teaching to) those who don’t know it is your duty. If you have it, (feeding to) those who don’t have it is your responsibility”.

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