Of teens and charity : ‘Like OMG, I work for an NGO’

Published: May 14, 2012

Working for charity has become an art, and it takes an 18-year-old to spot the difference between the really interested ones and the tag-alongs. PHOTO: AFP

Areeba, not her real name, is a bright, conscientious 18-year-old off to college this September. She works on and off rebuilding a girls school in rural Sindh in an effort guided by her school.

“I know all the girls names, they teach me Sindhi and mark my progress, I distribute sweets,” she says, her enthusiasm apparent.

But then comes this observation:

It’s something I’m really into, not like, I don’t know, wannabe hipsters who’re just in it for the certificate and the photo ops.

Wannabe hipsters in it for the photo ops? I told my father what she said and his first reaction was: What does that even mean? But I know exactly what it signifies, and so does my friend, and so does anyone in this age bracket of 14 to 20 years.

It’s about affluent or privileged teens who’re ‘aware’ of issues and sometimes volunteer on weekends at say, the Indus Hospital or Dar-ul-Sukun. Their contribution to the ‘cause’ they’ve chosen includes taking pictures on their BlackBerry of themselves working to show the ‘other side of Pakistan, dude’. Is it harsh of me to say that? Areeba is perhaps more scathing:

There are activists, and then there are activists. Those kids are neither.

Pakistan has one of the highest percentages of active NGOs in a country. It also has one of the highest rates of charity given out annually per citizen in the world. People trust charity organisations and work in tandem with them in a way that no government in Pakistan can ever achieve.

The trickle-down effect of this is that it has become a certain rite of passage among teens to be involved in charity. It’s come to the point that I can count on one hand who in my graduating A’ Level class hasn’t been involved in charity work in the past four years.

They sit and compare schedules.

Today I taught my Saturday class (for underprivileged children) how to spell gajar (carrot).

This is followed by,

Really? I’m still stuck on alif bay pay (ABC).

You worked at The Citizens Foundation during the summer? Tell me something interesting, that’s so mainstream. You went for a polio drive? That’s cool. You rebuilt flood victim houses in rural Sindh? Wow, that’s hardcore, that must have been such an experience.

It has become so de rigueur to chase brownie points that one college counsellor actually exclaimed in exasperation:

Enough essays about what an eye-opener working with poor children is. Be different.

We live in a world where the fact that we live in a developing country can become the thesis argument for a college essay.

It has other nifty uses too.

Guys, want to go for espresso after our usual NGO stint on Saturday?

Or upload your profile picture with kids in a village and caption it as ‘The future of Pakistan <3’ and wait for 50 likes.

Working for charity has become an art, and it takes an 18-year-old to spot the difference between the really interested ones and the tag-alongs. Areeba, who heads the volunteer and charity society at her school, remembers the deluge of “bored 15 year olds” who signed up on the first day.

At the end of the day, it’s just me and some eight other people working on long-term projects. The rest of the group are just in it because, well, it’s kind of cool.

Short-term, popular trends like Imran Khan, or Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy define these teens. I have yet to meet someone my age who can actually explain Imran Khan’s economic or foreign policies. All I heard was how they received an automated call on their cell phone which was like, so cool!

As for Obaid Chinoy, one 17-year-old I know actually said,

I’m totally into helping acid victims now. Also, did you notice what she wore at the Oscars! So ethnic!

We need less popular trends or more viable goals. We need less people in jeans flashing peace signs outside unplanned settlements on Saturdays, and more people sticking to one cause and giving it their all. Above all we need people to stop viewing charity as a social event and to respect the gravity of social problems in Pakistan.

Every little bit counts, yes, but I’ll be damned if I get one more text message about an NGO that’s like “totally going to help the youth of Pakistan”.

Read more by Meiryum here.


Meiryum Ali

Meiryum Ali

A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.