Children at crisis frontlines
Abdus Sattar Edhi remembers a tearful mother who agonised over whether or not to abandon her three-year-old son to charity after her husband lost his job.
"A year ago, we used to receive a couple of children across the country a day, but the number is rising mainly because our people's economic situation is weakening," said Edhi, who heads the charitable Edhi Foundation.
"Now we receive one or two kids every day just in Karachi, and across the country five or six," he said.
On the porch outside the charity's head office in Pakistan's depressed economic capital of Karachi, metal cradles hang from chains beneath a sign that reads: "Do not kill, lay them here."
Parents lay up to 40 children a month in the cradles – a heartbreaking indication of just how tough it has become to feed and clothe families in a country where the economic situation is worsening almost daily.
The global credit crunch has hammered Pakistan's economy – already reeling from years of constant bomb attacks, regional insurgencies, and battles between government troops and Islamist extremists in the northwest. Food prices have soared and overall inflation is rising while export orders from crisis-hit Western economies have slumped.
Last November, the International Monetary Fund approved a $7.6 billion (Dh27.8bn) bail-out package to stabilise Pakistan's economy and avoid a balance of payments crisis and defaults on foreign loans.
Industries are in crisis: textile merchants report orders from Britain and the United States are drying up. Brokerage houses have collapsed along with the Karachi stock market; heavy industries such as automobiles are sacking workers.
White-collar jobs are also disappearing as managers struggle to keep businesses afloat.
According to Edhi, this was the undoing of Jehan Ara, who in floods of tears lay her toddler in a crib as she could no longer to afford to care for him.
"She said 'I'm leaving him until we have the means to raise him. His father is a labourer who has lost his job in a mill and my earnings are not enough to feed him and my two older children'," Edhi remembered.
The foundation runs 18 centres across the country, housing more than 2,000 children at any one time. In Karachi, there are about 200. The children live in dormitories, attend school classes, share a communal play area and go on monthly outings.
Sometimes, Edhi said, the children ask where their parents are.
"Someone threw me in the cradle and I've been here ever since. It is now my family," says Mohsin, who is nicknamed Kaka, meaning little boy.
Anwer Kazmi, an official at Edhi's foundation, said there are 320 cradles outside Edhi offices nationwide, including 40 in Karachi.
Pakistan has suffered from crushing poverty since it was created almost 62 years ago when a century of British rule ended. Today it is number 139 on the United Nation's human development index of 179 countries.
Pakistan's gross domestic product (GDP) has plunged to 3.5 per cent in the current fiscal year, from six per cent last year.
"If people stop leaving their children at my doorstep it would show Pakistan is on the path of prosperity," said Edhi. "But since cradles are continuously filling at my centres, I don't see it happening in near future."
On the pavement outside a nearby restaurant, kitchen staff set down lentil soup and bread – charity for the children.
Kaiser Bengali, an economist and former member of the government's economic council, said 40 per cent of Pakistan's population of 160 million live on one dollar a day or less. The government puts the figure at 33 per cent. Food prices that have doubled since 2005 have only made the poor more poor, Bengali said.
Imran Ali, 32, worked in a knitwear factory in Karachi's slum neighbourhood of Korangi, where he earned Rs200-300 ($2.5 to $3.6) a day depending on how many shirts he stitched, until his services were terminated by his company.
"I am a father of four and can't afford to live without working. It's impossible to find a job anywhere now and people like me don't have the savings to start working independently," he said.
With little hope of finding another job, he says his family depends on what his 14-year-old son earns selling flowers at traffic lights to supplement his wife's salary as a maid.
"Their earnings are too little to buy bread for all and keep the other children in school," he said.
Pakistan, which has watched arch rival India embark on the path to prosperity and regional superpower status, was slapped with heavy economic sanctions after going nuclear in 1998, further suffocating economic development.
Former president General Pervez Musharraf's decision within hours of the September 11, 2001 attacks to back the US-led "war on terror" saw Washington pump in $10bn of aid money and cancel billions more in foreign debt.
But suicide bombings, religious extremists winning the upperhand in parts of northwest Pakistan, political instability, inflation and a sharp decline in foreign reserves – all coupled with the global financial crisis – have squeezed growth.
Economists warn against a vicious cycle, saying mounting economic problems boost civil disturbances and fan the flames of militancy and religious fundamentalism.
The government has blamed the economic woes on the fight against terrorism, but many ordinary people accuse the authorities of squandering aid money.
The finance ministry said in a poverty-reduction draft strategy that the annual cost of Pakistan's anti-terrorism military efforts rose 40 per cent to Rs678bn (Dh31.1bn in 2008 from Rs484bn the year earlier.
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