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Archive for September, 2011

The Deja Vu Disaster

Via Atlantic (AP Photo) A woman displaced by the floods walks along a flooded road holding an axe to cut wood, in Digri district near Hyderabad on September 19.

Last year, the floods in Pakistan were considered “one of the worst natural disasters in history,” affecting 20 million people and submerging about one-fifth of the country underwater. This year’s monsoon rains have once again wreaked havoc, affecting at least 5.4 million people, with more than 475,000 displaced from their homes. The Washington Post cited the United Natons’ statistics, noting, “In Sindh alone, the floods have killed over 220 people, damaged or destroyed some 665,000 homes and displaced more than 1.8 million people.” Balochistan has also been affected by the floods. The Atlantic, in its coverage, reported, “The disaster has once again overwhelmed the capacity of the government to assist, and the UN has asked for $357 million in international aid.”

Given the enormity of the disaster last year, it seems we should have learned many lessons by now, at the very least how to better handle or address the impact of the floods, to better mitigate the human cost of the tragedy. And yet, here we are, exactly a year later, and the numbers are still climbing. A few weeks ago, Oxfam International‘s Pakistan Director stated to the Telegraph that this year’s floods are “already worse than last year, not because of the numbers but the impact on a population already severely affected by last year’s mega-flood.

The director went on to note,

We have more and more mosquitoes, the water is contaminated, and there’s the risk of all the public health [diseases] because there is not sufficient clean water. It’s not just about the world recognizing it, but realizing it is something we need to respond to now. People who have been displaced for a second time can’t sleep at night. They’re on the sides of the roads without shelter, suffering from diarrhoea, they’re itching and scratching.

Before these latest floods began, nearly one million people from last year’s disaster were still without permanent homes. One. Million. That number is not only a reflection of the amount of people vulnerable during this latest tragedy, but also the inability of authorities and the international community to properly respond to those affected in the last year. Although the latest floods began in August, President Asif Ali Zardari waited until September 8th to ask for help (And now he has a “special control room.” I’m serious). BBC NewsOrla Guerin noted, “At that stage more than five million lives had already been disrupted by the floods.” She cited UN spokesperson Stacey Winston, who stated,

We responded immediately once we were asked…Officially for us to go in and set up shop, we have to be asked. Within days of the government’s request the World Food Programme had reached 140,000 people and the World Health Organization had reached hundreds of thousands with essential medical help.

And what of the government response now? When Guerin asked PM Yousaf Raza Gilani if more lessons could have been learned from last year’s disaster, he replied, “You can’t compare the two. Last year there was flooding from the Indus River, this year it’s from the rains.” Gilani also went on to stress that fewer lives have been lost this year compared to last year350 versus 2000.

Um.

Human lives lost are human lives lost. We can’t compare or quantify in order to justify or scapegoat our actions, or lack thereof. Doing so will not help the families who are currently drinking the same contaminated water as their livestock. It will not restore the livelihoods of the millions who have watched their homes wash away year after year. How can these communities hope to rebuild their lives if they were not even given the tools to do so the first time around? How long before this cycle of disaster & dependency become what is considered normal?

In Pakistan, the monsoon rains are not unexpected. And God knows we have more than enough problems facing the country at this time. We have been inundated – literally and figuratively – with disaster, so much so, that we have been unable to keep afloat. But for those of us who care – and all of us damn well should – we can do more than just watch as our government fumbles yet again in the face of disaster.

In the latest Friday Times, Faisal Kapadia, who has done incredible relief work with Awab Alvi and others in Sindh [via SA Relief], wrote,

We may have good intentions but in time we get tired or the funds dry up and then we have no choice but to desert the communities we are adopting on ground. This is why I believe that every initiative should be tied to the local government and managed jointly. In this manner, the local government can point out where relief should be directed so no overlapping takes place. Often we have gone out with a plan in mind but have after being briefed by the local DCO realized that we must change direction because someone has already distributed relief there in the morning. Failure to coordinate with local officials leads to haphazard relief and then much grief for dependent communities.

This is a really important point. Sometimes in our efforts to help, we end up replicating what others have already done, making our attempts repetitive and relatively ineffective. I’ve also been interested in the nexus of innovation and relief, and how these types of solutions can become cost-effective ways of providing affected communities what they need rather than what we think they need. Organizations like Day One Response, which provides clean drinking water to those affected by disaster, can be potential stakeholders in the discussion.

So beyond listening, collaborating, and partnering with local officials and reputable relief organizations, think about how relief is only the first step in this recovery process. And while our energy is well-spent donating and supporting the relief phase, if the disaster taught me anything last year [via Relief4Pakistan], it’s that this same energy slows in the rehabilitation stage, which is just as necessary.

For suggestions on where people should donate, please leave a comment. Two reputable relief organizations that I think are doing incredible work are Karachi Relief Trust (KRT) and South Asia Relief.

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This One’s For You, Naan

An image of Naan captured by our Nana (Grandfather)

For those of you who are regular visitors to this blog, you may have read a piece I wrote some months ago about my maternal grandmother (nani) – or Naan, as we all called her. About a week ago, Naan left us behind, joining my dear uncle (my mamoo), who passed away less than two weeks before.

My life has been punctuated by stories of my grandmother. Even if the memories were not wholly my own, I still felt a sense of ownership knowing that Naan’s life was somehow a testament to mine, that none of us would be who we were without her presence in our lives. Naan reared seven incredible daughters and one amazing son, who all raised their own children in light of her bravery, strength, determination, and fortitude. She was the staunch matriarch of my mother’s family.

As a child, I would stare in wonder as she sat in her armchair and expertly filled her paan leaves with colorful spices and candy-covered seeds, an intrinsic part of her daily ritual at her Dhanmondi house in Dhaka. As she gave me a naku (an Eskimo-like kiss with her nose) before I left her room, she would covertly stuff my pockets full of toffee and candy, which were still cold from their hiding place in her mini-fridge. Naan was a diabetic, but evidently rules never constrained her.

As I grew older and more curious about my own identity (being the Pakistani daughter of a Bangladeshi mother and a Pakistani father), Naan earned an almost folk hero status as I would listen to tales of the British Raj and the 1971 War. She was often the central character of these stories, the dramatic heroine with her perfectly pinned sari. She’d note how the British soldiers who’d camp in the fields near her house “were really quite nice,” or how she learned to shoot a gun when she was a commander in the Women’s National Guard in the 1950s.  My mother would laugh as she noted how my grandmother, an avid supporter of the Communist party, would make her daughters all pay their respect to her enormous portrait of Mao Tse-Tung every morning.

This past year, I began to record some of Naan’s rich and vibrant memoirs. It was my present to her, I claimed. But really, it was for all of us. It was a testimony to our history, of how the first-person narrative of a woman we all called our matriarch truly defined our place within this timeline.

One of the last times I saw my Naan, I had just subjected her to hours of my peppered questions. I know she lavished the attention, as she often did, but she was tired and needed to rest. As I helped her into bed, she gripped my hand with the strength of the folk heroine immortalized in those stories. Will you remember me? she asked, her eyes closing. This question was not unlike the one she asked when I first arrived in Dhaka on that trip, except then she had said, Do you remember me? I answered both of those inquiries the same way – yes, Naan. Of course. You’re my grandmother.

I still think back to the simple innocence of those questions. Do we all live our lives hoping to be remembered, wondering if our memories will live on after we are gone? I know in the case of my Naan that she never even needed to ask. I am because she was. And her memory, as well as that of my uncle, will live on with all of us forever.

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My mother loves to tell a story that she thinks demonstrates my unfailing determination. I was 12 years old, and I had just auditioned yet again for a solo in my choir class. Like the times before, I was woefully rejected. My choir teacher told me – in a kind, roundabout way – that I was just not a very good singer. But damn did I love it anyway. I sang in the shower. I belted tunelessly to my father as he shaved in the morning. I sang while I did my homework. I sang everywhere. Rejection wasn’t a sign of failure; it was an opportunity to learn and work harder. Come high school, I still wasn’t amazing, but I was a lot better. And I finally got my solo. A number of them.

I have been like this my entire life. I am not sure if it’s an endearing quality or rather annoying to the parties involved, but every time I’ve been told I could not do something, or that I wasn’t good enough, it was an invitation to prove people wrong. It was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could do anything I put my mind to. I’m not particularly brilliant, but I work hard. I listen. And I have the determination of a terrier (which are very determined dogs, in case you were wondering).

Terrier-like determination at its best: Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now.

Yesterday, I officially launched my start-up company, Invest2Innovate, or i2i, after a year of working hard, listening, and being unfailingly determined. i2i is an intermediary organization, helping social entrepreneurs (those taking a sustainable & entrepreneurial approach to poverty alleviation) maximize their impact to the low-income communities they serve, and matching them with funding/investment capital.

I developed i2i because I noticed the numerous disconnects that existed in this very dynamic and innovative space. First, a lot of entrepreneurs in emerging markets have low access to capital – some are unsure how to get investor attention, and others need support in turning their potential model into an enterprise that truly has a social and/or environmental impact. Second, investors (this brand of investors/funders known as impact investors provide capital in order to achieve a social impact with some varied financial returns), quite justifiably, are more comfortable funding businesses in relatively less-risky markets. In India, Latin America (especially Mexico & Brazil), and East Africa, we have seen the noteworthy development of this environment – or ecosystem – that is amenable to the success of social entrepreneurs. It is by no means perfect or fully developed, but we’ve seen the growth of the players that are integral to the support of these businesses – from business incubators to consultancies to investor networks to even government policies (in some cases).

I do not believe in the notion that social entrepreneurs are individual rock stars. And my criticism of this space is that we have a tendency to treat them that way, which I think hurts rather than helps in poverty alleviation. I’m a much bigger proponent of a broader ecosystem approach, in order to develop a space where entrepreneurship as a whole can flourish – whether that means workshops around business development or developing local mentor networks or having honest conversations about failure. This is not the only solution to poverty alleviation, but we’ve seen that in many developed countries, the growth of small and growing businesses has created jobs, generated income, and provided services and products to low-income and well-deserving communities. This thinking forms the foundation of i2i, and we aim to foster the necessary local networks as well as the regional and global collaborations to grow the ecosystem in the “untapped” markets.

About three and a half years ago, I launched this blog. CHUP was founded with the intention of providing a more nuanced perspective of Pakistan amid polarizing media coverage. Today, the situation is in many ways worse than it was three years ago, and yet I am launching a company with Pakistan as its pilot market (we plan to scale to other countries within the next three years). I know what you’re thinking. “No one is going to invest in Pakistan now, Kalsoom. You are an idiot.”

You can call me whatever you like.

I’m either completely naive or I just refuse to give up on Pakistan. It is probably both, but chalk it up to the terrier-like determination. In our country, 66% of the population lives under $2 a day. Many children, especially girls, still lack access to quality education. Families have little access to the healthcare they deserve. Years of foreign aid have fostered further dependency and created a culture of handouts. And yet we have a population full of young people that want to see tangible change in their lifetime. They just need the tools and opportunities to do so. With i2i, we may only have the capacity to provide tailored services to a limited number of social entrepreneurs a year, but we are also helping to create an environment where more businesses can have the broader tools and support to come into this space.

I relate my thinking behind i2i because frankly, you deserve an explanation. I’ve been a pretty crap blogger as of late. And I apologize (I also hope to be a lot better). But also because I feel like this company will be nothing without a community, without people who feel invested in the movement we are trying to create. And that starts with you. (Yes, you.) I had a pretty cathartic moment yesterday when our website went live, but that moment was followed with the harsh realization of the uphill battle we have ahead. I, for one, am damn ready for it. I hope you are too.

You can “Like” Invest2Innovate’s Facebook page here, and follow us on Twitter for constant updates. You can also check out our newly launched website (so fresh so clean!), I also upload photos, quotes, and videos that keep me inspired on our Tumblr blog. Feel free to reach out with questions, concerns, and feedback.

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