Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

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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Today, October 15, is Blog Action Day, where thousands of bloggers have pledged to unite and discuss a single issue – poverty. For my part, I decided to delve into the work of the Edhi Foundation, a not-for-profit social welfare program in Pakistan, established by Abdul Sattar Edhi. According to the official website,

The organization’s activities include a 24-hour emergency service across the country through 250 Edhi centers, which provide free shrouding and burial of unclaimed dead bodies, shelter for the poor, orphans and handicapped persons, free hospitals and dispensaries, rehabilitation of drug addicts, free wheelchairs, crutches and other services for the handicapped, family planning counseling and maternity services, national and international relief efforts for the victims.

Following the devastating Pakistan earthquake in 2005, the Edhi Foundation provided exhaustive relief and rehabilitative services in the affected areas and for the families of the victims. The foundation has won numerous awards for its work in Pakistan, including the Paul Harris Fellow from Rotatory International Foundation in 1993, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Nishan-e-Imtiaz award from the Pakistani government in 1989.

Currently, the Edhi Foundation is home to over 6,000 poor people, runaways, and the mentally ill.  In Karachi alone, the organization runs eight hospitals providing free medical care, eye hospitals, diabetic centres, surgical units, a four-bed cancer hospital and mobile dispensaries. Moreover, it provides transportation to over one million people annually to hospitals throughout the country. In fact, it set the Guinness World Record in 2000 for having the largest voluntary ambulance organization in the world.

It is impossible to discuss the work of this foundation without also commending its founder, Abdul Sattar Edhi, one of the most active philanthropists in Pakistan. Born in 1928, Edhi and his family migrated to Karachi from Gujarat, India after partition in 1947. In 1957, a major flu epidemic swept through Karachi. Edhi was quick to react, setting up tents on the outskirts of the city to distribute free immunizations. After hearing of his work, Pakistanis throughout the country donated to Edhi’s efforts. With the donations, he bought the rest of the building his dispensary was located in. Edhi soon opened a free maternity center and nursing school. Soon after, the Edhi Foundation was born.

Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife, Bilquis Edhi, are more than just philanthropists – they represent all that is good and right in Pakistan. The work of the Edhi Foundation and the work of similar organizations are a bright light in a history marred with violence, military coups, and social disparity. They are, quite frankly, inspirations and national heroes.

To donate to the Edhi Foundation, click here.

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On Friday, the AFP reported on an issue that is often overlooked in Pakistan – the state of the country’s “rat people,” that is, those born with microcephaly, from the Greek term meaning, “small head.” Those born with it have small skulls and protruding noses and ears. In Pakistan, those affected by the neurological disorder are more commonly known as chuas, or rat people. According to the AFP piece, “Officials say many of them have been sold off by their families to begging mafias, who exploit a tradition that the ‘rat children’ are sacred offerings to Shah Daula, the shrine’s 17th century Sufi saint,” located in the Punjabi city of Gujrat. An article by the UK’s Telegraph echoed, “For at least 100 years, but perhaps for centuries, it has been, though is no longer, a depository for children with microcephaly.”

What is behind this tradition? According to the local legend, noted the AFP, “infertile women who pray at Shah Daula’s shrine will be granted children, but at a terrible price. The first child will be born microcephalic and must be given to the shrine, or else any further children will have the same deformity.” Although the shrine officially stopped accepting microcephalics in the 1960s when the government took over the site and banned the practice, today one women with the disorder, Nadia [see image above], still guards the shoes at the gate of the Shah Duala shrine. Women [who are often less-educated] reportedly still go there to petition the saint. Moreover, reported the AFP, the town’s beggar masters also work to perpetuate the myth and keep the superstition alive. According to the author of the Telegraph piece, Dr. Armand Leroi of London’s Imperial College,

These days, most chuas are itinerant beggars. Traveling up and down the Grand Trunk Road, following a seasonal calender of religious festivals. Each chua is owned, or perhaps leased, by a minder, often a raffish, gypsy-like figure. The Chua-master looks after, and profits from, his chua rather as a peasant might a donkey; together, they may earn as much as 400 rupees per day, about £4. Most people I asked supposed that there are about 1,000 chuas in the Punjab, but no one really knows.

Often with their “masters,” close behind, the “chuas” beg and often receive money, since many believe that ignoring them is bad luck. According to a report by the BBC, “It is widely believed that the handicapped are closer to God and must not be ignored. Their value as beggars is therefore enormous.”

In my research on the issue, I sought to probe how the Shah Daula belief came about in the first place. Leroi noted that many educated Pakistanis dismiss the myth, instead believing that “chuas aren’t born, they’re made.” He added, “Priests, chua-masters, or perhaps even parents, they say, purposefully deform healthy infants by placing pots or metal clamps on the heads of healthy infants and so retard the growth of the brain.” Due to the fact that many of these children have been used for a monetary purposes, many believe the original legend was fabricated to trick ordinary people into handing over perfectly healthy babies.

However, in an article by M. Miles, entitled, “Pakistan’s microcephalic chuas of Shah Daulah: cursed, clamped or cherished?,” he concluded that there is no solid evidence to substantiate the charge of cranial deformation. Instead, the author noted, the gathering of the microcephalic children at the Shah Daula shrine may have begun “in a charitable spirit,” but “undoubtedly deteriorated into exploitation for begging, as was predictable in an institution where the balance of power was so heavily weighted towards the custodians.”

Leroi echoed in his piece that the allegation of clamping, besides that it has never been proven, also is biologically impossible. He added, ” The brain of an infant grows for the first nine years of life and the skull has gaps – sutures – to accommodate that growth…Should these sutures seal prematurely, as they do in certain rare genetic conditions, the result is not microcephaly but rather death.” He added, “But the strongest reason for dismissing the Bonsai account of microcephaly is that the disorder occurs among British Pakistanis as well. And they, it is quite clear, are not clamping their children.” Instead, Leroi and other sources concluded, the recessive genetic mutation may occur more noticeably in these communities in part due to the practice of intermarriage, since, he noted, “some 60 percent of marriages are between first cousins [in Pakistan]; the frequency in Bradford and Leeds is thought to be comparable.” Leroi added, “The result is that clinical genetics units serving the British Pakistani community see a range and frequency of genetic disorders unknown elsewhere in the country.”

The purpose of this piece was not to highlight another negative aspect of Pakistani society, but to raise awareness on an issue that still prevails today. The government did attempt to remove the gangs operating at this shrine in the 1980s. However, this did not fully eliminate the problem. The AFP cited Rakhshan Sohail of the Punjabi provincial government’s Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, who told the news agency that “his department had busted more than 30 gangs across the province involved in exploiting street children, some of which had broken the limbs of children so that they would earn more as beggars.”

Ultimately, a solution comes down to educating those who still believe in this myth, and whose lack of education and awareness may make them more susceptible to such exploitation. Since many of these people are illiterate, outreach and awareness programs can use television and radio for their messaging. Sania Sufi, a graduate student at London School of Economics, advocated, “The Ministry of Special Education and the Ministry of Religion can work together with the Pakistan Television Network, the state-owned television broadcasting channel, to develop more programs and public service announcements… programs on PTV Lahore, for example, can focus on refuting the myths of Shah Dola’s ‘rat children’ and on exposing the ‘beggarmasters’ and the inhumane way in which they treat these microcephalic children.” Ultimately, the exploitation of children and the mentally handicapped is a serious concern, one that can only be tackled through such avenues.

Additionally, for an interesting documentary on the issue, click here.

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