When in Islamabad…

The last day of August, and a setting sun has just drawn a very memorable week here in Islamabad to a serene close.

A final cup of tea out in the backyard of the CARE staff house, as our security guard bows his head onto a prayer mat on the front lawn, and Islam, CARE’s resourceful housekeeper, beams at me as he bounds off for a game of cricket.

I have grown fond of Islamabad, and this staff house, since arriving here a week ago, dog-tired as I was at the time from a day’s travel, trying to process the sounds and sights glimpsed in the dark through the window of the car that whisked me from the airport.

Over a final lunch with colleagues earlier today – who insisted on taking me to one of their favourite local BBQ restaurants – the true diversity, turmoil, humanity, and sheer respect for life, that course through the heartbeat of this country, finally sunk in.

What a privilege to have sat with so many fine people this week, and learnt so much.

Map courtesy of Lonely Planet

Although I knew this before coming here, Pakistan and it’s 190 million people, reside in a corner of the world that needs very little introduction in terms of political, social and religious dynamics.  Pakistan borders India, China, Iran, Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea, and the country’s topography is so varied that in the southern district of Sindh, temperatures push 55 degrees during some parts of the year, whilst in the northern mountainous region, the same figures are reached, only instead on the minus part of the thermometer.

In 2005, an earthquake shook the foundations of the country and caused incredible devastation.  During 2010 and 2011, apocalyptic levels of flooding ensured that CARE’s efforts since opening an office here seven years ago, have been predominantly focused on humanitarian relief work: helping communities re-build, in some cases pretty much from scratch.

What brought me to Islamabad this week was a more recent and considered set of initiatives that CARE has designed, and begun to implement, with the country’s private sector – with banks such as Tameer, and with telecommunications companies such as the Norwegian giant, Telenor.  Over a short period of time, these relationships have helped create new products and services, such as mobile banking and affordable insurance policies, for the local communities across the country who have historically not had access to such things.

For a country whose reputation in the media is portrayed largely through its links to militancy and insecurities, it has taken business some time to more proactively look at longer term investments in Pakistan.  Those investments are now being made, and the country’s youth (35% are under age of 14 years old) will almost certainly play a huge role in shaping this over the years to come.

The context here to get things done is complex.  Inevitably also, Pakistan faces more rather than less humanitarian crises (climate related ones, in particular) in the future.

All that said, the determination on behalf of my colleagues – as well as the daily determination and resilience of the general public – to working to support and include the country’s marginalised and vulnerable populations, and to forge partnerships with the private sector, is nothing short of inspiring.

Not only that, but the prize perhaps at the end of this, is that such partnerships genuinely could provide the types of tangible outcomes in terms of economic and social development for Pakistan over the next decade, and beyond.

Tameer told us this week that mass coverage is their target.  “Banking the unbanked” is their strapline.  They want to grow their business in a country whose vast majority of people do not have access to the formal banking sector.  Telenor have joined forces with them and with CARE, and are helping achieve this vision through mobile telephony.  Meaning that hard to reach communities can make banking transfers via text message, rather than having to travel long distances just to make a transaction.

Make no mistake, these services are transformatory.  By providing the systems to reach excluded groups, by helping “put cash in people’s hands for the first time in their lives” – to quote one of our field officers – CARE and its partners are contributing to a change both in the nature of business, and to some of the underlying causes of poverty, to be found in Pakistan.

But there is a catch to this.  One outlined to me, over probably THE greatest and most genuine “meat feast” that I’ve eaten in many years, which was my lunch earlier.  And the catch is this:

How to make these types of partnerships, and enterprising initiatives, really fit for purpose, in a country still governed as it this by a feudal structure, with an elite group in charge, and with a cultural and religious backdrop that exists which is far, far removed from the capitalist modalities from which such market-based “solutions” are derived?

This is something CARE continues to address, not just in these examples, but in almost every other programme in which it engages.

As I heard today, people in Pakistan care for each other – their friends, their families – with such striking consideration and protectiveness, that introducing products that might ultimately help empower (a favourite word in the NGO sector) people, are not intuitively embraced.  Why, really, do people, whose welfare is well looked after by those closest around them, need bank accounts?

Here, if you have a financial problem, then it is your brother, or your cousin, who will support you, not the private sector and not NGOs.

In fact, your relations themselves will take issue at you not confiding in them about whatever trouble it is you have suffered.  You will not go hungry, and you will have refuge and comfort provided in abundance, from those closest to you.

The answers to these debates are not simple.

The growing evidence CARE has to date, suggests that products and services (consumables as well as insurance policies) are plugging a gap, and are helping provide choice, and give more independence, to people in Pakistan.  People who previously did not have such things.

The debate will rumble on and, as I load up my suitcase once more, and head back to the airport, it is a hope of mine only that CARE’s fantastic teams across the country here will continue to join in these debates and, where appropriate, will find other “win-win” scenarios, where new markets can develop in an inclusive and responsible way.

Responsive as they should be to the needs of those billions of new customers – often referred to as the world’s “bottom of the pyramid” – as well as being adaptive to the ever changing environment found in this unique, and profoundly charming part of the world.

When in Islamabad….you must drive to the top of a mountain and eat under a full moon!

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