A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Category: Theoretical synopses

Theoretical ponderings, fieldwork and election fever

The thing about research and fieldwork is that it is unnecessary to sit in an air-conditioned office somewhere in the F-sector or Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad to be doing development-anthropology…stuff. All you need is hop into a taxi or take a trip on the public transportation such as vans and buses, and you will experience the colours of society. I chose to conduct fieldwork on the upcoming elections in Pakistan.

In my opinion, the theories of anthropology tend to be out of touch with many things. Still, this field of study through its in-depth studies exposes previously unknown ways of life, knowledge and wisdom. In certain cases the insight of anthropologists contribute to criminal investigations. On a theoretical level, the reason I think all the theories are wobbly is because sometimes when reading all those texts I wonder if the theorists actually know what they are discussing. Society, culture and community are not supposed to be so difficult to describe or identify. Hence just immersing yourself in your surroundings will save you a lot of headache inducing mental acrobatics.

Nowadays in Pakistan, there is election fever. From the media it seems the sitting government hopes the Army will intervene and martial law will become the order of the day. Heaven forbid! In order to gain a better insight I decided to partner up with a key informant. According to the people we spoke with during our adventure, they were fed up with the current set up and wanted change. Some of the transporters, such as taxi drivers and van drivers voted PPP in the previous election and with a few exceptions, most would vote PML-N this time. Moreover, most skilled people such as plumbers, carpenters, masons, interviewed are also saying they will vote for Nawaz Sharif. The same goes for shop and stall keepers such as juice, fried food, fruit and vegetable sellers.

In Islamabad, most of this trader category belongs to the Rawalpindi and Chakwal area. Their argument being that since Nawaz Sharif is an established businessman, he has experience in setting up factories and steel mills so he knows the significance of labour and employment creation. They also said that unlike the PPP who siphon all their wealth to offshore accounts or buy properties abroad, Nawaz Sharif re-invests his looted wealth in the country, despite being corrupt.

However, this is not entirely true. Nawaz has invested a lot of money in businesses and franchises in the UK. According to my information, he settled some 20 families in Essex last time he was deposed from power by Musharraf. These families are running his businesses for him in the UK. Even Rehman Malik, the former interior minister is said to have a few restaurants in Southall, London. Nonetheless, in retrospect, it was during Nawaz’s government Pakistan became a nuclear power and he had the Islamabad Lahore Motorway built, which paved the way for other infrastructural projects, continued during Musharraf’s government.

Moreover, even the professional class in Lahore, such as lawyers and doctors said they would vote for PML-N. This provincial government has increased the wages for doctors, as well as pensions. Money talks, because money enables better comforts, so I can understand their logic.

Another taxi driver gave me an interesting insight into voting decisions within the household. This taxi driver belongs to Chakwal, a town in the Potohar region. His father-in-law is the naib nazim in his area, where the local MP belongs to PML-N. He said all his relatives, as well as his wife would vote for PLM-N so he would have to vote for this party too. His father-in-law is also his paternal uncle. Another reason he is obliged to vote for PML-N is because his brother is the personal assistant of Chaudhry Nisar, who is the former leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.

The taxi driver said that families have split up due to election votes. One of his friends was married to the local MP’s daughter, when he chose to vote for another party instead of for his father-in-law, his wife took their children and left her husband. The father- in- law did not even bother returning his daughter to her family to prevent a divorce. I would take this story with a pinch of salt and yet I am unable to rule out the veracity of this story entirely. This story illustrates that if it is not the local feudal landlord who decides who the villagers and peasants vote for, it is the family, irrespective of who the individual wants to vote for.

I always thought votes were secret. Unless the names are printed on the voting ballot in Pakistan that is, or the votes are checked before being passed forward to the counting authority. Either way, in such a scenario, these conditions prevent free and fair elections and the development of a democratic mindset.

When asked about Imran Khan, a juice and fried food seller mentioned he is inexperienced in running a country. Others when probed said “actually no one guides us on whom to vote for so we are just following the trend within our community. By the juice stall, a lecturer in management said he would vote for Imran Khan because there is a need for change. A plumber said that Imran Khan is inexperienced and he is not even married. My key informant pointed out that he was married once, but got divorced very publicly. The plumber replied:

“well he doesn’t have a wife, as the leader of a country that doesn’t look good.”

My key informant said:

“well, neither does Zardari. His wife won the election for him, but got assassinated, for him to take over the reigns of government.”

Nevertheless, the younger generation of students and professionals is trending towards Imran Khan and his party, despite his inexperience. However, the question remains is will they actually vote PTI or follow the orders of their parents and other allegiances?

Anyone interviewed were not enthusiastic about the cleric Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, even some of the more religious minded respondents said he was a trouble maker. What surprised me was that the more religious taxi drivers wearing a green or white turban or prayer caps, were more inclined towards the more moderate political candidates, as opposed to the more openly religious such as Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman.

Many mentioned they would vote for a certain candidate because of his moderate views. Moreover another taxi driver said this particular candidate is also a very good person. This respondent said the politician belongs to his area and every time someone passes away or there is a calamity, this politician will participate in the funerals and will empathize with them during their loss.

“It means a lot for us poor people that someone like him is willing to sit with us and pray with us. The other party politicians will just say a lot of things, take our votes and we will never hear from them again, but this politician will participate in our difficulties.”

These responses show that even the more religious social segment are not interested in an Islamist state-government, or a state run by some loose cannon Taliban elements. Pakistan despite being an Islamic Republic is far too moderate to allow the conservative forces to take the reigns of government. Besides, even the more religious social segments do not trust clerics who are politicians, calling them turncoats, liars and frauds. None of them trusted the cleric Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, or even Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman as politicians.

“Once such people join politics they become of the world and they lose sight of their spiritual role.”

In conclusion, election in Pakistan has the potential to engender positive change. Nevertheless, according to the media and conversations with the general public, governments are not elected, they are selected. Even if people vote for PTI or another party, most likely it will be old faces changing chairs. The question is, with the world watching, and the Pakistani context of government formation and governance, how can elections even be free and fair in such a toxic environment? Yet, a democratic setup is preferable to a military dictatorship, however democratically inclined it may appear.


Gender talk

All over the world, women are the weaker sex. Even in the West, women have to fight for equal pay, workplace benefits, executive posts and boardroom representation. In the Muslim world, women have God-given rights which due to male insecurities tend to be denied them. Whether in the East or West, women are deliberately made to fight a glass ceiling, or made to exploit their female assets. When everything is ruined in the process, the man will blame it on the woman for being ambitious and exploiting male weaknesses to their advantage and she is consequently punished. Classical literature, fairytales and folklores deal with this aplenty. In cases where the woman is not directly punished, but fate plays Twister, even her cunningness and manipulation is unable to save her divine hanging by the forces of nurture and nature. In all this, Man himself is not blameless.

Over the years I have come across strong women of varying degrees. Successful career women, some educated and successful, others just very experienced and successful. The domestic housewives or working women I have been exposed to in my travels, are mostly very strong dictators, queens within the four walls of their homes. In one instance the sister in laws were controlling their brother’s family, even to the point of making him take his frustrations out on his wife and daughters through physical abuse. The wife was married to him against her wishes. When she told her father, that death was preferred to marrying this fellow, he beat her up with his walking stick and forced her to agree to marry the man.

In Islam, no one can force you to marry anyone unwillingly. Unfortunately, many people are, resulting in mismatched couples. This sort of poisonous liaison of fate affects the children, because in the case of the women, they will even use their children as a tool to control the husband. In the case where the wife is the victim of fate, the husband will beat the wife and children for no reason, as mentioned above. The husband will even go to the extent of limiting wife’s and the children’s social interaction with maternal family relatives because he does not feel respected by his in-laws.

These examples serve to illustrate that spousal insecurities are manifested in many ways, but it is important to understand that love and affection is not won through force, cunningness and manipulation. Love cannot be bought, it is won through the heart. How you treat others is very important if you want them to like you, or even want to consider a future with you because no one has any entitlement over another person.

In this case, a mother obviously wants the best for her children, including a suitable spouse. However, just because she won the lottery by getting a prime example of the male species for a husband, who fulfill her rights, looks after her every need. In some cases to the point of doing the household laundry, ironing her and their children’s clothes and polish their shoes, she has no right to expect that she can dominate the ones she wants her children to get married to. Fate plays funny tricks, what goes around comes around, even if redemption happens 20 years later. Therefore, if you want good things to happen to you, you better keep the good acts flowing like a river and count your blessings when happy times finally arrive, because they do. When they do, always remember the unhappy, difficult times, when it seemed like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Then pat yourself on the back for surviving it respectfully.

In my opinion there is more truth in a horror story, than some cute and funny rom-com. Moreover, some of the lives I have observed over the years, resemble a scary movie or a Greek tragedy more than anything else. When salvation finally does arrive, some people appear to have forgotten their past and joined the bandwagon of ungratefulness, greed and irresponsibility. To lead a successful, content and complete life, requires a lot of hard work, sacrifice and patience. There really are no shortcuts, however at some point in life we all hit rock bottom. People just handle their issues differently, some, by the grace of the Almighty, better than others.

True, women are considered weaker than men. Their share of inheritance is half than the male heir’s, in a courtcase 2 women need to give statement. Nevertheless, they can inherit and own property. Moreover, the husband has no claim on the wife’s income. However, she is entitled to a share of his income to run the household as well as for her own grooming and maintenance. This illustrates that if women have rights, she also has responsibilities towards her husband. She should obey him, spend his money sensibly, be grateful if he is kind, caring, and attentive. Moreover, she should never complain about him or accuse him for no reason. However, it takes a certain sagacity of mind to understand this, which most of the tyrant queens I have observed in the developing world severely lack. It is easy to get emotional about the plight of women around the world, but sometimes I think that the discussion of gender equality overlook the crimes against men. I know of cases where educated men get both physically and psychologically abused by their less educated wives. It appears as if they want to punish the husbands for their own lack of intelligence and common sense.

In the above case, when I discussed female domination and male subjugation with other married men, most say that a woman will only go that far if the husband allows her to cross that limit. To a certain extent they are right, but there are good men out there who don’t believe in beating the wife just to get her to comply, even if she deserves it. There are good men out there who don’t go all Uncle Scrooge, or divorce their wives or take a second or third wife, or mistresses because they can’t stand the sight of the first wife that was chosen for them by their parents. Just because they can, or because they are unable to control their wandering cravings. These men are also good fathers to their children. Such men are true gems. They deserve appreciation and respect. If women are victims of structural inequalities, men are just as vulnerable. This aspect of gender discrimination tends to be overlooked in the gender and development discourse, although it is acknowledged that gender issues include both men and women, but for some reason, the plight of women are more visible.

Nevertheless, when discussing women equality issues with an outspoken journalist, she said:

“men and women are different, just look at our biology, men don’t carry babies, women do. Men can’t feed babies, women do. By virtue of our different biologies, our responsibilities are different. In that case if we demand equality then men will treat us like men, they will stop doing the small things they do, such as opening the doors for us, or stepping aside when a woman passes by and it doesn’t look nice”.

Even in the West, successful families depend on the woman, the mother and wife. I know someone who once saw a high flying PR executive and, director of her own company, iron her husbands shirt, the person I know asked:

“what are you doing ironing your husbands shirts? I thought that’s only something eastern women do”.

The successful, highflying PR executive said:

“look, this has nothing to do with East or West, or being suppressed. This is my duty. My husband only wears shirts ironed by me”.

In conclusion, there is a difference between equality and empowerment. Legal approaches should address women issues, and equality by law is essential. However it is equally important to consider the differences in roles and responsibilities between men and women because in many societies they determine the distribution of influence. Where the rights are clearly stated they should be implemented, because only then can a society be progressive and modern.


Reality can make or break you. According to the dictionary definition, “reality is the state of things as they actually exist” (Oxford Dictionary). So realistically speaking, you are only in control of yourself, never the outcomes of your actions and your statements.

Since you can only control yourself, your actions and statements. You can only do what you have to do to get ahead. In some cases you simply have no idea what to do and make an uninformed decision. Throughout life we are told many things which we for some reason either choose to do, or not to do. Many things are just plain common sense to do that is, if you understand what is required. Other things are just plain ego to do or not to do. Basically, your ego is doing the decision making.

As far as decision making is concerned as human beings we are a superior creation. Our brain allows us to think about the why, what, ifs and buts of life, our actions and directions. Our brain enables us to rationalize. Maybe this is where Nietzche’s statement “I think therefore I am” comes from.

Alongside our cranial capacities, we also have free will. We have the choice to do one thing instead of another. Through free will we can either choose to do right or wrong, or nothing at all. I have often heard there is no such thing as black or white, right or wrong. Everything is grey and you just have to do what you have to do to make it work for you. Ethics, morality, conscientiousness, or whatever you may label it, is for people who don’t know how to make things work for them. As they are unable to make anything work for them, like their network or their efforts, it is irrelevant how competent or capable they are because it’s never really about the work, the output and your contributions to an organization. If you’re not liked, you’re simply not good enough. It is in this scenario the grey area comes in. In order to become liked, sacrifices have to be made. However, for some  the sacrifices required to make, were never worth the outcome. Some may have given up on so many opportunities for happiness and enjoyment, and been tempted enough only to be disappointed afterwards that by now they know a bad deal when they see one. Reality teaches you to negotiate for your terms and conditions and to stand up for yourself. Reality requires you to do so.

You should always hope for things to get better and even when they don’t, as long as you have the strength to make the best out of a bad situation, you have still learnt your lesson. This has nothing to do with being negative. Being realistic is not negative, it is seeing things for what they are and hoping for the best outcome while trying your best. It is also about being confident in yourself and your abilities. Being positive and hoping for a good outcome when all you’re getting is abuse, exploitation or rejection in return, is naïve and frankly stupid. It is like trying to read without even knowing the alphabet. In this case it’s better to try out other pastures, grow from your previous lessons and expose yourself to new situations, for better or worse.

Reality teaches you to apply your knowledge. It enables you to experiment with ideas and concepts in the real world. More importantly, it shatters contextual ignorance and the illusion that the grass is greener on the other side. There is simply no room left to make uninformed decisions. It’s in this connection free will is similar to an opt-out clause in a bulletproof contract or abusive situation because you have the choice to stay or leave.

Free will reminds us that things are black and white. Someone told me that those who claim everything is grey do so to justify their negative agendas and lies. Nevertheless, even if everything is grey, because it really is a matter of perspective, free will enables us to make things black and white, depending on what path we choose to go down. Free will reminds us that we do have a choice either to try to make things work for us on an individual level. Or to try and make things right to the benefit of everyone because in the end we are collective beings who need the company of others.

Poverty indicators vs gender issues

The usual poverty indicators are GNP/GDP per capita, maternal and infant mortality, and literacy rates, give a general view of the state of a country. Discussions in meetings especially concerning the viability of education projects for girls, often mentioned the availability of toilets. Or at the most basic, a functional latrine or a hole in the ground, serving the same purpose, had to be present in the building where the education project was to be implemented, which was usually a room in a house. At least this was one of the primary criteria in Pakistan.

Generally, in development discourse, poverty indicators only give a quantitative idea of the state of affairs. However, experience suggest that just because the indicators show depressing figures, the reality on the ground may be different. Likewise if the indicators show impressive figures, the reality is far more depressing. Hence the need for alternative measures. The UNDP Human Development Index discussed in the annual Human Development Report introduces each year a new indicator. These alternative measures later contributed to the Millennium Development Goals. The HDI was the brainchild of Dr Mahbul-ul Haq, a Pakistani. Other indices include The Economist’s Big Mac index- how much a Big Mac costs in local currency, the purchasing power parity (PPP), how much you can buy for 1US$ in local currency.

In connection with the above, there are many other ways to measure the extent of poverty, poor planning and gender awareness or shall we say consideration. One measure I suggest and which has been discussed in various context when I was working in Pakistan, whether it was board meetings, quarterly general meetings, working group meetings or field observations, was toilets. It is a unit we all need access to, men and women alike. Ironically, my observations tell me that in some places women do not need toilets as much as men do and therefore there is no need to maintain them as much. Or maybe, it’s the same condition in the men’s room, I certainly hope so, otherwise this is a serious issue of male domination and the often dismissed ranting of female suppression. Moreover, this illustrate that for some reason or another, women have no need to relieve themselves as much as men do, unless they are small children. Yet, are even children not entitled to unblocked lavatories, if not clean?

When I used to travel to Pakistan on summer holidays as a child, we used to travel to and fro Islamabad- Lahore. Apart from the social and natural observation one gets to do, there is one thing which stands very clear in my mind and that is the state of public toilets on train stations and coach stops. They may be in a primitive state with either a latrine or a hole in the ground to serve the purpose, with a tap and a plastic teapot, a wash basin and no soap. They didn’t smell very nice, but were relatively functional. In some places you have the choice of using a latrine or an English toilet, but even today, they are not blocked and regularly cleaned during the day. I’m not saying you don’t have instances of stinking toilets, or other unpleasantries, such as overflooded floors, discarded used nappies left in a corner, or unflushed latrines, however, generally they are safe to use. In Pakistan, if nothing else, there is a general acceptance that everyone needs to use a toilet and even if there are not many female passengers or travelers, there are still toilet facilities for them. Even if they smell of humidity and mold, or weird detergents.

I have travelled quite extensively in Egypt. I was lucky to travel by air, road and by ship. The latter was an eye opening experience. It often happens on road stops, or even in Cairo that you have to pay 1 L.E to use the toilet. Even if there is no toilet paper or soap, I can tolerate it because common sense would tell you to always keep some tissue, a toilet roll and some soap or handwash gel with you, if not hand sanitizer. What I can’t tolerate is a blocked toilet intended for women, which hasn’t been cleaned for ages and is still being used, I presume by a desparate male toilet user.. Amongst the dysfunctional ones, at least the flush was working and the toilet was not blocked into obliteration, so I would say they were functional. It could be because they were superjet or minibus stations and few women will be coming to those on a regular basis.

What really terrorized me was the boat trip to Aqaba, Jordan from Nuweiba, Egypt. It is a 4 hours trip. On the ship there are 4 toilets, 2 male and 2 female, 2 on each deck. One of both the male and female toilets has a shower facility as well.

A ship which sails to and fro Nuweiba- Aqaba, although most of the passenger are male, there are female passengers, usually travelling with their families or husbands. To my horror and dismay the female toilets were a nightmare. They were all English toilets, they had Muslim showers for abdominal washing. If they were not blocked due to faulty flushes, it was because no one had bothered flushing. It could be people in their homes have latrines and the flush system is different that is, they flush with a pot of water instead of the flush system. There could be several reasons for this. Some of the toilets were unstable so I didn’t even dare to sit on them due to goodness knows what kind of possible bacterial transmission. I’m not being unrealistically patriotic, but I have never encountered such a toilet situation in all of Pakistan. So much for calling Pakistanis miskeen and wondering if they are Muslims.

My first reaction to this toilet situation was to escape and try to sneak into a male toilet. Woe onto me for even trying this. Nearby all the male toilets, men were sitting and playing cards, chit-chatting or smoking strong cigarettes and everyone adamantly pointed their index finger at me, wriggling no-no-no….Haram! So I decided to complain at the information desk. I asked him how many ladies toilets were on the ship. He said, 2. `I asked again, are you sure? He said yes. I told him ,well `I have walked all around the ship, in one all the toilets are blocked, and the other one is locked. He said ‘ok ok’. He called on someone and ordered him to check out the ladies rooms, and told another guy to take me to the other toilet on the upper deck, the locked toilet with the shower facility. Although the toilets were not blocked, they were rattling. I wonder how does anyone sit on such toilets? The ones which weren’t rattling, their Muslim shower facility didn’t work, so it was a matter of going here and there to relieve oneself and using the Muslim shower. I remember checking whether something had been done about my complaint on my return trip to Nuweiba from Aqaba. Obviously not.

Arriving in Aqaba port was an interesting diversion. In the arrival lounge we only saw men, although there were many families on the ship. It could be those people needed visa on arrival. Maybe the families would get out after the trucks and the other passengers as they were in their cars. It was interesting to see how the port authority personnel treated the passengers like nursery children. Once visa was stamped, the travellers would be gathered together as if in a circle, made to sit down and have their names called one by one. Another observation was that the port authority had retina scans. Something which they don’t have at airports, there they have webcams. I didn’t notice the retina scans, I just thought they were outdated cameras. It was observed this shows how differently people who travel by boat are treated compared to those who travel by air. In my opinion, people travel as they can afford. Maybe they don’t need to travel by air. Alternatively the airports could be too far so taking the car on the ship saves a lot of hassle. One major point of convenience however was that everyone we asked for information spoke English, so it was unnecessary to adopt inventive communication methods and get by with the Arabic we knew. Moreover, they didn’t pretend they were unable understand to us.

However, the sore point of contention even in the seaport departure lounge was the female toilets. I saw female staff and travellers, so they do need toilets. However the ones available left a lot to be desired. The typical stinking, blocked dump, except here they had latrines. They were blocked, had not been cleaned for a while, and there were old used nappies wrapped up and left there as thank you presents it seemed. From my experience of public female toilets in the Arab world, with exception to the Arab peninsula where toilet quality varies, but are relatively clean and usable. In this connection I must add that the public toilets in the UAE are pristine, depending on the emirate. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, toilets are user friendly, but in variable conditions. This could be because they have dedicated staff to ensure toilet hygiene, and may think women have just as much rights in this regard as men, if not in other matters. Or maybe this state of affairs could also illustrate the influence the Western expatriate population has in public affairs on the Arab peninsula. If that’s the case, I’m all for Western guidance.

In connection with the above, all I can say is, quality of toilets says a lot about a society. Especially, the quality of female toilets. To me, it seems as if women have no right to exist, why else would the female toilets be such traumatic places? I have travelled a lot in Pakistan and have a fairly good idea about what goes on where because I take an interest in my surroundings. No matter how isolated or remote a place, I have never seen a toilet in such a mess. Some classfellows at  Quaid-e-Azam University who belong to remote rural areas told me in their communities there is no such thing as a toilet. They have to go relieve themselves in the fields. Yes, Pakistan is a poor country. It is neither the most female friendly country, just think about the men who ruin women’s lives by throwing acid at their faces. Nor is it the most hygienic place. However, toilets whether used regularly or not should be cleaned according to the need, and be regularly checked whether they need cleaning. And despite being the world’s favourite punching bag, I think that Pakistan scores quite good numbers on the toilet usability scale.

This experience made me think that although Arab countries may have good quantitative indicators, they still lack in the quality department. Women are not as empowered, independent and recognized members of society as they seem to be. Unless they are wives and mothers. And in certain departments they are left to their own devices, and just accept things. What I find disturbing though is that the men really don’t care either. On my return trip to Nuweiba, I dared to venture into the toilets again, and to my shock and horror I saw two pre-teenage boys in the ladies! I probably would just had laughed it off, but I was so annoyed that these 2 cheeky boys had infringed female area. I told them ‘hada daurra maya as-sayedaat, mish rajool. Inta rajool, haram, haram, haram! They just replied, that the guy at the information desk had allowed them to use the ladies and ran off. This only confirmed my doubts that men were using female toilets because they can’t be bothered to go elsewhere, especially where women only come occasionally. However this is no justification for not cleaning them properly.

Another reason which opened my eyes to the condition of women in the Arab world, is on the bigger scale of things actually a very small matter, but I am unable not to compare it to the situation of women in Pakistan.  On the way back to Alexandria we were unable to get tickets to the superjet bus. Its is airconditioned with nice spacious seats. We had to take a Hiace van. Apart from us, 3 ladies and a guy, there were 2 other Egyptian ladies. Towards the end of the ride, the airconditioning stopped working and the driver opened the front windows, the male travellers sitting in front of us opened their windows a little. The ladies sitting behind the front seats were both by the windows and none of them opened their windows and none of the men asked them to open their windows either. In Pakistan, no matter how callous men may be, they don’t let a lady sweat unnecessarily. They will tell her to open the windows because it is hot and she shouldn’t be uncomfortable in this heat. Like I mentioned, the events are very small in the greater affairs of gender discrimination and male domination, but it does say a lot about what people think about women and their position in society. As a woman you can’t complain and you have to make do with what you can. This may also reflect the difference between civil society engangement in Pakistn and Egypt, where in the former, NGOs and community based organizations are far more vocal.

In conclusion, indicators are useful measurements to assess poverty. In my opinion, female toilet conditions in developing countries give a realistic insight into how women’s issues and needs are perceived by society. I’m not saying the toilets I have come across in Pakistan, when I was doing fieldwork or in rest areas while travelling the country, were in pristine conditions. Some had spider webs all over, others were just a hole in the ground, or the water tap was running, hence wasting much precious water. There was no door, so anyone could just walk in on you. Nevertheless, I was unaware of the true extent of a toilet nightmare until I experienced the toilets while travelling around Egypt. It should be noted not all toilets in public rest areas were as horrendous as described. However, if there is a toilet space, whether it is used frequently or occasionally, it should be clean and unblocked. What is even more shocking is that compared to Pakistan, Egypt is a rich country with doubled the national income and half the population. Hence, when it comes to toilet hygiene it should do better. Moreover, it is easy to complain about gender discrimination and the need for gender mainstreaming and not be taken seriously. In order not to be mistaken for a rambling feminist who is out of touch with the real world, I decided to assess female toilet conditions as an indicator for gender discrimination.

Field Coordinator interview test

I had the pleasure of a phone interview for an international post. To get shortlisted for the interview I had to take a written test. I had to answer 2 questions and email the answers within 2 hours. Initially, I was a bit annoyed because usually you have to do a written test if it is your first assignment. I went along for the sake of an experience. Without having to spend too much time googling things, I could rely on previous experience, exposure and insights. I was happy to know I was short-listed for the interview which was pretty straight forward. I was happy not to get any obnoxious questions. When I asked how many years the Mission had been in situ I got a very vague answer and I had to ask them to repeat themselves not because of crackling reception but because their answer was not straight. They had to spin a story and I was given the impression they didn’t want to answer it. Anyhow, below is the test answer.

Coordination is about building partnerships. Please explain (max 1 page)

Coordination is about building relationships because it is through partnership with different organizations, programmes are effectively implemented. Coordination also contributes to programme sustainability and hence better community development. Moreover, it is through coordination better communication is made between the different partners. Also, coordination facilitates development of trust. Where there is good communication, the degree of trust concerning programme activities is likely to be either developing or already existing. It also reduces wastage of resources through duplication of efforts and activities. All of these illustrate that coordination is about building partnership.

Essentially, in these hard financial times and the increasing question of the relevance of the United Nations as an implementation and funding partner, as well as developing countries greater awareness on how to solve their own problems, cost sharing regarding development projects is an increasing concern. Considering donor governments are reducing international aid, development organizations are cutting down staff, and United Nations peace keeping missions are wrapping up their activities to pave the way for a greater role for the country teams, these are all factors which suggest the need for greater partnership building and better coordination. In this light, the United Nations, being the world’s primary development organization, has the expertise and capacity to moderate international development activities through its national staff, implementation partnerships with local NGOs/CBOs, all work towards common goals. It is partnerhips like these which ensure effective and coordinated implementation of policy documents such as the UNDAF, or country assessment plans are in alignment with the concerned country’s government development objectives. In this connection, coordination in the current climate requires adopting a locational contextual perspective to get the most out of programme goals.

Coordination is about building partnership because the broad range of humanitarian issues-human rights, peacebuilding and development- cannot be sustainably managed without partnerships with NGOs/CBOs and country governments to guide the development priorities. Moreover, effective coordination depends on solid partnership to reduce wastage of resources, to facilitate accountability and impact measurement, reduce risks from natural disasters, upgrade information and technology requirements. With growing local awareness on how to deal with issues in the field, developing partnership with local expertise such as consultants, experts within government agencies, NGOS/CBOs, funding and implementation partners are contributing to trust building and capacity development of local talent. All in all, resulting in greater facilitation of fewer financial resources.

In conclusion, coordination is about building partnerships. They ensure implementation partners or donor objectives are met as well as ensuring good communication with certain government institutions and within development organizations. Essentially, we are all working towards common goals.

It is sometimes said that peace and development are two sides from the same coin. Would you agree with this or not? Justify your answer in maximum 2 pages.

I agree with this statement. From my experience if there is no peace, there can be no governance. Since it is the government which is supposed to facilitate services and opportunities, or at least strive to do so. Even if it is in partnership with international organizations, it is unable to fulfill its main responsibility if there is no peace. If there is no peace, education and healthcare are disrupted , human resource capacities are drained. Moreover, industrial activity, foreign investments, all require peace. More importantly, they depend on a stable government and good governance. Good governance itself depends on legal efficiency. If there is no rule of law, you have chaos and optimal use of resources is overlooked. Even the potential of natural resources is wasted to fund weapons procurement among many things. Consequently, when nothing works, and state authority has broken down, a failed state emerges.

To me, peace and development are two sides of the same coin because economic growth requires a stable investment climate, educated people in jobs, business ventures, industrial production, entrepreneurial inventiveness. In a failed state, all these processes have broken down. These all require peace. In a war situation- failed state, people fight over already limited resources because this is the only way they survive. In times of peace, structures are in place such as truth and reconciliation commissions, interfaith harmony and other dialogue processes which encourages people to speak up, make their voices heard and get on with their lives. It is peacebuilding which contributes to development in previous war zones. A hospital cannot operate in full capacity during a crisis situation. It cannot dedicate itself to preventive or curative tasks because the doctor and nurses and other health staff will be busy either removing bullets or chopping off limbs. There is no one to check if a victim which comes in has HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, or give vaccines to infants. When there is peace governments can work towards addressing health concerns, develop its capacity to tackle terminal diseases or medical conditions.

Clearly, planning, policy making, implementation of programme activities, partnership development, join ventures, all depend on a stable environment. Peacebuilding in itself also depends on learning from past mistakes and listening to everyone affected. However, it is the long-term planning enabled by peace which contributes to national development. In this connection, peace and development require a move away from the main focus of civil-military cooperation and focus on more holistic approaches to address humanitarian issues. Clearly peace-keeping missions have a strong military component. And for all the benefits of military intelligence and security facilitation, holistic approaches such as developing civil society organizations, great tolerance for differences of opinion, independent media, and overall institution building requires a move away from conflict prevention to partnership building. In this case, the military as an institution is not as effective because it works on authority, whereas for sustainable peacebuilding and development to take root, diversity of alliances and coalition building is required.

In conclusion, peace and development are two sides of the same coin because it is only though multilateral interaction, partnership building can be developed to facilitate the emergence of strong, viable governments and productive economies.

Micro-finance and women

I have been researching on a new topic. I find myself drawn to financial issues within the development discourse. My observations from the field in various countries illustrate that the supposedly backward, underprivileged people in rural areas are innovative, inventive, entrepeneurial- plain and simple go-getters. They know if they fail to get an income somehow, there will be no bread going into their stomachs. They usually have more than 3 mouths to feed. So they think of ways to earn a few coins.

They might set up a small mobile snack or tuck shop selling things from a trolley or a basket they place on their heads while seeking customers. They sell eatables, such as corn, pakoras, and other typical snacks, women may sell hair accessories, elastic or cotton ropes (azarband). Or they may work as servants, do handicrafts and sell them through a middleman or nowadays, NGOs. In general, the so-called unskilled are very skilled in something. In this respect, I don’t understand when the development studies literature discusses the non-economically active or unentrepeneurial poor. When they commonly complain that micro finance programs seem to work with the poor just above the poverty line, or the economically active poor, I find this very confusing because to my understanding, even a beggar is economically active because at the end of the day, they never go home empty handed. However, it could be the economically poor I have mentioned are unsuitable for microfinance/ credit programmes because although they manage to make a living by their small enterprises, their incomes are irregular and whatever revenue they accrue there is nothing left for savings. Or it could be that whatever is left once household and business expenses have been met, the rest is saved in a community rotating savings fund, and hence joining a microcredit scheme is unnecessary from this perspective.

Nevertheless, successful participation in a microcredit scheme requires a regular income flow to repay the loans taken. Moreover, it requires an income which allows money being set aside to repay a microcredit loan after other responsibilities have been provided for. It could also be that for some reason local money lenders seem a better source of temporary funds than an NGO provider due to more accommodating repayment arrangements. There are many reasons which seem thinly covered by the academic literature. It could also be that focusing on the non-poor of the poor segments is much easier and less challenging. Afterall poverty eradication is supposed to deal with structural issues of inequality and deprivation.

Reality, however is different. The structural issues are usually not dealt with because it requires an acceptance of reformist views by the powers that be, as well as a functioning legal system. Something which in most developing countries remains non existing due to lack of implementation of rules and regulations. If looking from the perspective of women’s empowerment, how effective are micro-finance/microcredit programmes if structural issues remain unaddressed? According to the literature, microcredit programmes target women because their repayment rates are better. Moreover, even if the loans go to men to support their income generation by buying a cart, it is argued that it still benefits the household because it shows women as a source of income. In this connection, there is an element of empowerment engendered by microcredit programmes.

Nevertheless, what are the actual effects/impacts of micro-finance on women empowerment? Confidence, awareness and busineness knowledge may increase, but at the social/society level how much is that actually worth and does it bring the desired change, or does it contribute to disempowerment at other levels? How are these processes manifested within the household? If it is effective, to what extent does microfinance serve women’s long term goals of economic independence? This last bit is rather vaguely covered in the literature. Only a negligible fraction of women have gone on to become SMEs through micro credit schemes. The ones who do are not micro-credit clients. They have managed to gain funds through personal savings or family loans. The microcredit loans are too small amounts and participating in the group meetings is a waste of their time. The question regarding women empowerment, micro-finance credit, enterprise development remains unanswered. There are different case studies on microcredit ventures. Some studies with negative results, others with positive results depending on the organizational backing such Grameen Bank and the World Bank. And yet, microfinance programmes such as credit projects are an important tool in the poverty eradication drive because even if the loans are repaid, subsequent loans are taken on and repaid. They support tailoring skills, husband’s trade, sometimes they go to pay for health and education or weddings even. They serve as a lifeline in difficult times. If previous loans have been taken out, their loan record might speak for itself and act as a guarantee that the loan will eventually be repaid.

In this connection, and finally, micro-credit programmes are not wastage of resources, and do contribute to social and economic uplift of the poor. However, there is a need for better clarification of financial services and goals of micro finance programmes, as opposed to just meeting output objectives. Moreover, the question remains, what is to be done with those households where microcredit does not work? How can their deprivation be targeted?

HIV/AIDS- an ironic nightmare

Human Immunodeficiency virus/Aquired Immunodeficiency Disease Symptoms is such an ironic disease. It is incurable, it is degenerative and yet so easy to prevent. Common sense is not rocket science and doesn’t require an education. However, to prevent HIV/AIDS, an individual needs to have common sense. Neither are lust, desire, passion causes, nor is lack of self-control a cause. Moreover, when a life threatening fact is staring you in the face, stubbornness towards behavioural change when it comes to something as simple as condom use, is sheer irresponsible behavior. Especially when you know what it is and how it is spread. Besides when more than 30% of your economically productive, adult population is dying what is left for social, cultural and economic regeneration? Who will pass on traditional knowledge and practices? When teachers and health personnel such as doctors and nurses are dying, who will develop and sustain human resources for productive purposes? Health care is a privilege in developing countries, but when health care personnel are dying it is bound to become a rarity. Horror story scenarios are made, some bordering on the outrageous. However, it is these images which force people to deal with what could likely become a reason for the extinction of mankind in certain part of the world, where population concentration is high, but national population is relatively low. Going into its 30th year, it is time to focus on the social impacts of HIV/AIDS alongside the preventive and curative aspects of the disease.

Life is a funny thing. Either you get it or you don’t. It’s a mystery never meant to be unravelled.

as a child I was told work hard, get an education and the world is yours. Been there done that, except the world isn’t mine to claim. It belongs to the status quo, the big fish who eat small fish, it belongs to those on the top of the food chain. If there is a sense of utilitarian goodwill, you will get ahead. Otherwise you’re only good enough till the task is done. Which I guess is a diluted form of utilitarian goodwill. People love to show muscles, especially if it means keeping down someone who does a better job than you, or someone who reminds you of everything that is wrong with their system. In the latter case someone is kept down because by acknowledging you, your existence and your experiences and the amorality of it all, they have to admit a mistake was made, a wrong was done. So rather than supporting you, they will have you kicked out and the person who was about to get fired due to incompetence from the Headquarter will be saved by someone, whose authority matters because he had been in the organization the longest.

I promised myself if I ever get the chance to tell my story to the highest command I would, even if it meant getting sent back home. Some say I ruined my career, I wasn’t serious about the opportunity. I disagree, I fulfilled my duties, but more importantly, I fulfilled a promise I made to not to sell myself to the lowest bidding devil. I don’t regret it at all. The reason for this blog is to give an insight into my understanding of international development. Many of my stories focus on religion and my interpretation of the particular situation. This is because, in the developing world, faith, religion and belief systems are intrinsic to daily life.

Development is more than just giving charity, fundraising, monitoring and evaluation, policy frameworks and political decision making, fancy conference meals and deals. It is an approach to greater understanding of humanity and how we go about things in this world of ours. Some would say, but isn’t that what anthropologists do? It is, but the development focus always worked better for me, or maybe because the training I was given in development was far more superior to the training I was given in anthropology–which to me was more like a fresher’s course in how to live and survive in the developing world; what cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment really is and how it is just another form of color blind racism.

Finally, to end my introduction, when I started my life in the developing world, zipped up my boots and went back to my roots, I was told on my arrival in the ruthless world that the organizations in general were unsuitable for me because I was actually dedicated and qualified to do such work. Moreover, whatever was going on in those organizations was not serious work, but just shadow dancing to get funds. The best thing for me would be to set up my own organization and work from that platform. Now years of travelling and living in new and distant places, places of civilization, places of worship, not to mention tons of application and difficult interviews which never materialized, I have to accept the obvious…no one is going to hire me. If I get hired it will be to finish off a task they can’t, or be a stand in till the person they want is ready to take over from where I left, and the supervisor get the recognition for my graft and toil. At least with my “outfit” I’m the boss and I can’t unintentionally bypass certain professional sensitivities I always thought were left behind once upon a time in kindergarden or nursery. I guess even in adulthood people have never really grown up.

It’s a Bad Mad Man’s World

If you talk to men, even educated and supposedly world wise men, they all huff at gender equality and gender mainstreaming as bullshit coming from angry and frustrated women who do not know what they want. These type of men may prevent women from achieving their human rights. Also, these elements should never stop us from fighting for our right to have our existence acknowledged as more than simply natural means of the continuation of the human race, or as cultivated domestic servants.

Now, I’m not a feminist, and I don’t believe all men are dogs, but the balance is in favour of men, unless it is in the man’s interest that a woman should be allowed to progress. In this connection, there is believed to be a glass ceiling which women still have to crack to be considered equal to men. From my experiences, there is an impenetrable cement wall, albeit a thin one. The man at the top will never accept a well-educated, competent woman with a mind of her own, unless she will flash her bosom in his face and shake her legs to attract his attention. A woman who is competent and respects herself has no place in the professional world of NGOS and international development. After all, it is a fluffy field where skills and expertise is not a requirement, as opposed to law, accountancy & finance or IT. So if you’re university educated to work in the development field, it is a waste of time and money and you might as well set up your own business because that is the only way out to financial independence and to prove your education was a worthy investment.

Regarding the gender and development concern of mainstreaming and equality, a gender expert at the University of London said that instead of focusing on women’s right as a separate issue/concern developmentalists, economics, political scientists and legal experts should include a gendered focus as an integral part of their analyses. After all women constitute 50% of the world population and they suffer the most from the structural inequalities of oppression. The above mentioned gender expert also said in the Arab world, women have always participated in protest movements against oppression. They do not need Western feminists to tell them what to do. I think that is a common trait in the Muslim world. True, due to illiteracy, low literacy levels, despite the abuses against her from society, or even her in-laws, lack of freedom of mobility, ignorance and lack of awareness of their rights is common. However, within the domestic sphere a woman reigns.

In a final note, she can manipulate the surroundings to her benefit to the extent that the husband has to oblige. Of course there are extreme cases where the wife is burnt alive or thrown acid in her face, or publicly raped. However, this is where the good of NGOs reign large. Thanks to their presence, women have a voice. So, for whatever their worth, in some instances, NGOs do challenge the status quo in such a way that the filthy underdog’s voice has to be heard. An opportunity to gain credibility is like finding a treasure at the end of the rainbow-a rare opportunity you only get once in a blue moon, if ever.

Talkshop, talkshop, communication, communication….blahblah blaaah blahblah blaaah

I went to an open discussion between the humanitarian sector and the situation in Libya. Representatives of the main Muslim charities were there as well as Libyan charities and members of the Libyan expatriate community. Interesting points were made by the different organizations and representatives.

Essentially a medical situation is unfolding in Libya. There is a lack of doctors, nurses, medical supplies and equipment. Along the border areas a refugee/ internally displaced people situation is developing, there is especially a need to evacuate women and children. It was suggested by the moderator to develop a monitoring system, especially of the situation by the border of Libya, to assess the extent of population movements. Moreover, himself being a doctor he said there is a need for specialist, not general practitioners. Being non-Arab I was pleased that he mentioned Pakistani doctors/specialists who usually offer their skills and expertise whenever a humanitarian crisis erupts anywhere.

It was mentioned that needs assessments had been done by the different organizations, but the problem was getting the necessary equipment and supplies to the people who needed it the most. All the organizations have field offices. The main issue which was repeatedly highlighted was communication issues. It was mentioned that it is essential to know what is needed from the organizations on the ground. The moderator said: “internet, telephones are lifesaving machines, alongside medicines, human resources and security. Communication is essential because we need to know the situation on the ground, but in order for us to know, communication must be restored. Once we know everything, the next step is how to share the information we have between the organizations, in order to assess what supplies are needed, look at certain areas to decide what organization does what where, and what needs to be done where. The Forum through which this open discussion was arranged recommended an action plan to be made, and focal point be made for medical/health, refugees, distribution, logistics and procurement, communication. The concerned organizations should maximize efforts of fundraising, the issue of need and increase information sharing as much as possible of the work done within Libya. All areas are our people. One of the attendees mentioned that the international organizations on the ground do not know what the needs of the people are. Moreover, the question which was continually repeated was what do we do, how do we get supplies and resources to the people who need it the most. The moderator, a renowned human activist and awarded by the Queen, kept repeating, this forum is a platform for further action. Our responsibility is to bring the organizations together and assist in coordination. We don’t do implementation that is your responsibility.

At the open discussion, I kept thinking if all the major organizations have field offices in Libya, their officers should know what is happening on the ground and it only helps to prove the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the leadership management in the country offices. Especially considering they all do relief and rehabilitation work and it is during crisis situations their work is supposed to prove its worth through quick action. An interesting concluding statement made during this open discussion was that what is currently happening in Libya is not a civil war, as claimed by the international media. It is the Gaddafi regime oppressing the entire country, hence breaking down means of communication. It is not a civil war, but a regime that has been in place for 41 years. Gaddafi must go and we must be allowed to get on with our lives and practice our human rights. The panel of the discussion went silent, their faces expressionless. The purpose was not to discuss political issues, but to deal with what is needed on the ground.

In this connection, the open discussion forums- coordination and networking events are really just talk shops with little action. The NGOs are more interested in raising funds and be seen to work for the betterment of underprivileged and deprived people. At the country level, the leadership will say “the board told me we need to make an action plan on e.g. earthquake relief, or needs assessment on internally displaced people at the borders”. Meeting will be convened, at the national office, attended by regional management staff, funds will be distributed to the concerned area. Pictures will be taken, minutes of the meeting will be noted and action points will be decided. In the end documentations of initiatives and actions will be reported and the machinery will be seen to be operative in an effective and efficient manner. These meetings are all part of the agenda of operation, otherwise the organizations will be considered inactive or useless. Nonetheless, quick action was made, because 2 days later, I received emails from the online forum and the necessary information was being shared.

Having worked for NGOs I can say that working in the humanitarian sector is a very noble thing to do. It is very rewarding personally. There is a very high feel good factor involved with this sort of work. However, charities/non-governmental organizations, whether they do advocacy work or are service based organizations are overshadowed by lack of accountability and transparency. In my own experience, the NGO I worked for, had at that time an annual budget of Rs. 7.5 million, but the way things were run it seemed more like it was running on Rs. 750,000. Only 25% of the budget was being utilized and no one knew where the rest of the money went. If I have to go by the experiences I had of working for that particular US-based charity set up by Pakistani doctors based in the United States, Chicago to be more exact, it probably went to buy the silence of the bank and other staff members. In other organizations, established by Muslims in the UK, rumour has it that money and supplies, such as tin sheets, blankets or medical supplies intended for affected families of the earthquake in 2005 were sold in the local market double the price. This was even reported in local newspapers in Pakistan.

Charitable donations made by Muslims are sadqat, kahirat and zakat. The Zakat is obligatory, the others are voluntary donations of general goodwill. Whatever you give, it doesn’t matter what the intermediary, in this case, charities/ NGOs do with the money, it is the intention of the giver that counts, what happens with the money after you donate it is irrelevant. Now Allah is almighty, he is all-knower and all-seer, and you will be rewarded for your good deeds. However if you are board member of a charity your duty is not just to make a name for yourself and be seen as a good citizen and humanitarian and thus get good marriage proposals for your children.

If your organizations values are accountability and transparency, they should be lived up to. It is not enough just to be seen doing work on the ground. Your passion is not shown by virtue of being a director or board member of a charitable organization, although it opens a lot of doors, looks impressive on your curriculum vitae and is a great networking tool.

Passion is when you get things done and uphold the principles of your organizational values, rather than merely paying lip service to them. Moreover, concern for our underprivileged fellow human beings is not shown by just handing out a big check or significant donation, and think you have done your Muslim duty. It is about reducing the structural inequities intrinsic to human societies. Yes, they need education, healthcare and income generation programmes to restore/regain their sense of dignity, but they also need to feel their concerns are being heard. True many of the NGOs/ CBOs are doing that to a large extent, but it is also a fact that the implementations of programs and activities depend on the field offices. Moreover, leadership in the field offices is severely lacking. Now, is that a concern not addressed by deliberately overlooking it, or the UK-US based board members and directors simply not care as it doesn’t affect their social status amongst the expatriate community, and the high society they end up becoming a part of because of their charitable work?

The reason I think these open discussions and working group meetings are all blaah blaah is because the root causes are never touched upon. Donors will not give money if their priorities are not addressed. Government departments know this. Moreover, expatriate service based charitable organizations won’t address political issues to avoid the government closing its doors in their faces and thereby prevent them from operating in their countries. Consequently, the actual issues are never really solved because as long as the parties get what they want, all is good. Who cares about the people stuck in the middle as long as you get ahead, afterall what’s the need to carry the world’s burden on your shoulders….right?

Nonetheless, in conclusion, the NGOs are always the place vulnerable people can turn to for help and support. True, charitable organizations have a knack for wasting financial resources, but when a poor person’s abuse from the system gets too much to bear, they are always the places to turn to. In return the organization concerned cashes in from the media exposure and its relevance is established for good. The people running the outfit might be honoured with a national award or become an accepted member of high society. In many cases, it is well deserved.