Madeeha Ansari's blog
Good things, they take time and sustained effort. That is the underlying philosophy behind social mobilization (SM) - the process of inspiring collective action, by making people aware of what they can achieve and how. While engaging local communities and making them aware of their stakes in the process of development, it also aims to establish a credible presence for development organizations hoping to be more than temporary visitors.
Maqsoodo Rind is a village in district Sanghar, in the further reaches of the conservative, feudal-dominated Sindh province in Pakistan. Here, the Sindh Agricultural and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organization (Safwco) has been working since 1996 to organize people into groups who can give voice to collective demands. Neighbourhood-level Community Organizations (COs) make it easy to access individual households, with four COs coming together to form a Village Organization (VO). This in turn feeds the membership of the Local Support Organization (LSO). Thus organized, the needs of a neighbourhood can be packaged and sent via Safwco to the Islamabad office of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) - where they can be heard.
“This is what we have been able to achieve to this day,” says the grinning spokesperson of the village development committee as he spreads out rolls of coloured chart paper on the straw matting. It is a comprehensive presentation detailing the history of the village, tracing the evolution of the village organization and systematically listing its achievements as well as current needs.
There are many beautiful things about rural life that are lost when an alien wave of development washes over an area - one reason why ladies from NGOs are often regarded with hostile suspicion. Instead of development being imposed in a way that effaces the character of a place, SM efforts equip people with the tools to identify what they need and ask for it when ready. In all this, there is an obvious space to be filled by various forms of the media. Community radio, for instance, would be a highly effective means of spreading awareness and helping to create a mindset that would accommodate the efforts of development organizations. The best forms of communication are subtle yet effective, promoting the kind of change that will not distort the spirit of the community.
One change that the people of Maqsoodo Rind became ready to embrace was the introduction of girls’ education.
“Our boys were becoming engineers,” they said, “and our girls could not even write their names”.
So they solicited support to set up the first Primary Community Model School for girls, with a School Management Committee having the power of discretion when determining who could be exempted from paying fees. Although these fees are far less than ordinary government schools, they increase incrementally in each class - from Rs. 30 for pre-primary classes, they rise to Rs. 200 for the newly added Class 6.
For the first five years, the supporting organizations have pledged to bear the costs of the building and the teachers. The school management committee (SMC), consisting of farmers and market-savvy shopkeepers, decided to direct the savings from fees toward enterprise - investing first in bags of wheat, then in fertilizer. Upon hearing of this initiative to move towards self-sufficiency, the representatives from the development community nodded with pride.
“You should feel like this is your school,” said one, unable to repress a well-meaning urge. “Of course Safwco and PPAF will support you, but this can only last for so long.”
The response was both humbling and heart-warming in its indignation. “Of course this is our school,” smiled an old, bearded member of the SMC. “Safwco and PPAF are only helpers.”
Information and politics
“Information is important. Information can be a matter of life and death.”
That was how Amy Goodman from “Democracy Now” started off a moderated discussion between Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and Wikileaks editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. Hosted by the Frontline Club, the conversation presented a thorough intellectual analysis of the ethical implications of disseminating information, as well as the connotations in terms of ideology, history and political theory.
While acknowledging the complex interplay of international politics and the mainstream media, Assange explained how collaboration with the mainstream international press was important in order to reach his target audience, i.e. the news-reading public of the world. This was vital for him, as a journalist, to be able to contribute significantly to the historical narrative of today.
“What advances us as a civilization,” he said, “is the entirety of our intellectual record and the entirety of our understanding about what we are going through,”
However, understanding takes many forms, each coloured by circumstance. The dissemination of information does not have uniform effects on separate target audiences – which is why Wikileaks became a source of international controversy. For many, it confirmed what was already known. For others, it was the work of a maverick with a wicked penchant for chaos. And for millions of people preoccupied with handling everyday life, it was simply irrelevant; a distant buzz created by those having the luxury of reacting to events beyond their control.
Information and development
Information is important, it’s true. Politics aside, news can save lives. News of an earthquake relayed 80 seconds in advance can provide a window of time for evacuation, or an immediate response for self-protection. News of flash floods can be conveyed hours, even days in advance, providing enough time to install mechanisms for reducing vulnerability and controlling damage in terms of loss of life and property. However, the mode of dissemination of information and the kind of understanding that it contributes to are crucial in determining the impact of news. Unless it can be accessed, processed and applied by the relevant audience, it will not alter the development narrative.
Imagine a village on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan. A smiling woman has just told the story of how she tied her grandparents to the top of the tree last year, before fleeing from the floods that ravaged the land. Since they were unable to keep up, the rationale was that the elevated position was one of relative safety, and at the very least the bodies of family members would not be tossed about like driftwood.
The villagers are asked what they would do if they could be given an early warning of the disaster. Their response is delivered with terrifying good humour:
It is God’s will.
The poor have nowhere to go.
When the river swells and news of flooding further north is announced in the local mosque, the story of panic, death and destruction will play itself out once more. Among the villagers, a crust of resentment will form above the current layer of apathy, against God and government and all those perceived to have greater power. Then the well-meaning aid organizations and journalists will step up, and the three Rs of disaster management will surface. Relief, Recovery, Rehabilitation.
There are, however, important alliterative terms in development-speak that merit more attention. For countries that are susceptible to disaster, the importance of “Risk Reduction” cannot be underplayed. In this, the effective dissemination of information is of the essence.
Information and decisions
“If we have to make rational decisions insofar that any decision can be rational, then it has to be drawn from the information of the real world and the description of the real world,” said Julian Assange.
Rational decisions, however, do not follow naturally from the simple release of information. The broadcasters have a vital role to play in determining the course of the narrative, as they control the direction and volume of information flows.
In the case of war logs and news of political disaster, a continuous chain of communication was formed between the invisible sources of classified documents; the whistleblowers at Wikileaks; the representatives of mainstream media; and a responsive public. In the context of risk reduction and news of natural disaster, the information originating from government units and research institutions needs to be run through the mainstream press; made accessible for development or community-based organizations; and then relayed to vulnerable communities. It could be that the local mosque becomes the last link in the chain for the timely dispatch of early warnings and associated evacuation plans. Only when it finds the most effective channels at every tier can information emerge as a truly powerful force, capable of constructing an alternate reality.
"All the world’s a stage" for the transgender community of Pakistan. The role is assigned by a cursory glance at a traffic light: “jester”, “oddball”, possibly “a morally degenerate sex worker”. The general public looks no further and the flat character seen meandering through the traffic, vending prayers, accepts the shapelessness of the umbrella term, “hijra”.
This holds until the general public encounters an individual such as Almas Bobby, President of the Pakistan Shemale Association. One of the pioneers of transgender activism, Almas has played a prominent role in bringing about the formal recognition of the “third gender” by the Supreme Court.
Known as a “Guru” in the transgender community, Almas has been very clear when it comes to putting things in perspective for the media, government and civil society.
“Men are men, women are women, we have our own identity,” she told anchor-person Mubashar Lucman on the national television channel, Express News. Her candid interview made waves in the country, suddenly bringing prickly taboos into public discourse and forcing attention on people who for decades have existed at the fringes of Pakistani society.
Whether media attention has been a cause or consequence of the legal victory, it has in turn evoked interest from many quarters. There has been, for instance, fresh discussion in the blogosphere regarding the various kinds of individuals who are summarily dismissed as “hijras”. They may be either physically different or, as Almas puts it, cannot help the spirit that they are born with.
“Is there a technical fault in the child, then? Is it a fridge or TV?”
For the development sector, she has acted as a reminder that the gender discourse is not confined to women. In April 2011, Almas Bobby had her first direct audience with a range of guests from the development community.
What was most striking about Almas during this interaction was her remarkable poise. She was a star performer who knew exactly where to direct a flirtatious wink or extravagant compliment and cash in on her persona. But when given the floor for the highly anticipated Q&A session, she morphed into a powerful story-teller who held the senior management in thrall.
Beginning with her personal story, she opened a portal into a tight-knit community that has built a parallel world with complex filial relationships among the “sahelis” (female friends). When they put on their lipstick and enter the less accepting world, the luckier ones are hired as professional entertainers, while the others find themselves begging alms at the aforementioned traffic light. She then traced the evolution of awareness, following the success of protests against institutionalised injustice. As for the way forward, her agenda points were clear: recognition and acceptance of the third gender; promotion of decent livelihoods; and access to rights of inheritance.
If these demands were to be accepted as valid and true, those involved with legal and economic empowerment would have their work cut out for them. What is less easily delineated is the role of the media. It is one thing to say that the free press is the most powerful medium for creating a more tolerant society. The truth is it can only be powerful as long as public “buy-in” can be ensured.
In that sense, Almas’ media-savvy ways have at least broken the ice. She can talk politics, religion and society with dry humour and a flair for drama which holds the attention of diverse target audiences, till she gets her point across.
(“The Taliban have never given us any trouble. Who ever heard of a bomb in the Red Light Area? They only have blasts in mosques, Imam Bargahs, and gatherings for peace.”)
While this may not be the most conventional development-oriented approach, it could be the first step towards better integration. If the media has so far been lacking nuance and understanding in its projection of the third gender, the way of rectifying this would be actual engagement with living, breathing, dimensional people. Eventually, this could lead to the removal of the stigmas attached to the community, so that alternate forms of employment can become available on a practical level. In the long run, as Almas envisions, civil society could even play a pivotal role in supporting reconciliation of outcast transgender individuals with families.
“It is only the first drop of rain,” she smiled as she talked about her Supreme Court statement. There can be little doubt in her ability to summon a storm.
When colleagues talked of ICT for development in a country where the electric supply is erratic at best, there were always those who were scathingly sceptical. Perhaps it was because they have long resented the slow digitization of everything, from books to conversations to relationships. Perhaps it was because they genuinely felt the developing world has considerable catching up to do in terms of basic, tangible development indicators, before worrying about the greater implications of cell-phones and Facebook.
Seeing the wave of change sweeping over the Middle East has called for a serious questioning of the traditionalist’s stance towards these new-fangled tools. Not only have they proven to be catalysts for change that could otherwise take decades, but have also broken the myth that their influence is necessarily limited to a certain segment of the population.
In fact, it is the outreach of social media that makes “democratic development” suddenly seem like an idea that can be extracted from the nebulousness of abstract thought, and translated into reality. Everywhere in the developing world, people are beginning to ask questions. Once disparate voices are connected to articulate their need in unison, they can become a force to be reckoned with. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, this has bred the widespread demand for political change; elsewhere, the need can be different. The greatest opportunity – and challenge – lies in accessing those at the periphery and giving them the tools to be demand-articulate.
In an interesting, technologically empowered world, a host of innovative solutions are rising to meet this challenge. In Pakistan, for instance, new social enterprises like the Pakistan Urban Links and Support (PULS) are aiming to create a “LinkedIn” for the “mobile yet offline world”. This job-match platform for the informal sector will connect employers (through the Internet) with employees (through SMS). The idea, if it takes off, can be extended to create a bridge of communication between the urban and rural population that never existed before.
To put things in perspective, a study by the Thardeep Rural Development Program revealed that 90.9% of people in interior Sind province have mobile or wireless phones. The four districts covered by the research include the Tharparkar district, which has the lowest score on the Human Development Index (HDI) in Pakistan. This is a desert land where water is scarce and survival is tough, where the female spends her existence in a shadowy corner. Not surprisingly, only about 12.1% of the entire area under research has paved roads.
To be able to access minds in an area with such inhospitable terrain and lack of infrastructure can have very powerful implications for drawing them away from the margins. Just in terms of basic awareness about the rights that they can ask for, the new media for information-sharing can be extended to spread awareness of facilities for health, education and social security that do – or should – exist. It can become a very effective mechanism for ensuring accountability, seeing if development programs are being implemented or whether the allocated budget is feeding ghost schools. The issue then is to devise effective ways of reaching out to people, discovering what they need and connecting them to the right resources. Perhaps simply connecting them to the voices in cities, who can ensure that they are heard.
The traditionalists are right when they say that poverty demands simple solutions – schools, hospitals, access to contraceptives. However, if they look around they will see that there are exciting new ways of facilitating these simple solutions, so that people don’t have to wait so much longer.
While the pace of change in a hyperlinked world can be overwhelming, these concerns cannot undermine the potential power of a modern media and communication campaign. Not only can it plant the first seed of an idea to tackle a specific issue, but can also create the energy for an organic movement. And whether it is a drive against dictatorship or for female education, change that comes from within is change that lasts.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet Ethan Casey, an American journalist with a special interest in most things Pakistan. A seasoned writer who has travelled within the country more than most natives both urban and rural, his books reveal a nuanced understanding of the South Asian people and culture. To help guide his travels through the post-flood situation, a common friend had organized a casual chat with a selection of people working in the media and development sector.
It was interesting to find the conversation peppered with allusions to being gora – the overarching term encompassing white people across the world. Perhaps it was a natural defence mechanism for someone who was surrounded by serious-looking Pakistanis hailing from the development sector, to become an apologist for Stupid White Men. However, it could also have been a deliberate strategy – self-deprecatory humour is a great ice-breaker. Here, it served a dual purpose: establishing a sort of camaraderie, while accepting the existence of a barrier. I know I am an outsider, but am stepping outside my comfort zone to know more. Tell me.
In that respect, Ethan appeared to be different from the representatives of the mainstream media. Journalists preoccupied with impending doom and deadlines do not have the patience to listen, or the time to discard preset notions. The impatience may not stem from ill intentions, but can then translate into a kind of selective myopia. The fast-thinking, fast-talking folk may swoop in and sweep out of the community with a fabulous human interest story to highlight a particular issue, but have little appreciation for long term consequences. This can be damaging in two ways – either the subject of the story can become a media sensation and soak up all attention, with no change for others in need; or the subject of the story can become a media sensation, until the fickle public moves on.
This is broadly true for the local as well as international press, in spite of the existence of some very sharp, incisive minds in the community of mobile journalists. What needs to be recognised, perhaps, is that media for development is a genre in its own right. Despite the tangled nature of the relationship between the two, development is very different from political process and a journalist with years of experience talking about one may not necessarily understand the other. Development-centric journalism requires even greater sensitivity to the culture of a specific region, and the appreciation that real, sustainable change cannot be imposed overnight.
To be fair, impatience is not simply the hallmark of the journalist. It has been also been a plague of the development sector, which has taken a very long time to discover the merits of listening. Even now, academics who wax lyrical about participatory development might enter the field with set ideas which do not cross the preliminary stage of evolution. For development communication as well as development journalism, it is important to accept that as outsiders to a specific community we may have much to learn. Not only the garrulous candidate for the human interest story but the shy silent one may have much to contribute to a focus group discussion – the trick is to guide the conversation in such a way that a holistic picture can be obtained. Of course, it helps to have an insider friend to organize the “casual chat”.
Ethan Casey came to Pakistan to make a book that will sell. However, he also came looking to bridge the gap between the gora back home who doesn’t know and doesn’t care, and a people whose story he wants to tell. Whether or not he will succeed one cannot say, but it didn’t seem like a bad idea to take to scale.