Karachi street scene (photo, Robert Remington)


Amid the poverty and pollution of Karachi, hope lives

Robert Remington
Calgary Herald
Sat Feb, 19, 2005

KARACHI, Pakistan

Minutes after landing in this frenetic city of 15 million people, it becomes evident that there is little need to worry about kidnapping, robbery, carjackings, hepatitis, terrorism or the many other concerns one takes into account when travelling to Pakistan. The gas fumes will kill you long before any of that.

In a city where the average monthly wage barely covers rent, a new set of spark plugs would be a luxury for the average Pakistani, for whom health care coverage is non-existent and the only guarantee of old-age security is a large family. The nauseating exhaust is inescapable. Gas-powered rickshaws that run on noisy engines requiring a mixture of oil and gasoline — think of a chainsaw — are everywhere, their sputtering, popping, tailpipes adding to the din of Karachi’s infamous traffic.

For a group of Calgary business leaders, all pleading for the bus windows to be rolled up, it’s like sucking on a tailpipe. The six-member Calgary group is in Pakistan at the urging of Sherali Saju, a Calgary businessman and chief Alberta fundraiser for the Aga Khan Development Network. Led by oilman Jim Gray, the Calgarians have come to see first-hand the work of the AKDN, a group of non-denominational, politically neutral agencies operating under the auspices of Prince Karim Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary imam of the Ismaili Muslims, a progressive sect of Shiism committed to bettering the human condition, guided by the ethics of Islam.

The Aga Khan network focuses much of its work in education, which appeals to Gray. A founder of the

Fruit seller, Karachi (photo by Robert Remington)

Fruit seller, Karachi
(photo by Robert Remington)

private Calgary Academy, Gray believes in education as a solution to societal problems and is interested in raising funds in Canada for the AKDN, perhaps for a teacher training institute in East Africa. Although the Aga Khan network is active in 10 countries, Gray has decided the best place to learn more about the organization is in Pakistan, where human development needs are among the highest in the Third World.

Here, malnutrition among children is common. For every 1,000 children born in Pakistan, almost 100 will die before their first birthday, and half of those will die within their first month of life. Literacy rates are the lowest in South Asia, especially among women, where 70 per cent are uneducated. In some rural areas, the female literacy rate is a disheartening 10 per cent.

Why, one might ask, should we care? Pakistan’s problems are a world away. Or are they? For Gray, Pakistan — like all of the Third World — is closer to our own backyard that many Calgarians care to admit.

“For the first time in human history, the poor can see how poor they are in real time. And for the first time in human history, they can do something about it. 9/11 taught us that. Afghanistan taught us that. You can hunker down in Arizona and play golf, or you can try to do something about it,” says Gray.

Children at an outreach clinic in Karachi served by Aga Khan medical students

Children at an outreach clinic in Karachi served by Aga Khan medical students. (Photo by Robert Remington)

We are sitting in the lobby of a downtown Karachi hotel where a car bomb exploded outside the front entrance in May of 2002, killing 10 French technicians, six Pakistanis and injuring 34. Karachi, Pakistan’s most violent city, is accustomed to ethnic and sectarian killings, but this was a rare suicide bombing. A Toyota Corolla packed with explosives rammed into the French technicians’ bus in an attack that police said had a “Middle Eastern touch.” Al-Qaeda sympathizers were suspected. At the time, Pakistan had recently joined U.S.-led efforts to flush al-Qaeda operatives from the country’s rugged tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was on.

None of the Calgarians, except Saju, have been to Pakistan, and the group is understandably wary. It is early December, and the Canadian government is not advising travel to Pakistan except for “critical or compelling business or family reasons.” In October, an explosion occurred at a major hotel in Islamabad, where the Calgary group is scheduled to visit. Even the normally safe trekking area of the Hunza region, which is also on the itinerary, carried a warning following the murder of an unaccompanied tourist in the northern town of Gilgit, where the Calgary delegation would overnight.

Karachi itself carries strong cautions from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which warns of “outbreaks of ethnic and sectarian violence including bombings, shootings and mass demonstrations resulting in deaths.” On the streets, armed guards ride shotgun in vehicles, their sawed-off shotgun barrels poking out of rolled-down windows as a warning to anyone intent on a carjacking.

Why risk travel to a country where the world’s most wanted terrorist, bin Laden, is rumoured to be hiding, perhaps in the mountainous tribal region on the Afghanistan border or in a safe house in a major city like Islamabad, Peshawar or even Karachi?

“If you believe, like I do, that our own self interests are at stake, you have to put a brick in the wall,” says Gray. “I’m just one person. What can I do? It takes millions of bricks, but I think it’s important to put your brick in the wall.”

To Gray and group co-leader Brian Felesky, one of Canada’s leading tax lawyers and former chairman of the Calgary United Way, the basic formula is simple: to win the war on terrorism you must first win the war on poverty, and to win the war on poverty you must win the battle to provide education to underprivileged members of society.

Few agencies do that better than the AKDN, which Margaret Huber, Canada’s high commissioner to Pakistan, calls “a role model for other NGO’s (non-governmental organizations).” The AKDN runs its education, rural development and community health programs with a squeaky-clean reputation for how its dollars are spent. Years ago, it took the pioneering step of asking the World Bank to audit its operations, without being forced to do so.

Despite its reputation, Gray is compelled to judge the organization for himself. “I recognize that you just can’t up and decide to do something on your own. You have to work with somebody with long experience,” says Gray, who is here to convince himself of the effectiveness of the AKDN.

Regardless of whether they subscribe to the liberal Ismaili interpretation of Islam, Pakistanis obviously hold the work of the Aga Khan in high regard. The Calgary delegation would have no security throughout its eight-day trip through the Pakistan. Its Aga Khan insignia-marked bus would be good enough, getting friendly waves and quick passage everywhere.

The group’s first stop is Aga Khan University. Smack in the middle of bustling, polluted Karachi, the university is set amid 88 park-like acres, an oasis of beautiful, architecturally-coordinated buildings finished in locally-quarried pink marble and imported teak from Burma. Three of its buildings were funded by Canadians, including one built with $4 million from an anonymous Calgary donor.

Critics say the resort-like campus — Pakistan’s first private university — is ostentatious and elitist. But to the Aga Khan, a student of architecture, physical settings built with enduring quality have the ability to inspire.

Focused on the health sciences, human development and teacher training, the Karachi campus has a needs-blind admission policy based on merit, rather than ability to pay. In nation where the education of women has historically not been given high priority, 44 per cent of the Aga Khan University faculty and half the students in its medical college are female. This, in a nation where less than half of those girls who do manage to go to school complete Grade 5, where a disheartening 18 per cent of girls complete primary school and where a pitiful one per cent of the female population finishes high school.

“Where can we get nurses and teachers in a country that has such a weak human development base?” frets Jim Irvine, a champion of early childhood education who heads the Aga Khan University’s Human Development Program. The Aga Khans — a titular honour bestowed on the spiritual leaders of the Ismailis — have long recognized that, as family caregivers, women are society’s front-line providers of education and health. “If you can afford to educate only one member of your family, educate your daughter and she will educate the rest,” Prince Karim’s grandfather said in a memorable speech in Bombay in the 1940s.

The AKDN’s focus on empowering women is not an easy task in Muslim nations, where women have traditionally not been educated for cultural and religious reasons. Today, cultural barriers prevent mixing gender in schools and many areas devote their only school facility to boys.

Against this background, the Calgary group — Gray, Felesky, Saju, investment broker Chris Robb, Calgary and Area United Way president Ruth Ramsden-Wood and Gray’s daughter Janice, a health care worker — found female students at the university’s School of Nursing preparing portable health exhibits designed for

Rural villager, Sindh province, Pakistan. (Photo by Robert Remington)

Rural villager, Sindh province, Pakistan. (Photo by Robert Remington)

rudimentary lessons at the village level in community health care, teaching other women health basics. Among them was a display on the causes of tetanus, warning new mothers against the common rural practice of using cow dung on severed umbilical cords of newborns to stop bleeding.

“If we want to make a difference in the world, we have to address poverty, hopelessness and despair and the best way to do that is through education,” says Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, the university’s influential president, who previously met Gray on a trip to Calgary.

The university’s creed — “be relevant, make a difference” — is part of an AKDN philosophy that is taken to the streets. In the Subzi Mundi (vegetable market) neighbourhood of Karachi, the group visited a free medical clinic where Aga Khan University medical students are required to volunteer their services as part of their training. One man, suffering symptoms of arthritis, had tears of thanks in his eyes as he was examined. Gray is impressed. “From what we’ve seen so far, the organization and dedication is tremendous.”

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