Monday, November 8, 2010

Open Your Eyes to the New Rhythm of Giving

Pakistan's efforts to come to terms with the aftermath of the devastating floods that have ravaged millions of lives across the country's length and breadth, have found a new ryhthm: Salman Ahmed, leader of sufi rock band Junoon has written and produced a single, Open Your Eyes, to raise funds for flood affectees. Released on 2 November 2010 and available for download from iTunes, the song features legendary artist Peter Gabriel--founder of Genesis and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee--and Alison Sudol the Grammy-nominated alternative music rising star. Samina Ahmed, Salman's wife and partner in the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative provides backing vocals. Proceeds from the sale of the song will be donated for flood relief activities through the SSGWI. As Salman explains in a recent interview, this song represents his attempt to make the world realise that they have a 'blind spot' for Pakistan and to stress on the need for doing much more than it has to help over 20 million displaced people regain their lives and their dignity. Listening to Peter Gabriel explain his motivation for choosing to collaborate on this project, to Jian Gomeshi of CBC on the Q show, one is struck by his empathy for those whose ‘dreams are sinking in the mud’ as the lyrics of the song go and holds up a mirror to both Pakistanis and the world at large, who've chosen to look away from their ongoing responsibility to help reduce suffering. Indeed, Mr. Gabriel calls it a ‘subtle form of racism’ and blames the ‘pathetic’ global response in terms of aid and giving, on the lingering media-hyped myth of Pakistan as only a hotbed of terrorism.

Clearly, this project has acquired great credibility with the association of Peter Gabriel and Alison Sudol, but in essence, this is Salman's project and kudos to him for taking the initiative. He has already helped raised several hundred thousand dollars through concerts and tours across the US and with this song, one hopes he will top up that contribution significantly. It's not that 'Open Your Eyes' is the first effort by musicians to raise awareness about flood victims--Atif Aslam, Laal,Hamid Ali Khan, Sami Yusuf, and Hadiqa Kiyani have all released songs--but none of these have been aimed at raising funds directly, as Salman's effort is. That in itself sets 'Open Your Eyes' apart from other efforts. Fundraising requires a planned, coordinated marketing effort and judging from the spate of interviews, tweets and press coverage Salman has secured, he does have a marketing plan.

This initiative again serves to underscore the manner in which the power of celebrity and music can be harnessed in a responsibile, productive manner. We are all privy to the amazing contribution made by Live Aid to raise both awareness and funds for the Ethiopian famine and most readers will be aware of the Red campaign aimed at raising funds to fight AIDS in Africa, by partnering with leading brands like Armani, Apple, Amex and Starbucks, who contribute a percentage of sale proceeds of their regular range as well as designing special edition products. In Pakistan, Imran Khan's fundraising efforts, including for flood victims through the Imran Khan Flood Relief Program, provide a prime example of how celebthropy can work for good. But as a student of CSR, I am saddened by the (pardon the poor pun) watery contributions of the corporate sector at identifying ways in which celebthropy can be tapped. While I will dwell on the broader subject of the role of the business community in disaster management and relief activities in a forthcoming post, in the context of the possible synergies of celebrity, music and media, the response in Pakistan has been woeful. Where are the special editions of a Coke Studio? Or Fire Records special CD compilation featuring top Pakistani artists with all proceeds going for flood relief? And if you hear of any of our Pakola boys or Pantene girls negotiating with their corporate sponsors for special concerts and limited edition products endorsed by them for raising funds for flood affectees, with the same gusto as they do for themselves, please do let me know.

This is not the place for me to analyse the merits of 'Open Your Eyes' as a piece of music. But it is very much the place for me to acknowledge Salman's effort as representing CSR, music style; and more power to him for it. Our corporate sector appears to have fallen short of expectations with respect to contributing to flood relief. But you, as an individual can open your eyes to the fact that the new rhythm of giving is just a click away.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tackling Karachi's Urban Waste the Gul Bahao Way

I have known Nargis Latif, the head of Karachi based NGO Gul Bahao for over a decade now. During this period, my views on her work have oscillated between fascination, frustration and bewilderment; fascination because her approach is always innovative; frustration because her work has not progressed from the level of a start-up despite a dozen or more years in the making; and bewilderment because, well, some of her ideas and products appeared borderline strange. But her tenacity, belief in herself and her commitment to the cause have never failed to impress.

So what is Nargis Latif's cause? Providing low-cost urban waste management solutions for Karachi. In a city of over 13m people (expected to reach nearly 20m by 2025) an estimated 9000 tonnes of solid waste is generated every day, presenting huge challenges for effective solid waste management. This challenge is compounded by the fact that at most 80% solid waste is collected for disposal and recycling; the severely restricted capacity of the municipal agencies--by their own admission they are only able to collect 50% of solid waste generated in their geographic jurisdictions--means that the for-profit and non-profit sectors involved in solid waste management are signficant market players. Enter NGOs such as Gul Bahao.

Launched in 1994, Gul Bahao has been experimenting with innovative, if not always scientifically sound, ways of managing solid waste. From humble beginnings of organising neighbourhood collections to launching Safai Kamai Bank (Garbage Bank) to products such as 'Fuel Pack' made from waste material and claimed to generate electricity to 'Chandi Ghar' (Silver Home) made from a combination of aluminium foil, panaflex and bamboo sticks, Gul Bahao has been constantly striving to come up with new solutions--and to keep itself both alive and relevant.

This effort--or compulsion--to constantly expand its product range before securing and scaling up its existing products is indicative of both the energy behind Gul Bahao as well as a reflection on the difficulties it faces in achieving financial stability through an established, sustainable product line. A lot of the initial work done by Gul Bahao has been financed through Nargis's own savings or the financial support provided by immediate family and friends. Local philanthropists have also contributed and allowed her to carry out research and do trial runs, while the Safai Kamai Bank (Gul Bahao bought dry waste from citizens, factories and companies and sold it onward to kabaris or small and medium sized waste collectors and recyclers) has allowed her to turn in revenues sufficient to keep the NGO going. But getting sustainable, secure lines of financing has been tough at best, with commercial banks simply not interested and city and town governments and IFIs (including projects financed by them) skeptical, non-committal and in some cases, condescending by turns; her being a woman (doing a man's job?) and clearly not belonging to the elite or bogus set (often one and the same thing) of NGOs--the one's run from drawing rooms by drawing upon connections and government largesse--didn't help matters. Nargis often came to me for help when I was the State Bank of Pakistan and later with the ADB and UNDP and I must admit that despite admiring her passion, believing in her work and providing some leads, I too failed to raise any funds for her.

And therein lies the reason why social enterprises like Gul Bahao have failed to scale up their operations and thus to have wider impact. With virtually no Angel financing, few venture capital firms and practically no support from the government, small social entrepreneurs are condemned to a state of unecominical operations, always struggling to juggle the tasks of retaining employees, research their products and market themselves. In fact, far from being helpful, the town governments in Karachi have been impediments, uprooting her waste collection banks and denying her permission to set up stalls in the city.

To carry on as Nargis and Gul Bahao have for such a long time in the face of relentless apathy from the public and private sectors, is admirable and a testimony to her commitment. I am very pleased to see though, that Gul Bahao and its driving force have begun to get due recognition, not that they hanker after it for personal reasons. Gul Bahao has been a labor love, but the spate of profiles and interviews, including by Telenor for their Karo Mumkin (Make it Happen) campaign, Newsline magazine's recent feature and blogs have helped raised its public profile.

But I fear that until social entrepreneurs like Nargis Latif gain access to adequate financing which in turn will enable access to quality personnel and research and development capacities, their work will forever fall short of their potential, while they will continue to be largely unsung heroes.

Because make no mistake, people like Nargis Latif truly are heroes.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

World Environment Day 2010: Cause for Pause or Celebration in Pakistan?

So another World Environment Day has come and gone. Doubtless, our environmental managers at the federal and provincial Environmental Protection Agencies would have organised some workshops and/or walks. Commitment to putting a stop to environmental degradation and to achieve all the targets contained in the National Environmental Policy (yes, we have one) would have been routinely expressed, sans conviction and without any explanation of how these commitments would move off the pages of policy documents and transform into tangible results. A profound sense of deja vu hits one at these events. Same promises, different faces, same frustration at lack of outcomes despite considerable inputs.

There may be even greater cause for alarm this year.

First, a few days before World Earth Day, the provincial government of Punjab announced, quite shamelessly and with great fanfare, that it had decided to allot more than 30,000 acres of forest land to 'jobless youth' (no doubt a euphimism for political cronies) for agricultural use, along with seed money (pardon the pun) of Rs.900,000 each. Amendments in the Forest Act 1927 were made to enable this plan because the British-enacted legislation prohibited conversion or use of forest land for any other purpose. And all this happens in the background of warnings by experts about the alarming rate of deforestation in the country (second worst in the world according to one source) and the fact that more than 1.44m of agriculture land is lying unutilised in Punjab.

Second, the Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-2010 released yesterday paints a dim picture of, amongst other things, the state of environmental management in the country. Consider this: only 44% of the population has access to sanitation facilities; the level of particulate matters in major cities is nearly 4 times higher than safe limits (see Figure 1); 40% of all deaths and 60% of those of children are related to water borne diseases with only four cities (Karachi, Faisalabad, Peshawar, Islamabad) equipped with water treatment plants, all workin under capacity and only the one in Islamabad meeting the National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS); 92% of the industrial wastewater is dumped untreated into surface water resources like canals, rivers etc. Depressing is too mild a word to encapsulate the enormity of challenges.

And what of the industrial and corporate sector? Industries in Pakistan consume 23% of total water available and discharge around 9000 million gallons of wastewater from industrial activity into water bodies in Punjab and Karachi. Untreated. Daily. Nearly 70% of biological load is generated by textile and beverage industry with other notable (and habitual) partners in crime being the textile, tannery, paper and pulp.

Several positive initatives have emerged and often spearheaded from or facilitated by the public sector: the initiative to raise environmental awareness in schools, promotion of the use of CNG (Pakistan is the world's largest consumer of CNG according to the International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles, with 2.4m CNG-fueled vehicles as of the start of 2010) and moves for collaborative efforts to combat industrial pollution, such as the Effluent Treatment Plant in Korangi industrial area at Karachi, established at a cost of Rs500 million by a consortium of the government of Pakistan, the embassy of Netherlands, and Karachi’s district governments in addition to the Pakistan Tanners Association (PTA); even the controversial amendment by the Punjab government in the Forest Act 1927 referred to above has a silver lining in the form of enhancing the lefine for various offences, including theft of forest wood from the previous level of up to Rs500 (yes Rs.500!!) to Rs.1 million. The industry itself has also tried to address the problem, including through the installation of water treatment plants (133 in Punjab, 207 in Sindh and 2 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). But there are miles to go and promises to keep for the private sector. Indeed, studies such as the one by the SDPI suggest that the only way to effectively tackle environmental issues such as deforestation, is for the private sector to come good on its CSR promises and practices.

The problem, as always, lies with the utter failure to implement plans. And the pain of that failure is hightened by hollow politico-speak and designer commitments to for e.g enhance forest cover in Pakistan from the existing level of 5.2% to 6% by 2015, uttered in photo-op events and then signing into law decisions that will go the exact opposite way.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Philanthropy On the Rise in Pakistan: Whither CSR?

Over the years, I have been struck by the inability of a segment of the corporate sector in Pakistan and almost all the bureaucrats, to distinguish between philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR). While one can expect bureaucrats to be lost betwixt the two (as they are with most other things), I find myself flummoxed for an answer as to why otherwise smart corporate managers do the same. Discussions on CSR often immediately veer off into talk of donations to one charity or the other; or this madrassa or another. This tendency to equate donations and charitable giving with CSR is stronger amongst local and smaller companies and can perhaps be linked to the ingrained religious concepts of giving and sharing of wealth, but it is also evident in some managers at MNCs and larger local firms. More importantly, in my view at least, it has clouded both the dialogue and the practice of CSR in Pakistan.

To my mind, this represents--and stems from--a failure of education and awareness about CSR. As a result, while philanthropy in general has doubled in value from Rs. 70b in 2000 to Rs.140b this year and as corporate philanthropy has seen a similarly impressive growth--touching Rs. 1.67b in 2007 from a low base of Rs. 228m in 2000--the growth of CSR in Pakistan does not compare favorably. One measure of this is that membership in the Pakistan Global Compact network comprises only 83 members. The number drops to only 55 if the local network's own website is to be trusted.

While there is nothing wrong with corporate giving, it is a subset of the broader notion of CSR. And as the global turmoil caused by irresponsible behaviour of managers across the world points to, the need of the hour is for corporate responsibility, not giving alone. Judging from the evidence, it appears Pakistani businesses may be taking the easy way out by doling out large sums of money, rather than adhering to ethical and more responsible modes of corporate action, right from sourcing to fair wages to better working conditions and occupational safety and health practices to using cleaner,environment-friendly production technologies.

The fact that this is not done, makes one wonder: is the rise in corporate philanthropy due to mere ignorance? Or is it a sort of corporate qisas and diyat--or blood money?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Microfinance in Pakistan: Stymied Future?

Microfinance in Pakistan has been the subject of much discussion. It was one of the important initiatives of the last decade, seeking as it did, to reach out to the millions of poor people particularly in the rural areas who lack access to formal mechanisms for financing their needs. Financial and technical support from the ADB and World Bank and leadership from the State Bank of Pakistan helped establish several institutions, most notably the Khushali Bank, as well as put in place a regulatory framework for the sector.

Did all of this work?

If you listen to industry practitioners such as Roshaneh Zafar, founder of Kashf Foundation, there is much to rejoice about. In an interview recently published in the daily Dawn, she outlines Kashf's rise from a small organisation to one that now has over 150 branches and has disbursed over $202m in loans to over 300,000 families. Kashf claims to be a sustainable organisation and its efforts have been lauded and supported by various international organisation. In her interview, Ms. Zafar paints a fairly optimistic picture for the organisation itself, if not the sector.

But independent analysis of the sector and its future is not as rose-tinted. One analysis by Rauf and Mehmood published in the Pakistan Economic and Social Review points out that the sector is charactersied by operational and financial sustainability, the overall cost per borrower is high and increasing, while productivity ratios are low. The outreach and size of the sector is also small and growing slowly, with only 1.14m active borrowers in 2007. The cost per borrower at 32.5% suffers in comparison to 18% in South Asia as a whole.

The study identifies several problems, including overambitious outreach and expansion programs, particularly of the Microfinance Banks (which the study highlights as being the most inefficient) and points to the need for consolidation before expansion. In her interview, Ms. Zafar also points to the impact of the economic downturn as a constraint for growth.

Despite its problems, investment in improving and expanding the microfinance sector in Pakistan is important, given the extremely low coverage of the banking sector of the rural areas. However, there are a few other considerations: one, the firewalling between the social and commercial aspects of microfinance needs to be defined further and understood by all players. Microfinance is a business and should be run like one. Confusing it, as some politicians and bureaucrats tend to do, with alternative pro-poor initiatives such as cash transfer schemes such as the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), would only exacerbate some of the difficulties the sector faces in terms of policy and political support under populist governments. Lest this be misconstrued, let me state that I believe the cash transfer initiatives like the BISP to be effective short term means of reducing the impact of poverty. Despite issues of poor targeting and potential for rent seeking which Ms. Zafar points out, the BISP offers a complementary mechanism for poverty alleviation. However, it is NOT a business and hence its operational model has to be necessarily different from that of Microfinance institutions. The pressure on MFIs (I use the term here to cover microfinance banks, rural support programs and micfrofinance institutions) is therefore that much greater to raise their efficiency and to become more sustainable. I often get the feeling the sector is dissipated in its efforts, with too many small players. Mergers and consolidation, as well as partnerships may be the way forward.

There is another angle to the need for strengthening MFIs: social enterpreneurship. In order to promote the concept in the rural areas, MFIs would need to be able to support entrepreneurs through microloans and other products like microinsurance. At the moment, that is an untapped, virgin market but one which will hopefully come under the radar of the MFIs sooner than later.