Aqeela Asifi is the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award, recognized for her indefatigable efforts to educate Afghan girl refugees. She was a guest panelist at the "Managing Displaced Populations—Lessons From Pakistan" discussion with President Jim Yong Kim during his two day visit to Pakistan last week.
Her car broke down during her long journey to Islamabad from Kot Chandana, a refugee village where she lives in the south-eastern Punjab province of Pakistan.
Tired she may be, and notwithstanding a panel discussion on the Afghan refugee situation still ahead of her, she has a story to tell and nothing will stop her.
Her quiet, almost shy demeanor belies her fierce determination: Aqeela Asifi is a refugee, teacher, champion of girl’s education, an inspiration to thousands of her students, and a 2015 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award.
Her story is one of resilience against all odds.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans, she was forced to flee Afghanistan in 1992 when civil war broke out in the country. She left everything behind: her family, her house, and a job as a teacher in Kabul, and ended up in Kot Chandana, a village in Pakistan, which then hosted nearly 180,000 other refugees. By the early 1990s, more than three million exiled Afghans had crossed Pakistan’s border, putting additional pressure on the country’s infrastructure and social services, notably health services and schools. What Asifi witnessed was a complete lack of learning facilities and opportunities for girls in her newfound community. “When I started living at a refugee camp I saw girls’ education was the most neglected area,” she says. “Girls were not even aware of education and its importance in their lives. They didn’t know anything about books, pencils, and it was then when I realized that this community needed my help.”
On a foggy winter morning in Dhaka, 41-year-old Jahid was sipping tea by a roadside stall.
“Life was very peaceful back in my village,” he reminisced, “but there was no work, so I moved to Dhaka. Even if I live in a slum, my children are better off here.”
Jahid is one of the 500,000 people that move to Dhaka city each year. Driven by the promise of economic opportunity as well as poverty in rural and coastal areas, it is estimated that half the population of Bangladesh will migrate to urban areas by 2030.
Urbanization can be catalyst for growth. Density – the clustering of firms and workers – can drive productivity, innovation and job creation. It is the benefits of agglomeration that once drew the country’s most important industry – the ready-made garments sector to Dhaka city.
However, it is the costs from congestion that are now pushing factories away, mainly to peri-urban areas. Why are factory owners leaving?
For starters, the tide of new migrants has overwhelmed urban infrastructure, basic services, as well as the stock of affordable housing – eroding the both the livability and competitiveness of Dhaka city. A recent World Bank report described South Asia’s urbanization trajectory as “messy and hidden” – reflected in the large-scale proliferation of slums and urban sprawl.
These kinds of connected communities can be a great short-term solution to some of Pakistan’s challenges in creating jobs.
Pakistan is home to a large youth population, with nearly 100 million youth under the age of 24. Creating more and better jobs for this new generation will be a major development challenge. According to Pakistan’s own estimates, the country will need to grow at around 7 percent a year to absorb all these young people into productive economic participation. But constraints on energy supply as well as budget and capacity constraints on government are going to make this challenging in the short term.
What we have seen working in Pakistan over the last few years is that there is an emerging cultural shift that is becoming more accepting of self-employment and entrepreneurship as legitimate employment pathways for young people.
Given the constraints of the domestic economy to absorb all these young people, many of the employment opportunities will come through the establishment of new businesses. And the tech industry in Pakistan has shown a steady and healthy growth rate in recent years, with the potential both to drive growth through the development of new business models, startups and innovation.
One of the major issues we have seen working here is that many young people are curious about how the internet and technology can offer employment, but are not sure where to start.
Want a digital career? Here’s how to get started:
For those interested in learning some skills and linking to work through international marketplaces—also called freelancing—there are resources available to help with training.
Many of the top freelancing sites offer introductory materials to learn basic freelancing, such as Upwork and SamaSchool. Independent online learning sites also offer courses and certificates, most notably Coursera.
Recently, an undergraduate engineering student from Khulna University of Engineering and Technology (KUET) in Bangladesh showed me his mobile app that helps a blind person navigate while enabling family and friends to track their whereabouts. I was impressed with his capacity to apply electronics, geographic information system, and programming knowledge to develop a real-life solution.
Like this student, the ability to innovate harnessing existing talent and infrastructure already exist in Bangladesh. Leading universities, like Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), KUET, Bangladesh Agricultural University, and University of Dhaka already have analog fabrication labs for molding, casting, wood and metal workshops and robotics. The BUET even has a 3D printer, although it is an early version. What is missing is a transformation from analog to digital to improve precision, design, and speed of fabrication and prototyping, a market-oriented product development, and multi-disciplinary teaching, learning, research, and entrepreneurship to advance innovation.
A local innovation ecosystem has also been emerging. Last year, the first hardware startup competition called “Make-a-thon” (website and video) connected young entrepreneurs, industries, and professors to jointly make solutions. BRAC has also organized a 36-hour hackathon event called “Bracathon” to provide a platform for the youth to make mobile applications for social innovation.
To foster innovation and university-industry partnership, the Higher Education Quality Enhancement Program (HEQEP), have been supporting Universities with an Academic Innovation Fund (AIF). To accelerate this effort, the project team organized a workshop on the digital fabrication laboratory (Fab Lab) potential to introduce Fab Lab concept.
Bangladesh has a major opportunity to address one of its most pressing development challenges: creating 20 million new jobs over the next decade. And the trade agenda will be a centerpiece of any strategy that seeks to address this challenge.
Join me for a Facebook Q/A chat on January 28 to discuss this and other findings from the recently released report Toward New Sources of Competitiveness in Bangladesh co-authored with Mariem Mezghenni Malouche.
Below are some 4 highlights from the report, which we will be discussing. I look forward to your questions and a vibrant discussion!
- Bangladesh will need to expand its linkages with neighboring countries such as China and India as well as other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. Not only are these very large markets, they are also potential sources of greater foreign direct investment. What are the critical steps that will allow this to happen? How can the recently signed Motor Vehicles Agreement between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal help? What are the barriers to Bangladesh’s venturing into new markets?
- Bangladesh will need to gradually diversify its export base into new product areas while also strengthening its position as the second-largest garment producer in the world (after China). Our report explores the critical challenges that could allow this to happen. In your view, what challenges lie ahead if Bangladesh tries to diversify its exports? Can you name some prospective industries (for diversification)? What will be the role of foreign direct investment in this diversification? What kind of reforms are needed to attract more domestic as well as foreign direct investment?
What does art have to do with technology? Just ask Mahoor Jamal, a fashion illustrator and portrait artist from Peshawar, who uses Instagram—an online photo site—to showcase her work and connect with an international audience and to sell more of her work. Or just ask Jawad Afridi, a photographer and the founder of Humans of Peshawar. He is also dependent on social media for his work, using Facebook to exhibit his photographs of the people of Peshawar. This has earned him customers and recognition beyond Pakistan and he has recently contributed to the publication of a book in the UK. These young artists, and many more, will soon be getting together in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to celebrate art and technology over two days at the ArtTech Festival.
Formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has historically been an important trade route between Central and South Asia. This position resulted in an amalgamation of unique cultures, traditions, ethnicities, histories and monuments that have shaped today’s artists, artisans and musicians from KP. KP is now emerging from a period of instability, and is looking to the future to identify opportunities for its youth in the knowledge economy.
The ArtTech Festival will be the first step in raising awareness and building a community of youth interested specifically in the cutting edge intersection of art and technology. As a “sister” festival to the larger Digital Youth Summit, the Festival creates a space and platform to encourage cross disciplinary creativity and to nurture entrepreneurship in the creative and cultural industries.