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.
In South Asia, 302 million people will join the urban population between 2011 and 2030. If I were one of them, (and let’s assume for a moment that South Asia is one big happy country with no political borders and no religious or ethnic divides), where would I want to live to be safe from natural disasters?
Well, I would probably avoid cities in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan because they face a high risk of earthquakes and landslides. Cities in northern Pakistan are also at risk of heavy inland flooding. How about the coast? Nope. Data tells me that I should avoid coastal areas in Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka because I do not want my house to be blown away in a cyclone or washed away by a storm surge. Maybe I should live in Bangladesh. Yikes! Chittagong, Sylhet and Dhaka are all in very high earthquake hazard zones. And climate change will cause increased precipitation in eastern South Asia and across India, and warming waters in the Bay of Bengal, which, in turn, will increase the frequency and intensity of cyclones in Bangladesh and on the eastern coast of India. Indeed, for nine cities around the Bay of Bengal, what is now a 100-year storm event may occur as often as every two to five years by the end of the century. So, those areas are out of the question too.
And the situation is only going to get more difficult.
When the earthquake hit on the Saturday of 25th April last year, 35-year-old Bishnu Ghale was working in the fields near her house in Khanigaon VDC of Nuwakot district. The quake destroyed her house, but she was thankful her husband and three children were alive. She was thankful for a steady job, which meant she could quickly muster up the supplies to build a shelter and provide food for her family.
A month before the earthquake, Bishnu started working as a Road Maintenance Group worker, one of a group of 12 men and women who manage a 24 km stretch of rural road from Nuwakot to Malabhanjyang. She looked after the routine maintenance of the road, cleaned the drains, filled pits, cleared minor blockades and planted trees. Working 6 days a week, this earned her up to 11,000 Rupees a month, enough to keep her family going through the difficult months ahead.
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.
During field visits, the assessment team interacted extensively with the community and local government officials. The one story that seemed to resonate consistently was the efficiency in clearing roads blocked by fallen trees and debris to make sure connectivity was restored at the earliest. Following any major disaster, such as cyclone Hudhud, restoring connectivity is amongst the most challenging and critical activities. Restoring connectivity allows for more efficient flow of much-needed emergency relief, medical supplies and helps foster early recovery. We decided to dig deeper to find out what had been done differently here.
One evening, while returning from a field visit to Srikakulam district, we posed this question to Mr. V. Ramachandra, Superintendent Engineer of Public Works Department (PWD), what had been done differently. Mr. V. Ramachandra’s face lit up and he pulled out his smart phone. He showed us a “closed group” that the PWD engineers had created on Whatsapp. For the first three days after cyclone Hudhud, there was no electricity and no mobile connectivity. As the connections were restored, the PWD closed group became functional and that acted as the main tool of communication for information sharing. For any breach of road, the Engineers shared information through the Whatsapp group with a clear location and a short explanation of the problem. The person responsible for the area responded with a message stating how long it would take to clear the block. Even requests for tools and JCBs were made on the group. This helped identify and access required resources. The action taken was narrated on the group discussion page once the problem was solved. An updated photo showing restored road connectivity was uploaded to the group.
No meetings and no discussions at the district headquarter level had to be organized. The District Magistrate joined the group and gave instruction to the department through the closed Whatsapp group. Most roads were functional within three to four days. The whole department worked to provide its services through a messaging system, without any meetings and formal orders.
Social media has become a part of our daily lives and is a very powerful tool for emergency management if used properly. Social media and pre-designed apps are effective when written reports and formal meetings are not required. It is important to learn from such experiences and institutionalize them for effective and efficient use during periods of early recovery and emergency response.