Jacqueline Novogratz on the Pakistan floods and our shared humanity

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Founder of Acumen Fund Jacqueline Novogratz recently visited Pakistan (along with TED Curator Chris Anderson) to offer what help she could and work with local friends on their relief efforts. On returning to New York, she gave a short talk at TED HQ and shared the stories of the Pakistani people she met along with a profoundly touching video created using her photographs against the music of Peter Gabriel (who generously gave his permission).

An impromptu Q&A with TED staff took place after her talk but wasn’t captured on film, so the TED Blog followed up on Friday and asked some of the questions her touching stories prompted. Here are the answers she gave:

After you spoke, one person asked “What can we do to help?” Could you answer that question again for the TED.com community?

There are some incredible Pakistani organizations and individuals doing things on the ground. There’s a real opportunity to give directly. We need to share the links to Ali Siddiqui’s family’s foundation, the Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation. There are two other great organizations — one is called the Sindh Rural Support Organization (SRSO) and is run by Dr. Sono Khangharani. The other is the National Rural Support Program. There are also some terrific international organizations, like Mercy Corps and the IRC there.

What I found most promising was that civil society, private individuals and organizations are stepping in. Those who have the connections to access goods, to facilitate distribution and to use other assets that their companies have, are able to move goods and services very quickly and efficiently. For instance, Ali Siddiqui has access to airlines, trucks and the technology platforms of the financial services companies, and so has been able to move things quickly, efficiently and with real accountability. They are also putting up significant funds of their own. At this point, the Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation has raised more than a million dollars from Pakistanis for this work. So by giving to organizations like these, you contribute to what citizens in their own country are already trying to do. That’s a real model of partnership, which is the kind of model we need in the world.

Is this the first time you’ve seen a model like this working at this scale?

At this scale: yes. But, I’ve certainly seen it before. In the earthquake, the Pakistani population really stepped up as well and gave clothing, food and real support. But the earthquake was much faster, it affected a smaller number of people. Just trying to imagine what this scale is — 20 million people displaced — is so mind-boggling. Pakistan needs all the help it can get.

Meanwhile, all reports indicate that aid has been slow in coming considering the size of the disaster. What do you think about that?

I think that aid has been slow in coming because of fear of corruption, fear of association with terrorism, and I would say that there’s an element of donor fatigue as well. But with that said, this is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. What’s happening now is a much-needed relief effort. What’s next is the reconstruction phase which will continue for some time, which needs our help and ultimately will impact all of us.

Would you mind addressing some of the comments the video of your photographs of Pakistan has received on YouTube as well as the emails you’ve received about it? There have been some rather xenophobic statements — how do you feel about that?

I think there’s too much fear in the world. Fear is clearly manifesting itself in really shocking and sad responses. It’s important to recognize that it’s a very small minority, but that voice not only makes you sad, it also reinforces that the world needs to go back to fundamental principles. We need to remind ourselves that all people are created equal, and that fundamental to what it means to be human is a yearning for dignity. I think we often don’t realize that dignity for the poor is dignity for all of us. When we deny the poor and the vulnerable their own human dignity and capacity for freedom and choice, it becomes self-denial. It becomes a denial of both our collective and individual dignity, at all levels of society.

The kind of conversation you’re referring to is unaccountable — it’s a non-conversation. It’s just a series of very sad and fear-filled comments. I prefer to see it as a reminder of how much work there is to be done on behalf of everyone. What we have to do, as a world, is to continue to put out the meme that this disaster is not happening to people who are not like us. These are people who are exactly like us, and indeed, are us.

During your time in Pakistan, our shared humanity must have been so apparent. What was it like to meet so many people in such an awful situation?

Well, when I woke up in New York in the middle of the night and said to Chris, “I can’t be on vacation,” it was because, over the last ten years, I realized that this has become my neighborhood, in a very physical way. It surprised me how much I felt that this was my neighborhood, but actually, this is how we should all be feeling.

When I was there, a couple things really reminded me of our shared humanity. Clearly, one was looking at the faces of the children and seeing incredible potential, and talking to people like the man who said, “Why would I go back?” He said, in English “I have seven years of education. I want to contribute. I want to be part of this.” I kept thinking, “Would I have this grace? Would I have this ability to interact with someone very privileged if I had been stripped of everything?”

The other piece that really hit me was that when we talk about people who’ve lost all their belongings, we have to contextualize what that means. When you see people who are without, it’s too easy to react with pity. What’s more powerful is that when you see people who’ve lost their belongings, and those belongings consist of three or four blankets and a couple of changes of clothing for an entire family, and you realize that you can put those belongings into your carry-on bag, that’s the really humbling piece. We live in a world in which we’re seeing an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. And yet, those without are still thinking about the very same things that any of us would think about in a similar situation: Are my children ok? Can I protect them? Can I feel proud in front of my husband or my wife? When will I get back so that I can send my kids to school? When can we start to get on with our lives?

SEE BELOW THE FOLD FOR: Jacqueline Novogratz’s thoughts on Pakistan’s future and suggestions for long-term strategic thought

On the horizon in Pakistan’s future, there are many considerations. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a second round of fatalities because of malaria, cholera and malnutrition. Can anything be done about the conditions that are facilitating this?

At the beginning of a relief effort like this people are just moving in, everything’s new, they’re trying to cope with this brand new situation. What happens is that once the waters start retaining, you get situations of stagnant water and with stagnant water, disease flourishes. That’s when malaria and cholera start moving through the population. We’re starting to see that now. Distributing malaria bednets and clean water filters becomes very important in this next phase of the reconstruction.

The next thing that often happens in these situations is that people start adjusting to life in refugee camps, and that has enormous collective psychological ramifications. A culture of dependency can start. It’s too easy to blame either side — this is all part of the psychology of trauma and relief. Early on in the process, it’s very important to bring in initiatives that enable people to be involved in changing their own lives, whether through micro-loans or getting farmers access to seed. The good news is that the floods are leaving an alluvial layer and creating very nutrient-rich soil, so the expectation is that the country will see a bumper crop of wheat. But the farmers have to have access to seed and fertilizer to allow them to sow that wheat. By denying them access, ironically you’ll be putting them in a situation where they’re financially dependent and then become psychologically dependent.

We need to think strategically for the long-term and we should be thinking about the rebuilding and reconstructing right now, before the relief effort is over.

Obviously, the Pakistani economy will suffer as a result of the damage to infrastructure, crops and more. Do you see hope in Pakistan’s future?

The Pakistanis are very resilient people. The result of what’s happening in Pakistan can go either way. We could see a breakdown in society, but we can also see a situation where we are able to build it back better. The United States has already pledged over 150 million dollars, some of that has been focused on humanitarian aid but a lot of that is focused on infrastructure and development.

It seems to me that there’s an enormous opportunity right now to do two things: One is that, in using that aid, we should move away from the traditional approach of using American sub-contractors to do the work and invest immediately in local Pakistani organizations and corporations that can hire some of these young men to rebuild the infrastructure. I met a number of people who said, “Well, what I want do is adopt a village and build it back exactly like it was before.” To me, that feels like a lost opportunity. Let’s aim for something better so that people can start aspiring and seeing themselves as able to be upwardly mobile.

The second piece is to take that aid, even if it’s just a percentage of it — 10 percent of 150 million dollars — and match what Pakistanis themselves are bringing to the table, are willing to execute on and are willing to be accountable for. My bet is that we’ll see not only a different and more positive set of results, but an extraordinary level of goodwill in Pakistan and throughout the Arab world. I daresay we’ll also see a change in the United States as we start to shift from seeing ourselves as policemen or the ones who come in and fix things, to true partners that are looking at what it takes to build real change.