Author Archive

D.S.T in the developing world

June 18, 2008

As the loadshedding was spiraling out of control in this country, on May 20th some genius came up with a bright idea and rushed to present it to our trusted leaders!  What followed has been quite interesting…

His/Her idea: the whole country push the clocks ahead one hour, and everything will be ‘bal-lay, bal-lay’ (that is like saying ‘smooth-sailing’ in punjabi).  Desperate for solutions, after a quick meeting of top advisors, the leaders of this country decided the idea was so great that they implement daylight savings as of June 1st.


The above is my version of what happened…because I found out about the whole DST idea a week before June 1st.  Today, 18 days after the implementation of DST, people are still confused… when you set a meeting with someone, the first question is: ‘Is that 3pm old time or new time’ .  Just yesterday I had a meeting with someone at the site at 2pm, he called me at 2:45 to check if the meeting was still on…. ‘Yeah, I have been waiting for almost an hour, buddy!’.  He responded, ‘Oops, I am still functioning on the old time, I thought you were too, I am on my way…’

The muslim daily prayer schedule is dictated by the position of the sun, so we pray 1)just before sunrise, 2)just after mid day, 3)when the shadow (of an object) is two shadow lengths, 4) at sunset, 5) one hour after sunset–with the passage of time, there was no need to track the position of the sun, and using clocks was an easy substitute.  Many muslims (including clergy) have forgotten that the time is dictated by the sun, not by clocks!!  So, now, many people have refused to change their clocks because they think DST is a conspiracy of the West to mess up muslim prayer timings.  Regardless of what time it is on the clock, you are going to pray when the sun hits that position!Funny stuff when you hear people get all worked up over it. 

And finally it hit me when I tried to set a time up with a rural real estate agent who does a lot of business but is completely illiterate.  When I told him that we can meet at 7pm, he replied, ‘old time or new’…Fed up, I said, ‘There is NO old time, that is done, what are you talking about, there is only one time’….he took a deep breath and sincerely said, ‘Man, this whole time thing has really got me confused, i just can’t keep up’….sounded really funny, but was a reality.

 In the developed world, the concept of DST has been successfully institutionalized for many reasons, I suppose.  Two of those reasons, based on my recent experience, are literacy and awareness.  The government needed to realize how significant of an impact this could have if carried out properly, plan in advance, and educate people–for a successful transition.  When half of the country has refused to comply fully, by carrying on business hours as before, etc–the exercise was futile.

PS-the Pak government has tried DST before and failed!


June 10, 2008

Load-shedding is used in the developed world by larger industrial units to manage their electricity in an efficient manner.  In Pakistan, and  many other developing countries, load-shedding is not an tool of efficiency, but rather a necessity.

During the last two years this phenomenon has spiraled out of control to a point where load-shedding exceeds 12 hours a day in places like Gujrat (my parents live there).  Gujrat is situated half way between Lahore and Islamabad (my work and home, respectively)–so I stop by every two weeks to visit my parents for a night on my way back from Lahore.

After this past week in Gujrat, I am worried about my next visit…

You see, in Islamabad–where all the rich folks, diplomats, and UN/aid workers live–I am able to afford a portion of a home for a pretty steep price.  The place is secure, clean, and there was never any load-shedding.  My wife and I used to feel kind of guilty about the fact that the rest of Pak is facing load-shedding, but the rich folks (and we) sleep comfortable at night.  Well, the new government also felt the same way, and immediately instituted load-shedding in Islamabad the day after they were sworn in—good for them.  The result is that there is scheduled load-shedding (1 hour of load-shedding after every 3 hours=6 hours a day), it isn’t too bad now, but it hasn’t gotten too hot and humid yet either.

Last week, I stopped by in Gujrat.  Since the weather had gotten hotter in the recent weeks, my first question was, ‘When and how long does the electricity go out for?’. My moms answer, ‘There is no set time’.  Yikes.

When I got in bed at night it was about 90 degrees, but the electricity was running, so I had the fan(s) on (high).  The electricity went out 4 times that night, I was dripping sweat each time–and under severe attack by mosquitoes. 

The night was not fun, but it really got me thinking about a few issues:

How do people function efficiently in the morning when the temperature reaches 100+ and the load-shedding is unpredictable throughout the night on a regualr basis?

How do businesses function in any manner when the electricity goes randomly?

Isn’t there a more efficient way to manage the energy crisis?

On June 1st, the new government instituted a policy of daylight savings to help the crisis in a small way. 

The hilarious stories of this ‘new government experiment’ will be for the next blog.

Visiting Oxford

April 8, 2008

The last week of March, I got to do something I probably never would have done, unless I was in the Fellowship–I went to Oxford for the first time in my life.  Strangely enough, it was the first time visiting England (beyond the airport).  The experience was quite nice, but the weather was exactly what they say about England–unpredictable.  On the first day, as Jon, Catherine and I were walking around Oxford (the pre-tour-tour that Jon forced us to go on 🙂 it was a beautiful day as we stepped out of the Bates Motel, (Oops, I mean the Best Western).  Twenty minutes later it was a beautiful day again.  In between, there was extreme wind, rain, sleet, hail, and snow–then sunshine!  Quiet odd, indeed.

Anyhow, being in Oxford gives you one feeling (besides the feeling that you are on a Harry Potter film set).  It is the feeling of wanting to leave all that you are doing and come study philosophy or literature or history at Oxford–it is a very powerful feeling.  Not sure if others feel the same way when they first come to Oxford, but you just get a strong urge to return to school.

Anyhow, the week at Oxford was really enjoyable.  The highlight was reconnecting with the Fellows and hearing about their experiences, challenges, highs, lows–and how plans of life might drastically be changing for some, and remaining the same for others.

Also, the Skoll World Forum ending up being more interesting than I thought it would be.  It was a great time to connect with people from different parts of the world, hear about new ideas, what is working, what is not, etc.  With all the positive take-aways from the forum, I had one reservation:  SWF didnt realy seem like a ‘World’ forum…more like a ‘Western World Forum’ or ‘Developed World Forum’.  Dont get me wrong, there were people there from the developing world but it seemed as they were definitely in a minority, almost seemed like a handful.  Several of the speakers (people well known in the SE cirlces) on the panels were from the developing world, but a poor showing in terms of participants. Adding one step further, judging from the participants list, I could probably count the number of people from the ‘muslim’ world on my hands.  I do not think it is the end of the world if the conference was not as representative as a world conference should be, but my concern is that we need to involve people from ALL over the globe if we want to begin to engage, understand, and then, solve the problems of the world.  Maybe the folks at SWF did try and reach out to the developing world/muslim world and they did not feel like paying the 300 pounds registration fee (or maybe they just couldnt afford it), but we need to start thinking of ways to increase the diversity in such conferences/forums.

Maybe that is just me….but I did hear similar voices amongst some of the participants as well.  

3 bombs in 3 days–Too close to home

March 18, 2008

As some of you know, my life in Pakistan is split into two places, geographically–Lahore, where the Saiban project is and Islamabad, where my wife/home is.  So, I end up travelling about 1000 km/week due to this arrangement.

Last week, as I was travelling to Lahore, I received a phone call from my mother frantically asking where I was.  Once I told her I was on the highway (far away from any civilization) she told me there were two bombs that went off in Lahore and many people had died.  My mother was actually in Lahore at the time, and she said the timing was ‘almost perfect’.  Since my parents live only a few kilometers from both bombings (in Lahore)–they heard the explosions and said it was only a split second between the two bombings, and the targets were very clear–seemed very well planned.

A few days later, as I was still in Lahore, my wife called me up from Islamabad and told me she was going out to dinner with some friends. Two hours later I get a phone call from a friend, ‘Is your wife ok–there was an explosion at a shopping center not too far from your house–and they say many foreigners have died’….without him finishing his sentence, I hung up the phone with a thousand thoughts racing through my mind as I called my wife…’when we go out to eat, we almost always go to that shopping center–what are these suicide bombers thinking–God, I hope Asiya wasn’t there–what if she was in the explosion, I am 500 km away…’

 ‘Hello’….I hear her voice and finally exhale…’Yeah, we are all fine, we decided not to go out and cooked at home’

The bomb went off at an italian restaurant that is walking distance from our home, and my wife and I have gone there several times…

About six months ago the bombs were in different cities than where we lived–and selfishly, I did not give it much thought beyond a general frustration that the ones that end up getting killed are the security guards, the gardeners, and other support staff (who were probably supporting large (extended) families with their income.

Then the bombs were within the same cities as my residence, but far off enough that we could steer clear of the troubled areas.

Now, the bombs are exploding in our own neighborhoods–the thought that a bomb will explode while you are grocery shopping or at the park with your family–is now a harsh reality

Bribery 101

March 10, 2008

It is said that the PM of Pakistan sat down with his ministers and advisors and said, ‘I did not sleep last night… I recieved terrible news yesterday…Pakistan has been voted the “the second most corrupt country of the world” only after Nigeria!’.  After a brief silence a minister stands up proudly and says, ‘Sir…we were actually #1 on the list, but I paid them off to bring us down to #2!’

And so has been my two years in Pakistan in dealing with the government.  Bribery has been institutionalized (prices are generally standardized) and is called ‘commission’ (!!).  So, if you want to get something illegal approved–you will pay a high price, and it will get approved in no time.  AND if you want to get something legally approved–you will pay a price as well (not as high, though).  If you dont pay the bribe/commission, your file will sit with the ‘clerk’ for days and weeks.

So,  I have had many, many battles with guys in all departments….trying to instill the fear of God in them–telling them that the money I pay them will be borne by the poor residents of Saiban, since we are a non-profit.  Many have come around to accepting the Saiban project as an exception to their norms (they consider that they are doing their part in charity by foregoing the commission!)

All of this came to a climax (read: my head was going to explode) last week.  We are building a 3 KM road (US$ 150,000)leading to Khuda Ki Basti-4, of which the government is funding 80%.  As the government issues payments in installments, upon verification of work completed, everyone in the food chain lines up to get their share.

So I sat down with a guy who said he would process the claim for us in a fraction of the time we would take on our own…and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, how are you, fine, good, ok…..what can you do for us?

Him: I will process the file for you in one week, BUT you have to pay all of the bribes along the way

Me: OH NO!!, who takes bribes in this process?

Him: local sub-engineer, SDO, District Officer-Roads, his personal assistant, the personal assistant of the Executive DO-Roads

My heart is racing now, and I am furious…’I know the Executive DO himself does not take any bribes, as he is a personal friend and is an upright individual’

Him: you are right (then he continued) the Executive DO-Community development, his assistant, the DO-Social welfare, his assistant

Me: I am NOT paying any of thes guys bribes, that is my headache, you tell me how much you want to carry the file through–what is your fee for service?

Him: Hmmm, I will take 3% of the project amount to collect all payments as they are needed.

Me: What!? US$ 4500 for carrying the files through the departments…(I started my ‘speech’)…this project is for poor people, blah blah..

Him: I am poor too

At that point we ended the conversation and I walked away.  He takes $4500 for a job that will take him four weeks to do and he claims that he is poor as well….I wanted to smack him on his head to knock some sense in to him, but didnt 🙂

So, what did I do after all of this…I set up a meeting with the road contractor and told him, ‘you deal with government contracts for a living…and how you manage to do it is not my problem, but getting these payments released is your problem from today on, not ours–we are not paying bribes’.  Luckily he accepted the proposal–apparently that is standard for them.

Sometimes I think a revolution is the only way things will change in such conditions.

Pak elections: 2008

February 23, 2008

Well, the elections are ‘over’ and the results are out.  The people have spoken, and it seems they are tired of the military running the country. Fortunately, the elections went over quite well–considering the chaos leading up to the big day. 

 People were expecting mass rigging and random bombings.  What actually happened? Minimal rigging and ‘minimal’ bombings!!

What did happen was that voter turnout was extremely low due to the above two assumptions: 1) its all rigged anyways, and 2) it is too dangerous.  This lead to voter turnout of as low as 12% in many areas…so in that sense the election was not too democratic, I suppose.

 Anyhow, what I want to talk about is: How elections are rigged (at least a few of the methods in Pakistan)…the following few incidents are firsthand accounts I heard of the recent election.

1) Police officers (who are under the current regime)  close down an entire voting center and seal doors…then they sit inside drink tea and stamp voter forms for the existing party–all day;

2) Bandits show up with heavy weapons, walk in to the voter center, take the ballot boxes along with voter forms/lists and drive off-site–THEN they return with stuffed ballot boxes at the end of the day!

3) If a voting center has 3000 registered voters, on the actual day, there will only be 1800 that are ‘eligible’ while 1200 voters never get their chance, BUT mysteriously they end up voting that day!…someone else voted for them.

So, why was it not a mass rigging…hmm…well all of the major political parties that were contesting have won elections before…and they are ALL experts at rigging…so they were all ‘on’ to each other and anticipating rigging….thus, everyone had their reps and ‘bandits’ present at the troublesome voting stations.  As well, the attention from the international community (monitors, etc) had a huke impact on how things transpired.

 Now, what remains to be seen is how the next government is formed and what actions they will take against Musharraf.  So we arent out of the rough waters yet.

Pre-election fears

February 16, 2008

On Monday, February 18th, 2008 the people of Pakistan will decide who they want to lead their country into the future–or so they say!  Election fever is everywhere…I think. 

It was a beautiful Saturday morning with clear blue skies.  We set out to conduct a land survey and ended up passing several towns in the process.  As we passed each town, the roadside stalls were plastered with ‘party flags and banners’ and HUGE pictures of guys seekig votes (mostly with handle-bar moustaches, because we were in rural Pak!).  This is the part where I would stick in a picture, if I had the foresight of John or Catherine 😦

Strangely, with only two days to go, I only saw 2-3 rallies taking place during our six hours of driving around.  This made me start thinking…and asking questions to the people I was meeting today.  The conclusions of my very un-scientific survey are as follows (drum roll, please):

 I classify people into two broad groups: 1) ‘educated’ urban dwellers and 2) ‘not-so-educated’ rural dwellers (there is a 3rd group–diehard party supporters, but they are insignificant in number according to my survey)

When asked, ‘So who are you going to vote for?’

Group 1: ‘Vote?! I am boycotting the elections…there is no one to vote for, they are ALL criminals looking to loot the nation–and besides the entire process is rigged’

Group 2: ‘I am voting for Party X’

Me: ‘Why?’

Group 2: ‘Because my family/caste has always voted for Party X, and my cousin/uncle/nephew is running in the local elections under Party X. Our caste generally competes against the other castes on a very local level–it is an issue of our pride’

Me: ‘But arent all of the national parties led by crooks’ (my ‘unbiased’ survey skills surface!) 

Group 2: ‘What do I care what happens on a national level, it is completley irrelevant to me’

My conclusions: Voter turnout will probably be lower than usual because people are quite frustrated by the entire situation within the country and have lost hope. 

I know, I know…you guys probably want me to do a workshop on ‘surveying’ at Skolls, but I don’t think we will have time.

Anyhow, do pray for the best, as people are quite concerned considering what has been happening here and what happened in Kenya.

Between fear and hope: Our first _______ at Saiban II (Khuda Ki Basti)

February 9, 2008

As we begin to establish this new community of Khuda Ki Basti(KKB) in the outskirts of Lahore, some things I fear, and others I look forward to.  With this new community there will be a host of ‘firsts‘ that will happen—some will be good, while others may be tragic.  Upon establishing the new development we had a host of exciting ‘firsts’.  We had our ‘first’ resident who was an extremely brave woman.  She put her trust in our institution and moved to a place where there was no sign of future development (no electricity, no sewage system, no neighbors, no parks, no roads—NOTHING!)–but she did it (and is very happy about that decision today).

Then we had our ‘first’ baby (I was NOT instrumental in that effort :), first convenience store, first block completed, first park, first school, first mosque, first Ramadan/Eid holiday, first mortgage EVER in Pakistan to the BOP!!, and so on…. everything was great.

 Naturally, reality kicked in very soon and we had our ‘first’ eviction (because the resident was not living on site), first hospitalization, first death (of an employee–due to cancer), first attempted murder (see last post: CSI: Lahore), and last week….we had our first fire!  One of the residents had forgotten about a light ‘bulb’ that was left on when the power went out.  When the power finally came back, the bulb was too close to some clothing and eventually caught fire.  By the grace of God, no one was hurt–everyone got out in time–but the poor family lost ALL of their belongings (worth $700).

 So…….in this line of ‘firsts’–I find myself hoping for the best, and fearing for the worst.

PS-no update on CSI: Lahore because the family has not returned with their elders yet…

CSI: Lahore!…well, kind of (Part 1)

February 1, 2008

In our new and fledgling community of 30 families, about 15 km outside of Lahore, we had our first ‘scandal’–referred to as such by our residents.

As I approached our site office at about 2pm, one of the elder employees and residents stopped me half way and said,

‘Last night was a terrible night for Khuda Ki Basti (the name of our development)…the entire community is quite shaken and have been up all night trying to make sense of the situation.’  Pointing to one of the residents sitting in front of the office…’He tried to poison his wife last night..he put something in her tea and she picked up on it early enough..and we have preserved the evidence…the wife is in the office, you have to deal with this now’.  Now I am thinking, ‘Oh My God, I didnt sign up for this!’

When I get into the office I greet the women and ask her the story.  She says she found a pill in her tea…and ran to so and so house who gave her immediate medical attention…and saved her life. 

So what pill was it….a tranquilizer…which is really bad, but really could not have killed her, especially if the pill was still intact (had not dissolved)…nevertheless, we took everything at face value at that stage.  But this is not the end…

A rumor had been spread within the community that the husband was abusing his daughter while the wife was at work…the wife is asked the question and she passively confirms it has happened in the past.  Now I am even more taken aback by the whole situation.  For now I ask her to leave the office and go home while we try to figure out what should be done. But that is not the end, either…

After she leaves, one of the employees tells me that this womens ‘character is not right’ and everyone in community knows this as well. In Pakistan, when someone says this womens ‘character is not right’, it either means she sleeps around or is a prostitute. 

Now, I am totally freaked out! Murder, child abuse, prostitution–all in one house!!  As I look out of the site office, there are several community members waiting to see what decision Saiban makes about the household–all are quite upset.  Some are saying our children are not safe if that man stays here, the women are saying we dont want a women like that in our community–essentially everyone wants us to expel them from the community.

Realizing that this problem is not going to be solved in one day, I asked the ‘accused’ family to leave the development for a period of one week, while we look into the matter AND upon returning, bring your elders with you (a Pak/islamic tradition)–because we do not really know the entire background and Saiban is in no position to make judgements.

The following is what I tried to explain to staff and residents: All residents of Saiban come here out of a need and are generally desperate.  Ills of society are rampant everywhere, not just here–they exist in your old neighborhoods and mine as well.  Saiban does not have a guage to check the moral uprightness of all individuals coming here–all residents are coming from within society, they are not coming from the heavens above.  So we have to deal with those problems accordingly and cannot be reactionary all the time.  Saiban will get ‘good’ residents and ‘bad’ residents and we have to manage.  It may very well be that ALL of your accusations are baseless and incorrect–but you have insisted on expelling them.  IF we are wrong and take such action, we will be answerable one day for this injustice.

It ‘seems’ the community accepted this explanation and have cooled down a bit.  During this process we have tried to ensure a message gets across to all: the above issues are very serious for all members in our community and will not be accepted by anyone. 

The fact that this got across to everyone early on is comforting for me, but am aware that this is only the beginning. So, now we wait for the family to bring their elders next week.  Thus far, based upon preliminary investigation, it seems that this was a domestic fight that got out of control, but we shall see next week…

The entire situation is difficult and am open to any comments, suggestions, feedback.

Alternative building materials for the poor

January 6, 2008

For the last two years I have been fortunate enough to be linked with the leaders of lo-cost housing in Pakistan–the likes of Tasneem Siddiqui and Arif Hassan, as well as others.  During this time, and with my involvement at Saiban, I have seen many individuals and organizations come forth with lo-cost solutions to building materials.  The common features in all of the proposals are two: alternative materials are a fraction of a cost of conventional materials, and (the claim is) the material is more efficient.    

For an ‘educated/privileged’ person, there are 3 questions that need to be answered before accepting the technology:

-How long has the technology been available in this region?

-Is there scientific data endorsing the claims of efficiency?

-Where has this been tested on a larger scale?

Once these 3 questions are answered properly, one is ready to continue a conversation with the salesperson.

A ‘less educated/poorer’ person does not ask the same questions.  He/she has one question: Is this the conventional method?  If not, he/she is not interested.  The misconception in lo-cost housing is that the poor man needs a low priced house/a roof over his head.  In reality, he wants a low priced house/roof over his head that looks like everyone elses.  If the alternative material does not meet this simple criteria, then it is not welcome.

A well known townplanner recently visited our site with a group of professionals and told some of the proponents of alternative material, ‘For the love of God, do not run your alternative building materials market tests on the poor.  If you want to be successful, get the rich folks to accept it, let it become mainstream, then offer it to the poor’.

A waiter once told a friend, ‘In all my years as a waiter in Pakistan I have noticed one thing–a rich man will always leave a small tip, and a poor man will always leave a big tip….the reason is that the rich man never wants to be identified as rich (for safety and security reasons) and the poor man never wants to be identified as poor’

The same principal holds true in lo-cost housing!