On Generosity: Reflections on a Summer in Pakistan

By Sarah Malachowsky on August 07, 2013

Pakistan is known as an incredibly charitable nation, and Ramazan (or Ramadan) is the Islamic holy month of fast and giving. As a Summer Associate based in Karachi for the summer, I have been privileged to witness some of the most positive aspects of Pakistani society highlighted during this past month.

Ramazan is meant to evoke the very values that Acumen is built upon: fasting all day should help us empathize with those who do not have enough food or water throughout the year and evokes humility; increased charity (Zakat) develops generosity and good-will toward those less fortunate, whilst maintaining the integrity of the poor through direct and anonymous giving; and time with family and community sustain the bonds of our social tapestry.

While Pakistanis and their diaspora are charitable all year round, it is estimated that they spend as much during the month of Ramazan on helping those less-fortunate as they do the other 11 months of the year. Driving around Karachi as the sun begins to set and mosques call out for prayers, you see hundreds of migrants sitting down on carpets in front of big homes, waiting to be fed by the owners who are sitting down to their own Iftaari inside; while others put on hold their own hunger needs and spend time giving out drinks and snacks to motorists on the road who have not yet broken their fast.

Acumen is an organization based on generosity: that of financial partners who believe in our mission; that of entrepreneurs inspired to spend their lives working to serve the poor; and that of low-income clients who generously share their stories out of poverty with us. However, we also strive to change the way the world tackles poverty and are proud of audaciously challenging traditional charity. In this Acumen mindset, I cannot help but wonder what these migrants do the other 11 months of the year. I cannot help but question the true meaning of generosity and the actual social impact it creates over time.

Yet while these questions of sustainability and impact do arise, there are numerous examples of local entrepreneurs similarly challenging existing models of giving back.

During a recent visit to a rural village in Sindh, I was inspired by Pakistan’s first woman architect who has since dedicated herself to development. She left her past career after seeing the devastation brought on by the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, but soon realized she was not content by simply rebuilding the homes of affected villagers. Now, she strives to use only indigenous materials like mud and bamboo to create zero-carbon footprint houses and schools. In fact, she does not build the homes, but trains villagers in construction, who in turn train more villagers; and now her self-help model has spread across the country. She is generous with the knowledge and training she has gained from some of the world’s best architecture schools, and through that she is creating true social impact.


A zero-carbon footprint rural home in Moat Shariff, Sindh.

Similarly, Tasneem Siddiqui, the founder of the housing non-profit Saiban, an Acumen investee, generously sat down with us for hours this summer to share his story. He has been a catalyst for change by merging the facility and affordability of informal housing with the sustainability of formal housing. By continually testing his approach over the past two decades, he has impacted over 30,000 people who live in his thriving communities. But he does not want to single-handedly solve the housing issue in Pakistan; he wants to prove the impossible is not so by challenging traditional systems and institutions, and with that proof, inspire others to embark on a journey of service.

In the evenings, as the prayers are called out and the streets are overtaken by families, where mosques are overflowing and markets are filled, I cannot help but feel fortunate to witness this side of Pakistan, the side so rarely pictured abroad. With such great generosity comes outsized potential. We must move past the simplicity of charity, build upon the same values that motivate us, and address structural and market flaws that perpetuate poverty and inequality. At Acumen, we believe there are homegrown solutions to these tensions because we’ve seen it, proof that the impossible is not so.

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