Sunday, 15 May 2011

On bringing sunlight to the darkness

I need to write more.

Every passing week I see a growing pile of months that represent the chunk of my life I've lived in Pakistan I wince at the stream of writings that could have been; horrified by my lack of recounting of stories of the peoples and places, ideas and opportunities, chance meetings, inspiring moments of passion in dance or music, children, community.

They say something about the longest journey, first steps, no time like the present and all that.  So yes, now is the time, and I'll try to write in the moments between multiple events and busyness..

Where to begin?  at this stage i usually get distracted by searching out pictures of recent ventures into the real Pakistan (Islamabad is lovely, but worlds apart from the bustling, noisy, dramatic and heady rest of the land). Not that there is one land, it's like several countries, meshed into one, officially for only 60 years, but really for thousands of years before that in an incredible history that makes our simple dwellings in Scotland a thousand years ago seem like the stone ages compared to what's been transpiring around here.

But today we're here, in the present. I'm still part of a team of advisors and managers of British taxpayers aid money to help flood-affected people rebuild their lives. My first time with DFID the department for international development (and rather an honour at that to be honest). A donor, one of the biggest donors out here, and it's been a pleasure to see how seriously the whole "institution" takes the quality and targetting of our limited aid budget.  How efficiently they handle the information flow to Parliament and the beaurocracy which has allowed us to focus completely on the best, most cost effective and lasting types of emergency aid and, later on, investment into 'early recovery' projects.  Having spent years on the other side of the table, as an operational organisation, asking donors like DFID for money, how we portion it out. How there's no influence or interference from commercial interests - like British companies being favoured for contracts from UK aid cash.  Apparently Clare Short dealt with that sillyness years ago, and it's stuck ever since. British NGOs aren't favoured over any others either.  Furthermore, I don't feel that we're under any pressure to make funding decisions based on UK foreign policy; it really is based on degree of humanitarian need, levels of coverage by other organisations and donors (filling the gaps), finding the most cost-effective solutions, those that also empower recipient communities, maybe even improve the dire nutritional situation, promote women's rights and represenatation, possibly reduce their vulnerability to abuse and attack, things that build community resilience to future disasters, and so on.

There's just so many issues out there, which is partially why I've never decided on what to start writing about. One at a time right? Small steps.

Let's start with a conversation I had with Farrah a couple of days ago.. Farrah runs a local NGO (called CCHD) that's been involved in womens' rights, advocacy and now with UNHCR setting up legal advice centers around the country, in an attempt to offer some level of representation to people who don't have access - to justice, aid, legal aid, advice.  It's such a heavy task. Protection, and the entire legal safety net that we so take for granted in the "West" is shocking by its absence. Only then do I get a glimpse of what it all means.  Where do you start with a case of sexual abuse, if the legal system doesn't have the will or means to deal with it? How can you protect the victim who has told her story?  Especially in an Islamic culture - which has got to be one of the most gentle and justice-oriented religions out there, but there's so many other layers in society, tribal, family honour.

Anyway, Farrah and I talked about solar lights which she's keen to find out more about. I started looking into this last November when tens of thousands of people were still displaced by flood-waters living in spontaneous camps in any available sites, sometimes in more formal camps where the army or the humanitarians could provide decent tents, water supply maybe, some sanitation facilities, deliveries of food.  We'd visit these camps - always during the day. Our security regs are such that we don't get to see these places at night.  Having lived through war and displacement in Monrovia - Liberia - in 2003 I know fine what it's like: very dark. And scary, especially if you're a young girl, surrounded by strangers from other parts of town, or tribes.  With no money and stuff people just don't have the means for light. So you get whole transitional townships which somehow function day and night. And imagine trying to find a quiet moment for a little wash, or when you're bursting for the loo in those long hours of night, and those scary strangers have wickedness on their mind, and, hidden in the cloak of darkness they descend on those most precious and vulnerable among us, causing immeasrable harm and trauma. It's such a nightmare and it's happened in every camp setting I've ever been in from Bosnia to Aceh - and now in Pakistan.  And like most places, authorities would rather deny it's a problem, that it's happening at all, that the good people of these parts would never do such a thing.  But they do, we do. Men that is. There's monsters within us that we battle with and sometimes, stressed and when our social order is thrown upside down by disaster and displacement the monster takes over.

Knowing this, we have to create means for social protection that are specially designed for life in camps and humanitarian chaos. And one of these should surely be light. Imagine the bustle of five thousdand people in a scrap of land beside a wood and a lake, at night where you can hardly see what you're stepping on. Then see another vision of the same place: a village bright with tiny lights, paths illuminated, toilets in carefully chosen areas lit up and watchable, surrounded by rows of eyes disguised as shelters. Even if nobody's watching, the warewolf knows that someone could be... How much much difference would this make? Surely...

So back in November, charged with coming up with a plan for my country's portion of aid money for shelter, I worked with some of the great folk at Concern to expand the provision of emergency shelter kits (2 high quality tarps, 6 long bamboo poles, some warm blankets for the winter season, etc.). I think we were looking at around 35,000 families or so.  At this point I started looking into solar lights and presumed there was some local production facility. There could be, but it's a bit of shambles, and all the panels and lights they produce come from China and they just re-assemble them here.  At around $30 a pop.

Folks in one of hundreds of villages where we worked with
Concern and Rootworks, their local partner, who
are rebuilding houses here, so they can move
out of these tents, a year on after the floods in Aug 2010.

OK so back up a minute - first we decide we need to do something about the problem of scary men/ prowling spectares, and lets say we focus on light.  We agree that if there's any chance to reduce these horrors we should grasp them, we assume, on behalf of the tax-paying population that they agree (hope you're OK with that folks!).  Right, next we have to find a product that's going to last more than a few weeks, that's robust and reliable, simple and easy to use. It should be cheap - so we can buy lots of them. There's plenty of $500 units out there, with batteries and fancy battery boxes and so on, but then we'll only be able to help a few families, and they'll probably end up in the richest man's household.  No, they should be distributed to everyone, one per family.  So price should be low.

As chance would have some samples were dropped off to our offices in London and sent out for sampling. A relatively new company, and product really - a robust panel using thin-film solar technology stuck to a chunky bit of plastic, offering enough of a trickle of current to charge a light that holds 4 LED bulbs.  Pretty meagre light at first, but pressing the button a few times increases the brightness (while also reducing the time they can stay on).  Optional extras include fittings for most mobile phones, batteries, radios and so on.  Cost for the panel, cable and light only? About ten pounds stirling ($15 or so).


Talking to a family in Dadu, about their solar light (toughstuff) and how it had been amazing...
So we shared these with Concern and it turned out they had bought them before - in Haiti. So they bought 12,000 of them and gave them out in Southern Sindh.  Feedback was amazing: they were saving about $3 a month on candles or kerosene and a further $5 on mobile phone charging... They had figured out where to find adapters to fit their mobile phones, which meant they didn't have to pay to go to town to charge them.

OK, so these were distributed long after they had been in camps - they had returned already, so they were "late" in that regard.  But the "return on investment" seemed to be really good - i.e. the investment is paid back within a few months, after which they save money.

To cut a long story short, it has occurred to me that we should include solar lights in all future emergency shelter kits - as long as they are low cost and robust.  The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has been in charge of the emergency shelter sector in Pakistan since Aug 2010. They are some really committed and passionate folks there, and keen on the idea of light, and I'm so pleased to see that this year lights have been included in the shelter cluster's priority list of non-food items.

So, moving forward in time now (this story has taken months to finish) we have funded IOM to provide emergency shelter for 18,000 families (over 100,000 people) in the newly flood affected areas in Southern Sindh.  Each family will get a solar light. This time a different model - from illumination, which sell them at around $7.50 a unit, delivered to Pakistan. That's less than £5 each!

In two weeks I'm going to visit the people that received these lights and am going to find out what they think.  I'll finish or continue with this post then.


Granny, at 92, with one of her tribe of great grandchildren, in a tiny village flattened by water in Jacobabad, Sindh.  Poor, they may be, but look how healthy and positive and alive!

1 comment:

Krista Hiles said...

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