Isa: Development requires profound love, knowledge, action

Qazi Azmat Isa, CEO of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, discusses development in Pakistan — and the passion that drives it — for the Interfaith Lecture Series Wednesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy.
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Pakistan means different things to different people. It is a diverse, versatile, fluid nation. To some, it represents the epicenter of the clash of civilizations, for others it is the cradle of culture and civilization.

“Pakistan stands at the cusp of practically everything — of geography, economics, ethnicity, tradition, culture and politics,” Qazi Azmat Isa said.

On Wednesday, Isa continued the Week Five theme of “The People of Pakistan” with a lecture titled “Maintaining the Quality of the Heart: Pakistan, Passion, and the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund.”

Isa is a trained financial analyst, but found his work in the nonprofit sector of community development. For the past 25 years, he has helped to develop some of Pakistan’s most dangerous places, including Waziristan and Balochistan. For 12 years, he worked for the World Bank, focusing on rural and social sectors. Currently, he is CEO of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund.

In the week’s third lecture, Isa discussed his personal experiences and insights as a Pakistani man working in development. He focused on the holistic nature of development. In the first section of his lecture, Isa talked about the spiritual and cultural impetus for facilitating change that can be found within Islam, specifically Sufism. In the second half, he discussed how the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund has taken that spiritual impetus and translated it into concrete, quantifiable development projects.

“The true meaning of development — it was about transforming society, not just about infrastructure and income, but about empowering the poor, about building their social capital and giving them voice,” Isa said.

During the early years of Isa’s career in the community-development sector in Pakistan, he learned certain truths about development: it must be economically just, environmentally stable and socially equitable, Isa said.

“Development was about learning from the people, and the greater poverty was not of means, but of the mind,” Isa said.

Much of Isa’s work takes place in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province. Balochistan’s population is dispersed across a rugged terrain, and it has little to no communication infrastructure, Isa said. It is an area of Pakistan and the world that has been ignored for centuries.

“How does one bring hope here and enable change to happen?” he asked.

Isa turns to Islam and the Quran for inspiration to continue his work and as a cultural tool to help him bring change in the thought processes of those he works with.

“It is written in the Quran, ‘Allah will never change the condition of a people until they first change in their hearts,’” he said. “That was one verse that became my guiding light, the mission of my work in Balochistan.”

Isa said that in his time invested in development, he has encountered a necessary paradigm for development that reflects the heart of Sufism. Development requires “ishq, ilm, amal” — profound love, knowledge and action, he said. The prerequisite for any work is a deep love or passion, a fire, but in development, that is not enough. In development, the love must be controlled and guided by knowledge and information. Then it can bear fruit in action.

The underlying issue is one of despair and exclusion. If we believe that humanity is one body, then even a small affliction in that part of the body left unattended or ignored will afflict the whole body.

 ­­­­—Qazi Azmat Isa
CEO, Pakistan Poverty
Alleviation Fund

“All three must be in a constant state of renewal, and at the center of the renewal is the human heart,” he said.

That paradigm reflects the words of the Prophet Muhammad, who said: “Surely in the breast of humanity is a lump of flesh. If sound, then the whole body is sound. If corrupt, then the whole body is corrupt — is it not the heart?” Isa said.

Sufism is a mystical strand of Islam, he said. It is a focused on negation of the self, the ego. Negation of the ego allows one to cut through the superficial self and connect with the soul. That connection allows one to see more clearly, completely, spiritually with more compassion.

“The shortest route is ishq,” Isa said. “When ishq fires the soul, the mundane transforms itself into the exceptional, the transient into the everlasting, and the whole universe becomes the mere reflection of the face of the beloved.”

Baba Bulleh Shah, a Punjabi Sufi poet, once expressed that concept in poetry, saying he “yearns to travel to a place where all are blind, so that no one knows him by his caste or creed, only through the quality of his heart,” Isa said.

To sustain the quality of the heart, one must stay close to Allah. To stay close to Allah, one must stay close to those Allah loves — the poor and the lonely. That mystical Sufi concept of maintaining the quality of the heart motivates Isa’s work in development.

To better understand how that melds with pragmatic means of development, it is necessary to understand the nature and history of Pakistan and Islam. In the eighth century, Pakistan was introduced to Islam. The religion forever changed the country’s indigenous cultures.

Some of the earliest people to spread Islam in Pakistan were the Sufi saints. They led lives based on contemplation, knowledge and social action, Isa said. Seeing the saints embody those positive values drew many to Islam, he said.

“Pakistan owes its origins to these ideas on life and its meaning,” Isa said. “At the same time, external factors have played a role on the ethos and evolution of Pakistan’s identity and imperatives of nationhood.”

Pakistan’s long history, varied geography and mix of ethnicities and religions have all influenced the country. It is the sixth largest country in the world — there are 180 million Pakistanis. They speak more than 20 different languages and 76 dialects, Isa said. Pakistan shares its borders with emerging world superpowers.

“The new great game in geopolitics and global strategies is playing out in its backyard,” Isa said. “The country’s untapped natural resource endowments add to this geostrategic complexity.”

Today, the war in Afghanistan and increases in cross-border trade have rapidly altered the structure of the Pakistani economy, creating a middle class, he said.

“What we are witnessing in Pakistan is an explosive mix of poverty and conspicuous consumption and the tensions that this creates,” Isa said. “With a GDP — gross domestic product per person — approaching U.S. $3,000, I know of no other country which is simultaneously rated as a middle-income country in conventional World Bank terms, as well as a fragile state.”

Pakistan has well-developed banks, an active judiciary, strong media and a technologically connected society, he said.

“All of these coexist with moribund dysfunctional state institutions, perpetually mired in challenges of governance, transparency, accountability and universally failing to protect, secure or serve the common citizen,” Isa said.

Given Pakistan’s rich culture and history with Islam and Sufism, it is important to find the connection between faith, spirituality and the needs of culture and development, he said. Sufism allows for that because it is steeped in a tradition of sacrifice, service and universal love.

“For it is the Sufi that collects scattered souls by calling all of them under one umbrella, unlike others who preach the creed of distinction segregating humanity under flags of nations, religions and sects,” Isa said.

That tradition of seeing humanity as one is compatible with solving the problems of today’s Pakistan, he said, which are moral and philosophical.

“The underlying issue is one of despair and exclusion,” Isa said. “If we believe that humanity is one body, then even a small affliction in that part of the body left unattended or ignored will afflict the whole body.”

In the sector of development in Pakistan, a paradigm shift of thought is needed — a challenge of preconceived notions and presumptions about equality, fairness and people. Now is not the time for small adjustments or reforms to an old system. It is the time to initiate new, responsive institutions and mechanisms, he said.

“We continue to endorse our preconceived notions on what needs to be done,” Isa said.

New research and evidence in the world of development tests the accuracy and viability of our old presumptions. Research shows that deliberate, rather than fast, decision-making is better in the long run and that projects managed by the community tend to provide better economic outcomes, he said.

The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund was conceived while Isa was working for the World Bank.

“In a country that is facing a myriad of challenges, our mission first and foremost is one of restoring hope,” he said. “Securing the future of the poor, marginalized, disadvantaged and excluded.”

Photo by Lauren Rock.

PPAF believes the agents of change in Pakistan are Pakistanis themselves. PPAF is demand-driven and non-prescriptive, working with partner organizations and civil society organizations. The organization is value-driven. Its four key values are: the inclusion of women, the disabled and the poor in its process; good governance; participation; and transparency. PPAF maintains its practices of good governance and transparency through a system of internal audits, with regular monitoring. It also has a system for managing cost efficiency — 95 percent of PPAF’s disbursements have gone directly to the poor, Isa said. And PPAF has a system in place to scientifically measure outcomes and attribute causality.

PPAF judges all institutions it works with based on those four values, he said.

“A lot of the institutions have said, ‘Sorry, you know, it is in our culture not to work with women,’” Isa said. “So we say, ‘Fine, it is also in our culture, our belief, that we also will not work with you, because this is a large country.’”

PPAF has operated since 2000. Since then, it has created a microfinance sector in Pakistan. In the past 12 years, the number of borrowers has jumped from 50,000 to 2 million. The organization has given out 5 million microloans with an average of $200. Not a single loan has been written off, he said.

“It came out a couple of months ago, Pakistan was rated as the best regulatory regime for microfinance and the third best investment climate for microfinance globally,” Isa said.

The organization has also sponsored and developed 26,000 small infrastructure programs focused on issues such as health and water. The organization believes in capacity building and has trained 400,000 people. Its work was tested in 2005 after the Kashmir earthquake, when the Pakistani government enlisted PPAF and those it had trained to rebuild 122,000 houses. It succeeded.

“In fact, that whole community-led infrastructure housing program became so effective that it is now quoted as best practice by the World Bank,” Isa said. “And we even went to — believe it or not — advise the government of China.”

PPAF partners with 114 different groups that create and partner with 300,000 institutions of the poor. Those institutions will allow the poor to articulate their own needs and take charge of their own lives.

“Our whole thing is to aggregate the voices of the poor, so they can demand better services from the government, make markets work for them,” Isa said.

The successes of PPAF have garnered international attention and spread to other countries and areas, such as Afghanistan.

“PPAF brings together the value of Sufism with modern management practices,” Isa said.

When the organization chooses partners, it focuses on people and groups who have quality of the heart, he said. When Isa was struggling to win a $100 million grant from the World Bank, he told the bank: “It’s easier to build capacity of people who have commitment, but you can’t do the reverse.”

PPAF also follows the Sufi value of ensuring inclusion. Isa uses the verses of the Quran to liberate women in a society that for so long has utilized Quranic verses to dominate them, he said. When going into Muslim areas and spreading ideas of women’s equality, rights and development, Isa said PPAF reminds the people it works with that Muhammad’s wife was an entrepreneur and that Muhammad worked for her. In a recent project, where it installed solar energy and power to the 168 houses in a village, the organization dialogued with the local mullah and convinced them to put all the houses in the village in the names of its women, Isa said.

Isa’s organization reflects tenets of Sufism in its immersion policies.

“It is mandatory in PPAF that every member of staff will spend nights in the village,” Isa said. “This is remaining close to the beloved, because when you remain close to them, there is a fire in your belly.”

When immersing yourself in the community you are helping, your passion does not die, but you gain firsthand knowledge of how best to serve and are constantly driven to act, ishq, ilm, alam.