By Zubeida Mustafa
ONE problem with our poverty alleviation strategies is that they benefit the givers more than the recipients. Yet another problem is that they generally involve doling out in public view money to the underprivileged which is demeaning and robs them of their dignity.
The government itself has reduced us to a nation of beggars by going around the world with a begging bowl. As a quid pro quo it willingly sells its sovereignty.
Against this backdrop, it is immensely satisfying to see people in our midst who believe in meeting the needs of the poor without hurting their self-esteem. I met one such couple, Ali Raza and his wife Shibli, who founded Waseela in 2010 with the idea of bringing about a change in society.
Initially, they called their organisation the Kaam ka Bank but changed the name when the Intelligence Bureau and the police got suspicious — the word bank alerted them — and started investigating informally if it was involved in any financial fraud.
Since the Razas had no motive apart from devising ways and means to recycle discarded stuff and sell it really cheap to the poor, it was no big deal for them to register their organisation under another name. Thus Waseela was born.
What Waseela does might not in itself be an extraordinarily innovative idea. Recycling goods for reuse is something many have been doing and is a big industry in many parts of the world. In Karachi itself, Nargis Latif has been a champion of the concept of reusing used stuff to produce new material. Hence the Razas did not break new ground when they collected worn garments and made them as good as new by laundering, darning and packing them in cellophane, cleaned up textbooks and notebooks by erasing pencil marks and doodles, repaired tools and household electronic goods to make them usable again, cut biscuits cartons into strips to light the stove burner from another lighted one. These are simple ‘ideas’ if one may describe them as such.
It is the underlying spirit that is inspiring. The commitment and dedication of the founders — basically a husband/wife team and some members of their family and two friends — that set them apart. Their concern was to alleviate the distress of the poor. But, as Ali Raza, an electronic media consultant, stated it was important not to bruise the dignity of the poor and let them take pride in themselves as men and women with self-esteem.
So Waseela was not to be a huge charitable organisation. It was to operate within a systematic framework with a discipline in which every element is interconnected with the other and the human being is recognised as a multidimensional entity This means that every member of society is important and has a role to play.
If one is weak and poor or the other is strong and affluent it doesn’t mean the first is inferior and deserving of charity. Ali Raza learnt the art of philanthropy from his father and he believes in helping the needy to help himself.
That is why Waseela does not give handouts. It facilitates. Its own organisation is structured to meet this need. The original eight founders have been joined by 28 unpaid volunteers and 33 paid workers — the last are reasonably well paid with a monthly salary ranging from Rs8,000 to Rs15,000, with annual leave, medical benefits and education allowances for their children.
Waseela generates substantial earnings — since 2010, Rs4.5 million have been raised which provide a livelihood to the workers and allow a gent’s shirt costing Rs500 in a shopping mall to be sold for Rs80, looking brand new. Ali Raza says a lower middle class boy aspiring for social status can dress himself with dignity at the cost of Rs200.
Waseela’s founders have no ambitions except to make it a hub for a recycling industry. They have two sales outlets in low-income localities. At present, much of the process involved is basically reconditioning. Now Ali Raza is working on plans to recycle plastic, paper and metal. But whatever is done will keep human dignity in view.
Buyers have to pay for whatever they take, even if it costs Rs5. People who send in goods they do not need any more are expected to honour this spirit. Ali Raza is upset when people send him stuff he calls garbage. He returns it saying “ours is not a garbage dump”. He would love to decentralise the project so that many Waseelas spring up all over the city.
Did Waseela face any resistance? Shibli told me that her mother-in-law was initially upset with what she called “smelly stuff” that was collected. But now she is an enthusiastic member of the team.