Model Community Inspires Hope in a Divided Pakistan

It is always emotional for me to visit Khuda ki-basti 4, the housing development built by Saiban, an Acumen Fund investment, outside Lahore, Pakistan. Now, each time I come, the world feels different, more hopeful.
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It is always emotional for me to visit Khuda ki-basti 4 (KKB-4), the housing development built by Saiban, an Acumen Fund investment, outside Lahore, Pakistan. I remember the first year when it was impossible to get the land registered because Jawad Aslam (KKB-4's manager and former Acumen Fellow) and Tasneem Siddiqui (Saiban's visionary founder) refused to pay bribes. I remember getting caught in the crossfire here when there was only a single house at the development. Now, each time I come, the world feels different, more hopeful. I'm not let down today.

Akhbar is a mason who moved with his family from Saiban's low-income housing community outside Karachi to this one in Lahore about a year and a half ago. "I liked the fresher air and better environment here," he said when I asked what made him make such a big decision. We're sitting in the courtyard of the $3,000 house he purchased from Saiban. Akhbar is stretched out on a cot, his entire left leg in a cast. His willowy wife dressed in a pinky red sari squats in the corner, working hard washing dishes, then feeding chickens, all the while listening intently to our conversation, every now and then raising her slender arm and twisting her hand to show her agreement, causing a sweet tinkling of bangles. The couple's three daughters play on a second cot on which I also sit. They color in books (supplied by the local school, run by Developments in Literacy or DIL), whisper secrets to one another and fall into uncontrollable giggles from time to time, clearly amused by something I say or do.

I ask what he did to break his leg. He turns his head to look at the motorcycle behind him. "Bad accident," he says. "I have to wear this cast for three months now." He has no health insurance and without family in Lahore, would be put on the street in most places. But Saiban has changed everything. "My neighbors came to me after the accident and asked me how much I need each month to enable my family to survive. I told them 6,000 rupees ($75) and the community pooled its money to help me for these three months. Today, I feel like a very lucky man."

I tell him he is indeed a lucky man, and then ask him about the pack of cigarettes by his side. "Do you smoke?" I ask. He smiles and shakes his head affirmatively. "How much?"

"A pack a day." I ask how much a pack costs: about 30 rupees. "So the community gives you 6,000 rupees a month for your family to survive and you spend 1,000 of it on cigarettes?"I ask. "Oh no, Madame," he says. "The community refuses to pay for my bad habit. We have other money to pay for my cigarettes. The money they give us covers our essential needs." Fair enough, but I'm struck again by how often men will spend needed money on themselves while women more typically will invest in their children.

Later, Jawad tells me that this is the first time a house owner has been so incapacitated, but the neighbors realized it won't be the last. In caring for the mason, the group of 25 households that live around the grassy park outside Akbhar's house decided to create a mutual assistance association whereby all of the neighbors would contribute a small amount to a common pool each month as a sort of insurance system for anyone who came into real hardship.

I ask Jawad what he did to create a diverse community that would care for its neighbors at this tense moment in Pakistan's history. "I didn't do anything," the young Pakistani-American leader says modestly. "I integrated some ideas into those of Tasneem saab -- for instance, at KKB-3 in Karachi, houses are built in large blocks. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that humans thrive best in groups of no more than 150. Since the average family size in Pakistan is six, we decided to build blocks of 25 houses around a common area that would encourage direct interaction among the neighbors. The block system (each one has its own association) also encourages a bit of healthy competition with other blocks in the development. So, you can see that this park outside of Akhbar's house is also one of the most well-maintained and lush in the development. But others are watching and working to upgrade theirs as well."

Indeed, when I look at the park in the middle of 25 well-maintained brick houses, I can't help but think that Pakistan and the developing world in general has a chance to leapfrog their Western counterparts, especially when it comes to public services. This development feels superior to the level of soullessness one finds in too much of suburban America where people can feel little or no connection to their neighbors. Men are sitting together under a tree while kids from the neighborhood play together in the grass. We visit a storekeeper dressed in wild pink who stays open until 11 p.m. each night in case people need soap or toothpaste or a soda. She lives on the block too, and knows each household by name.

In spite of all the challenges I too clearly remember in the journey to build this development, it is impossible to visit KKB-4 outside Lahore without breathing a sense of hope and aspiration. As we walk through other blocks, we notice that some of the people have added Corinthian columns in front of their houses. One association proudly shows me the sidewalk they've built around their park. The walls of the two DIL schools are filled with posters to inspire creativity.

But nothing makes me pause like the mosque, especially in this week when I feel the heaviness of a nation stooping under the weight of another senseless massacre done in the name of religion. There is only one mosque in the development despite this being home to Sunnis, Shi'ias and other Muslim sects. Of course, all of the groups wanted use of the mosque at the same time on Fridays for prayers. Jawad sat with community leaders over the course of a year, helping them to know one another, and to break down barriers. Ironically, it took a fight that broke out between two men during Ramadan for the leaders to come to a solution as to what to do. Finally, the group decided the three respected imams from different groups would rotate on Fridays in leading the prayers, and none of them would be paid for their services.

A wizened community leader standing near Jawad as he spoke, jumped in and said, "The sects are different, but the faith is the same." In this time of tumult when it comes to religious diversity in Pakistan, here at Saiban, every Friday, the community prays together.

Saiban has created a model that we hope to help scale across the country. What I realize today is that even at this level of 300 houses that represent so much more than houses, Jawad Aslam and Tasneem Siddiqui have opened the imagination to the possible. Pakistan and the world need this more than most anything else.

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