City of blights

May 15, 2022

The colonial model of charity is not sustainable in Pakistan. Grassroots efforts involving local communities and practices have garnered a better response

Share Next Story >>>


hilanthropy in the First World and in the Third World are two different things,” states Yusuf Hamied, a scientist. The difference is one of modalities. The former’s success is contingent on money, the needs of the latter are more humbly illustrated in offering their own time to the underprivileged.

With the laudable contributions of the corporate sector and distribution of funds provided generously by national and international corporations through well-structured CSR programmes, the colonial mind-set of charity needs to be revisited. In the Western charity model, the target group is considered a victim and those who live on the borders are given benevolent largesse as if they are helpless sufferers. I believe the time has come to begin to treat those who are marginalised, particularly women, as partners and not nameless, faceless victims.

Since the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, I have had the privilege of working with downtrodden communities across Pakistan. For me climate change has been a reality for several years and the most disruptive force in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, rendering them climate migrants. These climate disasters often leave them shelterless and penniless after a flooding or drought.

Over the years, I have witnessed the strange phenomenon of pouring millions of dollars into emergency or rehabilitation work. These efforts are still under way and yet they have barely made a dent in the fate of the poor in Pakistan.

Women and children usually suffer the most. There is little emphasis on disaster preparedness or training women to take the lead in climate resilient strategies.

Just as alternative energy has still not found a firm footing, my zero-carbon housing inspired by our heritage, built with locally sourced bamboo, lime and earth is still looked at with suspicion. The suspicion remains even after building 50,000 sustainable housing units and 70,000 earthen chulha stoves, which won the World Habitat Award.

The government’s much touted housing scheme for 5 million houses has no intention of focusing on women or the poor. There is a subsidy of Rs 300,000 rupees available to a woman, if they are to build a house worth Rs 1.6 million. However, if she wants a Rs 50,000 loan, no bank worth its salt will consider providing it. I have to say that with the exception of Bank of Punjab and its dynamic chief executive, Zafar Masood, who have agreed to provide Rs 50,000 loans to 100 women through four Maa Madad Committees of 25 women each, which will enable self-building of one room shelters and shared eco toilets based on my video tutorials followed on cell phones through YouTube.

The lesson I have learnt is that, in countries with high levels of corruption and poor governance, we need to make our communities strong by partnering with women and training them to undertake rights-based development. This will allow them to have a reasonable quality of life. I know today we can reach the remotest corner of the country using technology.

Living in a city like Karachi, which exudes nothing but hostility and cruel indifference towards women and children, if a few privileged women among us can break the glass ceiling, it is in my view insufficient to provide the panacea we are seeking for most women.

In my work, I target women who are part of the 80 percent of Pakistan’s population that I define as belonging to the barefoot eco-system. It is an eco-system constituting the poorest sections of society who have never been given sufficient credence or sufficient support.

The lesson I have learnt is that, in countries with high levels of corruption and poor governance, we need to make our communities strong by partnering with women and training them to undertake rights-based development.

Over the past 15 years, I have experienced that the female population needs only the slightest support to be able to rise above adversity and become self-reliant.

Today, as I am focusing on the historic core of Karachi that suffers from the worst of urban blight, I know that by forging partnerships with different stakeholders, a sense of ownership can be brought to a city that is considered an orphan.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of K-Electric, and the special interest of Moonis Alvi, who have played a significant role in removing unsightly cables and huge ugly contraptions. This revealed some of the most beautiful heritage facades in the city in what has become commonly known as the Zero Carbon Street or Denso Hall Rahguzar Walking Street. It is a recently created eco enclave that I designed to mitigate the impact of climate change by using many principles of eco urbanism; no to cement and steel and using the ancient craft of permeable terracotta by Makli women, who used to resort to begging to get by. A number of Miyawaki style forests have also been established to cleanse the air of pollution, many of them planted by my friends in the Rotary Organisation, where there is no urban flooding and no urban heat islands – an inclusive environment where women and children are welcomed and where there is no distinction of rank, gender or colour.

The greatest gift that I have been able to achieve through provision of social and cultural impact funding to the tune of 15 million rupees invested by Heritage Foundation, is the stake that has been developed amongst shop owners. They are our partners just as K-Electric and other service providers are. A laudable role has been played by the administration led by the dynamic deputy commissioner, Irshad Ali Sodhar.

The shop owners are now proud of their street. They have joined hands in maintaining cleanliness and upkeep of trees, which has provided biodiversity. We see birds chirping and butterflies floating, an unheard of phenomenon in a city where all those with power and influence are bent upon converting it into a concrete jungle of multi-storey towers.

It is the same ‘entirely indifferent’ shop owners, who were once oblivious of the beauty of heritage buildings that had been mutilated. They are now my partners in investing their funds along with me in restoring the beautiful facades of historic architecture that endows Karachi with its unique characteristics.

For the implementation of the project we have not taken or received any funding from the corporate sector or the political government (except service providers who have provided improved services). Yet, it is a street that is improving by the day. It is visited by people living in far flung areas of Karachi as well as tourists from upcountry and abroad. It is an urban oasis in the middle of a highly degraded part of the city, that we can all be proud of as Karachiites.

It is my belief that the city is ripe for providing ownership in segments through a three-way partnership. Firstly, social/ cultural/ environmental impact investment through the corporate sector/ civil society/ community. Secondly, facilitation by administration and service providers. And finally, ownership of stakeholders composed of the surrounding community.

Such a partnership can provide reasonable returns to funders, and at the same time, convert Karachi’s brutal environment into humanistic enclaves that promote wellbeing for all.

If you can ever muster courage to walk through the maze of streets in old town Karachi, you will find not a single woman, as was the case in my present eco enclave.

The streets are the reflection of corrupt practices of the powers that be, who have allowed destruction of the original 2-3 storey heritage buildings, to be replaced by multi-storey structures along narrow streets. This allows no sunlight to penetrate and entirely unhealthy environments with encroached pavements and a jumble of cables and wires that are a dangerous collection of filth and visual pollution. It is women and children who are inhabiting these unhealthy constructions. Then we wonder why Covid-19 was so deadly for us.

Also, the city of Karachi, even though an orphan, is ready to start developing a sense of ownership in segments through partnerships as we have seen with Denso Hall Rahguzar Walking Street.

Although I have not sought a return on the investment made by Heritage Foundation, I know now that people will be willing to pay back when they see their businesses flourish. I believe that the time is ripe for this sustainable model of partnership driven by socially, culturally and environmentally driven investment, combined with CSR funding, one that could lead to large scale transformations.

This strategy could transform the presently stagnant humanitarian charity culture based on a colonial mind-set. There can be no cure more potent than the one moulded from within. The solution to Karachi’s blight is not one that can be disposed of through money alone – it will dissipate with ownership, an investment of time, with sincerity and with integrity.

The author is an architect, a recipient of an honorary degree from Politecnico di Milano and a champion for the plight of the Third World.She can be reached at

More From Shehr