You Will Find Inspiration Where You Least Expect It

Having lived much of my adolescent life in Australia, I always kept coming back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My basic needs (physiological and safety related) I was fortunate enough to have been provided, courtesy of the lottery that is life. My psychological needs of belonging, love, and esteem were also provided, courtesy of the positive experiences from my Pakistani and Australian TCK heritage. It was self-actualization which was missing, and I pondered that greatly, resulting in a 2013 move from Australia to Pakistan, leaving behind balance sheets and P&Ls for field research and development sector project management.     

Pakistan, by no means, qualifies as an easy country for TCKs to settle into. Wrought by economic, political, and social issues, the country lends itself to volatility and unease—not ideal circumstances to be contending with as you settle into your new home.

By moving to Pakistan, I was in a position where I saw these issues firsthand, but my career working in the development sector exposed me even further to more innate and rooted issues of inequality, oppression and abject poverty. I have spent a fair chunk of the last 4 years travelling into rural areas of Pakistan, conducting field research on cross-cutting development issues. It is a career I have chosen for myself out of passion, but no amount of such can prepare one for what they see when they travel into these locations.

Pakistan, like most other countries of the subcontinent, has an abundance of natural resources. If utilised effectively, these resources could lead to the elimination of extreme poverty and the promotion of shared prosperity. However, it is the issues of the political economy that plague such nations in their efforts. Many of these countries still have a feudal hangover, where large tracts of land are owned by families who exploit people into generational subjugation, slavery, and peasantry. Those same families reap the crop, set the price in the retail markets and pass bills in parliament to help expedite this process.

Prior to entering this field, and being an ambitious young man, I pinned my self-worth on my ability to analyse, provide solutions and bring about tangible change to this toxic cycle. However, much like others from my generation, I wasn’t prepared to play the long game that is required in this sector. I found myself getting jaded and cynical. I was constantly surrounded by plight, with nothing to hold onto for inspiration. There weren’t any paradigm shifts taking place in the areas where I was working. The revolutions I heard about in microfinance, social business, and other development sector related interventions were not taking place here. Things were remaining static, if not moving backwards.

Life has its ways though, and just as I felt I had hit rock bottom, I was summoned once again for field work. Travelling 3 hours out of Karachi (the burgeoning metropolis and the country’s economic hub), we arrived in the city of Thatta (the medieval capital of the province of Sindh, which has now sadly dwindled into insignificance). We were conducting an impact assessment of a Technical and Vocational Training (TVET) centre, where students are taught transferable skills such as plumbing, masonry, cooking and embroidery, among others, based on local needs. Once we had conducted the interview with the principal, we asked to meet the teacher. The lady promptly walked in, and for the next 45 minutes, riveted our team.

She was in her mid 30s, had completed tertiary education and was from a conservative family in Punjab (the largest province of Pakistan, well away from Thatta). Her passion was teaching, and seeing that her family wouldn’t let her pursue that passion, she had moved to a place where she could. Being a TVET teacher, she was well trained in the cottage industries of Pakistan (ceramics, pottery, stitching and embroidery), and would use her strong social mobilisation skills to get young women from her area to come get TVET training. Her students then utilised those skills to supplement their family income, allowing them to gain greater control over the family expenditure and diverting it towards education, healthcare and other necessities.

Impressive as this was, the real essence of the interview came out when we asked her about her motivation. She was clear in her belief that her self-worth was founded on her ability to educate and empower. Her isolation from family cut her deep, but was necessary in order to fulfill her cause.

When asked about the disparate and static conditions that plagued the country, she advised us to look between the nooks, crannies, and the crevices which remained unexplored to the naked eye. The financial and social changes her students go through may seem minor in the national outlook, but redefine a woman’s self-worth at the individual level. The financial-cum-social empowerment was minimal in monetary terms, but monumental in effecting their mobility and access to resources, internal and external to the woman’s household. She went on to state that the country as a whole will make its own path, and that is not her primary concern. It is the smaller narratives of self-worth at the individual level which will bloom into something strong and beautiful one day. She just facilitates that blossoming process.

That interview made me reflect greatly on my own sense of self-worth. Why was development at a national level the barometer for my own sense of achievement and worth? Why were individual narratives trumped by GDP or the Big Mac Index? Yes, they are important yardsticks for progress, but not the basis on which I can solely derive fulfilment and healthy self-esteem. Furthermore, progress is slow, multi-layered, sometimes very messy and may even seem out of reach. Leaving your stamp on the world is what we’re here for, and when you envision and act on your self-worth, progress will be slow, but assured. You find inspiration where you least expect it.