The Internationally renowned Alliance for Youth Movements interviewed me concerning youth activism & flood relief work:
The Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) is one of a cluster of civil society groups that emerged on Facebook during 2007’s emergency rule. The organization focuses on strengthening Pakistani civil society, ensuring that young people—a demographic that the alliance sees as largely indifferent to social or political causes—are its biggest contingent.
Since emergency rule ended, PYA’s presence on Facebook has grown into three separate groups with over 5,000-plus members and a fanpage with 7,000 members. “Facebook is a gift from God,” PYA’s chairperson, Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, told me. The social network serves as the cornerstone of the group’s efforts—they use it for everything from recruiting, communicating with members, fund-raising, and outsourcing expertise. They also have a nearly 20,000-strong email list and an SMS list with between 10,000 and 12,000 numbers.
When this summer’s heavy monsoon season turned into the worst disaster in Pakistan’s history, all these resources were diverted to flood relief. Since July, PYA has been delivering the basic goods and services that flood victims initially hoped to see come from the government. As one anonymous organizer told Foreign Policy: “A few of us thought that if no one is willing to help our own people—not the world community, not our own government—then it’s our job.”
How has its foray into relief efforts impacted the PYA as a civil society organization? Will they be able to redirect attention generated by the disaster back into their pro-democracy efforts? I caught up with Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi this week.
AYM: What type of support do you most need right now?
PYA: In disasters as big as this one all support and funding seems like less than it is. We need volunteers, we need relief workers, and we need donors. We need doctors, paramedics, and street activists along with digital activists.
AYM: To what degree is the flooding disproportionately affecting some Pakistanis over others?
PYA: This being the biggest disaster in the history of Pakistan, it is affecting both rural and urban settlements to the core. But rural populations surpass the country’s urban population, and their sources of earning (i.e., crops and cattle) have been completely destroyed.
Even if the flood recedes, what will people go back to? Nothing is left. This flood has broken the backbone of people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Not only their life earnings but the source of these earnings have been washed away.
AYM: How are you using social media in your relief efforts? Which tools are most useful?
PYA: We started PYA in 2007 as a Facebook group; since then, a mere Facebook group became the biggest and the most potent youth movement of Pakistan. What was initially digital activism has been transformed into street activism. We’ve helped over 25,000 families in need.
Most of the fund-raising, propagation, and messaging is done through Facebook and Twitter. According to my personal estimate, more than 60 percent of 17 million PKR (approximately 200K USD) we have raised to date has been because of Facebook.
Mobiles, Blackberries, iPhones—all aid not only activism but relief work. As live feedback is sent to donors they get to see where and how their money is helping people. It helps us, as workers on ground, to communicate in inaccessible areas.
AYM: Could you talk about some of the long-term consequences of the flooding as you see them?
PYA: Pakistan will be back to where it was before the flood in around a decade.
The political consequences are already evident, for example how some political forces are using it as tool to get political advantages. Local politicians and landlords use relief aid to get more voters. Extremist organizations use flood relief work to recruit more people.
But not all of the consequences have been negative. From Pakistan’s flood, I see Pakistan’s young generation emerging. I see amazing passion and patriotism in youth all over the country shrugging off their apathy and reaching out to their fellow countrymen in need. This is the future, right here.
AYM: Can you relay the attention PYA has received for its flood relief work into your democracy activism?
PYA: We work on short-term objectives and long-term goals. We work from initiative to initiative basis—and yes, we do social development along with sociopolitical activism. Right now, the immediate crisis is flood relief. But our hope is that our goals for a democratic Pakistan will resonate with new members.
We can’t force issues; many young people are just interested in rebellious street protests and many are just into social development. But overall, as the organization grows [we hope to] gather more respect and attention among an increased membership, which will make us matter more when lobbying for democracy.
And our membership has grown magnificently. Since July 2010 there have been approximately 2,000 to 3,000 new registrations on our site, 2,000 new people on our SMS list, and 3,000 to 4,000 in Facebook groups and fanpages.