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My tweet was quoted in Daily Times today, regarding Musharraf and the show he pulled in yesterday:

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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.

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First Published on Dawn.com

A series of eyewitness accounts from volunteers at relief camps:

At IDP Camp in Charsadda

 

The Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) made simultaneous deliveries on August 14 to Nowshera, Muzaffargarh and Rajanpur with 31 volunteers in three teams with eight trucks of relief goods.

Nowshera (Datta Kaka Sahib)

This time we went to a remote area of the district after passing through the devastation caused by the the floods. The water seemed to have receded since we were there last, but in its wake it has left behind lives of many who are now uncertain about their future.

On our agenda was delivering supplies to about 160 families at a camp set up in ‘Datta Kaka Sahib.’ Once we arrived, our group leader briefed us on how the operations would work. We were, however, not briefed about what to do if we were attacked like our fellow PYA team members were in Rajanpur. I guess it was best we kept that out of our minds. At the camp aid workers, with their official jackets, were seen who helped effectively distribute aid to the affectees.

We had with us different items such as flour, rice, oil, etc. according to the requirements of that particular camp. The list was made by our local contact in whom we trusted. Our team also had a list of 160 families that were to be given the goods. Each person was passed through a process of verification before he/she was given any help to ensure it was being given to the right person. I believe we did a good job and gave it our very best. However, one must always accept that 10-15 per cent of the aid may not end up in the hands of the intended recipients.

During the process, I took a short walk outside the camp to talk to the people and gauge how their lives had changed. What I heard were unconfirmed reports of a alleged ‘sex-for-food scam.’ I was also told that prices of everything had sky-rocketed and there seemed very little hope for any reconstruction in the future.

Yet, amidst all this chaos, I remain an optimist. No, a prisoner of hope would be more appropriate as Desmond Tutu once said. Pakistanis have weathered many disasters and calamities and we have never yielded, nor shall we this time. We will get through this, we always have – Pakistan Zindabad!

Ahmed Hasan, a volunteer for Pakistan Youth Alliance, contributed for Dawn.com

Muzaffargarh (Alipur)

The second team embarked on the journey towards Rohela Wali but had to stay at Ghazanfargarh due to a road blockade. These areas of south Punjab have been worst-hit by the floods and what we saw here was unprecedented. Many IDPs were living alongside main roads and news of them attacking relief-convoys were heard. It was raining heavily and our dedicated volunteers decided to move on despite of warnings from local administration and Army.

On the way, during our stay at Ghazanfargarh we met Ghayur, a local who studies at Punjab University. He was extremely agitated with the government’s response to the disaster in his region. “In order to protect certain areas, the local authorities blocked the water which resulted in smaller towns being drowned completely,” he said.

Our final destination was Mehmood Kot camp at Alipur, but reaching there seemed impossible as flood water was now on the roads. We had to stop our convoy and walk through three to four feet of water to assess the situation on the other side. Our drivers and truck owners refused to go forward in the flood; we even requested some army personnel deputed in the region to help us deliver our relief aid but they advised us to go back as flood-warning was severe.

After three hours, the water level receded and we could now move forward. Around 250 families were anxiously waiting for food items we promised to bring to them on August 14. We finally managed to distribute the items only after cross-checking the ID cards to make sure it was going to the right person. IDPs at the camp also complained of mismanagement by local authorities and narrated stories of personal favours being given to particular group of people for political benefits

Areas of Kot Addu, Muzaffargarh, Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur have been severely affected by the flood and what we saw here, wasn’t comparable to what we witnessed in Khyber Pukhtunkwa. During our deliveries to Pukhtunkhua and south Punjab, we have felt the need of a central agency for coordinating relief efforts with individuals and organisations. At the moment, we are assessing the need of the areas ourselves as well as managing the logistics. Security is also an issue in certain areas where people, desperate for supplies, are attacking aid convoys. I was with the Rajanpur-bound convoy and 50 odd men attacked  the truck of supplies. Only the government, with its manpower and logistics, can set up such emergency cells in flood-hit areas.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, who tweets @Ali_Abbas_Zaidi and is available on facebook as Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi. He can also be reached at damanwiddaplan@hotmail.com

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Article published in Indian Newspaper Express Buzz

First Published: 29 Aug 2010 11:24:00 AM IST Last Updated : 28 Aug 2010 06:51:18 PM IST

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, 24, has not slept for over 24 hours. It is a day after the UN declared Pakistan’s floods a bigger disaster than the 2004 Asian tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined. Hundreds have died, millions are homeless, and Zaidi is making his ninth delivery of food packets in south Punjab for 1,500 families.

He is the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, a youth-based and youth-run organisation that started in 2007 after emergency rule. “It aims to create socio-political awareness in the country,” says Zaidi. Their network extends across and outside Pakistan and has more than 20,000 members.

The group has organised and completed 120 events worldwide, including walks, vigils, protests, concerts, relief work, seminars and art for change competitions. “We have reached out to 15,000 families with immediate relief aid and have managed to raise over 12 million rupees from the streets, by begging,” says Zaidi.

Most of PYA’s members have impressive academic records. Zaidi is an aeronautical engineer, poet and columnist. Then there is Maryam Kanwer, 26,

co-founder of the organisation and a teacher and researcher; Maryam Noor Malik, 21, a medical student; Husham Ahmed, a research consultant with a degree in electrical engineering and Shakeel Ahsan who is an MBA student. These are just a few of them.  

“We started work for flood affected even before it became a disaster of unparalleled nature,” says Zaidi.

It has been physically exhausting and emotionally taxing. “After visiting flood-hit areas and having personally experienced the situation from Pakhtunkhwa to south Punjab, I can easily say this is the worst disaster to hit Pakistan,” says Zaidi. “For example, last time I went to Nowshera the locals told me how they found water containers floating on flood water. When they opened them, there were babies inside. Mothers who were about to drown in nearby villages had put their little ones inside it.”

“Similarly, we hear of how water levels started to rise while people were sleeping and they could not save their five-year-olds, how everything they had was washed away. People are angry. They complain of no prior warning, no evacuation plan and no disaster management by the government.

“The situation is chaotic. Children face skin diseases, mothers fight each other to snatch more food for their

babies, fathers are turning desperate to keep their kids alive. We hear of sex for food and parents stealing food,” says Zaidi. “Children live in the midst of snakes, mosquitoes, hunger — dreaming of a normal life.”

“Everything has been destroyed — schools, mosques, hospitals. Infrastructure has been rendered useless. I haven’t seen anything like this. During the Swat crisis (when the Pakistan offensive against Taliban left millions homeless), people were hopeful that they would go back home and start a normal life. But here, they have nothing to go back to. Nothing is left.”

Zaidi says the government “should have been pro-active, instead of reacting the way the tide turns.”

Foreign aid and NGO support have been helpful. And Zaidi has heard of some India-based groups helping flood victims in Pakistan. “It makes my heart warm,” he says. “I would love to collaborate with such youth groups.”

“I’ve always dreamt of working with an Indian youth organisation, to spread the message of love and tolerance. Extremists and war-mongers in India and Pakistan must realise war can never be a solution. We need to feed our people, for God’s sake, we need to provide them shelter and clothes.”

Zaidi has been dreaming of a better world since he was a child. His email address is damanwiddaplan@hotmail.com (the man with a plan). “I thought I do have THE plan,” he laughs. PYA seems like a workable one

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The News  section ‘Kolachi’ mentions me and Pakistan Youth Alliance:

With over 5,000 fans of the organisation on Facebook, the Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) has emerged as one of the biggest aid collectors and distributors. So far it has distributed over four million rupees worth of goods and relief aid to the flood-stricken people across the country including Nowshera, Rajanpur, Charsadda, and southern Punjab.

 Ali Abbas, heading the PYA told Kolachi that since every settlement has its own requirement, therefore it is not possible to issue a similar item list for every camp and settlement. “We first carry out an assessment of every locality, get in touch with the governmental officials and find out what commodities are required in a particular area.

 On his way to deliver the ninth consignment, he said that so far a tremendous response has been received by the organisation. Abbas discourages dry ration amongst the items. He said that in some areas, such as Nowshera, there is an excess of commodities. In fact, there was so much flour that people were sleeping on flour sacks.

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Foreign Policy Magazine (The Af-Pak Channel) mentions me and PYA in the following article:

Rising waters have left people stranded on islands of mud. Men and women wade through torrents of disease-ridden water seeking sanctuary for the children they carry on their shoulders. Thousands huddle in the few remaining public buildings in the flood-hit areas. Around them the receding water lays bare the destruction wrought by torrents that smashed everything in their path.

The floods, which have killed 1,600 people and made millions homeless, have exposed the Pakistani state’s shortcomings to withering criticism. But while the destruction vividly shows what is wrong with Pakistan, the reaction to it demonstrates where the country’s eventual salvation might lie.

Pakistan is beset by a serious lack of good governance. Analysts such as the scholars at the Pak Institute of Peace Studies have argued for some time that this absence is a driving force behind whatever support extremists in Pakistan can claim. In recent weeks, the Air Blue crash in Islamabad and the government’s poor reaction to the floods have drawn more attention to this fracture at the heart of the country. No matter how much aid flows into Pakistan from the outside, Pakistanis themselves must ultimately ensure the formation of governments that serve the people they claim to represent. And surprisingly, possibly the one positive thing to emerge from the floods is growing evidence that young Pakistanis – the educated sons and daughters of well-off families – are willing and able to show that collective action for the public good is not something that is only possible in other countries.

Just days after the scale of the flooding’s devastation became apparent, Pakistanis in their 20s and 30s began mobilizing their networks of friends and colleagues for the relief effort, often utilizing social media such as Facebook and Twitter. While President Asif Zardari was away from the country on his ill-advised trip to Europe and aid officials were saying international donations had been slow to arrive because people don’t trust the Pakistani government, young people across the country were organizing aid drops and going to the streets to collect donations.

One aid organizer who didn’t want to give his name said to me, “We were sitting in front of the TV watching these devastating scenes from our own country. 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.” One previously-established organization, Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) has raised 2.5 million rupees (about $30,000) in two weeks from street collections alone in Pakistan’s main cities.

But new groups have also been formed in response to the crisis. Two Pakistanis from Karachi studying law in the UK have set up Pehla Qadam (First Step) while on their holidays. Youth Catalyst Pakistan, created just before the floods to work on issues related to Pakistan’s young, has pivoted to delivering aid and has arranged for volunteer doctors to set up medical camps in afflicted areas.

Those abroad with family ties to Pakistan have also gotten involved as well. American Pakistani organizations, for instance, have created Relief4Pakistan, a donation campaign raising money for Mercy Corps‘ work in Pakistan.

The international media has given much attention to organizations with political aims using the floods to garner support. Many have reported  that Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front group for the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba which is implicated in the Mumbai attacks, has been administering aid. Even the Pakistani army is suspected by some to be using the floods to gain popularity at the expense of the civilian government.

In contrast, the young Pakistanis organizing tents, food and medical treatment have shown no political ambition beyond wanting to do good for their country. However, their activities are stirring the social and political waters in Pakistani cities – where their volunteers live -and the rural areas – where they come into contact with the flood’s victims.

Bridging social divides

Jibran Nasir of Pehla Qadam explained to me how working to provide relief has challenged ingrained perceptions about ethnicity, class and gender in Pakistan.

“We have volunteers who are from all different backgrounds working together; Baluchis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, you name it… For many people, it’s the first time they are interacting with others from different backgrounds. It breaks down barriers,” he said.

Pehla Qadam volunteers raised funds in Karachi even when the city was rocked by tit-for-tat assassinations between Pashtuns and ethnic Urdu-speakers known as Muhajirs. Nasir himself is half Punjabi and half Muhajir while his collaborator Ammar Abbasi is a Sindhi and a woman. Both are in their early 20s and study in the UK.

Others who had volunteered in flood-hit areas said it was a shock to see how refugee and poor communities had been living in the first place, but that it was uplifting and encouraging to connect with them on a human level. For the local communities receiving help, it was a welcome surprise to see individuals from ethnicities they considered hostile coming to offer help.

Tayyeba Gul, from Youth Catalyst Pakistan says she made a point of getting locals involved in the relief effort.

“We need their help and they feel good mentally. They feel like they are doing something useful and it helps to make sure they don’t get drawn into something bad,” she said referring to extremist organizations.

A popular view is that these young expatriate Pakistanis are indolent, spoilt and worried only about their job opportunities abroad. This sometimes rings true, but it isn’t the whole picture. These young people benefit from being disconnected from the tribal and clannish politics of their leaders. More importantly, though, they are energetic, frustrated and keen to bring about change.

Some of those organizing the aid share the general negative perceptions of their peers. Nasir as well as Abbas from the Pakistan Youth Alliance say they want Pakistan’s younger generation of qualified and well-connected people to leave their insulated bubbles of foreign travel, chauffer-driven cars and plush social events and do something for their country and its people. It looks like more young Pakistanis are thinking the same thing.

“After I started, I found that quite a few people think like me,” said Nasir. “After we set up we had people almost immediately thinking the same thing wanting to help… Yes, I was surprised” He added, “More well-to-do Pakistanis need to see the reality of people’s lives in this country.”

In some way or another, all of the groups I spoke to are utilizing social networking technology to help their efforts. Kalsoom Lakhani, who helped set up Relief4Pakistan, said the venture was partly started to engage social media platforms “to mobilize donations in the most centralized way possible.” Relief4Pakistan, like Pehla Qadam and other groups, uses Facebook and other social networking sites to overcome the trust issues that have plagued the government by showing donators where their money is going.

And while Pakistani media shows the army making food drops and government officials touring devastated towns and villages, much of the initial drive to deliver aid, set up camps and provide medical help was organized and coordinated by networks of young people utilizing this technology. Before the media was carrying appeals by well-known personalities or reporting donations by large firms, emails, tweets, text messages and Facebook groups were already mobilizing help.

Finally, while some groups will likely disband after finishing their relief work, others like Ali Abbas of the Pakistan Youth Alliance want to take things further.

PYA, which boasts 18,000 members, was founded in 2007 during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s rule. The group’s general aim is to increase political participation amongst the population. After the military man left office, the group started working on social development issues and organized relief to the displaced people of Swat who had fled Taliban violence.

Abbas told me his motivation is simple: “We want to make people understand that they have a part to play in the destiny of this country.”

Western nations have in the past been keen to support Pakistan’s small military and feudal-political elites. That policy has hampered the evolution of Pakistani society and failed the country while endangering the wider world.  But it’s not business as usual in Pakistan anymore. A new generation of Pakistanis who are less beholden to the dictates of traditional politics as practiced by their fathers and grandfathers are willing and able to prove their commitment to the future of their country. Out of floods, earthquakes and political catastrophes, these young people are changing the rules in Pakistan.

Amil Khan works in Pakistan for Radical Middle Way and writes as Londonstani on the Abu Muqawama blog. His book about the development of extremism, The Long Struggle, will be published by Zero Books in September.

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My interview with the BBC regarding Pakistan floods and relief work bring done and how can it managed in a better way:

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Link: http://www.correiobraziliense.com.br/app/noticia182/2010/08/07/mundo,i=206500/O+DILUVIO.shtml

“This is the worst disaster in Pakistan’s history. More rains are expected over the weekend, which could hamper the work of humanitarian aid. Anyway, I’ll lead a team on the trip to the city of Risapur in the district of Nowshera……. We will take trucks with donations to local residents”

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Crossposted from The Dawn Blog:

Pakistan has been through a lot in the last decade. We have had Taliban displacing millions, tremors leveling complete settlements and floods washing away our cities. But it is the current disaster that by far surpasses all. Amidst these natural and man-made disasters, I witnessed something positive, something which gives me hope. I saw unity, selflessness in Pakistanis who reached out to their fellow citizens irrespective of linguistic, religious and regional boundaries.

The Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA), a youth-based organisation that comprises volunteers who want to create awareness and want to be the change that everyone talks about, started fundraising for the flood victims two weeks ago. So far we have made three deliveries to the worst-hit region, Nowshera and its surrounding towns; regular deliveries to relief camps will continue until the flood-waters recede. This week, three more deliveries to Rajanpur, Muzaffargarh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be made simultaneously.

We made trips to Nowshera last week where families were living in government schools that had been turned into relief shelters. We reached Ziarat Kaka Sahib on August 3 to find out how some locals found water coolers floating in the water, with babies inside them. Even as we made our way to the camp, a heavy downpour raised sirens of another potential flood.

//

 Video of stampede in Nowshera: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150236940350177

I share a special bond with the region – I studied at the PAF Academy Risalpur in district Nowshera for four years and most of the people who lived in the region were reasonably well-off, owning small- to medium-sized businesses. I met an old acquaintance from my university days whose business was completely destroyed. It was also in our first food delivery that we witnessed a stampede as women, desperate to feed milk to their babies started fighting over the supplies.  The worst hit cities of Mardan, Nowshera, Swabi and Charsadda had hosted the IDPs from Swat when nearly three million people were displaced due to military action in 2009. The Pashtun, known for their bravery and determination, are once again being tested to the core.

People at the relief camps seemed agitated by the authorities and complained of no proper evacuation plan when the flood was about to hit their vicinity. One such victim, Bano lost her husband, 5-year-old son and could not even save her ID card when water-level rose at 3 am that morning. According to locals, the Army, Air Force and other institutions had been evacuated three days ago, while the residents were left to survive in the monstrous floods.

After years of experience in relief work and delivering relief aid by hand well worth over Rs 10 million (all collected from streets, by literally begging in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad), I have realised how some of the aid being sent is also sometimes not needed, with those items being sold in black market on prices much higher than normal. Relief workers must conduct assessments of the region and only take those items needed instead of assuming what’s needed.

The monsoons will not end anytime soon and even if the rains do subside, there is still rehabilitation work that requires billions of rupees. But we cannot give up hope – trust me, we will see this through just like we have with other calamities that have hit our country.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the chairperson/founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance who tweets @Ali_Abbas_Zaidi and is available on Facebook as Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi. He can also be reached at damanwiddaplan@hotmail.com

Pictures can be viewd at: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=197961&id=125954437061

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Ansaf Kareem at Stanford University (Political Science Deptt)  did his thesis on Pakistani civil society post lawyers movement under the aegis of ” Civil Society In Transition: Pakistan & The Lawyers Movement”

He quotes me in chapter 5 as:

Chapter Five: Obstacles to Sustaining Civil Society and Deepening Democracy

“The Problem with Pakistan is that everyone wants to be a Prime Minister…”
-­‐Ali Zaidi,
Founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance

Entire thesis can read by downloading the PDF file

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