A Dutch journalist’s impressions of a Karachi dream turned reality

Babette-Cambridge-April-06I am proud of my old friend Ahsan Jamil for the work he is doing in Karachi, and delighted to have introduced him to another old friend Babette Niemel, who was inspired to write the following article about Aman Foundation, published in The News on Sunday, on March 10, 2013.

A Dutch journalist records her impressions of how Aman Foundation is changing the lives of Karachi’s underserved people

I have met Ahsan Jamil several times during my frequent visits to Karachi over the years. A modest, lively, kind man and a close childhood friend of my friend Beena Sarwar; when I met him once again a little over a year ago, he was positively beaming.

Engaged and committed: Aman Foundation CEO Ahsan Jamil and Manager Command and Control Center in discussion.

Engaged and committed: Aman Foundation CEO Ahsan Jamil and Manager Command and Control Center in discussion.

It was a cool summer evening in Karachi and we were out on the porch at Beena’s house. Ahsan was inviting her to come and checkout the new work he was doing. He could give us a tour of the facility, he said, extending the invitation to me as well.

Over the past year, he had been busy setting up an ambulance service in Karachi — one that would serve the whole city with its over 18 million inhabitants. I was amazed that this man, in his late forties, was finally doing what he had always wanted. He had quit the family business and was happier than ever heading the newly-formed Aman Foundation — a not-for-profit that aims to provide ground-breaking health and education services to Pakistanis — envisioned and funded by the entrepreneur Arif Naqvi and his family.

Emergency Medical Dispatchers (EMDs) answering calls for ambulance at the Aman Command and Control Centre (C&C)

Emergency Medical Dispatchers (EMDs) answering calls for ambulance at the Aman Command and Control Centre (C&C)

The next morning Ahsan came to collect us. Steering through the mad Karachi traffic, it wasn’t long before he pointed to an ambulance, one of the Foundation’s brand new fleet. Painted a distinctive cheerful yellow, the vehicle was parked under a flyover. We were on our way to the headquarters of the ambulance service, which was then situated in the north of the megapolis. As we drove and Ahsan explained his passion, I saw several of these ambulances deployed at different strategic points to quickly respond to those in need.

We pulled up in front of a nondescript building, and walked through a long driveway into a neat office, clean and well organised. Young women in crisp green uniforms and headphones sat at their stations lined in a row along the wall. In front of them were laminated sheets of paper outlining the protocols they needed to follow with questions and directives when anybody called to report an emergency. Some uniformed young men were busy in a glass-enclosed cubicle in one corner, seeing to other operations.

On one wall hung a huge screen with a map of the city, featuring little red flags to mark the locations of the ambulances. Every move they made could be followed. It was quiet when we entered, but then the phone calls started coming in, keeping most of the operators busy. Repeating their questions: where are you precisely, can you give the name of a nearby street, no, please ma’am, don’t turn the person who is hurt on his back, sit next to him, talk to him, don’t worry, we’re on our way… While talking, they simultaneously flipped their meticulously spiral-bound protocols and typed in important information, like level of injury and exact location of the accident or emergency illness. In a small cubicle in the corner of the office, three young men, also in uniform, gave orders into their phones and before you knew it the red flagged dots on the screen started to move: ambulance drivers on their way.

The Emergency Medical Dispatch desk

The Emergency Medical Dispatch desk

Ahsan stood in the room clearly happy to bear witness to a smooth operation run by capable employees who had only just started this new enterprise.

In a poor country like Pakistan, a rescue operation that rushes you to a hospital after an unfortunate accident can’t be taken for granted. It is not something your government naturally provides for. Life is cheap in general and governments are distant bodies that can’t be relied on. Health services are often poor, with government hospitals providing subsidised, but often inadequate treatment. If you want better treatment, it will cost you. There are many things in Pakistan that could be improved that are screaming for help — education, health and housing are just a few of the problems in a sea of need. So where does one start if one has the means to help, to make things better?

Arif Naqvi, a few years senior to Ahsan at school in Karachi, had a dream long before he took off to the Middle East to make his fortune as an entrepreneur. His fortune he made — but he never lost his love for Karachi, the city he grew up in. And now that he had the means, he was determined to do something to help make things better.

Over the years, during the course of their lives, getting married, having children, and making their way in the world, he and Ahsan occasionally ran into each other. Ahsan had always done his bit to help others in his own way — helping a poor cleaning woman’s daughter to get an education, donating to private charity initiatives. Nothing extraordinary, just what most middleclass Karachiites do as they go about their lives, very aware of those in less fortunate positions than themselves.

Meanwhile, Arif Naqvi wanted to use his money to fulfil a dream: an enterprise unspoiled by corruption or mismanagement, a project he could leave to somebody capable and trustworthy. In August 2008, Ahsan joined hands with Arif to help him set up and shape Aman Foundation. This was a life-changing moment for both.

Arif Naqvi’s Aman Trust seeded Aman Foundation with USD 100 million to help achieve its mission of championing “dignity and choice for the underserved in Pakistan through sustainable, scalable, and systemic development in the areas of health and education”, with a special focus on capacity building and female empowerment.

The money has to be spent in less than a decade constructing a reliable and eventually self-sustaining Foundation, with impactful social businesses fulfilling its mission.

Karachi: Dial 111-11-2626 for prompt and efficient health care

Karachi: Dial 111-11-2626 for prompt and efficient health care

Alongside the Aman Ambulance project, which has already conducted more than 400,000 interventions in Pakistan including flood-relief, preparations were made to launch a vocational training institute for boys and girls. It was an enormous project set up in a refurbished former warehouse in Karachi’s Korangi industrial area. Currently headed by the former regional CEO of Philips, the Institute, called Amantech, provides students access to all kinds of technical skills at a subsidised cost.

State-of-the-art classrooms equipped with all kinds of motor engines and machines to provide students with critical hands-on, practical training. However, the lure of attending an internationally accredited course with guaranteed jobs abroad and at home tops it all. Scholarships are provided to deserving students who despite the subsidy cannot afford to pay. So far, over 200 students have been accommodated in various organisations in Pakistan and abroad, I learnt.

The grounds of the school are vast. There will be a pool, a cricket field and all sorts of other facilities for boys and girls. In the weekend, when the campus is empty, other schools and organisations can make use of them. The ones who can pay, will pay; those who can’t will be welcome without cost. In a society where rich are often filthy rich and poor are extremely poor, this is Ahsan’s way of distributing wealth in an equal way.

Ahsan aims to make the Aman ambulance service financially self-reliant in the long term, while ensuring that those who don’t have the means to pay will not be left on the street. This is a concept he has to hammer into the heads of his fellow citizens. This is a concept that they are not used to, and for that, there is mistrust. For Ahsan, it’s crucial to get the message across. The practice now is that when an accident takes place — which is often — the bystanders turn away as quickly as possible. One never knows who will come after you and force you into testimony that will cost you in the end. As a consequence, the bleeding, suffering person is often left without any help. That’s one of the many ways lives are lost in this city.

He believes that with fully equipped interiors and trained staff (often including doctors), it would be a waste to use the vehicles merely for corpse transport.

Ahsan has learnt along the way. As he points out, many of the hospitals or rather so-called hospitals in this city are nothing more than mere buildings with beds. There have been many instances in which a nurse or doctor on the ambulance has been summoned to deal with this unsolvable dilemma. A dilemma that, in numerous cases, drove home the awareness that these state of the art ambulances are a solution to only one aspect of the problem, which formulates small speck of an inadequate system.

An Aman Telehealth doctor explaining how it works. Photos by Beena Sarwar

An Aman Telehealth doctor explaining how it works. Photos by Beena Sarwar

To the Aman team, it was soon clear that apart from the ambulance fleet it was essential to upgrade health facilities throughout the city. This led to the idea of the community health workers and telehealth programmes that have now materialised. The Aman Community Health Program and Aman Telehealth ensure that healthcare can reach the under-served, providing access especially to women who are often confined to their homes.

Since its inception in 2008 with the school feeding programme — Aman Ghar (1.7+ million meals served to-date) — the Aman dream has come a long way. However, it still has a long way to go, transforming millions of lives along the way. With global organisations such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, British Asian Trust and Fundacion Real Madrid joining hands with Aman Foundation, there is finally some positive news towards collaborative growth for social projects coming out from Pakistan.

Since I last met Ahsan, Aman Foundation has launched various other initiatives that have been making a difference in the lives of those ravaged the most by poverty, unrest and conflict in the city. They include: Teach For Pakistan, Amansports, BasicNeeds Pakistan and INJAZ Pakistan — all of which focus on the promotion of education and health to the under-served of Pakistan.

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