In my endeavour to capture the opinions and accomplishments of prominent leaders in the Sindh Development sector, I had the privilege of speaking with Suleman G Abro, the esteemed Founder as well President of the Sindh Agriculture and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organisation (SAFWCO). After confirming his availability, I eagerly made my way to his office, which I located easily. Despite its modest appearance, the office exemplified efficiency in every aspect. It was impeccably organised, devoid of any clutter, and each item had its designated place, radiating an aura of competence and purpose. A delicate bouquet of flowers graced a side table, infusing the room with a gentle scent of lavender. The atmosphere was conducive to relaxation and inspired creativity.
Allow me to introduce you to Suleman G Abro. Originally from Shahdadpur, now a taluka in the Sanghar District, Suleman G Abro has been passionately involved in social development since his school days. In fact, he has spearheaded the establishment of numerous social and cultural associations in his hometown and neighbouring towns. In the 1980s, he became acquainted with left-leaning groups based in Karachi, which proved to be a pivotal experience. Regularly attending their meetings and engaging in enlightening conversations with esteemed leaders of the time, he was exposed to new thoughts and ideas. These fortnightly gatherings played an instrumental role in reshaping his worldview and defining his role within society.
Presently, Suleman Abro holds the esteemed position of leading one of the most prominent organisations in the region, overseeing a wide array of impactful projects. These include initiatives centred on women's empowerment, climate change resilience, disaster risk reduction, and microfinance banking. During our extensive interview, Abro shared his invaluable insights and perspectives. Here are some excerpts.
Zaffar Junejo (ZJ): Earlier, you talked about your hardships. How do you reflect upon your journey?
Suleman Abro (SA): Honestly, my journey was not extraordinary compared to other rural children in small towns. In the late 1960s, my childhood in Shahdadpur was filled with routine – school, assisting my parents with their daily chores, and playing with friends who were either classmates or neighbours. However, during my teenage years, my family faced significant financial difficulties for a considerable period of time. Looking back now, I realise it was a common problem faced by a particular social class, although the extent and nature of the hardships varied. To cope with the situation, I took up part-time jobs while continuing my education. This experience instilled in me the values of hard work, perseverance and resilience.
ZJ: Could you tell me more about the type of part-time jobs you were engaged in?
SA: My first venture into the working world was as a laundry aide, a role that I fondly consider my apprenticeship phase. Picture me sorting, pressing and neatly folding clothes with utmost care. It was a hands-on job that taught me the importance of attention to detail. But let me tell you about another job I had during those days. You see, in Sindh, and perhaps in other parts of Pakistan, shopkeepers would embark on shop repairs after closing time. And Thursday nights were ideal, as Friday marked the much-awaited day off. So, I would find myself amidst the hustle and bustle of shop repairs and renovations.
Those were challenging times indeed, but within those challenges, I nurtured a steadfast dream of pursuing higher education and carving out a better future, and even do something for society. This dream became my guiding star, propelling me forward with unwavering motivation and focus. And as destiny would have it, I eventually landed a job at Shahdadpur's Market Committee, starting as a lower clerk. I think those days taught me resilience and determination.
ZJ: What interesting occurrence do you recall from those days?
SA: There is one particular memory that never fails to bring a smile to my face. I would often pluck a fine dress from the showcase at the dry-cleaning shop where I worked, wear it, and attend my evening college classes in Shahdadpur. It was a thrill-seeking adventure, and what made it all the more exciting was the approval and understanding of the shop owner. I would repeat this once or twice a week. I always feel a sense of gratitude towards the owner for his kindness and trust. Even today, the recollection of that act reminds one of the unique experiences that shaped my journey.
ZJ: How did you manage to balance your education and part-time job?
SA: Balancing education and part-time work was indeed a challenge, a delicate tightrope walk, so to speak. If I dedicated too much time to my part-time job, I would inevitably miss out on my classes. On the other hand, if I spent too much time attending college, my part-time responsibilities would suffer. Striking the right balance was difficult, to say the least.
ZJ: So, how did you navigate through the challenge?
SA: Looking back, I can say that during those days, I was fuelled by deep motivation and unwavering determination. I was an idealist, with dreams and aspirations that kept my spirits soaring. The realisation of those dreams instilled a strong sense of responsibility within me. I knew that I had to effectively manage my part-time jobs, academic studies, and commitments. In addition, I actively engaged in community service, organizing medical camps and motivating people to seek assistance. These endeavours nurtured a sense of social responsibility and compassion for the common people. While there were immense difficulties and challenges along the way, I remained resolute in pursuing my dreams. I worked tirelessly to continue my education and sought out opportunities to serve others. It was a journey where failure and success danced hand in hand, shaping my character, boosting my confidence, and fostering resilience in the face of adversity. Ultimately, my perseverance paid off. I obtained my Bachelor of Arts degree and went on to earn a Masters and LLB. The combination of education, life experiences, and my commitment to serving others shaped my destiny.
ZJ: How would you summarise those days for our readers?
SA: Reflecting upon those days, I realise that my personal experience is a testament to how difficulties, dreams, and a sense of responsibility can mould one’s destiny. By embracing challenges, pursuing aspirations, and taking ownership of our actions, individuals can chart their own paths, overcome obstacles, and create lives that are both fulfilling and impactful. It is through the crucible of adversity that we discover our true potential and shape our own destinies. I would say that perseverance and a sense of purpose can lead to remarkable transformations.
ZJ: How was your involvement in welfare and volunteer work influenced by like-minded leaders of the 1980s? How did they shape your ideas?
SA: There were several individuals who had a significant impact on me during that time. One of them was Dr Suleman Shikh. I also had the opportunity to interact with Karamat Ali and his friends, such as Omer Asghar, Muhammad Tahseen, Ms Nighat Saeed Khan, the late Ms Kamla Bhasin and Muneer Chandio, during regular meetings at Karamat's office in Karachi. These meetings provided a platform for deep conversations, alternative viewpoints, and valuable insights. They served as role models who challenged the oppressive regime of General Zia-ul-Haq and inspired us to dream of a better future. Their guidance, mentorship, and commitment to social, cultural, and political change were instrumental in shaping my understanding of justice and equality. It is important to note that these discussions were a response to the specific circumstances of that time. While I cannot recall the exact details of my interactions with each individual, their collective influence motivated me to take tangible action. These conversations expanded my knowledge, encouraged me to question assumptions, and provided the emotional support and validation needed to initiate meaningful work.
ZJ: How does the formation of SAFWCO relate to those discussions?
SA: It's difficult to pinpoint a direct link, but undoubtedly, those discussions created a foundation and pushed me towards taking concrete steps. Engaging, with like-minded friends in those conversations helped me refine my ideas, challenge existing norms, and gain the confidence to make a difference.
ZJ: How, then, did you begin your work?
SA: In the late 1980s, along with my sister and some friends, I was actively involved in social work, particularly in studying the problems faced by people in various villages. Prior to that, we had formed a Shahdadpur-based organisation called ‘Samaj Sudhar Adabi Idara.’ Our initial activities included organizing medical camps, distributing books to local school students, and celebrating cultural events. Later, we joined the Sindh Graduates Association (SGA), which allowed us to expand the scope of our activities. During this time, a villager made me realise that before conducting welfare activities like medical camps, there was a need to address basic infrastructure issues such as access to clean drinking water, electricity, roads, schools and healthcare facilities. This realisation became a turning point for us, and the discussions I had in Karachi helped me focus on these priorities. We continued our work with a renewed vision.
In 1986, the SAFWCO was established, and our first funding came from the South Asia Partnership (SAP-Pk Lahore). This funding supported enterprise development, women's health, and education in rural areas through social mobilisation. I would also like to express our gratitude to the Netherlands-based Novib, which provided support for institutional development and helped us acquire computers and furniture. I hope this provides a clearer understanding of the journey and the role played by those discussions in shaping our work.
ZJ: You have worked with grassroots organisations and now manage a highly structured organisation and have also collaborated with various governments and donors. What changes have you noticed in the last two decades?
SA: Certainly, I have observed significant changes over the years. However, I would like to focus on how governments' priorities, policies, and external factors have shaped the development sector. To be honest, most governments' policies have tended to be controlling rather than facilitating. If I look back at the past two decades, there have been numerous policies that have limited the scope for NGOs and the development sector. There is a long list of examples, but I will highlight a few. Firstly, the government laws and regulations have been overly restrictive, making the process of registering under these laws lengthy and burdensome. One notable example is the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). This law imposes limitations on the use and transfer of foreign funds, requiring NGOs to seek prior approval for receiving such contributions. Additionally, there are monitoring and reporting requirements, as well as security concerns and sector-specific regulations. As a result, we can say that legislation and other measures have directed the focus of NGOs and the development sector towards interventions that are less people-centred. This means that certain sectors, particularly those focused on rights-based projects, have experienced a considerable shrinkage. Overall, these policies and external factors have influenced the development sector in a way that has constrained its ability to address the diverse needs of communities effectively. The shift towards more control-oriented policies has had an impact on the overall effectiveness and reach of NGOs and grassroots organisations in their mission to bring about positive change.
ZJ: I believe SAFWCO’s first donor-funded project was focused on women – enterprise development and education etc, and now one of your organisations the SAFCO Microfinance Company (Private) has launched its 1st Women Exclusive Branch. How do you see such focused development interventions in the context of the empowerment of women?
SA: Let me be honest with you, in Pakistan, women's development programs or initiatives have typically revolved around government policies and plans, international community efforts, and now, the commercial sector. Looking back, I would categorise women-focused interventions into the following broader categories: 1.Gender equality and women's rights: programs that prioritise gender equality and women's rights; 2. Education and literacy: programs focused on mobilizing school admissions, empowering women, and promoting gender equality in education; 3. Economic empowerment: initiatives aimed at promoting women's economic empowerment; 4. Health and reproductive rights: programs that address women's health issues and reproductive health and rights; 5. Political participation: efforts to increase women's political participation and leadership; 6. Social and cultural change: Initiatives targeting the reduction of gender inequality and discrimination; 7. Networking and collaboration: collaborative efforts to amplify the impact of women's development initiatives through networking. Encouragingly, SAFWCO has implemented projects in all of these areas, playing a vital role in combating gender-based violence, providing support services to survivors, and raising awareness about the importance of gender-sensitive healthcare.
Now, let's address your point regarding SAFCO Microfinance Company's 1st Women Exclusive Branch. This project is a result of various push and pull factors, including finance sector’s policies and guidelines. However, there are other reasons as well. The number of women entrepreneurs is increasing day by day, and advancements in technology and communication have reduced physical barriers, enabling women to seek advice and communicate more easily. Additionally, changes in social dynamics at local and regional levels have created new business avenues and opportunities for small businesses, promoting inclusion. Therefore, our current initiative can be seen as recognition of women's presence in new types of businesses and a testament to our vision of inclusion.
ZJ: Recently, you have published biographical literature. How do you comment on this?
SA: I believe that ‘development’ is not a static phenomenon but a dynamic and ever-evolving process. In this context, biographical literature, with its narrative and explanatory qualities, plays a significant role in shaping society, politics, and culture. Biographical literature preserves history by providing compelling narratives of the past, humanises historical figures by showcasing their complexities, inspires individuals through the stories of accomplished individuals, offers social and cultural critique, enhances our understanding of political leaders, and promotes cultural exploration and representation.
No doubt, through its power to captivate, educate, and provoke thought, biographical literature enriches our collective knowledge, shapes our perspectives, and fosters a deeper appreciation for the multifaceted nature of the human experience.
Recently, we have published a biographical book on the life and times of Advocate Yousif Laghari. The book encapsulates Laghari's activism during his student days, his political and public engagements. I believe that this biography serves several purposes: For instance, it contextualises important events in which Laghari Sahib participated; helps readers relate to him, fostering empathy and a deeper understanding of his actions and decision showcases his journey, and provoke critical thinking.
In brief, I would say that biographical literature plays a crucial role in shaping our understanding of the past, inspiring us in the present, and fostering a more inclusive and enlightened society. Let me assure you that our biographical series will prove to be a valuable tool for understanding the past, present, and future. It will contribute significantly to our societal, political, and cultural landscapes.
ZJ: Before ending this vibrant session, allow me to ask: What are the current conditional factors for development?
SA: It requires further debate, but upon quick reflection and analysis, several factors have emerged as conditional for development. These factors include: 1) Political Context: The extent to which there is space for human rights, social justice, and the inclusion of marginalised communities within the political landscape; 2) Legal and Regulatory Framework: The presence of policies that facilitate the functioning, accountability, and transparency of the development sector, ensuring that it operates in an ethical and responsible manner; 3) Donor Support and International Influence: The support provided by donors and the influence of international actors in setting development priorities, strategies, and promoting the professionalisation of the sector by encouraging the adoption of international best practices; 4) Collaboration and Networking: The ability to collaborate with various stakeholders, including other organisations and networks, to amplify the impact of development initiatives, coordinate advocacy campaigns, and advocate for policy changes that align with development goals; 5) Technology and Communication: The efficient use of digital platforms and technology to enhance visibility, mobilise support, and facilitate effective communication and information sharing; 6) Response to Changed Social Dynamics: The ability to respond to emerging issues and societal demands, such as gender equality, human rights, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion, by adapting development approaches and strategies accordingly.
These factors, when adequately addressed and managed, can open up new horizons for the development sector in Sindh as well as Pakistan, leading to more impactful and sustainable outcomes.
ZJ: Last question: What's your message for young development professionals?
SA: I congratulate young development professionals! Their passion, dedication, and belief in progress will be their guiding lights. They have to connected and collaborate with their peers in the development community, embrace the resilience and strength of the individuals they encounter in impoverished villages, town and slums of cities. Let those poor & ignored peoples’ stories fuel their determination. However, during moments of doubt, reflect on the vision of a just, equitable, and sustainable world that have inspired them. They shouldn’t forget that their work matters, and their contributions are invaluable. Really, they have to be hopeful and believe – change is inevitable.