Building a Disability-Friendly Workplace: Why Includability Matters

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Health, Labour


An includable leader knows that not everyone comes from the same space with the same privileges. They are aware of systemic barriers that dictate interactions between people of different genders, classes, or abilities, according to the author. Credit: United Nations - Awareness of differences is not the barrier to includability. It is the inability to create a common ground for dialogue, which requires strategic planning and building competency

An includable leader knows that not everyone comes from the same space with the same privileges. They are aware of systemic barriers that dictate interactions between people of different genders, classes, or abilities, according to the author. Credit: United Nations

BENGALURU, India, Dec 2 2021 (IPS) – In her famous speech ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us against a singular narrative of a person—a stereotype. This, Adichie asserts, is not because stereotypes are untrue, but because they are incomplete—“They make one story become the only story.” This is true in all walks of life, including in our interactions with people with disabilities at workplaces.

The consequence of the single story, according to Adichie, is that it robs people of dignity. “It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Take the example of my brother, Hari. He topped the MBA programme in Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. He has a visual disability, and he managed his education with the help of audio cassettes, screen reader software, and the internet. But when it came to his placement, none of the employers wanted to hire him because of his ‘blindness’. He went through 70 interviews.

To go beyond the differences, leaders must focus on the commonalities between them and the person they are interacting with. To be an includable leader, one must do away with the us-versus-them narrative

The problem was not that the interviewers saw him as a person with vision impairment, but that they could see only one ‘story’ of him—his disability. It created fear and discomfort, and took precedence over any other stories that would have helped the interviewers see his personality, conduct the interview, and gauge his competence.

They focused so much on how he was different from them that they did not even try to look for similarities. Hari likes cricket, a sport with billions of admirers across the country, and this could have been a conversation starter for some of them. Or someone could have simply said, “Hey, I have never met a blind person. How do I interview you?”

EnAble India’s idea of includability—the ability to include—emerged from this and many other experiences I had with leaders, managers, and employees across organisations. I realised that awareness of differences is not the barrier to includability. It is the inability to create a common ground for dialogue, which requires strategic planning and building competency.

What is includability quotient?

Becoming an includable leader requires cultivating what we call an includability quotient (IncQ)—a competency framework for leaders on how to include diverse people in their organisation. A leader with a high IncQ is able to get the most out of their team, and is guided by three broad principles:

1. Internalising the landscape

An includable leader knows that not everyone comes from the same space with the same privileges. They are aware of systemic barriers that dictate interactions between people of different genders, classes, or abilities. They are also aware of how these barriers intersect, and actively plan strategies to overcome them.

For example, disability, lack of access to education, and poverty are often interlinked. To overcome this, we urged the leaders in a multinational corporation (MNC) we had worked with to hire persons with disabilities who had earned diplomas—for a position for which a degree was otherwise necessary.

The leader took the right decision to hire and provided a level playing field to overcome the inequities which come with the landscape. Their next step was to offer the employees a scholarship to pursue their degree later. Similarly, there are information technology (IT) companies that provide a loan for modified two-wheelers to people with disabilities for easy access to the workplace. In each example, the leader used their competency to distinguish a level playing field from an ‘excuse’.

2. Normalising the differences

To go beyond the differences, a leader must focus on the commonalities between them and the person they are interacting with. An includable leader does not function with an us-versus-them narrative. They actively try to facilitate conversations by using appropriate language and triggers.

However, like all conversations, this normalisation of differences is a two-way process. Employees with disabilities must be equipped with self-advocacy tools that help them to identify as more than their disability. The tools can include hobbies, adjectives, and aspirations that might spark an exchange.

For example, when a leader met Ajay*, a person with intellectual disability who is 38 years old and speaks in monosyllables, the leader didn’t know what to say. However, when Ajay presented them with a card where he described himself as a cricket lover and as Mr Dependable, the leader asked him about cricket. With this topic, Ajay gradually opened up and spoke a couple of sentences. The leader could see his personality, which may not have been possible if only the term ‘intellectual disability’ was ringing in his head.

In another instance, a manager had to familiarise his interns with domain-related video content in an American accent. To make it easier for the interns who might have found a non-Indian accent a barrier to understanding, the manager first introduced similar content in an Indian accent to them. This was a learner-centric approach that worked for people from different backgrounds.

3. Changing expectations    

Every person is capable of growth. Our inadequacy as leaders and managers is that at times we fail to remember this. An includable leader uses appreciative inquiry (AI)—an evaluation mechanism that focuses on the strengths rather than the weaknesses of an employee. This is applicable to employees coming from all kinds of spaces—be it a person with or without disability. And it is done with the belief that what you focus on will grow.

Whenever a new employee joins the team, the leader figures out their strengths and gains an understanding of the systemic barriers they face. From here both of them can go on to co-create solutions. Once this is done, the boundaries need to be pushed by focusing on the employee’s strengths.

Take, for instance, the case of an MNC that hired a person with intellectual disability for an internship. In the initial days, the intern mostly interacted with their manager and a colleague who was assigned to them as a buddy. With time the intern was made to attend presentations, which interested them enough to want to present on their own.

The MNC’s strategy was to make the intern speak on any topic of their choice for five minutes to a small team. As a second step, the management provided the intern with the topic to speak on. And, finally, the intern was asked to make a formal presentation to a larger team.

The MNC’s process of gradually moving the metre helped the intern gain confidence to speak in front of people and accumulate technical knowledge from the interactions. This kind of intervention helps employees not only in their current job but also going forward in their career. Additionally, a leader skilled enough to design and implement such a process gathers the confidence to work with team members from various facets of society.

Lessons for nonprofits

These are not easy lessons to learn for even the most eager leaders and managers—not because they do not want to engage, but often because they do not have a language to communicate their guilt, worries, and discomfort when they encounter a person they see as different from themselves.

Finding that common language requires a leader and a colleague to first learn to self-include. This involves feeling comfortable about themselves by gaining awareness of their own space, which comes with its own difficulties. It includes being able to speak openly about their problems and concerns—be it personal or professional. It is only then that a workplace can become truly inclusive.

As facilitators working with organisations, our job is to make space for these conversations at various levels. This requires us to build a nuanced understanding of the various elements that form an organisation—only then can we come up with tools, methods, and strategies. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt over the years:

1. An includable workplace is more than the leader

While speaking with and educating leaders is an essential part of creating an inclusive workplace, the idea needs to travel across the organisation. The leadership has to play the role of an implementer in bringing changes at various levels. This includes individuals being comfortable with and understanding the needs of a colleague with disability, as well as people with disabilities being able to assert an identity that is more than their disability.

2. ‘Peacetime’ interactions go a long way

We have seen that people with disabilities and those without have more fruitful interactions when these are facilitated during ‘peacetime’—an informal, non-work setting. For instance, when a person without disability studies with a person with disability at school or when they work together as volunteers, there’s a chance that they might be able to build a sustainable bond that’s beyond notions of ability and disability. Peacetime creates an exposure opportunity where the knowing and acceptance happens in a non-threatening way.

3. Facilitators need to keep introspecting

Conversations around disabilities demand a space of vulnerability. This is true for participants across the intersections of people with disabilities, non-profit facilitators working with people with disabilities, and leaders. It is easy to form attachments, look out for each other, and become protective of each other. However, as facilitators, we must be wary of our actions that stem from these emotions.

Our well-intentioned protectiveness can stand in the way of a person being able to push their limits and prepare for the competitive world of employment. This is a clear deviation from our own idea of building together a more equitable world. Thus, we need to constantly evaluate our actions. Because that equitable world—in Adichie’s words, “a kind of a paradise”—will emerge not from our guilt or pity, but from our rejection of the singular narratives of individuals.

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

With contributions from Gayatri Gulvady.

Shanti Raghavan, the author of this article, is a social entrepreneur and the co-founder of EnAble India, which works towards providing economic independence to persons with disability

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: What Went Wrong During India’s COVID-19 Response

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Health


During the pandemic, there was little support from the government when it came to making funding and resources available to the nonprofits that were working closely with communities. | Picture courtesy: Digital Empowerment Foundation

Nov 23 2021 (IPS) – From its devastating economic impact and the migrant crisis to the startling death toll, the COVID-19 pandemic in India unfurled one crisis after the other. The glaring gaps in our system, which had always been there, became even more prominent during the pandemic. There is one question at the back of everyone’s mind that still remains unanswered: What went wrong?

No entity can operate in isolation, be it the government, the private sector, or civil society. During times of crisis, the government must ensure that all cogs in the wheel continue to work effectively. Civil society—local communities and nonprofits—must enable delivery of public services up until the last mile. And, finally, the private sector needs to step up in terms of financial resources and leveraging of networks and influence.

Nonprofits in 13 states and union territories were able to provide meals to more people during the lockdown than the concerned state governments – Would a collaborative relationship between the government and the social sector have aided a better response to the COVID-19 crisis?

However, when the pandemic was at its peak in India, these three entities failed to come together and work collaboratively to cushion the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the people.

The missing link between the government and the social sector

According to our village-level digital entrepreneurs in the SoochnaPreneur programme at Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), the four essential systems that were massively hit by the pandemic were education, healthcare, finance, and citizen entitlements. When the pandemic was raging, our SoochnaPreneurs reported that all people wanted was food and rations, a device to access online education for their children, the ability to talk to a doctor or health worker to learn how to keep themselves safe, and to make some money to meet their daily needs from the confines of their homes. Ironically, given the stringent nature of the lockdowns, all this needed access to the internet.

However, across the country, lack of access to resources, high levels of digital illiteracy, and the deepening digital divide exacerbated by the pandemic acted as major roadblocks in India’s COVID-19 response. Even as the government announced relief packages—food grains and cash payments—the mechanisms of delivery to beneficiaries at the last mile were unclear.

For instance, common service centres (CSCs), which are supposed to work as access points that enable digital delivery of services such as banking and finance across rural India, were mostly non-functional. During the pandemic, the government claimed that people could use their local CSCs to access various digital services including telehealth and registration for vaccinations. However, like any other office, shop, or business centre, almost all CSCs had closed their operations due to the strict lockdown rules in various states.

With government services not always being available, the social sector stepped up. Whether it was making access to digital tools and digital literacy a priority or the distribution of essentials, nonprofits across the country filled in the gaps. According to one report, nonprofits in 13 states and union territories were able to provide meals to more people during the lockdown than the concerned state governments.

The question that arises is: Would a collaborative relationship between the government and the social sector have aided a better response to the COVID-19 crisis?

For instance, the distribution of food grains could have been made efficient from the get-go if, rather than having long queues of people waiting at shops, organisations with the digital know-how had been allowed to deliver ration at the doorsteps of people with a biometric machine in hand. This synchronisation and management of resources is something that should have been under the government’s purview, while a partnership with civil society organisations could have helped with execution and delivery. Considering that hundreds of thousands of nonprofits working at the grassroots were tasked as frontline workers, the government could have tapped into this already existing infrastructure and network.

The lack of trust between the social sector and the government didn’t help. During the pandemic, there was little support from the government when it came to making funding and resources available to the nonprofits that were working closely with communities. For instance, while local nonprofits worked as service providers during the pandemic, funds lying with local government bodies could have been diverted to their operations to successfully navigate the panic-like situation brought on by the first lockdown when everything came to a halt.

The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2020, also imposed difficult conditions on what could be considered eligible expenses for nonprofit organisations, thus creating more obstacles in raising and distributing crucial aid. Even as the prime minister called for nonprofits to step in, many organisations found their hands tied due to certain rules imposed in the middle of the pandemic.

Moreover, during the first lockdown, there was a diversion of CSR funds to PM Cares. At present, not only is there a lack of transparency on how these funds have been deployed, but this diversion of funds has also been a huge blow to nonprofits who have been struggling to look after their own employees and their organisations while providing relief to communities on the ground.

The private sector did not step up either

There was lack of communication and collaboration across business, and a piecemeal approach was adopted. Industry associations could have encouraged CEOs and company heads to interact with each other and solve issues on a larger scale. For instance, industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), and Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) could have deployed their resources to help manage the mass migration of workers from industrial towns and urban centres more systematically and humanely.

In pre-pandemic times, CSR within corporates would ask nonprofits to work in areas where they have manufacturing facilities and offer localised support. Corporates could have extended this reasoning during the lockdown as well and enlisted the support of their nonprofit partners to help those workers and informal sector migrants who were homebound, while providing the nonprofits with the required monetary and infrastructure support.

There was also a reluctance from corporates to innovate in times of need. Since DEF works on digital integration to fight poverty, we reached out to many CSR funders to provide funds for buying smartphones, tablets, projectors, and other electronic devices to provide digital infrastructure in the villages. However, it took us more than a year to convince some of them to help us offer support to people with no digital access and empowerment through our Digital Daan initiative.

It is important to contextualise the social and economic support at the time of disaster and that can happen only if there is a relationship of trust between the stakeholders.

What the social sector could have done better

The onset of the pandemic brought with it uncertainty for most nonprofits. In addition to lack of funding and overstretched resources, many nonprofits had to take up the role of relief workers and divert efforts from their primary objectives, which would have been domestic violence, child protection, water and sanitation, and so on.

One important factor missing in this entire conversation was the inability of many nonprofits to adopt digital tools to improve operations, efficiency, and delivery of services. While webinars became a recurring feature in their calendars, thus creating a space for knowledge sharing, grassroots nonprofits were often not a part of these dialogues. Smaller nonprofits were also overwhelmed with work on the ground due to the needs of their communities coupled with inadequate support from either their funders or governments; hence, many of them had little time or resources to think or build their capacity to go digital.

The pandemic did however push several nonprofits to adopt digital tools for operations and delivery of services. Larger nonprofits with their own networks, adequate funding, and a strong digital presence were able to leverage digital platforms. However, many of the smaller nonprofits and those at the frontlines had to innovate to reach beneficiaries digitally.

Moreover, with the government aggressively pushing Digital India—from telehealth to online education and even the vaccine roll-out—it became imperative for organisations to incorporate digital and technological solutions in their everyday operations. Many nonprofits therefore had to work on building in-house digital capacity and infrastructure during the pandemic, while also serving their communities and raising funds.

In the case of mobilising money, digital platforms could have been a powerful tool for the sector, and they did help many nonprofits raise funds. However, this was not the case for the entire social sector.

According to the India Giving Report 2021 by the Charities Aid Foundation, individual donations were at an all-time high during the pandemic. Crowdfunding platforms such as GiveIndia provided people easy access to donate to various causes. However, this giving may not have been as diversified—the absence of reliable information online acted as a barrier for many givers while donating. Therefore, givers may have chosen to stick to organisations they trusted. And many local nonprofits with limited digital know-how had to rely on local giving or local resource mobilisation.

For example, our colleague Mohamed Arif, whom we lost in the second wave, was in charge of DEF’s digital centre at Nuh, Haryana. He was digitally savvy and active on social media and was thus able to raise approximately INR 25 lakh (in cash and food grains, and other essentials) through his personal Facebook profile and networks.

However, while the pandemic did push many nonprofits to incorporate technology-led solutions, I find that urgency dwindling again. Digital empowerment of the sector requires sustained efforts wherein organisations put aside certain funds every year for digitally upskilling their employees, maintaining digital collaterals, and modifying their approach to include technology in their everyday operations.

I see the pandemic as an inflection point in the future of nonprofits and civil society as a whole. Which organisations survive this period of transition will largely depend on how well they can adapt to these changing times. According to me, one of the key changes the sector will have to make to stay relevant is to become more digitally aligned.

Osama Manzar, the author of this article, is the founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation. He is a Senior Ashoka Fellow, a Chevening Scholar, and has served on several boards such as the Association for Affordable Internet, Association of Progressive Communications, World Summit Awards, and Down To Earth. He specialises in creating digital models for poverty alleviation and has travelled to more than 10,000 villages. Get in touch with him on Twitter: @osamamanzar

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


Citizen Leads Drive to Repatriate Temple Gods Looted from India – Podcast

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Multimedia, Podcast, TerraViva United Nations


KATHMANDU, Nov 18 2021 (IPS) – The illicit trade in idols and other historical treasures looted from temples, archaeological digs and various sites globally has been estimated at $100 billion a year.

A more telling figure might be the nearly 18,000 villagers in India’s Tamil Nadu state who turned out to welcome home a god figure stolen from one of their temples. More revealing still is the image of a single villager who, seeing a stolen god displayed in a Singapore Museum, falls to the ground and starts to pray.

Vijay Kumar accompanied that villager to the museum, and has witnessed idols lovingly replaced to their ages-old spots in Tamil Nadu temples.

For 16 years he has been working to repatriate gods and goddesses looted from India over the years, and the challenges remain huge, he tells us in today’s episode. For example, in 2020, police seized 19,000 stolen artefacts in an international art trafficking crackdown. 101 suspects were arrested with treasures from around the world, including Colombian and Roman antiquities. One activist estimates that in France alone there are 116,000 African objects that should be returned.

But Vijay is encouraged by the successes of citizen-led movements like his own, which began with a blog, Poetry in Stone, then the launch of the group India Pride Project.

Success can be measured in the growing number of artefacts returned to India: 19, from 1970-2000; 0, from 2000-2013; but 300+ after 2013. That includes roughly 250 items valued at about $15 million, which were repatriated in October, among the treasures looted by disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor, the subject of Vijay’s book, The Idol Thief.

Today’s conversation is packed with information, including Vijay’s opinion that countries like India and Nepal, where idols are part of the living heritage and still prayed to daily, should be treated differently than countries whose artefacts are looted from buried remains. He also has advice for would-be activists — in the murky world of art repatriation, be very, very wary about accepting money from anyone.


From Taliban to Taliban: Cycle of Hope, Despair on Women’s Rights

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, TerraViva United Nations


Heather Barr is associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch

Taliban violations of the rights of women and girls are uniquely extreme. No other country openly bars girls from studying on the basis of gender. Credit: 2017 Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch

LONDON, Oct 29 2021 (IPS) – Secondary schools have reopened for boys but remain closed to the vast majority of girls. Women are banned from most employment; the Taliban government added insult to injury by saying women in their employ could keep their jobs only if they were in a role a man cannot fill—such as being an attendant in a women’s toilet. Women are mostly out of university, and due to new restrictions it is unclear when and how they can return. Many female teachers have been dismissed.

The policy of requiring a mahram, a male family member as chaperone, to accompany any woman leaving her home, is not in place according to a Kabul official but Taliban members on the street are still sometimes enforcing it, as well as harassing women about their clothing. The Taliban have systematically closed down shelters for women and girls fleeing domestic violence. Women’s sports have been banned.

The Taliban have appointed an all-male cabinet. They abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and handed over the women’s ministry building to the reinstated Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which was responsible for some of the worst abuses against women during the Taliban’s previous period in power from 1996 to 2001.

This was the situation two months after the Taliban had regained control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, as the US and its allies departed, wrapping up their 20-year engagement in Afghanistan’s 40-year war.

Afghan women are fighting for their rights. They tried to negotiate with the Taliban, and when that failed, they protested. The Taliban broke up their protests, beating protesters and the journalists covering the protests, and then banned unauthorized protest.

The US and the whole international community seem a bit stunned and unsure of what to do. It forms a sadly perfect bookend to the days after the 9/11 attacks, when the US and its allies grieved and raged and then emphasized Taliban abuses of women and girls to help them build support for their invasion of Afghanistan.

The US has long had an uneven—and self-serving—track record on defending women’s rights abroad. But the US is not alone being unsure of what to do to protect the rights of women and girls under Taliban rule.

Even governments priding themselves on their commitment to women’s rights have struggled to find solutions. They have also struggled to make the rights of Afghan women and girls a top priority at a moment when troop-contributing nations are licking their wounds, and concerns about Afghanistan again becoming a host to international terrorist operations could overshadow concerns about human rights.

Humanitarian crisis

Taliban attacks on rights are not the only problem women and girls are facing. Afghanistan’s economy is in free fall, set off by widespread lost income, cash shortages, rising food costs, being severed from global financial systems, and an abrupt halt to the development assistance that made up 75 percent of the previous government’s budget.

This crisis, like most humanitarian crises, will cause the most harm to women and girls. Officials with the UN and several foreign governments are warning of economic collapse and risks of worsening acute malnutrition and outright famine. Surveys by the World Food Program (WFP) reveal that over nine in ten Afghan families have insufficient food for daily consumption, with half saying that they ran out of food at least once in the previous two weeks. One in three Afghans is already acutely hungry.

In December 2020, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, had already warned that an estimated 3.1 million children—half of Afghanistan’s children —were acutely malnourished. Other United Nations reports warn that over 1 million more children could face acute malnutrition in the coming year. By mid-2022, 97 percent of Afghans may be below the poverty line.

Healthcare workers and teachers, many of them women, have not been paid for months, and the healthcare system is collapsing. Where schools for girls are open, few students attend, out of fear that they cannot move to and from school safely, along with financial problems, and a sense of despair about their future. And unpaid teachers may or may not teach.

Weak international response

Even as it became increasingly clear over the course of years that cheerful US and NATO statements about their progress in defeating the Taliban were papering over huge and growing cracks, few could imagine a Taliban return as abrupt as the one that took place in August 2021. Few would have predicted this level of humanitarian crisis and collapse of essential services within weeks of the end of a 20-year military, political, and development engagement by at least 42 countries costing an estimated $2.3 trillion.

The early weeks of resumed Taliban rule seemed marked by indecision and slow response by the international community, in spite of a G7 pledge on August 24, following an emergency meeting, that “We will work together, and with our allies and regional countries, through the UN, G20 and more widely, to bring the international community together to address the critical questions facing Afghanistan.”

A special session of the UN Human Rights Council on August 24 produced no meaningful progress. The UN Security Council in September renewed the mandate of the UN mission in Afghanistan but did not take specific steps to strengthen the mission’s human rights work, which faced staffing gaps and problems after some staff left their posts or were evacuated.

A subsequent meeting of the Human Rights Council produced agreement to appoint a special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, with a mandate including monitoring and advocating for the rights of women and girls. This is a less powerful mechanism than the fact-finding mission a broad coalition of human rights organizations had called for.

The resolution creating the role of special rapporteur provided the person with greater staffing resources than most special rapporteurs but did not accelerate the on-boarding process. Under the standard timeline, the rapporteur and their team won’t be in place until mid-2022.

An announcement by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor called into question the role that body will play in protecting human rights in Afghanistan. The court’s Office of the Prosecutor had been considering action in Afghanistan since 2007 and opened an investigation in 2020.

Alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity within the court’s jurisdiction in Afghanistan include: attacks against civil servants including female officials; attacks on schools particularly girls’ schools; and rape and other sexual violence against women and girls. The investigation was suspended nearly as soon as it was opened, however, while the Office of the Prosecutor considered a request from the former Afghan government to defer to national proceedings.

The prosecutor on September 27, 2021, announced that he would seek authorization from the court to resume investigations in the absence of any prospect of genuine national proceedings, but would focus on crimes committed by the Taliban and Islamic State and “deprioritize” other aspects of the investigation.

This approach sends a message that some victims in Afghanistan are more entitled to justice than others, and risks undermining the legitimacy of the court’s investigation.

There is significant variety in the views of key countries about engaging with the new Taliban authorities in Afghanistan. Regional politics are fraught and complex. China and Russia may see themselves as benefitting from a shift in global power dynamics due to the US defeat in Afghanistan, and they and others including Pakistan and Qatar seem more ready than countries that contributed troops to engage with the Taliban. China, Russia and Pakistan were among only five countries that voted against the Human Rights Council resolution to establish a special rapporteur.

“Feminist foreign policy” and the Taliban

Women’s rights activists have made important progress around the world in the 20 years since the Taliban were previously in power, from 1996 to 2001. These advances make the Taliban’s violations of the rights of women and girls even more cruel and intolerable than they were in 2001 and should help spur action by countries that have made progress to right these wrongs.

In recent years, several countries—including Sweden, Canada, Mexico, and France—proclaimed that they have a “feminist foreign policy.” According to the Swedish government, a feminist foreign policy “means applying a systematic gender equality perspective throughout the whole foreign policy agenda.”

Feminist foreign policy is also a recognition that you cannot have human security when half the population is oppressed and living in fear. As Germany’s foreign minister wrote in 2020, “Numerous studies demonstrate that societies in which women and men are on equal footing are more secure, stable, peaceful, and prosperous.”

What Concerned Governments Should Do

How should a world increasingly embracing “feminist foreign policy” respond to Taliban violations of the rights of women and girls in 2021?

The first step is to muster political will. Lack of political may be a particular challenge in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops, but it is not a new problem. During the decades of international presence, troop-contributing nations paid lip service and contributed funding toward women’s rights, but rarely political capital, and over time the lip service and cash dwindled too.

In 2011, the Washington Post reported that efforts to support women’s rights were being stripped out of US programs, quoting an official who said, “All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.” In a disturbing indication of lack of focus on women’s rights, many government and aid organizations have in recent weeks sent all-male delegations to meet with the Taliban, undermining any efforts they are making to press for greater respect for women’s rights.

Then there is a need for the international community to reach as much consensus as possible about what the problems are and what should be done. There are signs that even countries that have been more open to engaging with the Taliban have been disappointed by their unwillingness to appoint an inclusive government and their violations of women’s and girls’ rights.

The Taliban government excludes not just women but also largely excludes religious minorities and most non-Pashtun ethnic groups. Even China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran have all called for the Taliban to form an “inclusive government.” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that banning girls from education in Afghanistan would be “un-Islamic.” Qatar’s foreign minister called the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education “very disappointing.”

The Taliban’s unbending stance on the rights of women and girls is so extreme that this, and its opposition to an inclusive government, may drive broad concern about their actions and help the international community build consensus about how to engage. The US may not be the most able leader for this process and may prefer not to lead.

Other countries and institutions, including countries that have pledged to have a feminist foreign policy, majority Muslim countries, and organizations like the EU, should consider taking on greater leadership than they have so far, in response to a weak response from the US.

Next comes the need for a plan. Whatever the plan is, it should avoid any actions that would worsen Afghanistan’s deepening humanitarian crisis and disproportionately affect women and girls. There are signs of emerging agreement for humanitarian assistance and essential services, with the United Nations Development Program having made arrangements to pay salaries of healthcare workers on a temporary basis.

But major issues remain unresolved, suffering from a lack consensus by the international community, including how to respond to Taliban efforts to exclude women from working for aid agencies . Women workers are essential to ensure that aid reaches women and women-headed households. so permitting women humanitarian workers to do their jobs is not setting a condition on humanitarian assistance so much as an operational necessity to be able to deliver that assistance.

The international community has struggled to identify what leverage they have that can be used to influence the Taliban. The situation has been complicated by opaqueness on the Taliban side. Governments and donors need to figure out what the Taliban want from the international community, how much and where the Taliban are willing to compromise to get what they want. And they need to identify what other pressures—including the demands of their own members and the risk of Taliban fighters defecting to the Islamic State—constrain the Taliban from compromise.

Equipped with this knowledge, the international community should recognize that almost every country on the planet—except six, conspicuously including the US, plus Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga—has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Afghanistan ratified the convention in 2003. The convention requires countries to “pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.”

This promise has not been fulfilled in any country; no country has achieved full gender equality and disparities in access to education and employment, wage gaps, and failure to adequately respond to gender-based violence are common around the world. But even in that context, Taliban violations of the rights of women and girls are uniquely extreme.

No other country openly bars girls from studying on the basis of gender. It is shocking to see a country intentionally destroy its system for responding to gender-based violence and dismantle institutions such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs that were designed to strengthen compliance with CEDAW.

The leverage the international community has to influence the Taliban needs to be deployed in defense of the rights of women and girls. Doing this will be a complex, difficult, and long-term task. But as

CEDAW members, and, in many cases, countries that used women’s rights to sell a war and spent 20 years promising eternal solidarity to Afghan women and girls, the international community owes them this effort.


How the Social Sector Thinks About Tech Is Wrong

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines


Instead of investing resources in building a solution from scratch, it’s smarter to research existing solutions and tools that can be modified for specific needs, the authors say. Credit: Unsplash / Marvin M

Oct 26 2021 (IPS) – Today, technology has become integral to almost all aspects of work—from implementing and standardising processes and collecting data to monitoring and evaluation and helping an organisation scale. This was increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when all organisations turned to technologies like WhatsApp and Zoom to stay connected and deliver their programmes to communities. And yet in the nonprofit sector, tech is viewed as an overhead rather than being fundamental to the functioning of an organisation.

When building budgets for programmes, nonprofits (and donors) must change their mindsets and look at tech as core infrastructure; without this orientation, organisations lose out because they are bearing the cost of technology anyway. It makes no sense not to account for it properly.

We misunderstand technology

1. Tech is an enabler, not the solution

When it comes to nonprofits implementing tech, there are a few misconceptions or assumptions we have encountered during our work at Tech4Dev. The first misconception is that tech is the solution. Tech is, in fact, an enabler—it enables an effective, efficient solution. It cannot by itself solve problems. For example, using tech for mobile data collection is superb.

However, to use this technology effectively, an organisation must have the processes and systems in place to know what data to collect, the audience from whom they will collect the data, and the field staff trained in the system and reasonably knowledgeable about data collection and biases. In such a scenario, tech enables high-quality data collection, but the secret is in the organisation process.

2. It’s not about the size of an organisation

The second misconception is that there is a ‘right size’ an organisation needs to get to before implementing tech solutions. In other words, tech is not for smaller grassroots organisations. A better way to think about this would be to ask yourself: Do I currently have a solution for the problem at hand, and do I have a systematic way of implementing that solution? If the answer is yes, then size should not be a factor at all.

For instance, we’ve seen small organisations use Google Sheets extremely effectively. So you can use cheap tech at a small scale, and you can also use cheap tech on a large scale. We’ve also seen really poor tech being used in both small organisations as well as large ones.

So it’s not about size but about having a systematic approach, because even though tech makes things more efficient, it also tends to add more complexity and introduce another element that employees will have to learn and work with.

We were working with a nonprofit organisation—let’s call it Team Health—that had a large number of fieldworkers, from whom they would receive data via multiple channels including WhatsApp, emails, and phone calls. None of this data arrived in a standardised or structured manner, nor was any of it recorded. Team Health wanted to change this.

They were keen to introduce an app, assuming that all their fieldworkers would know how to enter the requisite information in the exact way that the tech required, and that would lead to them having standardised data exactly how they needed it.

But because their processes at the time were not standardised, and their fieldworkers were accustomed to a certain way of submitting data, the app would not solve their problem. In fact, it might have made things worse had they gone down that path.

3. Asking donors to ‘fund tech

The third misconception among organisations is that funders are hesitant to pay for tech. Instead of asking donors to ‘fund technology’, nonprofits should articulate why technology is important to the organisation’s core functioning.

They must incorporate it as such in their proposals. We need to educate the funder ecosystem as well as the nonprofit ecosystem for this to become a reality.

Take the case of an organisation—Team Sanitation—working on community toilets for the urban poor in India. They used a fair amount of technology for data collection and geographic information system (GIS) mapping in their day-to-day operations.

These tools were core to their project, and so Team Sanitation started incorporating all costs associated with using these technologies (for example, licensing and operational costs) as necessary project costs in their funding proposals.

And they haven’t got any pushback from donors for doing so. As long as organisations can demonstrate the need for tech within their programmes, most donors will not have any issues supporting such core expenses.

4. Thinking that a custom tech solution needs to be built from scratch

The fourth mistake many organisations make is to think that they need to build custom tech solutions from scratch. But before thinking about this nonprofits need to define their problems and needs.

Detailing what their top problems are, why they are important, and how they impact the work that they are trying to do can help them understand where tech might help, and where it might not. If tech is in fact the way to go, then it’s important to acknowledge that very few nonprofits have a unique problem that they need solved.

The context, communities, and resources might differ, but fundamentally the problem a nonprofit is trying to solve has likely been attempted or solved by somebody else already.

For instance, let’s take the case of an organisation that is in the business of training primary school teachers, and finds that doing this at scale, in person, is cost-prohibitive. Surely, there are others that have faced this issue of cost and scale, and have worked on a solution.

Even still, in the nonprofit sector, there is a tendency to build custom tech platforms when they are not needed. Both funders and nonprofits have been burnt by this, where a solution was built, and in some cases the investment had to be written off, and in others there was little progress to show for it.

Custom tech is not only a waste of resources, time, and effort, but it is also not scalable. For this reason, instead of investing resources in building a solution from scratch, it’s smarter to research existing solutions and tools that can be modified for specific needs.

We’ve seen multiple custom builds of mobile data collection platforms, case management systems, and customer relationship management (CRM) systems across different nonprofits, most of which were inferior and lacking compared to the current open-source and commercially available solutions. ‘Research before build’ is a mantra we follow quite religiously within Tech4Dev.

We need to build a culture of collaboration and sharing knowledge where everyone benefits

Given that there are existing solutions to problems that several nonprofits are trying to solve, the question arises: What are the barriers to accessing such information?

Most nonprofits do not have the technological knowledge or expertise that is helpful in thinking about what tools might be useful for their specific problem. Connecting the dots between the problem and potentially useful technologies is usually the responsibility of the software partner.

However, since software partners often have limited experience in the social sector, their approach to an organisation’s problem is to simply build a solution specifically for the nonprofit. This is far from ideal. Not only do we need software partners that are well versed with the social sector and the problems nonprofits are trying to solve, but we also need nonprofits to strengthen their understanding of tech.

In order to do this, we need to build a knowledge base for tech that everyone can learn from—nonprofits, donors, and software partners. This kind of open ecosystem will also help funders realise when they are funding similar solutions across multiple organisations, and it will help organisations learn from each other’s work.

We must prioritise open-source publishing of the work

To build an accessible ecosystem, the first step is to share existing knowledge with all the relevant stakeholders. Nonprofits should publish their programmes, challenges, solutions, and learning in the public domain. For example, if a nonprofit is spending 300 hours working on a project, it should spend at least 10 hours creating open-source material that helps people understand what it is that they are doing.

Creating awareness through open-sourced content is crucial for organisations in the social sector so they can learn from and support each other better. While this might not happen right away, as more and more nonprofits share their expertise, the social sector can start to build these broader ecosystems faster. Organisations must ideally move beyond the fear of sharing their ‘trade secrets’, in recognition of the fact that paying it forward will benefit them in the long run.

Donors and intermediary organisations have an important role to play

Organisations like IDinsight do an amazing job publishing their work on a timely basis as seen from their blog and LinkedIn pages. Sharing this information helps distribute knowledge across a wide variety of ecosystem players, hence strengthening the ecosystem.

Donors can nudge these organisations to publish their work as it is being done to help disseminate the knowledge as early as possible. We should never wait till we have the perfect, well-crafted report. Publishing things as the work is being done is another mantra for the projects we run within Tech4Dev.

In India today, the onus of facilitating the building of an ecosystem falls more on funders and intermediary organisations than it does on nonprofits. This is because nonprofits are resource-constrained and devote majority of their efforts to their programmes. Moreover, they do not have the kind of influence and clout that donors have, and might not have the skills either.

The first step that funders can take is to move away from traditional contracts that restrict sharing of content and intellectual property (IP) and towards sharing IP in the public domain. Further, given that funders typically work with multiple organisations within a specific sector, they might be better positioned to see the bigger picture here.

They can also help nonprofits choose software partners. Here, they must be sensitive to the skewed funder–nonprofit power dynamic, and play a supportive role rather than a directive one. There is a lot that funders can do to strengthen the tech ecosystem within the social sector. Unfortunately, there are very few donors and organisations focused on this ecosystem.

We need a much greater push towards building ecosystems and platforms at a much faster rate, and providing adequate support to sustain them. The social sector needs such spaces so they can integrate technology better and more smartly across the work they do.

Donald Lobo serves as executive director of the Chintu Gudiya Foundation, a private family foundation based in San Francisco, CA, that funds US-based nonprofits and organisations developing open-source software for the public good. 

Sanjeev Dharap is an entrepreneur and start-up adviser, and has worked in Silicon Valley for over 25 years. He holds an MTech in Computer Science from Pune University, India, and a PhD in Computer Science from Penn State University. He has been involved with Tech4Dev since early 2019

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


The Future of Food & Water Systems in Pakistan & Central Asia?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation


Clara Colton Symmes, Princeton-in-Asia Fellow, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Sri Lanka

In an Interview with Dr Mohsin Hafeez, Country Representative – Pakistan, Regional Representative – Central Asia

Farmer working in a paddy field in Pakistan. Credit: Faseeh Shams / IWMI

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Sep 3 2021 (IPS) – An intense monsoon season in Pakistan means the country’s food system faces the challenge of both extreme floods and extended droughts.

In an effort to address these challenges through cross-sectoral collaboration, Dr. Mohsin Hafeez, IWMI’s Country Representative for Pakistan and Regional Representative for Central Asia, convened a regional dialogue in advance of the UN Food Systems Summit (which is scheduled to take place at the United Nations, September 23) .

Human actions are at the root of much water scarcity, but these international dialogues are an opportunity for humans to be a part of the solution by working to reconcile our damages through transforming how we approach food systems.

Pakistan ranks 88th out of 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index and extreme weather, intensified by climate change, has made farming a challenging venture there. Much of Pakistan’s food is now imported from overseas.

Dr. Hafeez’s work centers around improving the resiliency and efficiency of Pakistan’s water systems. This includes innovating water capture and storage systems in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where he is working to introduce nature-based solutions like recharging groundwater with rainfall runoff.

By convening April’s regional dialogue and organizing four provincial dialogues in the time since, Dr. Hafeez provided the collaborative platforms necessary for reaching sustainably-managed water sources in his region. It is only through cross-sectoral dialogues and work that Pakistan will achieve sustainable food systems management.

“There is an urgent need for promoting inter-sectoral cooperation through evidence-based information to ensure water-food-energy security and environmental sustainability for food system transformation in Pakistan,” Dr. Hafeez said.

The pre-summit hosted in Italy was another opportunity to bring together diverse stakeholders in food systems in the leadup to the UNFSS. On the IWMI blog, we will be exploring what country managers in Uzbekistan and Pakistan hope to achieve through the UNFSS process.

A Q&A with Dr Hafeez:

How are water and food systems connected?

Water supply systems are first and fundamental in food systems. In Pakistan more than 90 to 95% of our total water resources is used for irrigating crops. It’s a water system intrinsically linked with the food system.

When there is a water shortage, we see a direct impact on food production because this is an arid environment, and farmers are not able to do agriculture without the artificial applying of water.

What are the most pressing challenges facing food and water systems in your region?

Pakistan is a food insecure country. We don’t even have food to eat, let alone nutritious options. Around 45% of the children have stunted growth. People don’t have enough food to meet their caloric needs. We’re importing all the other major crops in the last 4 to 5 years from overseas.

And the food system is dependent on water. When we don’t have enough water, the farmers are not able to grow anything, which impacts the lives and livelihoods of everyone.

If you’re talking about even the linkages between the water system and food system: the current water storage systems are only able to cope for 30 days of water supply.

Then there is also the issue of water quality. There is a lot of wastewater and effluents that mix directly into the into the water supply system including the canals and water networks. This also impacts the food system, so that what we grow may not have a same nutritious value.

Why is water storage so essential in Pakistan?

80% of annual rainfall happens during the monsoon season, which is around 60 to 90 days between July and September. The remaining nine months we receive only 16-20% of the water supply.

Water systems here are not resilient, so water storage capacity is quite low. And when we face extreme climate shocks like droughts, this stresses the water and food systems. Either we are facing three months of floods, or nine months without enough water.

What would a water secure world look like for Pakistan and what needs to happen in order to achieve that?

We need to make water systems more efficient, and that will only happen if we improve the efficiency of the irrigation system, which would make water more available for the other sectors. We also need to make water systems more resilient.

There has been a lot of focus on building large dams, but they require a lot of capital resources. I believe we should also focus on improving water resilience through nature-based solutions like rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharging at the localized level.

We need local, nature-based solutions and the government of Pakistan is planning to introduce 3000 small ponds across Pakistan so farmers will have more water available.

A holistic approach and reliable database on water resources and their usage across Pakistan is key to achieving food, water, and energy security. We are the fifth most climate-vulnerable country in the world and there is an urgent need for promoting inter-sectoral cooperation through evidence-based information.

We also need groundwater management policy. Even though we have a national water policy and provincial water acts, we don’t have a comprehensive groundwater plan. Ministries, like those for climate change and food security policy, must stop working in silos and collaborate.

The regional dialogue we convened did this. It brought ministries together and made them talk about how each could help the other in the water, food, energy (WEF) nexus.

How were you able to give voice during the dialogue to historically underrepresented groups like smallholder farmers, women, children, and rural communities?

We invited people from various government and private sectors and farmers. But because they were held in English, we faced the challenge of a language barrier. Many rural farmers do not speak English. So, we invited some and did what we could to help them with translators.

Another challenge is that this dialogue was conducted virtually, and many smallholder farmers did not have access to that. So, we had only two or three farmers participate.

But we had many government agencies that are directly involved in the farmers community. They were able to represent the farmers and a group called the Farmer’s Federation was also able to attend.

Woman working in a paddy field. Credit: Faseeh Shams / IWMI

How do events like the regional dialogues and then the larger UNFSS affect water systems in your region? And what would you like to see as a result of the UNFSS?

When people talk about the food systems, they talk about production, the food value chain, and consumption. And they often ignore the importance of water. This is really the first time in 10 years when we’re talking holistically about food in a way that includes every aspect of the system.

At a recent provincial dialogue, part of the Member State Dialogue, we had people working on nutrition, agriculture, the value supply chain, traditional agriculture, water, and policy. It provided a platform where people worked together and thought beyond their own specialty: identifying real issues and how they could be improved in the future together.

Pakistan joined a UNFSS coalition for developing countries facing food insecurity. The Pakistani government is emphasizing the need to build resilient societies and improve food accessibility. There will be actions and pledges made to invest more into food systems areas which have been typically ignored.

What upcoming IWMI projects do you think will affect the kind of food system transformation desired by the UNFSS?

IWMI and International Food Policy Research Institute are designing a CGIAR Initiative to scale up the integrated management of water, energy, food, land, biodiversity, and forests for inclusive, sustainable development in transboundary river basins in the context of a changing climate.

The NEXUS Gains Initiative will be a game changer, but also many other IWMI projects will be helpful in interconnected thinking about improving the food security and water systems.

As IWMI and the other One CGIAR centers work together, we will be able to make change in a more systematic, holistic way that will change the mindset around food systems and ultimately improve the resilience of water supply systems.

What is making you feel hope about the future of food and water systems in Pakistan and Central Asia?

The current government is Pakistan is saying that food security is one of their highest priorities. They have initiated so many social initiatives in that field, including a resource program where they are providing food to vulnerable communities, with a focus on gender and the stunted growth of children.

The government also emphasized a need to understand the challenges in agriculture sector, linking from the basic production system towards the value supply chain, because as I mentioned that 22% of the system level losses are there.