$500,000 Raised for Flood Relief in Pakistan at New Yorker Benefit

10/13/2010 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I interviewed Asad Rahman, co-founder of the Nur Project, which raised nearly $500,000 for flood relief in Pakistan during a recent benefit in New York City, on his motivation to action, challenges and opportunities, and humanizing the disaster.

Rahim Kanani: Recently, you organized a very successful fundraiser in New York City to aid with flood relief in Pakistan and raised over $500,000 for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), what motivated you to action?

Asad Rahman: The idea that we could and should do more than just write a check came from my wife Vanessa; she looked at the gravity of the situation on one hand, and the complete lack of visibility of the issue on the other hand, and basically said this was clearly the time, the cause, and the reason to mobilize ourselves and our friends. As Pakistanis, we sometimes feel like it is definitively futile to try and co-opt others into our efforts, and that there can be no resonance for humanitarian need in Pakistan, no matter how dire the circumstances. Ultimately, we were underestimating ourselves, but more importantly, we were underestimating our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and New Yorkers in general.

RK: What was the biggest challenge in putting this event together, and what was the secret in drawing such a star-studded crowd including John Legend, Seth Meyers, Kristen Wiig, and others?

AR: The biggest issues were: pulling off an event that would have the drawing power such that people who otherwise would not be compelled by the cause--for the cause itself did not have much profile-- would be interested in attending; and second, getting sufficient early support from celebrities and donors, to make sure the event in and of itself would not fall flat. On the first, it came down to a lot of hard work, a lot of kindness from the people we worked with, and pure good fortune. I am more convinced than ever after this experience that if you try and do good, a bit of divine grace can come your way. On the second, we found that while it didn't work with everyone we spoke to, a lot of the celebrities we ended up having join us were willing to do so through an honest, sincere appeal. Getting access to the celebrities (i.e. the opportunity to make that appeal) was the result of a relying on friends and friends of friends--it's that sort of special connection that can happen in a place like New York; and of course, having John Legend as an early supporter opens every door in New York. John is the sort of person upon whom fame is not wasted, for the list of good causes he has enabled runs long.

RK: Public discourse on Pakistan is frequently linked with al-Qaeda, extremists and Islamic radicalism, how do you disentangle that narrative to paint a more human picture to this story and the disaster?

AR: This was one of the crucial elements of the evening, to be able to communicate that Pakistan is a complex country to the audience without making the evening dull. And to do so without using "complexity" as a kind way of disguising the country's problems, but rather as an honest and truthful way of contextualizing a country that is young, whose identity was never truly defined, and that is very much in the process of struggling with itself to determine what it is. If we could do that, then maybe the flood, and the devastation that followed, could be presented not only as a humanitarian disaster but also as a tragedy we can and should try and mitigate. We had a lot of help from the IRC and from the Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid.

RK: And lastly, what is your connection to the International Rescue Committee, and how did you choose them as your partner?

AR: Our connection was basically that we were fans. We had read about their engagements around the world, and had heard from friends on the ground in Pakistan about their excellent work there. The fact that they had been on the ground in Pakistan for 30 years, and that they had a team of nearly 1,000 people there, coupled with the fact they were almost obsessive about minimizing their overhead costs, really convinced us that they were a partner who we wanted to work with. This wasn't just about finding someone who the other guests would be comfortable with, but also finding an institution that we as Pakistanis would want operating in our country.

Asad Rahman is co-founder of the Nur Project with Vanessa Rahman and Saad Siddiqui. The Project emerged as an ad hoc effort in response to the floods in Pakistan this summer. Asad, Vanessa, and Saad's belief was that the primary impediment to mobilizing New Yorkers, of all backgrounds, was the lack of an informed, impartial and credible intermediary between those them and the victims of the floods-the Nur Project was a platform for making this connection.

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