07/27/2012 10:06 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

Maintaining Quality of the Heart: Pakistan, Passion and Poverty Alleviation

Qazi Azmat Isa's post is presented in collaboration with the Religion Department Of The Chautauqua Institution and their summer program for the week of July 22-28. The Interfaith Lectures are focusing on The People Of Pakistan.

Pakistan, as a country, does not lend itself easily to conventional definitions. As a nation its identities are multiple and its dynamics elusive and fluid. Pakistan's contradiction and complexity is a challenge -- confounding the casual observer and the seasoned analyst alike, some see it as the very embodiment of an inevitable clash between civilizations, and others view it as a cradle of civilization, culture and peaceful coexistence.

This is a personal narrative on what in my view drives Pakistan and what underpins the hopes, fears and aspirations of its people. It is a Pakistani's perspective on how he sees his country and what it means for him to be a Pakistani.

Over the years, I have learned the true meaning of development --that it was about transforming society, not just about infrastructure and incomes, but about empowering the poor, about building their social capital, giving them voice and constituency. I also learned that development was about learning from people and that the greater poverty was not of means but of the mind.

Pakistan gained independence in 1947, but its history begins some 5,000 years ago. Three-thousand B.C. saw the arrival of Alexander the Great with whom Greek culture came to this part of the world. Buddhism took root here, and flourished for a thousand years, from the second century B.C. Islam initially came to what is now Pakistan in the seventh century A.D., resulting in new ideas and new social compacts, which left indelible marks on indigenous cultures. It infused a renewed religious, philosophical and socio-economic rigor, enabling it to expand beyond the Sahara in Africa, across the Indus into the hinterland of the subcontinent and over the oceans in to the Pacific Rim. This movement came to be known as Sufism.

Sufism, the esoteric dimension of Islam, is the mystical strain that lies at the heart of each of the great religions of the world. The most commonly accepted explanation, however, is that the term is rooted in the Arabic word Suf, which means wool: As Islam spread, it faced growing materialism. As a reaction, early Muslim mystics started wearing coarse cloth made of wool, minimalizing worldly needs and living with the poor. As their apparel would be made of wool, these mystics began to be called Sufis. Poverty for them was not destitution but a spiritual state of man's lowliness and his status before God.

Understanding Pakistan, the conduct of its people, the outlook of its society, is needless to say predicated on where is the real Pakistan, and where it is headed. The answer for me or for any of my countrymen would rest in discovery of that Pakistan. To find that connect between my culture, faith, religion and value systems and the imperatives of modernity, progress and development.

Pakistan's problem is not one of material or financial resources, important as they may be, but one that is moral and philosophical in nature. The debate is not so much about government led or market led development, but about individual freedom, individual choice, balance, inclusion and equity. Seen from that perspective, in one sense therefore there is no difference, for instance, between occupying Wall Street in defiance of the establishment and occupation of tribal areas by young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan in defiance of the state. This, by implication, points us to the need for responsive institutions, mechanisms and systems. And the degree of their relevance to the cultural and socio-economic context.

At the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, the institution I now lead as CEO, we have sought to intertwine the major strands by bringing together our great and abiding Sufi tradition of sacrifice and service and concern for the other with new institutions, new means and mechanisms that are responsive, self reliant, sustainable and cater to the poor. In Pakistan, more so than anywhere else, it is not so much about having organizations to distribute financial or other subsidized resources, or about supporting institutions for the poor. It is about promoting and investing in institutions of the poor! Institutions that are perceived by the excluded as their own not merely in nominal sense, but as efficient intermediaries which bring about tangible improvements in their quality of life, access to resources, opportunities and overall well being. In a country facing a myriad of challenges, our mission is one of restoring hope and securing the future of the poor, marginalized, disadvantaged and excluded. In Pakistan's context, we believe this is our theory of change and agents of change are Pakistanis themselves.

Through small scale intervention in microfinance, water, infrastructure, renewable energy, health education and disability, livelihoods, skill trainings, as well as emergency response and reconstruction, PPAF takes pride in being of some service to these people and is humbled in equal measure to look at what still needs to be done. It knows in this journey there are no destinations, only milestones.

As development practioners, we all need to become Sufis. To view development holistically, in all its dimensions and diversity, is to ensure that such development is economically just, environmentally benign and socially equitable. When the ego is negated the development worker is driven by love of those who she or he serves, for in their service he becomes one with them.