MEDA Makes Positive Impact in Pakistan

I was excited to have a personal interview this week with Helen Loftin, Mennonite Economic Development Association’s (MEDA)’s regional project manager in Pakistan.  She says the work they’re doing has linkages with the book Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, which is currently enjoying some much deserved media coverage.

Results of MEDA’s programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan prove that when women have a means of income and control over their personal income, the return on investment is phenomenal for their family, community and country.

EmbroideryCurrently, Helen is involved with three of MEDA’s ongoing programs in the embellished materials (hand embroidered fabric) sector.  These initiatives give particularly marginalized women, who are traditionally homebound, important economic opportunities, linking them to markets to create an income.  With homebound women, the solution was to create a woman to woman sales network.  Once the women have an income, they are able to invest it – they educate their children (including their daughters), buy better shoes, buy assets for the house such as a radio, or acquire more income-generating assets such as livestock.  Some women have purchased a motorcycle for their family to use for transport to and from school, and for business opportunities, even though few women use it themselves.

Pakistani girlHelen has observed a fantastic leap of confidence in the women involved in the projects.  “The glory of this job is witnessing the effect that this has on the women in terms of their carriage, the way in which they engage with other members of their groups, and ultimately in their communities,” reports Helen.  They become a role model for their children and other women.

As well, as the book suggests, empowering the women lessens terrorism.  The women are their children’s largest influence, and the kids are with their mothers for all of the first seven or so years of their life.  “If the family itself has a business that is viable and growing and shows economic promise, that gives the family something worth holding onto and building upon,” explained Helen.  The communities in which MEDA works line the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A family with no other choice for survival might send a child or father off for $5 a day to carry anything anyone asks them to back and forth across the border.  If you can build something for them to hang onto, that shows hope and gives them dignity, they will engage in that and  defend it – rejecting outside influences of things they know are not right, reports Helen.

Coming from a family business herself, Helen has worked in the private sector in southern Ontario, and has an MBA.  The MBA led to an internship with CARE in India that was her opportunity to test if international economic development work was a romantic ideal or a good match.  Her internship, linking fledgling enterprises to interested multinationals, proved this was where she wanted to be.  So, for the last 3 ½ years, she has worked with MEDA.

Part of MEDA’s success in Pakistan relies on the word spreading through the communities.  MEDA links women new to the program to the marketplace in a culturally acceptable manner and most women just run with it.  Although MEDA workers with western perspectives sometimes have trouble grappling with the depth of the need and the urgency to do something positive, the work is exciting and rewarding.

Pakistani marketAnd while some women keep their business as a very small family venture, other women become real business people.  Some are so enterprising they no longer need MEDA.  They understand competition, and don’t want to share their numbers or the full story on how the business is doing.  Although the humanitarian vocational workers are thrilled by the women’s success, it can be frustrating when annual program reports are due!

For more information about MEDA, or to donate, please visit their website.

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Alison Wheatley

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