Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A long route to Sao Paulo

With all this gloom that remains settled on our minds, it does become a relief when we share our thoughts with social development experts from other developing countries. You realise how challenges faced by other societies are no less daunting. And what really becomes a tranquillizer is the fact that these crusaders for social change want to be messengers of hope and not of despair. Hence, I sincerely feel encouraged by this experience.

But first, an explanation of how I became a recipient of this experience in, without any doubt, such spectacular circumstances. The encounter I am referring to took place in a resort tucked into a hilly rainforest near Sao Paulo in Brazil. What made this location so much more dramatic was the lake, formed by a reservoir, that skirted the resort.

Well, how did I happen to be there, in the company of some well-known and perceptive civil society activists? In the first place, I was able to be present at the global meeting of senior fellows to Synergos, an institute founded with the goal of bringing people together to address poverty and inequity around the globe, not in my own right but as a spouse. My wife Sadiqa is one of the senior fellows chosen for the current three-year term.

This has been my first time as a spouse, though we both have had the good fortune of attending seminar and conferences. It was good to interact with the Synergos community and we had ample time to share our ideas at breakfast and meal times. Peggy Dulany, the founder and chair of Synergos was also there and we also had a brief conversation on, in a sense, the state of the world.

There is also a background to why I happily became a spouse. When talking about my travels abroad, I often express my regret that there still remain two continents I have not set my foot on: South America and Australia – and there is not much time left to do that. Australia one can imagine to be familiar with. South America, on the other hand, seemed a world apart with its revolutionary stirrings and its distinctive historical and cultural tapestry.

So, Sadiqa put me up as a spouse for this Synergos meeting set in Sao Paulo. The actual location of the proceedings became a discovery of another kind. We added a few more days to make a better acquaintance with this vast country of continental size. Rio de Janeiro, of course, could not be missed. But I am still very unhappy to miss Amazon, the great river, because it is so far away. This will remain a regret because I collect rivers.

Travelling to Sao Paulo was also an adventure. We took a Sehri-time flight to Dubai and after about three hours, boarded the longest nonstop flight of my life so far – a few minutes short of 15 hours. To add to this, the flight was totally packed and there were families with little children.

But my boast about taking the longest nonstop flight of my life to arrive in Sao Paulo quickly wilted in the face of other flight plans I learnt about at dinner and during breakfast the next morning. It took 40 hours for one participant to come from Manila, via Amsterdam, with a 12-hour wait in the middle. The lady from Kenya, who was with us from Dubai, had to travel in the opposite direction from Nairobi.

But the story that could become a news item in a travel magazine was told by the young woman from India. For health reasons, she had directed her travel agent to not have any flight exceeding ten hours. So she was booked from New Delhi to Munich to JFK (New York) to Sao Paulo. With this crooked itinerary, you are bound to become jinxed. Because of some problem between two airlines, she was stranded in New York for nearly twelve hours. Even those who came from the United States had tales to tell about their not so direct connections.

I have made this diversion – or stopover – mainly to underline this sense of Brazil being almost a forbidding place for many of us. Because it is so far away and so different even in a Latin American context, Brazil demands a particular effort to be explored and understood. Unlike other countries in South America, it speaks Portuguese. Such is its linguistic autonomy and pride that it becomes very, very difficult to find people who can understand English.

Now, it is simply not possible to try to describe this visit in the context of my thoughts and observations. There is so much that calls for a patient and contemplative analysis. Every developing country, like every unhappy family, confronts its problems in its own way. But the very purpose of the exercise that was conducted by Synergos was to learn from each other. The same approach would be valid for a journalistic survey of projects that relate to social development in any country, irrespective of its unique circumstances.

Incidentally, the title of the Synergos meeting was: ‘Partnership and public policy: working collaboratively for social change’. I must confess that though I remained on the periphery of this meeting, as a spouse should, the experience has been very educative. Because of my own profession and my involvement with human rights issues, I almost became a participant.

The first thing in my mind was to look at Sao Paulo in the mirror of Karachi. Both are mega cities with intimations of a certain urban disorder. You think of the forever expanding slums and rising disparity between the rich and the poor. This disparity becomes so much more remarkable because Brazil is making very good progress economically and already has an impressive infrastructure and industrial base.

However, I am mystified by the extent of poverty in Brazil. Yes, the red-brick little houses that cling to sloping hills around Sao Paulo and in the vicinity of Rio are an improvement on what we see in our own or South Asian slums. Still, Brazil should be in a much better position to deal with such potentially dehumanizing incongruities. The attempts that are now being made to deal with these issues constituted a good part of our discussions. There were some field visits to look at the work of some successful civil society organizations.

I accompanied the visit to a project for very young unwed mothers who may have nowhere to go. Here was a good opportunity to look at some moral and social contradictions that a professedly religious society – Brazil is dominantly Roman Catholic – can spawn. But we can hardly relate to the sexually permissive ways of the young (and poor) people of Brazil.

Finally, there is another aspect of Brazil that I will have to take up on another occasion. I was really impressed by the intellectual infrastructure that is being built, beginning with education. And Sao Paulo has no kinship with Karachi because it has a wonderful public transport system, ranging from metro to surface railway and an efficient network of buses.

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