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Why Young Pakistanis Are Turning To The Internet To Pursue Their Passions

From artists to do-gooders to entrepreneurs, Pakistan's web provides its youth with a level playing field free of bureaucratic barriers.

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For 29-year-old Neha Mankani, a simple Facebook post in September allowed her to start a maternal health fund that raised 3,75,000 rupees (nearly $3,750) in a couple of weeks. She estimates the money can help nearly 80 people.

Mankani returned to Pakistan after finishing her graduate school in the U.S. She worked a few years in the reproductive health sector, then joined the Lady Dufferin Midwifery program in Karachi. Her work at the hospital taught her that there was an acute shortage of funds to help lower and lower-middle income patients.

“Many a times, I would see someone crying outside the labor room because they had run out of money to pay for additional bottles of blood. Or someone’s stitches got infected and they didn’t account for that expense when budgeting for their medical needs,” says Mankani.

An initial donation of Rs. 30,000 and some clothes came from her cousin when she recounted the horror stories to her. But it was the number of people she helped with that nominal sum that made Mankani realize that she had to turn this into an on-going effort. “A bottle of blood costs Rs. 1,800, a blood test costs Rs. 1,000 – with that Rs. 30,000, I ended up helping eight people.”

Knowing that she needed to tap into a wider pool of people for donations, she turned to social media.

"The response was overwhelming. People who I didn’t know and never met, both within Pakistan and overseas, shared the post and pledged money.”

The background of the person raising funds and the legitimacy of their work encourages people to trust you with their money, adds Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a social activist who uses social media platforms to mobilize support and funds for social and political causes. But he added that people’s response to such causes depends on how extensively the issue is covered by traditional media.

During the recent heat wave that claimed over 1,000 lives in Karachi, Nasir and other activists with Elaj Trust, a social welfare non-profit, managed to raise 6.5 million rupees in five days. His initial appeal was for 2.5 million. Additionally, 10-15 people showed up voluntarily every day and offered help.

“Pakistanis are impulsive donors. Because the heatstroke and floods were so hyped by the media, it instantly struck a chord with people,” says Nasir. The funds were originally intended to buy and install air conditioners and clean up the wards at one hospital in Karachi. Thanks to the overwhelming generosity they found online, Nasir and his team ended up providing air conditioners, building shades, and implementing other facilities in a second hospital as well.

Connectivity in Pakistan is high – the country currently has 25 million internet users, according to the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan. According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s internet users are growing at a rate of 16.8%, the second highest in SAARC countries.

For some, such as the founders of Markhor, a handcrafted leather shoe brand, the internet provided a lifeline when nothing else was going their way. The brand – originally called ‘Hometown’ as an ode to the small town of Okara, Punjab, where the shoes were made – went through several ups and downs due to lack of funding and insufficient sales before they started a Kickstarter project in September 2014.

By the time the campaign ended in November, 2014, Markhor had raised over $107,000 by 508 backers from 35 countries.

“$15,000 was the maximum amount of money raised by any Kickstarter in Pakistan and India,” said Waqar Ali, one of the founders. “We met that goal in our first day.”

Nasir also relies heavily on social media for fundraising and activism. Unlike with every other medium, responses online are instant and there's no cost involved.

Taking money from multiple sources, however, does not relieve them of the responsibility of staying transparent and accountable to their contributors. Nasir lives up his end of the bargain by maintaining transparency about where and how the funds are being used.

“During the support campaign for IDPs last year, we maintained a live Google chart which was updated with funds and donor initials,” he said.

During the heat wave drive this year, they posted videos of the ACs being installed and the wards being cleaned to keep people in the loop about how their money was being used.

Still, those like Markhor, Nasir and Mankani who are using the internet as a side-step to Pakistani bureaucracy, face unique obstacles of their own. The learning curve is steep.

“Pakistan has no digital payment gateways of international standards,” said Ali. “Paypal and Stripe are not supported so a number of our backers had to go to Western Union to send funds to us.”

To avoid the huge e-payment fee being stripped off each order, Ali and his partner decided to incorporate the company in the United States and set up base in San Francisco. Others echoed similar concerns, citing costs incurred for wire transfer or credit card fee due to the absence of Paypal, which has no transaction fee, as an option.

“It is very hard to explain to others why you don’t have basic payment gateways in the country or the hesitation you feel before clicking on a YouTube link,” says Ali, referring to the three-year-old ban on the video-sharing site that shows no signs of being lifted. Ali used YouTube to teach new stitching techniques from various parts of the world such as Italy and Hungary to his craftsmen.

Umar Saif, head of the Punjab I.T. Board who has previously taught at M.I.T, admits that it is important to invite and work with internationally recognized e-payment systems but also noted that several European and Turkish companies have launched similar e-payment gateways in Pakistan that help with global transactions. Saif says that Pakistan’s bustling $850 million software exports by the country’s freelance programmers, a number that is estimated to go up to $1 billion in the next several months, is an example of the country’s path to progress despite challenges.

Still, entrepreneurs like Ali feel that many young Pakistanis with bright ideas are often forced to provide their services for minimal rates. They compromise because they don’t have support systems in place.

“There is no shortage of talent in Pakistan," says Ali. "Every other young person you meet has a great idea. It's amazing how much the youth in the country has achieved on a DIY basis."

"If only they had the right tools and support at their disposal, they are capable of achieving wonders."