Security and Solidarity: An Ashoka Story

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Source: Ashoka

I am often asked to explain the importance of the Ashoka Fellowship as community. Is there actually a sense of common purpose and mutual support, or is it merely a collection of talented individuals? Recently I spent a week in Hong Kong with the Asian Human Rights Commission, a citizen organization built by Ashoka Fellow Basil Fernando. Returning to their neat and busy offices recalled to me a remarkable illustration of the real meaning and value of the Fellowship.

In July 2005, a small group of Ashoka fellows gathered in Hong Kong to discuss the problem of security for social entrepreneurs in Asia. Basil convened the session using his “Folk School” method for deep exploration of real issues and problems facing ordinary citizens facing human rights abuse. Among the participants was Ashoka Fellow Baseer Naveed, a senior civil society leader from Pakistan whose work included organizing Karachi's urban poor. Hundreds of thousands of very poor people were being displaced by a new highway project and were locked in difficult negotiations with the government over the terms of their relocation and compensation. In retaliation for Baseer's advocacy in solidarity with the poorest of the poor, men believed to be linked to state security abducted Baseer's eldest son, Faraz, tortured and killed him, then left his body in a lot outside Baseer's office (read about the case). Baseer’s story was a powerfully disturbing example of why an issue like security cannot be ignored by Asia's system-changing social entrepreneurs.

Immediately after Baseer finished recounting this shocking tragedy, Basil spoke. He pledged to Baseer on the spot: “I promise you that we will do everything in our power to support you and your family and to pursue justice for your son.” AHRC made good on that promise. Before the Folk School session ended, AHRC issued an urgent appeal on the death of Faraz, videotaped a detailed interview with him, and arranged for media coverage. With some help from Ashoka, Basil brought Baseer and his family—still facing threats and harassment on top of their grief—to Hong Kong and helped them settle in. AHRC staff showed them where to shop for food in Hong Kong, where to take relaxing walks, how to pay their bills, enroll in schools, and adjust to their new lives. This was not merely a professional arrangement for Baseer, but a total commitment to helping his family recover their dignity and human security and bring them into a caring community.

AHRC began a campaign demanding an effective investigation into Faraz’s death, and to this day monitor every aspect of the case, refusing to let it fade away into forgotten history. Under the aegis of AHRC, Baseer has developed a country desk focusing on Pakistan, helping citizen organizations in Pakistan communicate with the world community.Baseer's work has included vital support to the 2007 movement by lawyers to preserve the independence of the judiciary; an ongoing campaign against "honor killings" of women; and working with Pakistan's senior jurists to draft the country's first ever laws to criminalize torture. (Learn about human rights in Pakistan.)

Meeting through the Ashoka Fellowship, Basil and Baseer, two veteran citizen-sector leaders, each with profound lifelong experience pursuing justice in solidarity with Asia’s poor, found an opportunity to transform one family’s private tragedy into new momentum for human rights in Pakistan. So what is the value of the Ashoka Fellowship? In the case of Baseer Naveed, it opened up a life-changing opportunity for security and solidarity, protection and participation.