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Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui at Making Futures

Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui at Making Futures Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui

Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui

23 January 2018
by Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui

In September 2017, under the Crafting Futures programme the British Council supported 6 delegates from Asia to participate in the Making Futures conference at Plymouth College of Art.  Making Futures is a biennial research platform exploring contemporary craft and maker movements as ‘change agents’ in 21st century society.  Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui, Director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Institute in Pakistan, presented a paper at Making Futures. Final papers will be presented in the Making Futures journal in May 2018. Here we hear more about her experience and perspectives. 

Tell us about yourself and your work.

I’ve been working in what is referred to as the social development sector in Pakistan for twelve years in management-consulting, social entrepreneurship and gender issues as part of a range of economic development, poverty reduction and environmental initiatives. I currently help lead a not-for-profit organization called the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Institute which specialises in microenterprise, technical skills development and value chain development programming focused on women and young people. ECDI employs market development approaches to lift marginalised artisan, rural producer and slum-dwelling urban communities out of poverty to create livelihood and employment opportunities.

I cofounded and run a social enterprise called Polly and Other Stories, an e-commerce initiative that helps develop and bring to market carefully made artisanal products, created by small producers in their homes or by communities in remote villages that are excluded from the mainstream, thereby bridging the gap for talented craftswomen and craftsmen who had been unable to benefit from the increased global and national demand for beautiful, authentic, and handmade items. I am also a founding curatorial member for the Women of World festival in Karachi and have been involved in its planning and delivery since January 2016.

I feel very strongly about the need for change - to renew the world, to contribute to the resolution of social, economic and environmental problems. While I am not naïve about the sheer scale of the work, I’ve always been supremely optimistic about the outcomes. I really believe that people want to lead lives of deeper meaning, that we all want to leave a positive mark on the world and that we each have the gift of love, hope and resilience to share and that this will make the difference.

You recently presented a paper at the Making Futures conference in response to their theme ‘Making Leaders – Curating Maker Cultures.’ You spoke about how craft could provide opportunities for women’s empowerment in Pakistan. Can you tell us more about your paper?

I was excited to be a part of the Making Futures event in 2017 and for the opportunity to present our work on improving livelihoods for local artisan communities, particularly for exceedingly skilled but homebound women artisans and producers. We do this by fostering leadership, building capacity and skills and creating fairer, more inclusive value chains while simultaneously stimulating market access for rural/homebound artisans and producers in a culturally appropriate manner.

In my presentation, I shared lessons and experiences from ECDI’s work with over 30, 000 women producers across Pakistan to address this gap by creating safe spaces for artisans to become self-reliant, while using their traditional skills to generate decent incomes. By modernizing traditional products and skill-sets and creating an efficient production or value chain, as well as, properly incubating, training and mentoring small producers, ECDI has successfully utilized market mechanisms to integrate disenfranchised producers into sustainable industries and connect them with national and international markets such that crafts become a reliable source of income for poor rural and peri-urban producers. A key element of this work involves developing business and design skills to enable artisans to sell their products on national, international and online markets. ECDI has also needed to focus on product innovation to support the survival of traditional techniques as well as ensure a decent income for the small informal producers engaged in making the same.

Why do you feel it was important for Pakistan to be represented in this discussion?

Crafts form the second largest employment sector in Pakistan, following agriculture. It is estimated that 15% of all employees nationally are accounted for in the crafts and related services sector. In the informal sector, crafts and related trades provide 31% of the jobs, of which 54% are filled by women. While mostly decentralized, disorganized and undocumented, craft industries such as furniture making, clay pottery and handloom have been traditional secondary employment activities for generations of Pakistanis.

It is widely accepted within the development community in Pakistan that supporting the development of artisanal crafts presents a unique opportunity for livelihoods generation by and for changing perceptions about the abilities and capacities of some its most marginalized segments, in particular the poorest youth and women. Embracing these communities’ handicraft practices provides an opportunity to create cohesion and value for people facing barriers and gender discrimination in joining the formal workforce. However, while Pakistani craft has all the elements required for a strong global brand, rural producers are often unable to convert traditional skills into modern products that can compete in the mainstream marketplace as this conversion requires significant investment, patience and expertise.

The crafts sector in Pakistan has a long way to go to reach its potential as a sustainable source of economic growth as well as for artistic expression and creativity. It is often cheaper and easier to import from Turkey or Thailand via informal channels than to source from Pakistan itself. Lack of skills and quality production and market access all complicate the equation and make it extremely important for Pakistan to engage in and learn from the global discourse on craft and making – a space that artisans or organizations working with artisans are uninvolved with and unaware of.

Further, at the government level, craft is very narrowly situated within Pakistan’s rich cultural convention as espoused in traditional contributions from rural or peri-urban centres without any attempt to link or interface these with contemporary, creative expression and talent from urban populations. This results in an even deeper chasm in cultural recognition and visibility at the international level where is there very little awareness of what Pakistan has to offer. For the crafts sector to grow in Pakistan into a thriving, independent practice with commercial benefits, it will need broad support networks, learning opportunities and exposure which forums like Making Futures offer, making it critical for Pakistan to be present in such discussions.   

What was your perception on the current discussions around craft and making practices in the UK and globally?

It was really interesting to hear the all different perspectives and approaches to craft across the UK and the Commonwealth. In Pakistan, discourse around craft is centred on preservation of heritage/tradition and its importance as an economic catalyst for national growth and for employability of the poor. To hear it being discussed beyond cultural, tribal and familial identity, in an academic, almost forensic or scientific manner, was truly wonderful.  

Craft was spoken of passionately, even compellingly, and it was clear that this was something of great value. It was particularly interesting for me to see craft so closely connected to personhood and what it means ‘to make’ in that there were often clear personal, artistic and political implications of being a ‘maker’ and it was key to the process to capture them. This is quite different to how craft or the cottage industry is discussed in mainstream Pakistan – it is valued as heritage, as a skill passed down through generations, but there is nothing radical about the act of making unless one views survival itself as activism. Local consumers often see craft as common and cheap and to be replaced with name brand products as soon as the pay cheque allows. Poor innovation and lack of design intervention and branding has further cemented this perception and the average consumer sees craft as a primitive, redundant process, which is not worth investing in. Lack of pride around the ‘handmade’ or ‘made in Pakistan’ labels further compound the issue and relegated craft to a niche market. Most ‘makers’ create not for personal or artistic expression but to earn a livelihood. For me, therefore, to see craft discussed in the context of therapy or a means of building community, as freeform creative expression, as a way of documenting history, as a channel for activism, well, it was amazing! I don’t mean to sound disingenuous – these conversations do take place all over Pakistan but at a very small scale and in very select circles, and with little attention to the intersection between traditional and more modern creative forms of expression. To hear this as mainstream conversation in the arts and crafts sector was extremely refreshing.

It really brought home for me what I have always believed - that Pakistan has much more to offer and too little has been done. We can transform craft to result in economic benefits and a better quality of life but at the same time, we also need to move beyond the contribution of craft’s "folk" traditions and incorporate and highlight vibrant subcultures and other contemporary manifestations that will be the future drivers of creative expression in the sector.

What are some of the major discussions happening in Pakistan right now around craft?

Changes in consumer trends and rapid evolution of consumer tastes in the last 20 years and the entry of new and aggressively promoted mass-produced products in both rural and urban markets, has meant that craftspeople struggle more than ever to survive and remain competitive. To grow and develop, would necessitate investment in capacity as well as the enterprise itself, continuous design intervention and product innovation – areas the craft sector in Pakistan has notoriously struggled with. Widespread recognition of the dire need for intervention has fostered a surge in dialogue on how to set up new systems to pull artisans into the modern economy. Discussions currently centre on promoting the use of technology including but not limited to the internet, electronic platforms, digital mapping and payment systems, use of cellular technology to educate craftspeople etc. There is heightened excitement about the potential of ecommerce and technological advances as mediums to support artisans to access new markets with the aim of raising incomes. And while this is extremely important – the merger of the traditional cottage industry with the digital world - the discussion often fails to take into account on-ground realities and is based on pervasive myths about the craft industry of Pakistan.

The first myth involves the romantic notion that if someone invests in the sector, it will grow. This idea is linked to the concept that there are endless numbers of artisans that are skilled, keen to develop their craft and simply await a middle party, a savior, to help facilitate them. This analysis does not take into account any sociopolitical factors and reduces the artisan’s agency and voice by portraying them as helpless innocents. The second myth is that artisans are completely disengaged from mainstream markets and the only thing holding them back is access. Like all respectable myths, these too are rooted in the truth.

It is correct that the sector is in desperate need of investment and concerted support and that artisans struggle to meet the demands of, and sometimes access to, mainstream markets, primarily due to poor product quality and inadequate understanding of current trends. However, to pay lip-service to these issues, without a more grounded understanding of overall sectoral and consumer dynamics, is to obscure the role of informed intervention. Everyone harps upon the capricious nature of the artisanal sector – fast-fashion corrupting the consumer soul, unskilled artisans unable to produce on time or to required quality, lack of government support, poor commitment by the private sector etc. but the reality is there has been little work on the ground to support the development of real policy change. There are no in-depth studies of the sector, no concerted market assessments either on the supply or demand side and very little product development, design and innovation work.  Whatever has been done has achieved, has been in silos, poorly documented, rarely built upon and even more rarely, shared or accessible.

This is why there are no technology shortcuts to the problem. Sadly, most discussion about the development of e-commerce in Pakistan is too much focused on the technical infrastructure (terminals, internet access, payment gateways, logistics, etc.) and has quite neglected what the artisans need, where the market is and who the customers are that we want to bring online.

Amneh's abstract is available on the Making Futures website here.