It is with great pleasure that we report that Dr. Akber Gardezi (Assistant Professor at COMSATS University, Pakistan, and the Inter Islamic Network on Information Technology) and an Affiliated Member of our UNESCO Chair in ICT4D has received this year’s Saima Ammar award for his work in using digital technologies to support people with disabilities in Pakistan. The award is made annually by the Young Women Writers Forum (based in Islamabad) in association with Sightsavers, and this year it was made during a ceremony at Rawalpindi Women University.
The award was created in 2011 in memory of Saima Ammar, who had been a very active member of the Young Women Writers Forum, and had recently passed away battling Multiple Sclerosis. The Forum did not have any funding available and so they contacted Sightsavers with whom they had an existing MoU to help and support Blind Women Writers in Pakistan. The first “award” (but not in a physical sense) was a small gathering of like minded people who supported the cause of empowering women and overall inclusion more generally. As the years passed by this gathering which always took place around the 15th of October began a regular feature to honour visually impaired people who had done substantial work within the community. For the last 3-4 years they have also sought nominations from the wider community to include sighted people working for the service of visually impaired people.
Akber writes “I am deeply humbled and thankful to my vision impaired friends who recommended my name for this award. This is very special for me as it links me to the memory of the late Saima Ammar. She was a symbol of activism and defiance; she is someone who fought the cause for access to education for people with disabilities in Pakistan. She is someone who did not let blindness be a burden on her life, but rather used it as a motivation. She did not lead a very comfortable and luxurious life herself but played an immense role promoting educational culture among the visual impaired community of Pakistan. She founded Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness (PFFB) and initiated the Audio World Project in 1995 with the aim of providing education, information and entertainment to visually impaired persons through audio books. Let this be a reminder for us all to keep fighting the good fight and remember Saima in our thoughts and prayers”.
It was great to be back in Islamabad to participate in the second two-day workshop organised by the Inter-Islamic Network on Information Technology and COMSATS Institute of Information Technology with the assistance of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, and held on 5th and 6th October. It was fascinating to see the progress that has been made in Pakistan since the first such workshop that we convened in January 2016, particularly in terms of policy making, awareness, and entrepreneurial activity. It was also very good to see such a diverse group of participants, including academics, entrepreneurs, civil society activities, government officials, and representatives of bilateral donors engaging in lively discussions throughout both days about how best we can turn rhetoric into reality.
Following the official opening ceremony, there were seven main sessions spread over two days:
- Understanding the ICT4D landscape, in which the main speaker was Dr. Ismail Shah, the Chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority
- The road to facilitation: financial technologies for the marginalised, with a plenary given by Qasif Shahid (FINJA) about making payments frictionless, free and real time.
- Addressing the digital gender gap, at which the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D spoke about why this is a pressing concern, and it gave a chance for him to tdiscusst the new UN-led EQUALS initiative for gender equality in a digital age, as well as some of the challenges that face women in using ICTs (slide deck).
- No tech to low tech to high tech: an entrepreneur’s tale, with a plenary by Muhammad Nasrulla (CEO INTEGRY).
- Serving the most marginalised: accessibility and disability, with a plenary by David Banes on access and inclusion using ICTs, which included a very useful framework for considering digital accessibility issues.
- Developing technologies for the rural/urban slum needs, during which Muhammad Mustafa spoke about his vision of enabling all 700 million illiterate adults in the world to go online through his Mauqa Online initiative.
- Educating the marginalised, where the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D spoke about educating marginalised children (slide deck) and Shaista Kazmi from Vision 21 described their Speed Literacy Program.
Each session combined enthusiastic discussion around the themes addressed by the plenary speakers, and it was excellent to learn from all those involved about using ICTs in very practical ways to deliver on the needs of poor and marginalised people and communities in Pakistan.
Full details of the event can be found on the INIT site, where copies of the slide decks from each main presentation will also be available. Very many thanks go to all of the organisers, especially Tahir Naeem, Akber Gardezi and Muhammad Atiq from COMSATS IIT and INIT for all of the hard work that they put into making the event a success. We look forward to convening the next such workshop in about a year’s time, once again bringing together people from all backgrounds intent on using ICTs to support Pakistan’s most marginalised communities.