Phillipa Sage talks to Farahnaz Karim – mother, political scientist, development entrepreneur and academic. Farah’s passion for equality and legacy led her to become a Director for the French NGO ACTED in Afghanistan and a UN field officer. She founded the social enterprise Insaan (meaning human), a boutique impact investment entity that allocates philanthropic capital to tackle poverty around the world.
Farah, it was wonderful to meet you and hear your incredible and truly inspiring story, thank you so much for sharing it with me. Your ability to relate to anyone and want to do your best for your family and humanity at large is very apparent. Can you tell us about your personal story and how you came to set up Insaan?
Farahnaz Karim: When I was 11 years old my parents took me to India. It shook me, in particular, that children my age or younger were sleeping on the streets. I started to question why and by 14 I had decided that one day I’d like to be Secretary General of the UN.
This anchors everything I have done since, from studies to the world of work, my desire to experience and understand conditions in the field, and to see life from that vantage point.
I helped to supervise the first elections after the war in Bosnia in 1995 and then worked for the UN in Afghanistan, largely under Taliban control. There I learned to design development programmes particularly around informal education, literacy and women’s livelihoods, as well as reporting and documenting the impact of the UN’s work. But I also learned that the organisation is political, with many strings attached to its funding, and that its impact could be greater using the right metrics and leveraging its money more flexibly.
I went back to graduate school at Harvard to learn the management tools I would need to become a changemaker in this space. Insaan, which means ‘human’ in many languages, is the result. Insaan connects philanthropists to solutions to poverty.
What does Insaan do and how is it different?
Farahnaz Karim: Insaan wants to change how philanthropy is done. It aims to improve a system that is still primarily short-term oriented, top-down and disconnected from the results it has on real people’s lives. Let me explain, with education as an example.
First, any donation that is short-term, or one-time, is often not helpful unless it is an emergency response. Ironically, when giving is pitched as ‘donate x today to educate a child’, it may do more harm than good because how can it possibly begin to address the challenge of quality education? Would you consider funding your child for just a school term?
Second, the end-user, generally called a beneficiary, needs to be at the centre of decision-making. Donors often think of funding new school buildings but from a student’s perspective education requires trained teachers and the right materials and books to learn,
Third, the metric of success should not just be the amount gifted. It’s the outcome of that donation that matters: did the child receive a quality education and did their life chances improve?
Insaan’s model is a response to these flaws and very much the result of what I learned in my work from Afghanistan and India to Kenya. Insaan raises donations from wealthy individuals, families and businesses, and invests in local solutions to poverty around basic needs: education, health and supply chains. Rather than funding a project or building a thing, Insaan finds and conducts due diligence on entrepreneurial ventures that attempt to solve some of the problems affecting the world’s poorest people.
Insaan takes equity stakes in solutions that either create jobs and/or deliver a product or service relevant to the poor. We call it catalytic funding – because we offer support at an early-stage and re-invest any profits after an exit to support other solutions. It’s a virtuous cycle that multiplies the financial impact of a donation. This is why Insaan’s model is different.
Insaan works with Access Afya, based in Nairobi, which operates micro-clinics for people in the slums providing low-cost, quality health care. Some 300,000 patients have been treated in Access Afya clinics over the period of our investment.
In the handicraft space, the second biggest employer in the developing world, Insaan has invested in Soko, Mela Artisans and Powered by People to enable slum-based or isolated artisans to reach global markets. These ventures, linking the poorest to ethical buyers and consumers around the world, are all innovative in their pursuit of scalable solutions for ‘changing the lives of many, for better, for good’. This is Insaan’s mission.
What I was struck by when meeting you was that you are just like all of us mothers, worrying about the wellbeing of your children, wondering whether you were parenting right, feeling exhausted juggling “taxi services” and laundry. What does a working day in the life of Farah look like?
Farahnaz Karim: Well, there is the ideal day and then there is the reality! I am a full-time mother and my kids (and cat) come first. That equates to a busy day on its own! I am also completing doctoral studies and running Insaan. So, when you ask what a typical working day looks like, it doesn’t exist. Instead I’d call it a ‘living day’. I guess it would include yoga, meditation, breakfast with my two children, a walk to and/or from school, reading, writing, work and family phone calls, webinars and content creation for Insaan, alongside as much doctoral research as I can squeeze in, food shopping, cooking, supervising mountains of ever-more taxing homework and dinner of course. Occasionally sleep is possible but ‘going out’ and looking after myself requires a herculean effort! In sum, every day is a beautiful mountain to conquer.
You have seen and continue to see many people suffering in awful conditions and surviving brutal treatment, how do you look after your own mental health after witnessing such horrors?
Farahnaz Karim: I have struggled with this over the years and still do but I am not alone. I had to take a course on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when I came out of the field. One of the things they taught us was to create an imaginary space in your head, your own perfect room. I still escape there!
I have never been particularly gifted at dealing with people who are disengaged from the world intellectually and emotionally. In my twenties, my response was isolation. I would talk less, read and travel more. I had, and still have, little tolerance for triviality.
Over time, I learned that action is a better channel for my feelings of frustration and sadness at injustice and inequity. Through Insaan – and teaching university students and my own children – I have been able to help others learn about our complex world.
I now understand that ignorance is not the problem in the world today. Certainty is the problem. A single truth is a myth.
For regular updates on Farah’s work, make sure to follow her on Instagram at @insaangroup.