March 4, 2024

“In the wake of a natural disaster, I felt a calling…”

Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) Pakistan CEO Nusrat Nasab

Earthquakes, avalanches, floods, landslides, cyclones – a changing climate has led to increases in their frequency and intensity in many parts of the world. In a conversation with AKAH Pakistan CEO Nusrat Nasab, she recounts how one such disastrous event, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, changed the course of her life, igniting a passion for a career in humanitarian assistance…


Q: When did you decide to join FOCUS and why did you choose this path?
NB: I started in 2005, as a senior program officer, right after the Pakistan earthquake. We were the only two [officers] involved in response and recovery. While I have many painful memories of that time – given an estimated 80,000 deaths, and mass destruction – it was also then, that I felt a calling. I realized how beneficial a quick and professional response can benefit those who suffer from the effects of a disaster.  Today, in my position as CEO, I count on FOCUS’ support.

But, it is  the Donors, who in my humble opinion are the real heroes. While the FOCUS field units have been integrated into AKAH, the financial support comes from FOCUS.

Q: Tell us more about your personal journey working with FOCUS.
NB: One of the programs that I want to highlight is the School Safety Program initiated by FOCUS in 2006. We were in the earthquake recovery phase and we were in the field supporting relief efforts – schools had been destroyed and students  were living in camps with their families. We had an idea to help bring smiles on the faces of the many displaced children. Smiles that I remember fondly. We organized sports activities like football, cricket and other indoor games in addition to the classes that were taking place. This was the early beginning of The School Safety Program, which has since grown into something bigger and comprehensive under AKAH.

AKAH School Safety Program

AKAH, since 2006, through its ongoing School Safety Programme, has engaged with over 1,500 schools benefiting 40,000 students and 3,000 teachers. In addition, 19,000 members of School Safety Committees, 6,500 School Management Committees and Parent Teacher Associations have benefitted from the programme.
Through its School Safety Programme, FOCUS, and AKAH, provided technical support to the development of Pakistan School Safety Framework, and the Gilgit Baltistan School Safety Strategy.

Over the years, FOCUS and AKAH have offered me many opportunities to grow in my chosen career through on-the-job training and by attending training in the UK as part of a United Nation initiative. During this training, we consolidated best practices by country and learned about the UN’s Cluster System to better coordinate the delivery of humanitarian efforts.

The Cluster Approach*

A UN review of the global humanitarian system was conducted in 2005 and highlighted a number of gaps in humanitarian response. A strong, coordinated cluster management system was required to gaps and overlaps in the assistance delivered by humanitarian organizations before, during and after a disaster.

The UN’s Cluster Approach was applied for the first time following the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. This consisted of groupings of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations around a sector or service provided during a humanitarian crisis. Nine clusters were established within 24 hours of the earthquake including protection, camp coordination and management, water sanitation and hygiene, health, emergency shelter, nutrition, emergency telecommunications, logistics, and early recovery. Two additional clusters, Education and Agriculture, were later added.

Q: What challenges have you faced as a female executive?
NB: FOCUS and AKDN institutions provide a very enabling environment for women and are great institutions to work for. I have, however, experienced challenges when dealing with other institutions that are more conservative and not as progressive.  I can recount one time, I was on a coordination committee; all the stakeholders were present including government agencies  – I was the only woman on this particular committee.

In this situation, I put my leadership skills into action, and was able to rise to the challenge. Even as a CEO, and especially as a woman, sometimes you have to say things twice and raise your voice louder!  It all depends on the culture of the organization, especially if you’re in a decision-making role.

Q: What is your perspective regarding vulnerable areas subject to the threats of climate change in Pakistan, Central and South Asia, and how has FOCUS helped in this regard?
NB: In the beginning, we focused on a multi-hazard approach. In Pakistan, we worked in the northern mountainous region and coastal areas and had specific programs designed for known hazards such as landslides, debris flow and so on. The notion of climate change came a little later.

Now, we combine both scientific knowledge in Hazard, Vulnerability and Risk Assessments (HVRAs) together with local, indigenous knowledge. FOCUS has pioneered the Community Based Disaster Risk Management programme which over the years as resulted in the  building of a strong foundation of Community Emergency Response Team made up of community volunteers who are trained to prepare for an emergency and act as first responders.

Can you share a few specific examples where donor dollars have made a local impact – increasing the safety and security in vulnerable communities? And, looking ahead, how can FOCUS help advance your mission?

Many of our projects are long-term and offer practical solutions that help prepare communities for emergencies. For example, we engaged a Norwegian expert and trained students who were conducting research at the National University in Gilead. We trained the students and our staff on glacier monitoring. When the students produced their project reports, they provided recommendations to establish Early Warning Systems to deal with the threat of glacial lake flood events. This has helped us build the capacity of community members in disaster risk reduction.

As I look back, I would say that we have come a long way from where we started. We have established weather monitoring posts and trained communities to use them. We’re also using Artificial Intelligence to do modeling and show the potential impact of disasters – not only relying only the past.

AKAH is also undertaking relocation projects.  We are assisting communities living in avalanche prone area for example move the safer villages where they are not exposed to this hazard. In Pakistan, 300 settlements have been identified that are prone to avalanche risks.  Our aim is to eventually relocate these communities.

Finally, I’d like to say that I believe praises should really go to the generosity of our FOCUS donors who are contributing to a noble cause. I think they should be proud of the work that they are enabling that is having a great positive impact in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Tajikistan, India and elsewhere. I feel very privileged that I got the opportunity to be a part of this work.

I’m sure that together, we can continue to make a difference helping the most vulnerable in communities around the world.

* OCHA Services, Humanitarian Response

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