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Spotlight: Falak Madhani


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Falak MadhaniFalak MadhaniFalak Madhani (ISP 06-07) is working at the Aga Khan University School of Nursing as Manager of International Programmes. She has an MSc in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

I was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, with just my parents and my two siblings. Until I was 18 I knew little of life outside of my little bubble in Karachi which consisted of my school, Jamat Khana, and a very small extended family circle in Pakistan. My father was very patriotic, which kindled in me a passion to stay in Pakistan and to contribute to the development of my country through all its tough time - military dictatorships, strikes and shut downs, tumultuous democracies, corruption, and most worryingly, discrimination against women and the daily difficulties of being a woman in Pakistan.

I always knew I wanted to have a career in health and development. I am part of a family of educationists, and I could see that the natural link to education is health and that no development programme can be complete without a focus on health, especially public health. I also remember writing essays in school about the desire to serve rural areas because even as a child I understood that urban areas are far more well-resourced that rural parts of countries like Pakistan.

I completed the MSc Public Health in Developing Countries course from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine through the funding from the Aga Khan Foundation’s International Scholarship Programme. The course equipped me to understand health and development issues from an academic perspective. It also helped me to hone my analytical skills.

Currently I work at the Aga Khan University School of Nursing as Manager of International Programmes. Whereas my job is not a traditional public health job, since I am not engaged in research or fighting epidemics, I feel that my degree contributes every day to the work that I do. My focus, and the focus of the School of Nursing, is on the development of health human resources in developing countries. I often engage in strategy development for the different countries where we work to consider how nurses can be developed for rural areas, for urban hospitals, for leadership roles, and so on. In Afghanistan where the health sector is less developed, we are focusing on strategies to train rural women in basic nursing skills so that they can go back and serve in their villages. In countries like Syria, where the health sector is well-developed compared to many countries in the region, our focus is on strategies for improving the quality of higher education of nurses.

I have not yet pursued another degree, however, I am increasingly feeling the need for further education. At this point I am considering an MBA. I have always been one for exploring links: links between the different sectors of development, the links and importance of integration between higher levels of development and grassroots efforts, and the links between the not-for-profit world and the world of business and economics. I feel that development work has to be increasingly economically viable and savvy, and I feel that a business degree could broaden my horizons to bring the strengths of corporate strategies to development.

My undergraduate degree was from a small liberal arts college in Vermont, USA. There I learned to challenge my own narrow thinking – most importantly I learned to question and consider different sides of each story. After my degree, due to my interest in development, I applied for Aga Khan Foundation USA’s nine-month internship programme. I requested to work closely with the Health Programme Officer. This opportunity exposed me to the broad spectrum and processes of development work – from fund raising and global strategy development to on-the-ground implementation. I was also exposed to multiple sectors of development - rural development, health, education, civil society development, microfinance, and so on.

I was lucky to find an opening in Afghanistan with AKF directly after I finished my internship in the US. In Kabul, I worked as Grants Programme Officer, Health and Education. It was the most challenging and interesting experience of my life. I realized that I never again want to be directly responsible for reporting to donors – because that is easily the most cumbersome aspect of development. However, I learned so much more about people, and about the challenges of bringing ideas to reality. This job gave me a lot of exposure to public health problems and health system development in Afghanistan, including HR development. This job gave me the relevant background and experience required for my Masters course, which I pursued the year following the end of my assignment in Afghanistan.

Towards the end of my two years in Afghanistan, I was given the task of conducting an education access study in rural Afghanistan. My team and I walked, drove, rode, and struggled up and down hills and river valleys to find out how far children are from schools. We cried for the children who stood across a fast flowing river watching kids on the other side going to a school that they would never reach. We marveled at hydroelectric projects that villagers who live at the end of the world had started on their own with a little bit of encouragement. We refused to believe that 14-year olds we met could be only as tall as six or seven-year olds should be because of malnourishment. We remained silent and confused about how to address the challenges of excessive opium consumption in the poorest parts of the country – where teachers are paid salaries in opium at times. We argued about ways of getting basic health, education and other rights to children around Afghanistan. It was the most life changing experience.

Finally, after I completed my degree, I knew that I had to return to my country, but I also knew that I was not just a Pakistani citizen and that instead I have a responsibility to contribute my time and any knowledge and skills that I might have to wherever there is a need. I was fortunate to find a job in Pakistan that exposes me to, and allows me to contribute to, development in Afghanistan, Syria, and Egypt.

I cannot separate myself from the work of the Aga Khan Development Network. During my career, which is albeit short, I have seen the darker side of development. Where millions of dollars are wasted because of corruption, or mis-programming, or in meeting political priorities of rich countries – for example, where money is wasted because someone thinks sexual abstinence is a better public health message than contraception.

In such a scenario, where you are often at your desk, in front of a computer, writing a strategy, you need to be connected to a larger vision – a vision for true development and progress. For investment in people, in civil society. At AKDN, I feel connected to a larger vision – one that I believe in. That makes it hard for me to look for a job elsewhere. Maybe in future I will, to see what I can learn and bring back to the Network. In the meanwhile, I know that there are lots of diverse opportunities within AKDN that are beckoning.

I think that AKU within itself is so international, evolving and ever-expanding, that I will have opportunities, in Pakistan and beyond to develop my career. However, I know that it’s usually chance and not planning that lands me in the next stage of my life. So, we will see.

I would like to go back outside of Pakistan to build on my previous international expertise. I have a special love for the Central Asia region, and maybe my career will take me to Tajikistan next. Who knows!

My advice to others considering a development career is that development is not a profession; it is not for someone who does not have a passion for it. The same is true for public health in particular. Anyone starting out in my career should seriously consider seeing the world outside of the bubble that they live in. For example, if you have always lived in a country, take a risk and go live in the rural mountains for a few years. It will change your perspective and help you become more creative and, sensitive, and will broaden your horizon. Also, don’t try to build your academic qualifications without also broadening your work experience.

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