By Pragya Narang
“The tragedy of India and Pakistan is that we are basically of the same soil, and even if we call it foreign policy, it is one landmass! I have no problems with borders but, rather, with the way we ‘otherise’ each other and consider each other enemies. The human, financial, social and cultural cost of conflict is not sustainable any longer,” says Fawzia Naqvi, impact-investment consultant and former vice president, Soros Economic Development Fund.
Speaking at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women, Fawzia, who is of Pakistani origin and is now based in New York, spoke about the time she was asked to build the India portfolio for Soros Economic Development Fund, an impact investment fund inside the Soros Foundation between late 2006 through 2016 when she left the organisation.
“I was innocent or even naive enough to assume that I could work in India and that naivety led to a determination that I was not going to let my origin get in the way of a good thing,” said Fawzia, who co-founded Open Society Foundation’s economic policy think tank in Pakistan called Institute for Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), and serves as an advisor to its board and leadership.
Her co-panelists on the session titled “Open for Business: Peace, Economic Growth and Regional Prosperity” included Sarita Kumari Sodha, philanthropist, environmental evangelist, peace activist, and director of Ghanerao Hotels, India, who was born in Pakistan and is married in India; and Darshita Gillies, Indian-origin impact investor, tech entrepreneur and founder of Maanch philanthropy platform in UK. The panel was moderated by media entrepreneur and founder of the SABERA Awards, Suparnaa Chadda.
“People were curious about me because I was of Pakistan origin, but once we got past the curiosity, we were normal human beings sharing South Asian stories,” said Fawzia whose mother was from Agra and her father hailed from Amroha in western Uttar Pradesh.
Her work in India also permitted her to explore an emotional personal journey, especially when she visited the gravesites of her ancestors in Agra. “Suddenly, my 10 years of working in India came together. I felt my ancestors had been walking with me throughout these years and guiding me,” narrated Fawzia, whose previous work experiences include five years as a microfinance expert at Women’s World Banking and ten years with Citibank in New York.
The Columbia University alumnus shared her experience of meeting Indians who had never come across a Pakistani. She had travelled to Pune to visit potato farmers in a village that was very conservative. When she revealed her origins to one of the hosts, he initially said something negative, but eventually apologised after a warm conversation with her, and even ended up inviting her to his daughter’s wedding. “Once people meet you and are able to talk to you, a lot of barriers essentially fall,” Fawzia asserted.
Currently an independent consultant advising several foundations on using impact investments as a tool in service of their mission, Fawzia is also a member of the investment committee for i2i Venture Fund, which makes early stage investments in technology-enabled startups in Pakistan.
She also described how, once she had crossed immigration, every trip to India was a joyful experience. “The challenge was getting a visa and then slowing down my heartbeat as I explained to the immigration officer why I was there in India, and holding my breath until I heard the sound of my passport being stamped. I was very proud to grow that portfolio, which has now become a phenomenal investment firm. It was my life’s work and I am so grateful, personally, as well as professionally,” she said.
Fawzia feels that the only way forward to promote trade, keeping in mind the current political problems between countries, is through continuous dialogue, even if online.
“When I arrived in India time and time again, I was breaking down this mental model of what a Pakistani woman is. Indians, especially Indian men, couldn’t just wrap their heads around me, because of the professional position I held, how I looked, and dressed, how I spoke, because they had an entirely different impression of what a Pakistani woman should be,” she said.
It was the common language that helped Fawzia forge a connection; when she spoke in Hindi-Urdu with co-investors, it changed the dynamics completely. “That is what triggered a trust-building mechanism. People said to me, ‘Aap toh humein samajhti hain, aapko toh pata hai‘ (You understand us, you know how things are here),” she narrated.
South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe that aims to promote women’s leadership and create a space for courageous conversations on peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia.
Fawzia believes that South Asia should no longer bear the cost of conflict and hopes to see leadership in both countries that no longer stokes fear and hate, but takes the courage to make things happen, “just the way we are doing here,” she signed off with a smile.