Whenever we meet, an elderly friend expresses his disgust at the unending stories in the media about corruption, violence and abuse of power. Convinced that this trend only goes to feed despondency in the society, he would like to see something positive being reported, something that would give people hope. He is partially right and one would agree to the point that there should be a balance. The media persons pet response, that good news is hard to find in these cruel times, is debatable. It is more a case of a flawed approach that views good news as no news. Surely, as I discovered in Sialkot last week, there are good things happening around us as well. And maybe it is time we start noticing them. The founders of Akhuwat, an NGO that helps fight poverty through interest-free small loans, had been invited to the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry to share their experiences with local businessmen who have formed the Khud-Kafalat Trust to work in the same direction. Through their Chamber, Sialkots business community has made impressive contributions towards public welfare and infrastructure development, creating the role model for a socially-responsible private sector. And this is generally known and recognised. However, not many people know about the wonderful work that Akhuwat is doing. It was a pleasant surprise because wonderful work is not what the NGOs in Pakistan are known for. As the Akhuwat members briefed the meeting about their initiative, it became clear that it was very different from the NGOs that have multiplied over the years, but have very little to show for the money they spend. To begin with, Akhuwat does not depend on any international donor and raises funds purely from the Pakistani civil society. This has meant the freedom to create an operational framework based upon local resources, conditions, experiences and values rather than the universal models and expensive prescriptions pushed by international donors that make high-sounding politically-correct noises, but are utterly ineffective in achieving the results that they are designed to achieve. The success of the model created by the Akhuwat team can be attributed largely to this distinguishing feature. Formed by a group of civil servants over lunch, Akhuwat, as the name implies, made the Islamic principle of muakhat or brotherhood as its guiding principle. Granted that many NGOs are formed by individuals similarly inspired by the larger good, it is unfortunate that most of them become victims of the business of social development pushed by international donors. There are numerous examples of well-meaning individuals getting trapped into the heavily-funded quicksand of jargon-laden programmes. The fact that for Akhuwat, the money for the first loan came out from the pocket of one of the initiators set into motion a chain of ideas and events that have led to the creation of a successful model for micro-financing. The initiators have combined their training in development economics with a sincerity of purpose and a progressive understanding of core Islamic values. The small loans are provided to the poor as Qarz-e-Husna, which means that no interest is charged. The operational costs are covered from donations made for the purpose, and people who have benefited from the project have started contributing to it as well. Compare this to the burden of 20 percent interest or more that the foreign-funded micro-finance schemes extract from the poor people that they are supposed to help. According to an estimate, some 35 percent of the funds allocated for such programmes are used to cover the operational costs. Akhuwat has minimised the costs to 7-8 percent. And how have they achieved this miracle? Interestingly, there is no rocket science involved. They use the funds collected with responsibility, as an amanat, and make an effort to find ways to minimise the operational costs. They do not spend money on expensive jeeps, lavish offices, latest equipments, useless workshops in upscale hotels and foreign resorts, expensive consultants and overpaid employees or publishing materials that nobody reads; things and activities that are part and parcel of the foreign-funded enterprise of social development. They sit on the floor for their meetings, use the mosque for the welfare activities, hire people with basic education and train them for the job, give them motorbikes to access people who usually live in streets too small for the big jeeps that other NGO-wallahs ride. And volunteers share the load of work with paid employees. Then of course is the ethos that informs Akhuwat. The senior team members are mostly volunteers who view the organisations work as a religious duty. This orientation is markedly different from the superficial parroting of a politically correct mantra handed from the top by some foreign agency, and propagated through paid social workers and their team leaders who do not practice what they preach. There is a lot more sensitivity for the local culture, and this has meant a very high success rate, where the small loans disbursed by Akhuwat have actually gone on to change the lives of thousands of families. They are not just figures to be touted in annual reports to the foreign donors. Over the last four years since it was registered, Akhuwats performance speaks for itself. It has distributed nearly 60,000 family loans so far amounting to over Rs 660 million. The recovery of the loaned amounts is 99.84 percent. From a humble beginning in Lahore, it has created 33 branches in 18 cities to become the largest micro-finance programme in Pakistan. It has collaborated successfully with the Rawalpindi and Faisa-labad Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and discussions for the replication of their model are underway with other organisations. Akhuwats model is included in the curriculum at University of Southern Hampshire, USA, and the Lahore University of Management Sciences. There are lessons to be learnt from the story of Akhuwats success. It not only brings into focus important but ignored ingredients needed for developing effective social development and welfare projects, but also shows us clearly what the other NGOs are doing wrong. The writer is a freelance columnist.