Behind Every Rise: Accompaniment

by Jacqueline Novogratz

Accompaniment is fundamental to all human development.

It has biblical connotations — the breaking of bread, the provision of shelter to tired travelers. Its most common use is musical — a part that supplements another instrument or voice. In the most human sense, the word evokes a sense of kinship, of cheering on, of showing up. Of helping someone to believe those things they often do not or cannot believe in themselves.

In Pakistan, and in many communities where trust is low and social mobility fraught, the notion of accompaniment is an especially powerful tool of development. It requires a long-term commitment to knowing one another, to walking besides them. If patient capital is required to seed and build innovations to serve those in overlooked places, then patient accompaniment is needed to enable individuals, organizations and communities to fully flourish. We started Acumen’s Regional Fellows Program in Pakistan to identify, link, support and inspire a corps of deliberately diverse leaders to help build and strengthen the future of their country. Perhaps the greatest learning has been the power of accompaniment and of mutual commitment to and amongst the Fellows themselves. For the path of leading change is a lonely one, and none of us succeeds without the help of many.

I’m often struck by the extraordinary quality of young leaders fighting against all odds to create change. Inevitably, I discover at least one strong influence behind their accomplishments. Take Jamshaid Cheema, a young leader from Hassanwali in Gujranwala, an area located two hours or so outside of Lahore. While so many of his peers work as farmers or daily laborers, Jamshaid is now a partner at one of Pakistan’s most visible affordable housing companies, Ansaar Management Company. He speaks fluent English, is a father of two and is the first to credit his accomplishments to the support of two men: his father and Jawad Aslam, a Pakistani-American who moved to Lahore after 9/11 to build this affordable housing company and ended up staying to do much more.

Jamshaid’s father, Mohammad Riaz Cheema, a farmer with seven children including five daughters, held more progressive ideas than many of his neighbors. “My father believed in education as the key to success. He wanted us to be good human beings, to do what was right, and earn influence in the community. He let us be educated in the village for primary school, but felt we weren’t learning enough,” says Jamshaid.

The private school was an hour and a half drive away, but that didn’t stop him despite the fact that he had no transport. Jamshaid explains. “To pay for a motorbike, my father rented out his land. To earn income, he arose daily at three in the morning to milk the cows. Then he would drive three or four of his children to the school. While we studied, my father would sit at a teashop and read before driving us home again.”

In a peaceful village where he had some control over his own life, Jamshaid’s father Riaz felt anything but poor. “I wanted my children to be good people. I wanted them to earn a place as leaders.” He speaks not about hardships nor trade-offs, but a continued focus on building character in each of his children.

Jamshaid shares a story from his university days with humility and honesty. “In this part of Pakistan,” he says, “student leaders are expected to govern with guns and sticks, not with influence and positive motivation.” For too many, the role of student leader can, ironically, prepare young men for careers serving Pakistan’s local mafias who rule by wielding even bigger sticks. His father was unimpressed by this kind of power. Indeed, on the one occasion Jamshaid found himself in difficulty, his father came to his side — with a stern warning that in the future, he would help only “if I found myself in trouble for doing what was right, not wrong.”

After college, Jamshaid found only dead-end jobs until he heard about positions within Jawad’s housing company. He liked Jawad and was struck by his sense of purpose, but the pay was extremely low. His father intervened, encouraging him to accept the position, to focus on the long-term goal of development, not short-term gratification. I ask Riaz how he himself gained these values. “They came from my father and mother,” he says. “They showed me what was important in life. And I study the Koran to remember and stay grounded.”

Jamshaid’s choice to join Jawad at AMC was based not on title or salary, but on following a leader from whom he would learn. Being accompanied by a father who made him feel safe made this choice easier. And it was the right one — not that Jawad was easy as a boss, at least not in the beginning. Like Riaz, Jawad’s standards were high: he brooked neither corruption nor complacency. He nearly fired Jamshaid when he was late more than once in a week. And he accompanied Jamshaid by giving him opportunities and holding him accountable.

We rise and we fall to the level of expectations set for us by others and by ourselves.

Few people understood Jamshaid’s decision to work for very little income while battling corruption, sabatoge and the political complexities of housing. Yet Jawad and Jamshaid stayed true to their vision despite the long, hard road. Broken systems can make it all too easy to choose to do the wrong thing. A strong moral compass — leadership — is required to do what is right. It is why leaders are more important than systems — and it is why accompaniment is so critical.

“Nothing is meaningful without trust and respect,” Jamshaid now tells me with pride. After working with Jawad for more than seven years, starting as a skinny young man with few skills and little sense of the world, he has earned his way to become Jawad’s partner. The company recently signed a 15 million pound deal to replicate its model across the country. As I stand next to him, now a broad-shouldered man with a confident gaze and gait, speaking in fluent English, I cannot help but smile.

“These years have changed my life,” he tells me. “My parents made me who I am. Jawad polished the raw material — he is my brother and my boss.”

I ask if he is glad for his decisions. “No question,” he answers. “I am proud to help show that you can build an ethical company that helps Pakistan’s people. I earn a good salary. And I am an Acumen Fellow which makes me part of a bigger family.” A few weeks prior, Jamshaid and Jawad visited Nairobi to study an Acumen East Africa Fellow’s approach to affordable housing. “When I walked into the Acumen office,” Jamshaid recounts enthusiastically. “I felt I was home.”

Home. When I think of Jamshaid’s story and the different levels of accompaniment by his father and Jawad, my conviction in the power of investing not simply in individuals but in a community of young leaders is reaffirmed. To bring our best selves to the world requires knowing that somewhere is a place where we are welcomed, valued, seen, where people tell us the truth not to belittle but to better us. Riaz, Jawad and Jamshaid remind me that accompaniment should exist in every stage of a person’s life — in our families, our schools and workplaces, in our houses of worship. We are here to serve one another, and the most joyful among us do just that.

In so doing, we have the chance to heal a corner of the world’s broken heart.