Posted by editor 24/04/2013 0 Comment 3244 views

Dr Naeem Ahmed set up to hook up skilled volunteers with people who could use their help. Here, he and Big Issue founder John Bird ponder the key to social change

JB: I feel we are living in a world where people are always looking for someone to blame, always wanting to know what’s going wrong. We’ve created AFBI because we want to focus a bit more on things that are going right. And Selfless sounds like something going right.

NA: Yes. When I qualified as a doctor I realised that there were many professionals out there who wanted to use their skills to make the world a better place but didn’t have an outlet. So I created the website, It’s like a Facebook meets Linkedin, somewhere a person can go and say, for example, ‘I’m a doctor, I can give up six hours a week and these are my interests and qualifications’ and a charity can go on there and say ‘we’re trying to do a public health project in Kenya and we could do with your help’. And the link is made. We are working with 65 of the leading charities at the moment.

JB: It’s about sharing skills and good practice. I was also attracted to Selfless because selflessness is a spiritual dimension. It’s not just about saying good and behaving good, it’s about delivering it.

NA: And you have to start early, when people are young you can mould them into becoming leaders. I always feel your professional progression should match how much you contribute to society. But the reality is not like that. The more people progress, the more skills they acquire and the more people earn, the less they contribute to society and that doesn’t make sense to me. That is the point of Selfless: ‘You guys have made it, you’ve got some professional qualifications, what do you do now? You have a responsibility to share that with other people and help them along.’

JB: What I have always believed will bring about social change is a cognitive democracy – we need to use this education and we need to know what’s going on.

NA: Yes. When I was a medical student I organised medical health camps in Bangladesh with some fellow students and to date we have provided over 10,000 people with access to healthcare. It became clear that some of the work we were doing was quite basic but life-changing. For instance, a blacksmith walked seven hours to see us as his vision had deteriorated and he couldn’t work – but he just needed glasses! He cried and fell to the floor grabbing my feet saying we had saved his family as he had been unable to provide for them.

And when I came back I thought I am just one humble student, but empowered and in the right environment you can make a massive difference. So we started running a health promotion programme in Tower Hamlets. I thought, we’ve got all these medical students, so I set up a project where students would go out and deliver health messages into their own communities. Doctors need to understand the communities that they work in, the challenges that some people face, and can’t remain sheltered for 6 years within medical school. So we set up some really simple workshops telling people how to live healthier lifestyles and they were receptive to it.

I remember one woman had really bad rheumatoid arthritis and her husband had died and her son was in prison and she said this was the first time she could talk to someone about her health who understands her. She began to understand her situation and said it’s more than about health it’s about her whole lifestyle, and she changed her behaviour.

JB: Yes, and changing behaviour can have benefits for years to come. Quite a few years ago if you drew an AIDS map in Africa there was a hole in the middle, which was Uganda. Because Milton Abote, the socialist leader of Uganda in the 60s brought from Cuba health trainers who educated people about health. They taught people how to cook food safely, use the mosquito nets, don’t have your dogs wandering around the village, and other things about nutrition. So 20 years later when the AIDS epidemic hit, the people in Uganda were  given advice around sexual health – and they listened and followed the rules just as their parents had done before, because they had a history of ‘involving’ national health.

NA: This is the Big Society in action; Selfless is taking a proactive approach, rather than throwing money at the problem. The students end up in placements where they can use their skills-set so it’s great for their personal development, it can go on their CVs. They gain brilliant personal experience and a get a taste of the rewards of volunteering. The charity can draw on this expertise without having to pay too much. I’ve found those that get involved for short term projects usually enjoy it so much they take on bigger pieces of work or start creating their own projects.

You’re right, it’s about sharing and educating. It’s about giving people a hand up not a handout. As they say, teach a man to fish and he can feed himself  for a lifetime.

I believe we all possess some degree of altruism; we need to nurture that early on in young people. We need focus efforts on getting people to help others. Selfless in a nutshell makes that process, of sharing what you know with someone that needs it, enjoyable and convenient.

Selfless wants financial support for smaller organisations with bright ideas; large and well-established organisations take the lion’s share of any available funding

They would also like to see more support in the area of governance; people who have started similar projects to tackle problems usually have a day job, a large portion of their time and charity income is spent ensuring compliance with regulations

Finally, Selfless is on the lookout for champions: high-flying professionals, politicians and celebrities to be Selfless and give up their time to help good causes find their feet, get publicity and flourish. Dr Ahmed thinks we need a Dragon’s Den for charities and social enterprises – but rather than awarding money they’d like to be focused on getting ideas out there.






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