Pakistan is already achieving success and making change in a lot of areas but we lose sight of these amidst the seemingly endless bad news. Peace will be important in achieving prosperity. Operations by the military are underway to cleanse the country of terrorist groups and this will ultimately bring peace and greater stability. With stability, investment will increase bringing more jobs and improved economy. Although the greatest responsibility for progress lies with the governments of the day, everyone has to make an effort to do a little more in whatever way they can. As we head into the New Year, it is timely to think about ‘New Year Resolutions’. The national resolution – the narrative – should be to do all we can to make this a more resilient, prosperous and stable country.
It’s almost twelve years since I first arrived in Pakistan for what I thought would be a ‘once only’ visit. I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived. The travel warnings were alarming and friends questioned the wisdom of making a trip at that time. I needn’t have worried. In the two weeks I was here, I soon realized that the country, I was seeing and the warm and welcoming people, I was meeting, didn’t match the perceptions in the West. I had such an enjoyable time that I was eager to return when the opportunity arose mere three months later. It was the start of a deep and abiding fondness for the country and the people and I kept returning regularly until eventually making Pakistan my home. Without doubt, the question I am still asked most often these days is “why on earth would you want to live in Pakistan?” Surprisingly, it is Pakistanis who are curious about this rather than foreign friends. This is usually followed up with all the reasons that make them want to leave. I hope they change their minds but it makes me wonder if many Pakistanis have developed a complex about the country and lost sight of the good and positive things. I find it sad but also understandable. Pakistan’s international image continues to take a severe mauling at the hands of the international media, which seem to be pushing a particular agenda. Rarely, do we read positive stories about the country, yet there are many. I find it depressing and often offensive too.
We can’t deny that Pakistan has more than its share of problems. In my time here I’ve witnessed some of the worst disasters in history, political upheaval, terrorism, the impact of conflict, sectarian violence, polio on the rise, the energy crisis, crushing poverty, food insecurity, and a litany of other problems. Despite the challenges I prefer to focus on the positives and there are a lot of those. I’ve met wonderful people in cities, towns and villages and been deeply touched by their generous hospitality and inclusiveness. My work and love for travel has taken me to so many parts of this spectacular country including the breathtakingly beautiful Northern Areas, FATA, all the provinces and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. I’ve worked on some of the most challenging disasters in the country’s history alongside capable and committed Pakistanis, and been humbled by the courage and resilience of people facing the most challenging of circumstances. I’ve been inspired by the talent and potential of young Pakistanis who are a joy to work with. And I’ve also had so many funny and memorable times and made a large circle of friends who so frequently overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity of spirit. Living here does not seem at all an odd choice and I intend to stay.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that no matter what country we live in there are still challenges in everyday life, and not everyone lives a comfortable life in the West. Poverty exists in developed countries too. Falling incomes, fewer jobs and unemployment, high costs of housing and food, ill health and other problems impact on people’s lives just as they do here. In 2012, statistics in Australia indicated that 12.8% of the population lived below the poverty line. Admittedly the poverty line is set higher than in developing countries but the end result is similar. In the same year in the UK the number was around 14% and in the US, even higher at 14.5%. In the US there are over 600,000 homeless people sleeping rough every night regardless of the weather, and many of them are war veterans. Life can be tough wherever we are when the system fails us.
Pakistan is still a young country. It had a rough start but it will eventually get through these tough times. Like many post-colonialist countries, it has had to reposition itself following independence and partition, to establish its own identity and rules, and where possible take the best advantage out of what the former colonial masters left behind. Some post-colonial countries have achieved a faster rate of development than others but there are many factors that affect progress which make it difficult to compare any two countries. There are, however, lessons for countries to learn from each other in what has been successful in making progress.
The hallmarks of the more successful post-colonial countries in the Asia-Pacific region, like Australia and Singapore are good governance, accountability, robust legal, financial and regulatory systems, strict urban planning laws, environmental safeguards, and health services and education available to all. They are also peaceful – this makes quite a difference. Since gaining independence in 1965, under the strong leadership of the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who governed for three decades, the tiny island state of Singapore has transformed itself from just a shipping port into the financial centre of South East Asia, the location of the regional headquarters for many large multinational companies and financial institutions. With no natural resources, it focused on services, developing global hubs of excellence in a number of sectors including information technology, biotechnology, tourism, aviation, shipping, arbitration, commodities trading, healthcare, and education. The government offered a range of attractive incentives to encourage businesses to set up their headquarters there and ensured the infrastructure and technology as well as an educated workforce was in place that could support these corporations. It has been a hugely successful strategy and today Singapore is a vibrant and booming city state. It is also worth noting that in addition to ensuring a well educated population (literacy rate 95.9%), Singapore has attracted some of the top universities and business schools in the world to set up campuses there, joining three impressive Singaporean universities. Singapore has been so successful that Dubai looked to it as a model when developing their vision for the future.
Malaysia, though still a developing country, also has had strong leadership at a critical time, particularly under the Prime Ministership of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (from 1981-2003), who was unafraid to take the hard steps needed to transform the country. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1957, and then separating from Singapore in 1965, Malaysia has been steadily moving forward. Under Dr. Mahathir’s leadership, the country experienced a rapid phase of modernization, large infrastructure projects and economic growth. A strong advocate for third world development he was often critical of the policies of western countries like Australia, the UK and US in Asia. Malaysia also followed Singapore’s lead in encouraging businesses to set up headquarters in the country. While it has not attracted businesses at the same rate, it has had a reasonable amount of success with this model. Malaysia has also focused on the education sector, not only to ensure an educated population (literacy rate 93.1%), but also as one of its key business themes to attract foreign students and investors in the private education sector.
Education is clearly one of the critical components of transforming a country. An educated population makes better decisions, develops sustainable livelihoods and business, saves money and enjoys better health and quality of life. With many bright young people having great potential, Pakistan is not short of human resources but the literacy rate lags at 55%, the third lowest in Asia, beating only Bhutan on 52.8% and Afghanistan which sits at the bottom of the table at 28.1%. This is dismal and governments – both national and provincial – must take action. Other Asian developing countries like Indonesia, China, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand have all given high priority to education as part of their development and are ahead of Pakistan in development indicator indexes.
But contrary to popular opinion, particularly in the West, the education sector in Pakistan is not all bad news and is actually quite vibrant. Parents do want their children to go to school. It is no secret though that the state struggles to improve the standard and availability of education and 6.5 million children remain out of school while others attend substandard facilities with poor teacher quality. However, private schools, and not-for-profit schools run by NGOs are filling the void. In Punjab alone, 60 percent of students are now attending privately run schools. But there is only little the private and not-for-profit sectors can do. The state eventually has to step up to its responsibilities as set down in Article 25A of the Constitution to “provide free and compulsory education for all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”
To learn more about the private sector’s approach I talked to Kasim Kasuri, CEO of Beaconhouse Schools System, the largest private school network in Pakistan. He told me, “Private sector organisations, including Beaconhouse and others with similar models such as The City School and Lahore Grammar School, have managed to develop systems for managing multiple schools across the country. This has been a big success. Scaling doesn’t mean one company has to own all the schools. For Beaconhouse, which in 2015 will mark its 40th anniversary, the network of franchise schools, The Educators, established 12 years ago, has become even larger and provides the ability to reach out to an even larger group of students in a shorter period of time. In total, the network of Beaconhouse and The Educators currently has approximately 260,000 students. The franchise model has proved to be tremendously successful in reaching out to students all over the country.” Mr. Kasuri went on to explain, “Through The Educators, we’ve been able to offer a standarised quality product at an affordable price. We’ve developed the curriculum, lesson plans and teacher training for our network associates as well as standard operating procedures, branding and marketing, with quality backed by Beaconhouse.” Beaconhouse has also moved into the competitive
international education market, exporting its expertise in education and its emphasis on professional development and teacher training. The group now owns just under 40 schools in eight countries outside Pakistan including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, UK, Oman and the UAE. Mr. Kasuri also pointed to some of the successes of not-for-profit schools run by charitable foundations. He highlighted the excellent work of The Citizens Foundation (TCF) which has 1,000 School Units with over 145,000 students, and Care Pakistan which adopts a Public Private Partnership model to provide free education to over 175,000 students in 257 schools across Pakistan. While TCF builds their own schools, the Care model is based on adopting government schools, refurbishing them and adding science laboratories, computer rooms, libraries and clean drinking water, and adding Care teachers to supplement those employed by the government. Students from Care and TCF schools achieve good academic results with many going on to university and then professional careers. These organisations also have valuable lessons for other countries in developing sound education systems in the not-for-profit sector through scaling up and being able to provide quality facilities and proper teacher training.
I also asked Mr Kasuri what Pakistan can learn from the West in the education sector. He said, “We can learn a lot from countries like Australia about the need for an emphasis on physical education and sports. In Asia, there is too much emphasis only on academic results, which don’t necessarily show anything other than being able to pass exams, rather than a focus on learning. This is to the detriment of physical education and sports which teach real skills like problem solving, teamwork and critical thinking which is tremendously valuable in real life, university or in the workplace. However, there is still some resistance from parents who worry that this loses focus on studies. What we can also learn from the West is how to get both young people as well as their parents to understand the importance of physical education and sports, not just for the critical role it plays in character building, fitness and personal development, but also that there is a whole range of professional careers in and around the business of sports such as coaching, management, nutrition, sports science and sports medicine.” Beaconhouse has recently employed an Australian as Assistance Director of Sports to work on an entire programme which encompasses not only sports but also changing mindsets of students and parents, and how to integrate the programme into the curriculum to ensure enough time is available.
Introducing sport into public schools, many of which have more space for this than private schools, would also be enormously beneficial. Pakistan has so much natural talent for sports and it would be so helpful to channel all that youthful energy into something positive for their future while at the same time getting an education. However, with the public education sector already underfunded, it is hard to see any real progress for some time. Disasters are another issue, which has a profound impact on development, and this is another important area for two-way knowledge sharing. Pakistan has acquired a great deal of knowledge, and learned many lessons from the many disasters that have struck the country in recent years. Disaster Management experts from Pakistan are now regularly invited to present at international conferences and seminars overseas to share the experiences. But perhaps more important, is what Pakistan can learn from other countries, particularly in the areas that are not currently being addressed here. While natural disasters receive a lot of attention, little has been paid to urban man-made disasters to develop effective response systems and improve community safety in our cities. Fires, building collapses, and industrial and other accidents are frequent in Pakistan causing substantial loss of life, but the systems, training and facilities, and building regulations are inadequate. Fire services and emergency responders like 1122 though hard working, are not well funded, and many emergency services are not available at all in some cities. Given the density and vulnerability of urban areas in Pakistan with millions living in crowded cities with poor infrastructure and substandard buildings, improving standards is critical. In this area, Pakistan can learn from developed countries.
I asked Shane Wright, Executive Director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) in Bangkok for some thoughts. Mr. Wright was formerly the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in Melbourne, Australia, an organization with over 2,000 full time career fire fighters, supported by 270 corporate staff. The MFB, which services an urban area of up to 3 million people, has a total annual budget of $345 million, many times that of any national or provincial budget for emergency services in Pakistan. It responds to a wide range of emergencies including fires, hazardous material spills, rescues from car accidents, train crashes, machinery, from heights and aircraft, trench collapse, building collapse through urban search and rescue, swift water rescue, marine environment pollution control, and emergency medical support. The organization is equipped with a vast array of very expensive equipment and has highly trained leadership and technical expertise. To ensure a high state of readiness and coordinated response capability, MFB recently opened its new $120 million training centre for all emergency services personnel including fire brigade, police, medical services and civil defence.
The MFB also plays a significant role in community safety and is legislatively involved in the building and construction approvals process on fire safety matters. They’ve also had success in changing the qualifications for people who work in hospitals and other care homes to improve the safety of vulnerable community members. These are important areas where Pakistan can learn much on how to better address these problems. However, allocating budgets for proper facilities and developing and enforcing building regulations is likely to remain a challenge. Another interesting area where there are opportunities for both sharing and learning is in countering violent extremism. The rise of violent groups like Islamic State (IS) have increased the level of concern for many countries including developed ones like Australia, Singapore, UK, Europe, US and Canada, as well as the Middle East. Countries are looking for answers and lessons from successful programmes on how to deradicalize violent extremists. Pakistan has already been quietly addressing the problem for several years. ‘Sabaoon’ located in a valley in Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was the first of the centres established by Pak Army to address the problem of boys who had been involved in violence while being with the Taliban. The centre has been achieving a high rate of success in turning these boys away from a life of violence and reintegrating them into the community, and to continue their education, or establish their livelihoods through vocational training. The programme, administered by a highly qualified team of civilian psychologists, social workers, teachers, and religious teachers, with the support of the Army, has recently been evaluated by a top international expert in deradicalization and received a very positive ‘report card’. Several other centres, have since been established. The lessons from these centres – most of which I have visited and seen the work for myself – should be shared internationally to help other countries address these challenging issues. In reverse, Pakistan can gain from experiences of other countries, particularly in relation to prevention. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Algeria, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, US, UK and many European states currently have deradicalization programmes, each a little different but, like Pakistan, all have valuable knowledge to share to address to challenging problem.
This has been a snapshot of just a few of the issues that need to be considered but there are so many more. Countries can transform themselves and in time, Pakistan will too but it will take great determination. Pakistan is already achieving success and making change in a lot of areas but we lose sight of these amidst the seemingly endless bad news. Peace will be important in achieving prosperity. Operations by the military are underway to cleanse the country of terrorist groups and this will ultimately bring peace and greater stability. With stability, investment will increase bringing more jobs and improved economy. Although the greatest responsibility for progress lies with the governments of the day, everyone has to make an effort to do a little more in whatever way they can. As we head into the New Year, it is timely to think about ‘New Year Resolutions’. The national resolution – the narrative – should be to do all we can to make this a more resilient, prosperous and stable country.