Reconnecting with Pakistan

I recently attended a talk at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The event was about Pakistan’s recently elected Foreign Minister discussing the US- Pakistan’s relationship, in light of the new administration and its policies. Not only was it interesting to hear about Pakistan’s foreign policy, but also a great opportunity to reconnect with Pakistanis from different fields. I got to meet friends from media, academia, government and various other professions.
The event started with the Minister delivering a speech on the way forward for the two countries. He discussed Pakistan’s overall strategy, role of Diaspora and the current political events in Pakistan. Next, the moderator asked Minister some questions around the current US-Pakistan relations and the new government in Pakistan. Next, the floor was opened to questions.
The event last for only an hour, but its impact was huge. There was massive media coverage and was one of the most talked about events on social media. I rarely get a chance to be among Pakistanis in the US and this event was one such opportunity. The event took me back to Pakistan and its troubled politics. It was interesting to engage with Pakistanis in DC and make some new friends.

Pakistan at 70

Few days back, on the 14th of August, Pakistan celebrated its 70th independence day. I got the opportunity to visit the Pakistani embassy in Washignton DC, where the Ambassador reminded us of Pakistan’s long list of achievements. As a relatively new country on the globe, Pakistan enjoys a strategic geographical position that often make it an important player in the global politics. Being the only Muslim nuclear power, Pakistan has much to celebrate. It has one of the fasted growing middle class, one of the best agriculture sectors in the world and a rising economy. Pakistan is also one of the highest charity giving nations in the world. While Pakistan has much to celebrate, there is still much work left to be done. Pakistan still struggles to combat terrorism. Poverty numbers are still of the highest in the region. Political stability still continues to hamper economic development. The literacy rates are still high, and access to healthcare is minimal. The streets of Pakistan continue to be unsafe for the women and there is an alarming number of out-of-school children in the country. Minorities still struggle to fight for their basic rights. Transgender community is targeted every day. And the list goes on and on and on.
While Pakistan has gained independence from India, it still struggles to free itself from these problems. In the past 70 years, whether Pakistan has lost more or gained more is debatable. But it is definitely not a country its founders had hoped it would become.

Pakistan and political instability

A couple of days ago the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, was disqualified on the grounds of corruption. The decision was given by the supreme court of the country after several months of trial. This is not the first time that a Prime Minister of Pakistan has been disqualified. Pakistan has a history of instability, with Prime Ministers and Presidents resigning, being disqualified, imprisoned and hanged. In Pakistan’s 70 years of existence, not one prime minister has served a full five-year term.
It is no doubt that anyone guilty of a crime should be punished by law, whether common man or a Prime Minister. But the implications of such political instability are critical. While working with the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform I personally experienced how any incidents hampered the development process. Development projects are overshadowed by the environment of uncertainty and politicians, instead of focusing on the economic development and busy doing the blame-game.
This decision comes at a time when the country’s economy is already suffering. Pakistan hit an unprecedented current account deficit last year. Such news will shock the economy once again. The economic uncertainty created by the political drama of the Nawaz Sharif corruption scandal does not seem to help the Pakistani economy in the long-term either. This pattern of economic downfall followed by political instability is an old one. Once again Pakistan enters the state of uncertainty as the nation is headed toward the general election in 2018. One can only hope that Pakistan will be able to endure this shock.

Role of media during disasters

While the media of any country is an extremely important player, in time of a disaster its role becomes exponentially crucial. It is through media that people are informed of the impact of a disaster and are kept informed. It is also during this time that media needs to be responsible and ethical.
My country Pakistan, has suffered many disasters. I have seen media in Pakistan show gruesome images, of dead bodies being pulled out of debris, which are then circulated on social media. Such visuals not only invade the privacy of victims but also create an environment of grief. While it’s important to depict a true picture of the situation, it is important to not hurt the psychology of a nation, which media often has a critical role in shaping.

What poverty really is

Recently the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan, launched a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). The objective of the index was to introduce a wider concept of poverty, that measures poverty on several basis, for example lack of education health services, and living standards, and not just one.
Poverty is a complex phenomenon that online an income based poverty estimate does not capture. It can be a useful tool for understanding poverty in terms of income, but also the well being of the people. It is based on the concept of capability, an idea that is central to human development. It captures and accounts for ‘well-being’, a concept that many economists have described to be a true indicator of development.
The first MPI was released in 2010 globally. Pakistan government’s efforts to adopt MPI is a positive step towards understanding poverty and all its aspects and will provide a useful tool for public policy.

Pakistan’s neglected tourism industry

A recent newspaper article headlined that Pakistan has improved it ranking on tourism competitiveness index. A country that often finds itself in terrorism-related media news stories, a low ranking on the tourism index is not a surprise. While much of the tourism is attributed to in-bound terrorism, there has been an increase in out-bound tourism as well.
It is unfortunate that despite home to many of the world’s tallest mountains, Pakistan continues to struggle with attracting tourists. With five of the world’s fourteen mountains taller than 8,000 metres, Pakistan has immense potential for growing its out-bound tourism. With the government that often finds itself dealing with political and development issues, the lack of priority given to this industry is explainable.
The recent efforts from the government in the form of “Brand Pakistan” are in process. While it is a step in the right direction, it should include a component on tourism. While political instability, terrorism, poverty and all other factors have been keeping us off the radar for international tourism. It is time for the government to seek help of other countries and international organizations to encourage tourism in Pakistan.

Why disaster accountability is important

Time after time, in the months and years that follow major disasters, we hear familiar stories about how relief did not reach those who needed it most. The same questions are asked each time, everywhere: Where did the money go? Why couldn’t we help survivors sooner? When will survivors feel the generosity of the outpouring of charitable support that followed the disaster? Despite large amounts of money pouring in and millions of people worldwide donating, aid is never enough. Where does the problem lie?

Mainstreaming mental health in Pakistan

Mental health is without a doubt one of the most stigmatized issues, all over the world. This stigma is far worse in a country like Pakistan, where people still struggle to access basic health facilities. It was this very thought that led me take an initiative during my job with the government in Pakistan.
In a country where health budget is a very small part of the overall budget, it is no surprise that the budget for mental health is negligible. There are very few specialists, mental hospitals and infrastructure. It is estimated that the budget for mental health in Pakistan is 0.4% of the country’s total health budget.1 According to a WHO report there are only five mental hospitals available in the country and the total number of human resources working in mental health facilities or private practice per 100,000 population is 87.023.1
Having the opportunity to work closely with the government, I decided to bring together experts from civil society, psychologists, media, NGOs and other relevant stakeholders together on the same table with provincial and government officials. As the initiator of the project, I remember being discouraged and even mocked at. And it was while I was organizing the initiative that I realized the problem was more widespread than I thought. In my circle of so-called educated, liberal, progressive people, I found it extremely challenging to find support for the project. People did not want to be associated with it because it was considered “unimportant” in a country that faces far worse issues. I was fortunate however to find a few likeminded people who supported the idea and helped me initiate a successful advocacy campaign.
Mental health remains a highly stigmatized and neglected issue Pakistan and South Asia in general. There is a dire need to bring this issue to the forefront and make it part of the national agenda.

Choosing to make a difference

About one-third of human life is spent working. That is too big a portion of one’s life to be spent only making money. For me, this realization came at a time while I was working as a Brand Manager in one of the top pharmaceuticals in my country and there was growing interest of young people in the corporate sector. As business student, I was designed to weigh opportunities in monetary terms. A good job was hence a well-paying one, with plenty of prospects to climb up the career ladder. While the people around me were fighting their way up in the organization, I was rethinking my direction in life. It was then, that I decided to join the development sector in Pakistan.