Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Introduction to Pakistan

A note to my Introduction to Law Students sent from Islamabad

I received an invitation from the World Bank, at very short notice, to be involved in a workshop on Freedom of Information in Islamabad, Pakistan. So I packed my bags full of the remaining journals and a heap of exams and set off.

At the moment I am sitting in a 5 star hotel in Islamabad surrounded by massive levels of security – packing my bags to return home – and declining the opportunity to sightsee on my final day to keep on top of the marking. As so many of you have shared your reflections with me I have decided to return the favour (but there is no need to read on).

Reflections on Islamabad, revolting lawyers, 15 minute presentations and working World Bank style.

20 June 2008

The invitation arrived late on Friday afternoon on the eve of the long weekend. Was I interested in travelling at short notice to present at a World Bank workshop in Islamabad on my topic area of Freedom of Information?

The short answer was “Yes”. Despite the obvious risks (over 2 pages of travel warnings on the DFAT website, the rise in anti-US (and allied) sentiment after the killing of 15 Pakistani soldiers), and travel time (there and back about 70 hours in planes, airports etc).

I am always keen to be involved in these events because:
Opportunity to meet passionate and inspiring people
A brief and very constrained, but always staggering, exposure to another culture (my great loves are politics, history, culture and ideas)
To link my research and teaching to reality
To share my experiences and insights (developed over 18 years with taxpayer money, previous experiences funded by USAID, AUSAID, Article 19 and various governments and institutions)
To make my limited contribution to good governance in the world

Problems –

Pile of marking (solution take with me and mark on planes etc)
Approval (UTAS not keen to have staff members wandering the streets of Islamabad)
Visa (had 24 hours to get visa from Pakistan High Commission in Canberra after final approval from UTAS. In the end visa arrived 2 hours before my domestic flight to Sydney was leaving).
Family – we now have a routine which everyone just slips into.

The biggest problem was more of an ethical dilemma.

The World Bank wanted me to speak for 15 minutes. In order to get me there and in a state ready to perform they were flying me business class from Sydney-Bangkok-Abu Dhabi-Islamabad and return, accommodating me in a 5 star hotel (room rates $500 US + a night). All other expenses covered (ground transport, food).

A massive expenditure for a short performance. The equivalent of the average per capita income of 20 people in Pakistan. Felt unsure whether I could return value for money.

A little like doing a 300 word briefing paper but one which someone has invested a sizable amount on. Short, to the point but packed with the results of a lot of analysis/thinking but high expectations.

In the end the presentation was well received by a room full of government officials, human rights activists, journalists (very passionate, very forthright, demanding and given their precarious position incredibly brave) and policy analysts. The Information Minster was scheduled to deliver a speech that was going to be broadcast on national TV but a phone call from the Prime Minister’s office led to her cancelling.

I also got the following tick of approval from one of the most outspoken activists there (imagine Sushila, Sanjeev's grandmother from the Kumar’s at No.42 with attitude and fire in her belly) she wrote:

“Your presentation was right up there, and you very astutely picked up on our most pressing issues (accuracy/reliability/credibility/utility, etc.) - ref my points about the politicization and expediency-oriented manipulation of govt. data & info - and not just the run-of-the-mill gripes about "access" and the cost-of-retrieval issues of minor documents!!!”

On reflection I could understand the World Bank’s strategy. The 3 international experts (from India, Mexico and Australia) draw more attention to the workshop and a higher level of interest from NGOs and government. I spent the day before the workshop meeting with NGOs and individuals briefing them on international experiences and some of the key issues. Pleasing to see during workshop many of these groups and individuals debating the points we had discussed the day before.

A number of these groups, individuals and officials will stay in touch so there will be hopefully a long term return on the World Bank’s investment.

The papers are full of stories of attacks, explosions throughout Pakistan. The streets are lined with barricades, armed guards, and military trucks.

The most fascinating topic, for a law teacher, has been the continual struggle and protests by lawyers seeking a restoration of the rule of laws and the sacked Supreme Court judges. Just before my arrival the Lawyers Long March had just taken place (where thousands of lawyers and others, spent 4 days marching on Islamabad – some have claimed it as the largest mass demonstration in Islamabad). The daily papers have numerous items, opinion pieces and letters to the editors about various aspects of the protest actions of the lawyers. I wonder how many Australian lawyers would take to the streets to preserve or restore the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary?

Another fascinating glimpse is on the gender relationship in this strongly Islamic country. The Islamic and secular overlays in Pakistan result in numerous incongruous episodes.

This report states” Gender is one of the organizing principles of Pakistani society. Patriarchal values embedded in local traditions and culture predetermine the social value of gender.” Yet the constitution has 4 specific provisions ensuring equality of gender and equal treatment.

Even in my couple of days here I could fill several pages full of examples of how this plays out in every day life. Yet I have met and been impressed with talented activists who make it clear that Benazir Bhutto was not a rarity in Pakistan politics or life. Yet in a quick moment I have seen these same women quickly slip into a deferring role. Class, education and fierce determination seem to create spaces within this so-called – patriarchal hierarchy – for some women but it seems to be an uneasy space, precarious and a struggle to achieve and maintain.

So at the end of this short trip I have developed my presentation skills a little further, been inspired to try to improve them more (a number of the presentations were very impressive) and seen a little more of the interaction of macro policy (World Bank, UNESCO) with micro engagement (locals who now the context, the reality and have to put the ideas into operation once the jet-setting international experts are long gone).

After finishing writing the above I gave into temptation and have just back from a shopping expedition (clothes for my daughter and wife) and an afternoon spent in the National Heritage Museum.

Enjoy your holidays