As a reporter for Dawn in the mid-to-late 1990s, one of the first beats assigned to me was to cover seminars on various issues in the city of Karachi.
At first this seemed like an interesting proposition but over time it became a drag – not least because on ended up seeing the same people all the time, discussing the same things over and over again, and giving the same solutions over and over again.
Surely, they didn’t need to hold yet another conference on this issue, one would say to oneself, given that the issue had already been done to death and the recommendations were known to all and sundry. Eventually it all came down to an exchange – and quite boring at that – of hot air.
This week as I attend a reasonably high-powered three-day conference in Islamabad on a grand-sounding topic like “Peace and Sustainable Development: The way forward” (organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute), I thought about this issue again.
Learning about the forgotten few
There were three sessions today and the yardstick of one of these events (or reading a new paper or listening to a lecture) is whether one learnt anything new. To that effect, I could safely say that the one person from whom I did learn something was founder and co-director of Kali for Women (India’s first feminist publishing house) Urvashi Butalia who told the audience of the neglected world of oral histories of those living on the margins. In this regard she gave the instructive example of a Dalit sweeper in a village in Indian Punjab who said that her family escaped the ravages of Partition violence becuase it was against Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims and since she was a Harijan she and her family were not affected by it. Ms Butalia said that this was an example of how historiography tended to ignore the voices of those living on the margins, such as this Dalit sweeper.
Producing prejudice through the media
The other notable speaker — as measured by what he said — during the day was Ahmed Salim of the SDPI who said that the print media, especially the Urdu press, was one of the chief makers of bias against the minorities in Pakistan. He cited several examples of how Urdu newspapers still used derogatory terms like ‘choora’ against the minorities and suggested a useful set of recommendations for the print and electronic media to follow. Important among these was a suggestion that they give at least equal coverage to issues of minorities and give them — as a group or community — a voice equal to that of the majority in Pakistani society.
Think-tanks lack thought
The last session was supposed to be for brain-storming on how to make think-tanks more effective — and was by invitation only (many thanks to SDPI head Abid Qayyum Suleri for inviting a non-think-tanker to this) — but it turned out to be more of brain-deadening one. I suspect that since some of the donors were sitting in the room, the discussion was quite staid and boring and to an outsider it seemed as if they could have done with some outside/external views.
For instance, the quite obvious issue of the general public (and in turn potentially the government) not see recommendations by these think-tanks as indigenous enough because they are too too donor-driven was hardly addressed.
One of the donors, who had come from a Canadian-funded organisation based in New Delhi did say quite unequivocally that his organisation did not take into account the aims and objectives or agenda of the organisation to whom funds would be given, but then again what would one expect a donor to say at such a forum?