By Syed Babar Ali and Wendy Chamberlin
With the release of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor held by Pakistan for the past month, in exchange for compensation to the families of the men he killed, we close the door on the latest in a long series of incidents that have undermined trust and communication between the governments of the United States and Pakistan. The loss of life has been tragic. The disputes over facts and motives show that we are long overdue for a more honest conversation about our national security interests and operations. And the widespread anger in both societies makes it clear that we are in urgent need of serious, long-term efforts to bring our people together.
In the eye of the current storm, a diverse group of 40 Americans and Pakistanis, outside our governments but influential with them, has started to rebuild partnerships based on complementary interests and common values. We are focusing on areas that matter to ordinary Pakistanis and Americans: education, jobs, entrepreneurship and government accountability.
We met first in Lahore. We came from universities, businesses, non-profit organisations, media and think tanks. Many of us worried about the potential for constructive conversation, let alone meaningful new commitments, to come from a US-Pakistan Leaders Forum in such a highly charged moment.
We debated the Davis incident and challenged each other’s understanding of who betrayed whom over the past 30 years. Then we stepped back and found that we agreed on a set of clear, urgent priorities: bring more honesty to the security dialogue between our governments, broaden and deepen the ties among our people, and build new partnerships in sectors where we have complementary strengths and needs. We focused first on education, agriculture and governance.
Pakistan’s public education system needs reform, but it has exceptionally innovative leadership and success in charter and independent schools. Independent and quasi-charter schools across the country are serving more than six million students. Our Pakistani and US educators plan to work together in both countries to improve and expand public-private partnerships, while maintaining teaching quality.
Historically, many of Pakistan’s top students came to the United States for their graduate studies. They returned to Pakistan with positive views of the United States and strong ties to its universities. In the last decade, more Pakistanis have chosen to study in Europe, and US visa restrictions have made student and faculty exchanges more difficult. The US and Pakistani university leaders in our forum are committed to creating a new generation of higher education partnerships. Together, they will spur collaborative research, faculty and student exchanges, online dialogue, and social networks connecting faculty and students.
Beyond the formal education system, youth leadership was a strong thread in our discussions. One of our participants has already designed a new youth-service leaders exchange, and many others want to get involved.
In agriculture, Pakistan is one of the world’s largest milk producers, but its cattle and water buffalo are scattered in very small herds. Our forum’s agriculture experts and business people see huge potential to get more milk per head, improve nutrition and create commercial joint ventures. They also agreed to explore the potential for developing a commodity futures exchange for Pakistan. With a credible futures market, Pakistani farmers, traders and US investors could all gain.
Good governance is at the core of Pakistan’s long-term challenges, and lack of accountability is a serious problem for the US aid programme in Pakistan. Information technology firms from the United States are already setting up systems to track funds for flood relief, and there is high potential to apply them to other aid and development programmes. Sister state and sister city programmes can also promote accountability and public participation by connecting elected officials, administrators and citizen groups to share experiences and advice.
These partnership possibilities are only a fraction of what we discussed, and we have just begun to explore them. The energy sector, venture capital, health insurance, the media, and arts and culture are on our agenda for the future.
Most Americans and Pakistanis can grasp the potential for joint gains in the areas that matter most to families, businesses and professionals. Our group believes that broadening and deepening the relationships among leaders and people outside of government, while dealing more honestly with the differences between our governments, is the best way forward.
We know that there will be future problems in our relations, but they do not have to define our relationship. We can make sure that there are farmers, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, doctors and nurses, local officials and citizen groups in both societies who have a different set of stories to tell. Together, we can provide a counterweight when tensions arise. In the long run, we can change both of our societies for the better.
Source: Common Ground News Service