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RSA lecture: ‘An Unbreakable Friendship: Where Next for Britain and Pakistan?’

October 11th 2011
By Rima Saini

The first of a series of four events presented by the RSA, City University London and the Samosa was a resounding success with a keynote speech by Conservative Chairman Baroness Warsi followed by a fiery Q and A session with Anwar Akhtar, director of The Samosa.

Anwar Akhtar began the lecture with an insight into his personal connection with Pakistan, drawing attention to the inspiration that British Pakistanis such as Amir Khan and Baroness Warsi herself are to those both here and in Pakistan, as strong British patriots with a love for their ancestral home.

Baroness Warsi began her speech with a similar rousing statement of unity.

With such intertwined history, and growing opportunities for trade and cooperation, both nations are, in her opinion, best placed to work together and serve the cause of progress.

It may have come as a surprise to those of us in the audience with little familiarity of the business culture in Pakistan, but despite the corruption and bribery, endemic in all South Asian countries that incidentally did not go without mention in last night’s talk, Pakistan has one of the best ratings in South Asia in the Ease of Doing Business Index. With a GDP of $460 million, a growing middle class and an ideal geographical position for trade, sharing borders with both Central Asia and Western China, the facts seemed to be in the country’s favour.

These may all support the case for increasing UK investment to the region, but do little to minimise the country’s shortcomings, which often serve to overshadow its successes.

Warsi reeled off some equally depressing statistics: 60 million people in 40,000 Pakistani villages have no electricity and the 2010 floods alone affected 20 million people destroying homes, businesses and families, with these communities are still dealing with the aftermath.

However, she also mentioned how the UK launched the largest ever humanitarian response to the crisis; she cited statistics from the Disasters Emergency Committee which show that donors gave an astounding £71 million to the Pakistan Floods Appeal last year. British aid in the form of medical supplies, emergency shelter, flood resistance and housing has and will continue but one of the audience members, a second generation Pakistani, was quite frank in stating that with the widespread corruption and bribery that still occurs in Pakistan, how can any of us who donate money to the country know whether the aid is in fact reaching those who need it the most? Aid is also just a short term solution, a band aid on a much larger wound.

The most important issue emphasised throughout the whole evening, both by Baroness Warsi and Anwar Akhtar was that in the long term, sustainable change can only be achieved through education and structural reform.

In Pakistan, more than 17 million children are not in school, but good schooling has the potential to transform the country’s future. Educational institutions in Pakistan need immediate attention, particularly with regards to teacher training, curriculum development, skills training and most importantly women’s education, a sentiment that echoed with everyone in the room.

Warsi, however much the optimist, did not gloss over Pakistan’s political problems – the country needs legitimate, accountable institutions to effect positive, long-term change – but did express her hope in the upcoming democratic elections in 2013, where the world will see power being handed between democratically elected governments.

She seemed, and rightfully so, encouraged by these positive political developments, but it is yet to be seen if the country’s democracy consolidates to the rate at which Pakistan and Britain will one day share not only economic and humanitarian but deep political ties.

Pakistan is critical, however, in the fight against terrorism, and this is the time when the UK must work with the country with more strongly than ever – she referred to the Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in May of this year at a news conference with Barack Obama where he stated, quite categorically, ‘Pakistan’s enemy is our enemy’.

Regarding inter-state allegiances, however, Warsi dismissed that the UK cannot have a deep, strategic and meaningful relationship with both Pakistan, and the US and India; greater international cooperation with Pakistan playing an integral part is just as important a goal as deepening relations between the UK and Pakistan.

So at this crossroads in the relationship between the two countries, British Pakistanis, will play a critical role in fostering relationships between the two nations.

The first generation will have a natural affiliation with the country but will their children’s children still hold the same interest, and passion for the country, she asks? The UK Diaspora is sending a message to Pakistan that they will champion the country if, and only if, it makes the effort to become a stable, and responsible, international partner.

The question and answer portion of the evening was a fairly lively affair, but both Anwar and Baroness Warsi held their own in the face of some strong questioning.

Some of the questions posed include ‘would you recommend coalition governments in Pakistan’ which Warsi answered with her usual tact: the ruling bodies must be work in the nation’s interest, even if this means putting aside your own political allegiances. Only with a loyal opposition can coalition governments truly work stably and effectively, however, the prerequisite for this being respect for, and adherence to, democratic values.

The issue of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist activity was reignited with a number of audience members raising points about the ‘wahhabisation’ (radicalisation) of all sectors of Pakistani society and David Cameron’s comments last year that Pakistan is promoting the export of terror.

She disagreed, however, that such radicalism is fed by the ingrained anti-Muslim feeling inherent in Britain since the days of the empire, stating that in her experience at least, it was colour rather than religion that motivated her politically. Such religious fundamentalism is more recent, in her opinion, as Islam is traditionally a diverse and inclusive religion, and most definitely not representative of the majority of the Pakistani Muslims as many might mistakenly believe.

She was right in saying that Pakistan also has a responsibility to position itself in its best light to the rest of the world, and avoid the media focus on religious fundamentalism that has drowned out its past achievements, and its potential successes, to the rest of the world.

So where does all of Warsi’s optimism come from? For her, Pakistan simply cannot afford to fail.

With faith in the Pakistani people and a vibrant civil society movement, Pakistan can overcome its challenges, set itself clear outcomes for its relationship with Britain that are in both parties mutual interest, and get on course to achieving them.

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