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Ghalib / 12.10.2008

Religion was supposed to fade away in the 1960s and yet religion, radical religion, is all around us now. The fading away of religion did not take us to a more humane society and the return of religion does not seem to be doing any better. Let us turn to Ghalib for guidance: hai pare sarhad-e idraak se apnaa masjuud qible ko ahl-e nazar qiblah-numaa kahte haiN beyond the limit of the senses is the object of our worship people of vision call the Qiblah, the ‘Qiblah-pointer’ At the very least, Ghalib is saying that we should not take the rituals of religion too literally. We should look beyond the rituals and try and envision the real purpose of worship. What should the act of worship be pointing us towards? Is it an end in itself or a means to an end? If the latter, what exactly is the end? Should...

Education / 11.10.2008

I met a person the other day; he had educated his servant’s daughter who was now a physician in Los Angeles. “If everyone did that,” he said, “we could take care of the problems of illiteracy and poverty in our country.” Right or wrong? Let us see how we can do a very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the proposition is realistic. Suppose the population of our South Asian country is 100. (Readers can multiply this by a scale factor to transform the hypothetical example into one that applies to their country. For example, if the population of Bangladesh is 150 million, the scale factor is 1.5 million. Relevant numbers in the example can be multiplied by this factor for the analysis to apply to Bangladesh.) On average, we know that in South Asia about 25 percent of the population is very poor (below the official poverty line)...

Education / 10.10.2008

Half the illiterate adults in the world, about 400 million, live in South Asia; over 40 million children do not go to school; and half the children who do enroll in Grade 1 drop out before completing five years of primary education. Is this a problem and, if so, how is to be addressed? This is not a post about the state of education. It is about the importance of numbers and their relevance to the arguments we make and the solutions we propose. Some people say that governments have failed in their duty to provide education to citizens and therefore non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step in to fill the vacuum. Most of the time such discussions are carried out without any reference to either the scale of the problem or the scale of the proposed solution. They are what are termed ‘hand-waving’ arguments. As soon as one looks at...

Governance / 07.10.2008

The implication in an earlier post (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) was that the non-existence of political parties advocating peace was evidence that voters did not want peace with neighboring countries. Here we immediately fall into the trap of taking foreign concepts and applying them uncritically to alien situations. Are political parties in Pakistan really ‘political’ parties or are they something different? When one thinks about it, there are no major political parties in Pakistan today that advocate anything specific in terms of policy. One would be hard pressed to unambiguously associate a party with big or small government, free trade or autarky, protection or competition, privatization or public sector dominance. What one does find are parties associated with various personalities all of whom promise to do the same things better than anyone else. This observation calls for a closer look at the nature of democratic systems...

Pakistan / 07.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at the conference on Teaching Textiles organized by the Textile Institute of Pakistan, Karachi, on December 2, 2005. It was published in the SDPI Research and News Bulletin, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2006. The textile and clothing (T&C) industry is the most interesting of the major industries to study at this time. Its natural development has been the most severely distorted by a system of global constraints that were only eased at the beginning of 2005. Many people expected the removal of quotas on January 1, 2005 to trigger a massive readjustment and the resulting cutthroat price competition to drive production to the lowest cost locations. It is important to remember, however, that the quota regime was initiated over 50 years ago--the first long-term agreement was enforced in 1962--and 50 years is a very long time....

Education, Pakistan / 06.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID. Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem. This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one...

Education / 06.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID. Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem. This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one...

Modernity / 05.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf In an earlier post (What is the Future of the City in South Asia?) we had mentioned that the dynamic in small towns was quite different from that in the major metropolitan centers. In this post we speculate about some of the possible differences. An unusual approach is to work backward from the observation that while all attention is focused on the tribal areas in Pakistan, the breeding grounds of religious extremism are actually the small towns in the Punjab. Why might this be the case? One hypothesis is that small towns in Pakistan that have declined economically have become socially more conservative with a possible link to the increase in religious extremism. There is little doubt that the economic function of small towns has changed significantly over time. Earlier, most of them were busy market (mandi) towns serving as points of interaction between rural hinterlands...

Modernity / 05.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is a very broad and brief overview of the past, present, and possible future of the South Asian city. It raises a number of points each of which can be discussed in much greater depth in future posts depending on the interest of readers. Any discussion of cities in South Asia has an inspiring point of departure. Almost 5000 years ago, Mohenjodaro was probably the most advanced urban settlement in the world. It had a planned layout with a grid of streets laid out in perfect patterns. Wastewater was disposed through covered drains that lined the streets and were sloped such that the water never stagnated and it was treated before being discharged into the river. South Asia has rarely been able to provide that level of urban planning and efficiency since. It is worthwhile subject to explore (later) why that might be the...