As I approach the end of my posting in Pakistan, Fasi Zaka made a suggestion that I might write a retrospective piece. Taking him at his word I went to the archives of the first British Council representative who had written in the first paragraph of his 1948 Annual Report: “Pakistan, surviving the bloodshed which attended its birth, has passed through a momentous year…”
There are signs that the country is well on the way to economic stability. Its currency is well established, its credit stands high and its trade is developing. These achievements are all the more remarkable when it is recalled that defence obligations have made a disproportionately heavy drain on her exchequer…” He goes on to describe education in Pakistan, issues to do with language policy, the three universities in Pakistan and the difficulties of finding suitable office and residential accommodation. He ends on a positive note, recalling the warmth and goodwill he had “encountered among the young men and women of Pakistan”.
“It is foreseeable that the Council’s work in Pakistan will gain a new momentum as promise unfolds into performance. By the time the Council has regained possession of its premises (which had been occupied by the newly-established CID) staff and equipment will be in their places to start on the great adventure.”
Over 60 years later, the great adventure continues. Fortunately, I do not find myself having to share a hotel bedroom with my deputy, like my predecessor in 1948 (though one of my colleagues on being deplaned in Paris, on account of bad weather on his way back to London on leave, found himself sharing a hotel bedroom with a married couple, courtesy PIA).
We have once again entered the fray on the language policy through engaging in policy dialogue with a range of influential academics and policymakers, leading to the publication of Language in education in Pakistan: recommendations for policy and practice, by Hywel Coleman and Tony Capstick, 2012.
In 1948, my predecessor forecast the decline in knowledge of English. He could not have foreseen the global importance of English as the language of international commerce and higher education. In 1948, the declaration of Urdu as the official language and the medium of instruction in schools was a reflection of the need to forge a national identity. The impact of this on regional cultural identities and the learning of children whose mother tongue is not Urdu likewise could not have been foreseen. Already the representative was facing up to the challenge of meeting expectations with limited resources “in this vast country”. He had recently completed a 5,000-mile tour, by road, of the country and everywhere found a demand for education, books and other resources.
The challenges are similar today, even though we have a staff of 200 instead of two. Cultural relations involve building enduring relationships between peoples of different countries and we struggle now, as ever, to reach a sufficient proportion of the population to have an impact. Fortunately, we are not alone. The British Mission, has over the past few months, been ‘Celebrating Connections’ between the UK and Pakistan. Those connections take many forms and go far beyond the relatively small programmes of the British Council, the British High Commission or even the UKAid. They include the many thousands of women and men who have studied in the UK and returned to Pakistan, forming part of the bond between our two nations. That is why the British Council seeks to promote opportunities for young people to benefit from UK education, through study in the UK, access to UK examinations (like GCE, ACCA and IELTS) and study at institutions running UK university courses in Pakistan.
When I was posted to Pakistan, a country that has been described as ‘possibly the most dangerous country in the world’ my friends’ incredulity was tempered by their knowledge that I had been at my happiest in Zimbabwe and the Palestinian Territories, neither of which are seen as havens of peace. This perception of Pakistan is damaging. It not only discourages inward investment (in turn causing British investors to pass up excellent opportunities), but it also strengthens corrosive stereotypes on both sides, and encourages extremism. It also makes our work much harder in that nervous British academics, teachers and artists are often reluctant to travel to Pakistan.
It is almost amusing when visitors finally overcome their fears and are then surprised by the warmth of their reception, the beauty of the country, the ease of travelling around and the thirst for further engagement. As I return to England (for the first time in 18 years), I will continue to celebrate diversity and difference, to promote cultural relations and the breaking down of stereotypes amongst my British compatriots.
The Daily Telegraph ran a headline recently: “An Oscar win is probably the only good news from Pakistan you’ll read this year”. Well, I have news for The Daily Telegraph: in 2012 warmth and goodwill of the young people of Pakistan are its greatest resource. There are many more young people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Pakistan faces challenges that would intimidate any government but the adventure continues.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2012.
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