The scenario was oh-so-familiar. A long table with ruched fabric and sundry flowers placed down the middle. At each place, a folder in which there was a pen, a pad and a sheaf of documents that spelled out why it was that we were foregathered today. At the end of the room, a speaker’s desk, a screen and a multimedia projector.
Speakers came and went; lunch was served and enjoyed by one and all. Reconvened, it was on to a couple more presentations, an odd interlude in which four people acted out the drama that was the battle to get children educated, and then it was into the keynote presentation by a local MNA that was thinly applauded after which we all went home.
During the course of the day, I met an old friend that I had not seen for four years. He had been away in the UK doing a PhD and had returned to find his university closed and in turmoil, students and faculty fighting each other but about what, he was somewhat vague. We updated each other on friends and family and then fell to discussing just what it was that had been achieved by this gathering of the great and the good, and concluded that it had achieved precisely nothing.
Perhaps, as many as a hundred people had travelled from far and wide to sit at a table, indulge in a little mutual congratulation, bemoan the state of just about everything, service their social and business networks and then all drift off secure in the knowledge that no boats got rocked, no decisions got taken and no pressure was applied to a painful spot that might, just might, have sparked change somewhere in the monolith of governance.
It was, in short, one of the countless meetings I have attended in Pakistan (and elsewhere, I should add) over the last 20 years that were more about the individual feel-good factor than being catalysts and change agents.
My friend and I stood around afterwards mulling over the culture of the non-event. There was nothing inherently bad about the day that had just passed. The men and women in attendance were decent hardworking people some of whom I knew and have considerable respect for. And they had all spent a working day doing precisely nothing. What the cost of their individual time was, who paid for the venue and the lunch and the printing of the excellently presented material — I have no idea. But it was not a cheap day out.
That scenario is played out countless times on a daily basis. Back in the days when I was still getting myself educated in the wiles of management, one of my tutors said something that has stuck with me down the years. “If you want to avoid taking action — have a meeting.” Better still, have a meeting that appears to do something — like form a couple of sub-committees to report back at a later date — but, in fact, is nothing more than an empty ritual.
Waiting for my driver, I was collared by four men, all about to graduate as social workers. We had an animated discussion about their lack of employment prospects and the problems faced by poor rural communities — depression among the elderly who find themselves alone, their families having gone to the cities to seek work as an emerging factor — and the pointlessness of the meeting we had all just attended.
Constant change may be here to stay, but change is never comfortable and those who propose or advocate change rarely find a universally warm welcome. Education in Pakistan cries out for change and there are few who would argue for the status quo, a system that has perfected the machinery that produces mediocrity. Stifles diversity. Shuts down critical thinking. Poisons young minds with rewritten histories and stokes the fires of sectarian and faith-based conflicts.
So, the next time you get invited to a meeting, ask yourself, is this a ‘talking’ meeting or a ‘doing’ meeting? Talking-shops are a dime a dozen and do you really need another indifferent lunch?
Note to self — no more talking shops. I foresee a very empty diary.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2014.