Monday, October 10, 2011

An unresponsive system

* Political will or interest alignment?

Often one hears that the state, though it might hold a position on principle, does not do anything about it because it lacks ‘political will’. When the Supreme Court decision on the Karachi suo moto was being analysed by politicians on various television channels, it was repeatedly said that the solutions had been pointed out but the government does not have the political will to do anything about it.

It is the same with the debate on education. Everybody agrees that all children in Pakistan should get quality education, yet the state is not doing anything about it. The Task Force on Education, set up by government, co-chaired by the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, had to argue that we need to impose an education emergency and had to resort to innovative marketing methods to reach out.

Why would one part of government have to do this sort of marketing and public cajoling to convince the rest of the government? Especially when rest of the government is also from the same political party, and it was the party head and the president of the country who had set up the task force in the first place? Not that there was any success even after that: we are still going our merry way. But, most people end up saying, the government does not have the political will to change education sector.

Is it really a question of political will? And more importantly, what is political will? Or is it a matter of interests? The players in question, individually and at group level, do not have any interest in addressing these questions. They might find a position morally, socially, or politically difficult to refute and they might, intellectually, agree with it too, and/or pay lip service to it. But if it is not in their personal, class or group interest, will they be willing to spend their effort or political capital on achieving it? For most politicians in Pakistan where it is not a matter of ideology or commitment to common good that makes politicians enter politics or continue in it, it seems private or group interests would trump any public considerations.

When we puzzle as to why the government and elected representatives do not make public schools better and improve quality, the question is why should they? It might be in the public interest, but the children of politicians do not go to these schools, and the politicians also know that it is not by improving education that they are going to be re-elected. It is by appeasing the establishment, getting the right ticket, and/or appeasing some biraderi groups that elections are won. Why should they spend any effort on the public school system? This is not a question of something called political will; it is purely a game of interests.

It is easy for opposition members to blame the government and/or the party in power. But in Pakistan right now, almost all the parties are either in a coalition with the main party or are in power in one of the provinces. Yet, we do not see the game being any different in these provinces too.

If PPP lacks the political will to do anything in education at the centre or in Sindh, what has stopped ANP, PML(N) or MQM from doing things in places where they are in power? Or, given that many school reforms are at the level of school or district and MNA/MPAs get funds for development for their constituencies, what have they done for public schools in their respective constituencies.

Conversations with several MNAs have revealed that they feel that since parents do not come to them articulating the need for improvements in quality of education in public schools, they have no incentive to take anything to their party leaders or do anything about education themselves. But they do agree, and wholeheartedly, that education is important and every child has a right to good quality education.

Given there is little chance that our political system will take a more ideological turn where people and parties will try to get into power to implement a defined and announced ideological agenda, at least in the short to medium run, we have to look to finding ways of how the interests of those in power can be aligned with the interest of the governed.

Elections are definitely a way of creating a feedback loop from citizens to elected representatives on the kind of governance they have been providing. But elections are too infrequent and there are too many issues to really make elections biting for any one issue, unless the issue assumes lexicographic importance in the agenda of citizens. Since there are usually a number of things that citizens care about, for example, infrastructure facilities, health, education, and law and order, periodic elections will not be enough.

What are needed are some other and more frequently available feedback loops between the governors and the governed. An idea that Immanuel Kant also talked about and developed was of public space. He had argued that the newly developing public space, that the civil society (for him civil society was any person who was using public space for public reasons) has, could be a way of providing that loop. Right now our media is probably offering that opportunity, though its usage needs to be improved. More importantly, the same kind of loops need to be created at local levels also, using local media, maybe FM radio channels and other public fora.

The idea of public space and its usage, in the Pakistani context, as a means of providing a feedback loop and connection between the governors and the governed needs more development and we will come back to this issue in subsequent articles. But for the moment, I just wanted to argue for and demonstrate that the talk of political will seems like barking up the wrong tree. The real issue is individual and group interests and their alignment with public interest.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why penalize the innocent victims?

One who has violated the law should suffer the consequences of his or her actions. On the other hand, the victim of an offense should be compensated. But this is not the case for hundreds of Filipino teachers in Maryland.

The United States-based teachers were the victims of their employer’s violations of the working visa program. Yet, these Filipino teachers will suffer the consequences of those violations.

From 2005 until 2009, Filipino teachers were recruited to work for the Prince George County Public Schools (PGCPS) in Maryland. Most of them paid more than $10,000 to a recruitment agency to cover “processing” costs which included, among others, the cost of their working visas.

After an investigation, the US Department of Labor found that the school district had failed to comply with wage requirements as well as various violations of the conditions of the visa issuance. The employer and interested parties were given 15 days to appeal the decision dated April 4, 2011.

Strong agreement

On July 7, 2011 the Department of Labor issued a public statement announcing that an “agreement” was reached wherein the employer would reimburse teachers their back wages (about $4,000 each) and the cost of their visa petitions. The assessment came up to $4.22 million for 1,044 teachers.

Included in the agreement was a “debarment” against the employer, prohibiting them from filing new working visa petitions, renewing visa petitions that were expiring; and filing immigrant visa petitions for their employees.

Those teachers who already have immigrant green cards will not be affected by the debarment. Unfortunately, many are still holding temporary working visas. Since the agreement was reached on July 7, 2011 termination letters have already been sent to those whose visas are expiring in July and August 2011.

Debarment is intended to punish the employer but it has an adverse effect on the employees.

Depriving these teachers the opportunity to extend their visas is an unfair result of a penalty due to the employer’s misdeeds.

At the time when former President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Law, these highly qualified Filipino teachers filled up positions and diligently practiced their professions both in non-critical and critical areas. Some of the teachers left promising careers and relocated their families. The monetary compensation in back wages and reimbursements is insignificant compared to the loss of their jobs.

They are not lawbreakers

The agreement reached between the DOL and the PGCPS appears not to have included the affected teachers during the negotiation. Instead of the agreement, a hearing on the matter should have been conducted to prove that the acts of PGCPS did not amount to a “willful” violation warranting a debarment. At the very least, the teachers who have served the children of PGCPS for many years must be exempt from the ‘debarment’ and should be allowed the opportunity to renew their visas. If not, prosecutorial discretion on the part of the Department of Homeland Security must be favorably exercised. For after all, the teachers are the victims and not the lawbreakers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Take 2: 56ers, Fire to play Wednesday

It was a strange night of soccer Tuesday at Breese Stevens Field. And in the end, not very much soccer.

The Madison 56ers and the Chicago Fire's Premier Development League played just more than 17 minutes of their second-round U.S. Open Cup match before the game was halted by lightning with the Fire ahead 1-0.

A little more than 2 hours later, officials postponed the match, which will be replayed in its entirety at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Breese Stevens. The 56ers announced that admission will be free.

"It's a little weird. (Stuff) happens," 56ers coach Jim Launder said.

"It's good and bad. It's a replay, so we just erase the goal and start over. It's not good because we lost a huge fan night ... It's not good because we'll play in a dead stadium tomorrow, because nobody will be here at 4 p.m. And it's not good because I think we're going to be missing two players, maybe three."

The Fire certainly wanted the game to resume, having taken the early lead on Chris Estridge's goal in the ninth minute.

Indiana midfielder Harrison Petts, who pounded a shot from 23 yards out off the corner of the crossbar and left post in the fourth minute, chipped a ball for Estridge over the 56ers' backline and the Wake Forest midfielder calmly finished against Madison goalkeeper Kyle Dillman (Madison La Follette).

Estridge raced over to celebrate with about 25 members of the Fire's Section 8 supporters group who made the trip north. They lived up to their reputation, pounding on drum, singing songs and waving massive flags.

Four minutes later, Fire forward Paulo Vaz also got in behind the 56ers' backline, but Dillman made a sliding save on the Lynn University striker.

"Two times when we didn't get pressure on the ball and we didn't step back and we just let guys run in behind us," said Launder, who added that he would re-evaluate his lineup overnight. "I wasn't impressed with our defensive stance. All of our backs did the same thing, they all just stopped."

Referee Margaret Domka suspended play 17 minutes, 19 seconds into the match as storms rolled into the area and lightning was spotted. Heavy rains followed, and intermittent showers and lightning persisted. All the while, the Section 8 group kept drumming and singing.

"It was a little surreal," Fire PDL coach Mark Spooner said. "We were trying to get updates and (the officials) weren't that forthcoming with them, so it was frustrating. But it is what is; nobody can do anything about the weather.

"The thing that I don't like, obviously, is now you start 0-0 again for 90 minutes. I would think that there would be a better method than that in a competition like this."

If the match had reached 45 minutes, it would have been declared a result.

However, for the game to be resumed, 20 minutes needed to pass without lightning in the area, and there still were regular flashes in the skies as the teams left the stadium. Also, the lights at Breese Stevens need to be turned off by 11 p.m. due to a local ordinance.

"They would want to get that half game in and win the game – I would, too," Launder said. "It wasn't going to happen."

So for the Fire, it was yet another night spent in a hotel. They had three road matches last week and have logged more than 1,500 miles during trips to Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"It's just one thing after another," said Spooner, whose team requested Wednesday's replay be moved to 4 p.m. from the scheduled 7 p.m. start time to help them get back to Chicago earlier with a PDL match Friday.

"You know, though, it's good for their development. This whole program is designed around them becoming pros, and this is part of it. We have to react now to it and see where we can go."

Speaking late Tuesday night, Spooner said when they got to the hotel, there weren't enough rooms.

"What a fun night," he deadpanned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Justice Breyer lecture will draw crowd

An appearance Tuesday night by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will be widely attended, so much so, the event had to be moved to accommodate a larger crowd.

The event, originally scheduled at the Clinton Presidential Center, has been moved to the Statehouse Convention Center. The lecture will take place in the Wally Allen Ballroom from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Justice Breyer will discuss his book, "Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View", which focuses one chapter on Little Rock's 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High School.

A book signing will follow the lecture.

President Bill Clinton appointed Breyer to the high court in 1994.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The consequences of neediness

ALL around Pakistan, in workplaces and in homes, the whisper is: change is imminent, matters are very far from being business as usual and something has to give.

Will it? That depends on how you define change. Change in the social fabric, change in those at the helm of government, change in the mode of government? Pakistan is learning that there will be no revolution here. We already had one, when we ousted an unpopular dictatorship. Now, all we have to do is wait and we can bring about a revolution through the ballot box. We can simply vote the government out.

Yet it seems that a lot of people deeply desire change, of any sort perhaps, because for many of the citizens the current situation, all said and done, is untenable. The reason for the existence of a state and its government, regardless of the form, is the citizenry’s welfare. And Pakistan has over decades failed to make that a priority in any meaningful terms.

The citizenry’s welfare translates in actual terms to the availability of and easy — or at least unimpeded — access to fundamentals such as safety, education, housing, health and economic opportunity. Other rights include freedom of expression and religion, equality before the law, a milieu free from discrimination, oppression and religious, sectarian, ethnic or racially motivated violence.

Compare these ideals to the realities of Pakistan. We know the status of religious and constitutional freedoms. We only have to remember Aasia Bibi, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and countless less well-known victims. An environment free of discrimination? Well, turn your attention towards Balochistan. Safety and security? Everybody knows the answer to that one. Human rights abuses? The courts are looking into the ‘missing persons’ cases.

Malnutrition levels in parts of Sindh have been compared to those prevailing in Chad and Niger. One in every four children in the country is in the category of severe malnutrition.

Data gathered by the UN World Food Programme and backed up by research conducted by other international and local agencies shows that the poorest households in the country are being forced to spend over 70 per cent of their income on just food, even after having cut down on their caloric intake. That means that people who made do with one roti now probably depend on half to keep body and soul together. Education? Of all the world’s out-of-school children, one in 10 is a Pakistani. A recent report titled Education Emergency tells us that if current trends are maintained, there is no chance at all of Pakistan meeting the 2015 millennium development goals of education.

Meanwhile, our population continues to grow at a frightening pace. Also, and perhaps as a result of all the above factors, violence increases, extremism takes root, frustration and inter-class divides grow.

All these factors are raising the levels of desperation in the country, and that desperation is manifesting itself in many cases of militancy, terrorism and crime. Recall that the people of Swat were initially brought around to offering support to the Taliban because of the latter’s promise of speedy and equitable justice. In Pakistan, the breakdown of the rule of law seems to be driven in no small part by sheer need.

I remember reading a report last year that the average Pakistani family’s per capita income has become fixed at $1,000. That was last year. Inflation and the cost of living have risen since then. The report contrasted this with theorists’ calculation that citizens in the modern world require an average per capita family income in the range of $3,000 to consider themselves stakeholders in the political process and be interested in sustaining a liberal democracy.

While one can cast doubt on the methodologies used in reaching such hard figures, one only has to look around to see that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis want for safe drinking water, food, education, affordable energy, employment opportunities, healthcare … the list seems endless. Literacy and dignity feel like a distant goal when even security and health are unavailable.

Rising crime, terrorism, militancy, secessionist tendencies — amongst other factors — these are all indicators of the citizenry’s growing lack of faith in the state’s ability to protect them or to make their welfare a priority. Defiance of law is a result of a social contract that is collapsing.

According to the social contract theory, civil rights bestowed in a state are neither natural nor permanent. The contract between state and citizenry is a means to an end: the benefit of all. The argument is that the social contract is legitimate to the extent that it meets the general interest.

Since civil rights come from agreeing to the contract, those who choose to violate their contractual obligations, such as by committing crimes, abdicate their rights and the rest of society can be expected to protect itself by punishing outlaws. When failings develop in the contract, people renegotiate through methods such as elections to change the terms. In worst cases, there is violence.

The social contract theory holds that for a country to continue to survive as a viable entity, amongst the essentials is a citizenry that believes in and counts itself as a stakeholder in the political process.

According to the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, without a political government mankind’s ‘natural’ state would be a war of every man against the other, since they would compete over resources. Each person would have a licence to pursue everything in the world, inevitably leading to conflict.

To prevent this, men accede to a social contract and establish a civil society, which Hobbes defined as a population beneath a sovereign authority to whom all individuals cede certain ‘natural’ rights for the sake of protection. They gain rights in exchange for subjecting themselves to law or political authority.

If people gain no benefit from subjecting themselves to the political authority of the state, they might consider the contract broken. And so we have one facet of Pakistan’s situation. We agreed to be ruled by the state and its government in return for gaining liberties and protections. Over years filled with pain, it has become evident that few of these have been forthcoming.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Campaign to support landless female farmers launched

On the occasion of 100th International Women’s Day (IWD), ActionAid launched a campaign to support landless women farmers in securing their right to land.

Women’s right to land includes their access, control and ownership of the land and other productive resources. The campaign launch was announced here on Tuesday in a press conference attended by landless women peasants, civil society representatives and development workers.

Women’s right to land campaign in Pakistan has its roots in ’HungerFree Women Campaign’ launched back in 2007. Since then, ActionAid has proactively taken up women farmer’s issues particularly denial of their right to land which results in their political, social and economic subjugation.

The major milestone of the years-long struggle is allocation of land to landless women peasants by the Government of Sindh. Interestingly, it allocated 70% of the land to poor landless women whereas the remaining 30% was allocated to other landless peasants.

However, after the recent flood disaster, women farmers are once again faced with issues land re-demarcation and resettlement.

"Women work three times over men farmers but are still not recognized as farmers. We can counter rising hunger and food insecurity by supporting women farmers who grow more than 80% of food in Pakistan. They are subject to multi-faceted injustice - they are paid no reward against the farm labour and household chores they do on daily basis. " Says ActionAid Pakistan’s Country director Jemal Ahmed.

On top of that, women suffer violence in the name of tradition and culture such as early marriage, exchange marriage, honour killing, no share in inheritance or property, lack of reproductive rights and absolute poverty. Of all human rights abuses, violence against women is the most systematic and accepted because; in so many places it is considered ’normal’, which is unacceptable." He adds.

Speaking at a press conference arranged at National press club Islamabad, ActionAid’s women’s rights officer Rukhsana Shama said "women farmers are subject to all forms of subjugation and discrimination. If we want to end hunger, we must support women landless women to access, own and control food producing resources including land."

Women peasants from different parts of the country shared how unjustly they had been treated by their male counter parts in all spheres of life. Saba, a women farmer for Kot Adu, Neelum Bahar a women farmer and hari activist from Nawabshah and Gulshan Sultana, a social worker from Dera Ghazi Khan shared their experiences terming gender violence and economic injustice as the two major hurdles in the way of securing women’s equal status in the society.

In the end, the participants asked all stakeholders particularly the media , civil society and concerned citizens to come forward and join hands with them in securing their entitlements as women farmers.

They demanded that women should be acknowledged as farmers and for putting an end to violence against women that is being carried out in the name of culture and tradition.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Blasts near police stations wound 2 in Pakistan

Pakistani police say small bombs near two police stations in the country's largest city have wounded two people.

Officer Irshad Sehar says Monday's bombings in Karachi were several miles (kilometers) apart. He says they caused minor damage.

Sehar says the apparently coordinated explosions were meant to create fear and panic in the city of 14 million people.

Karachi is a chaotic city where criminal, political and militant violence is common.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

$1.3B World Trade Center Bonds 'Temporarily Shelved' -Source

A $1.3 billion tax-exempt bond deal to help finance one of the World Trade Center towers has been "temporarily shelved" due to volatile conditions in the municipal bond market, a person familiar with the matter said Friday. 

The offering--which will help finance 4 World Trade Center, a 1.8 million-square-foot tower already under construction in Lower Manhattan--is expected ...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New movie showcases 'pure magic' of India

Film fans can catch flights to India this year and follow in the footsteps of the stars of West is West, the sequel to the award-winning East is East, which is set to be released on 25 February.

Jet Airways said that people who are inspired by the 'beautiful cinematography' of the new movie can discover some of its locations for themselves.

Much of the film was shot on location in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Speaking about the experience of filming in the country, producer Leslee Udwin commented on the 'pure magic that inexplicably takes place' there.

Director Andy de Emmony said: 'We tried to find locations where the flat land met the mountains and the Shivalik range at the foothills of the Himalayas near Chandigarh was where [we] found it. The set was fantastic from my point of view - very real.'

Jet Airways was the official airline partner for West is West and regularly carried the production team to various cities in India over a number of months.

The airline operates daily flights from London Heathrow to Chandigarh via Delhi.

Opodo cheap flights, hotels and car hire - let the journey begin!