On US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton’s recent visit to Islamabad, she met with civil society members at a special Town Hall meeting, which is an American style informal public meeting that serves as a platform for citizens to get the opportunity to speak to, interact with and hear from public figures.
A select and very small group of Pakistani citizens and youth – including Islamabad Stock Exchange Director Ayla Majid, media personality and entrepreneur Sidra Iqbal, Nutshell Forum Founder & CEO Azfar Ahsan, Warid CEO Naeem Zamindar and Raffles CEO Ibrahim Qureshi – were given this special opportunity, where they were free to ask anywhere and every question they desired and given enough time to interact with the former First Lady. The event was televised live to millions of Pakistanis.
The Townterview was moderated by Moeed Pirzada of Pakistan TV who began by introducing Secretary Clinton as the “principal architect of renewed U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the Obama Administration.”
Mrs. Clinton has visited Pakistan 8 times in the past 15 years, most memorably with her daughter Chelsea in 1996. This is the her fourth visit to Pakistan since she has assumed office and came at a point of tense and challenging US-Pakistani relations, what Mr. Pirzada described as following “a barrage of accusations, fears, suspicions, doubts.” Mrs. Clinton was wanting to have clear interactions with Pakistanis before making a report back to Congress the following week, fully recognizing that “the United States and Pakistan’s relationship may be complex, may be very difficult, may be very tiresome … but this is an enduring relationship that is based on mutual interest, mutual interdependence, and shared goals in the region.”
Possibly the most powerful part of Mr. Pirzada’s introduction was when he pointed out that if Secretary Clinton “can talk tough in Islamabad, in Pakistan; she also has the ability to talk tough on behalf of Pakistan in Washington.”
The Secretary reinforced how seriously she was taking this visit, stating, “It is easy to forget amidst all the noise that our goals overlap in critical ways. We share a vision of a sovereign, self-sufficient, and democratic Pakistan; a Pakistan at peace and trading with its neighbors and full of opportunities for both men and women. That is a vision that I carry with me as I do the work I currently do now as Secretary of State. We also share a threat that has claimed the lives of thousands of our citizens. And we believe strongly that is a challenge neither of us can walk away from.”
She added, “I want to be clear that the United States is committed to helping Pakistan meet the economic needs, the social development needs, of the Pakistani people. Now, we are not doing this out of some definition of charity, and we are not trying to purchase friendship. We actually believe that a prosperous, peaceful Pakistan is more likely to be a stable, secure Pakistan, and we think that is good for everyone, first and foremost Pakistanis, the region, and the world, including Americans.”
She suggested that Pakistan focus on becoming the “hub that connects South and Central Asia on what we are calling a New Silk Road that binds together a region held back by rivalry and war” and believes India could become the largest market for Pakistan. Mrs. Clinton also pointed out the danger in Pakistan’s current quality of life situation, stating “just 2 million people out of 190 million pay income taxes, that is just not a broad enough base to sustain serious investments in Pakistan’s needs.”
Then the floor was open to the small group in attendance. I asked a question about how we can get more of the talented Pakistani entrepreneurs, especially women, showcased and connected internationally and how we can get Pakistani women or Pakistani entrepreneurs and American entrepreneurs working hand in hand in entrepreneurship rather than in isolation.
Secretary Clinton was very supportive of this vision, stating, “that is music to [her] ears, because one of our principal programs in the State Department the last two-plus years has been to promote global entrepreneurship around the world, with an emphasis on women and with an emphasis on Muslim majority countries, because we think entrepreneurship, small business, medium-sized business development is key to economic growth and prosperity, and that parts of the world that have not been growing and providing inclusive prosperity over the last decade are now poised in part because of technology to do so.
Therefore, we have held entrepreneurship summits in Egypt, in Indonesia, in Washington. The next one is in Turkey. And we want to be sure – we’ve had Pakistani participants, and we want to be sure that the two messages of what it takes to promote entrepreneurship, because there are still legal and regulatory barriers. There are difficulties in many countries in starting businesses and growing businesses. We want to identify those, work with governments, work with business to try to eliminate them, and we also want to mentor. So we have websites, we have programs where we’re bringing entrepreneurs – in particular, women entrepreneurs – to work with counterparts.
So we want to do all of that, and we view Pakistan as a place with such potential. Pakistan is a country of small businesses, and there’s so much more that could be done and that can be linked to the global economy. And so therefore, we will redouble our efforts to reach out to Pakistani entrepreneurs and make sure that as many as possible are connected into what we’re doing globally.”
Other questions were asked on Blackwater (something the Secretary unequivocably denied existed), drone attacks killing innocents (Mrs. Clinton denied this as well), anti-American sentiments (she attributed this to amplification by the press), development of education (the Secretary accurated stated, “There has to be a demand by educated Pakistanis for all Pakistanis to be educated, and a particular movement to educate girls”), Af-Pak policy and Pakistan’s role on the US top priority list in terms of economic development, the ramifications to Pakistanis of the aftermath of 9-11.
The biggest laughs from the crowd came when Ms. Shamama of the Women Chamber of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa stated, “We all know that all of Pakistan is facing the brunt of whatever is happening and trying to cooperate with the U.S. And somehow, U.S. is like – is a mother-in-law which is just not satisfied with us and comes up with new ideas. So we are trying to please you, and every time you come and visit us, you have a new idea, so you tell us, “You’re not doing enough and you need to work harder.”
Although Mrs. Clinton did not quite understand the cultural meaning behind this charming statement as in the US, there isn’t the same relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, the audience was uproarious and the Townterview ended on a very uplifting note.