The Other Picture

For a re­gion crip­pled by poverty, ter­ror­ism and cor­rup­tion, it has never been more ur­gent to pro­mote South Asia’s soft im­age.

Southasia - - Contents - By Mashal Us­man Mashal Us­man is a re­searcher with the Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence depart­ment at the Lahore Univer­sity of Man­age­ment Sci­ences.

The new mil­len­nium has be­gun with a rocky start for South Asia. Dur­ing the course of the past decade, there has been a rapid in­crease in the num­ber of catas­tro­phes af­fect­ing the re­gion. In ad­di­tion to a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, ter­ror­ism has be­come the sin­gle big­gest mal­ady af­fect­ing quite a few South Asian states. Con­se­quently, dis­course re­gard­ing the re­gion has in­creas­ingly fo­cused on cor­rup­tion, ter­ror­ism, civil-mil­i­tary di­vides and hu­man rights abuses. To an ex­tent, this in­creased level of fo­cus is jus­ti­fied. The po­lit­i­cal events of the past decade have been dis­as­trous enough to war­rant con­sid­er­able at­ten- tion from the me­dia, both lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional. The sud­den up­surge in nat­u­ral and hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phes in the re­gion is to be cred­ited for bring­ing South Asia more global at­ten­tion than per­haps ever be­fore in its his­tory.

How­ever, South Asia has much more to of­fer in terms of cul­ture, his­tory, me­dia, art, movies and fash­ion. As many South Asians make their mark on an in­ter­na­tional scale, pro­mot­ing the soft im­age of South Asia has never been more im­por­tant. Both elec­tronic and print me­dia’s sin­gle­minded fo­cus on the crises af­fect­ing South Asia has di­verted at­ten­tion from the pos­i­tive changes that have been oc­cur­ring in the re­gion over the past decade. A more egal­i­tar­ian cov­er­age of the is­sues would al­low many re­cent cul­tural and so­cial de­vel­op­ments to come to the fore­front. Ad­di­tion­ally, it would al­low for a greater bal­ance in global per­spec­tives on the re­gion.

Elec­tronic me­dia has to be held re­spon­si­ble for the ex­tremely slanted views. Prom­i­nent western coun­tries are de­picted by the me­dia as lands of op­por­tu­nity and free­dom with­out any real prob­lems when the op­po­site is ac­tu­ally true. In­come in­equal­ity in the U.S. for in­stance is higher than in most de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. South Asian states on the other hand get ex­ces­sive me­dia at­ten­tion when a

nat­u­ral dis­as­ter strikes or some other na­tional tragedy oc­curs while the sub­tle changes to­wards greater po­lit­i­cal free­dom and civil so­ci­ety de­vel­op­ment are del­e­gated to the back­wa­ters of academia.

If the past decade is to be ap­praised from an ob­jec­tive stand­point, it be­comes clear that it has been marked by a num­ber of ma­jor de­vel­op­ments. An in­creas­ing num­ber of South Asian women have opted to pur­sue pri­vate en­ter­prise, es­pe­cially in the fash­ion in­dus­try. To­day South Asian de­sign­ers fea­ture in in­ter­na­tional fash­ion shows in New York, Sin­ga­pore, London and Paris. Artists and sculp­tors dis­play their works at in­ter­na­tional gal­leries and ex­hi­bi­tions. Fic­tion works by Pak­istani, Bangladeshi and In­dian writ­ers are read the world over, and many are best­sellers. More women in the re­gion own or work for non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions to­day than ever be­fore. This change is a part of a greater mo- men­tum to­wards in­creased civil so­ci­ety in­volve­ment in so­cial is­sues. In­creased aware­ness of the e im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion has re- esulted in a num­ber of prom­i­nent nt in­ter­na­tional NGOS such as Teach ch for Pak­istan and Teach for In­dia, di a, launch­ing ex­ten­sive ed­u­ca­tional projects. With in­ter­na­tional par­tic­i­pa­tion, many Pak­ista­nis rep­re­sent­ing the art and cul­ture of the coun­try have suc­cess­fully man­aged to cre­ate a par­al­lel im­age; one in stark con­trast to a coun­try crip­pled by ter­ror­ism, cor- rrup­tion and ram­pant poverty.

The lat­est achieve­ment for Paki- kistan comes with doc­u­men­tary film- mmaker Sharmeen Obaid-chi­noy’s oy’s re­cent Os­car win. This is the first Academy Award for Pak­istan and a great honor for the coun­try. Adding and pro­mot­ing Pak­istan’s soft im­age, Sharmeen has brought much needed at­ten­tion to Pak­istan’s tal­ents and strengths.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant change char­ac­ter­iz­ing South Asian states at this point is po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity. As Im­ran Khan ral­lies his party for the com­ing elec­tions in Pak­istan, for in­stance, there is in­creas­ing hope that the com­ing decade will be marked by a greater level of po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion and open­ness in the coun­try.

It is true that South Asia still has a long way to go if it is to re­al­ize the dream of bring­ing its liv­ing stan­dards at par with those of the de­vel­oped world. South Asia’s trade with the rest of the world is still be­low the world av­er­age. It also rep­re­sents only 1.2 per­cent of world ex­ports and 1.7 per­cent of im­ports, which is much be­low what one would ex­pect. South Asian states face nu­mer­ous is­sues as they at- tempt to en­ter in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. Most of these coun­tries spe­cial­ize in agri­cul­tural prod­ucts, which are sold with lit­tle value ad­di­tion thereby pre­vent­ing high prof­its. Re­gional trade as a whole is a con­tentious is­sue as many of the coun­tries have per­ni­cious quo­tas and tar­iffs in place that pre­vent the re­gion as a whole from de­vel­op­ing its ca­pac­ity to full po­ten­tial.

How­ever, the over­all picture is much less de­press­ing than it would seem. Pak­istan granted MFN sta­tus to In­dia last year and this might be a very im­por­tant step in im­prov­ing trade re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. There is also in­creas­ing ev­i­dence to sug­gest that women will be play­ing a much stronger role in the eco­nomic as well as po­lit­i­cal sphere of South Asian economies in the near fu­ture.

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