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.
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.