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“Obligations of Pakistan’s government”

by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul
In early April, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, travelled to Pakistan to get an idea of the country’s situation and evaluate the conditions ahead of the donors’ conference in Tokyo two weeks later. In our interview, Wieczorek-Zeul discusses her impressions and the country’s progress, pointing out that women and civil society in general are inspiring hope. [ Interview with Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul ]

How do you assess Pakistan’s current situation?
Some hazardous trends are obvious: the government is still unstable, even if they have just regained contact with the people by reappointing judges at the very last minute. Ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and its repercussions in border regions have an impact on Pakistan, as refugees bring along new conflicts. In addition, the country is facing an economic destabilisation – the global economic crisis and, even more so, other problems are putting Pakistan in a situation of grave economic and financial risk. On the other hand, there are also positive trends. For instance, Pakistan’s civil society is quite strong. And there is freedom of the press, which cannot be taken for granted in a country like this. The most important thing now is to support positive trends and, if possible, prevent negative ones.

What would happen to the country without help from the West?
The issue is not so much what would happen without help, than what would happen if there were no more attempts to influence developments – by means of political advice, discussions. This country could quite possibly become a truly failing state, so that there would be no real statehood anymore. Cells of violence would spread throughout the country like malignant tumours. Under such circumstances, people’s lives are marked by conflict rather than by opportunities.

How dangerous is Pakistan for the global community?
That depends on the further development. If the country’s stabilisation and democratic consolidation can be accomplished and Afghanistan’s situation improves, that will have an important impact on the entire region. Of course, it is also important that non-Western powers, that matter for the stabilisation of Pakistan – the United Arab Emirates, Iran, China et cetera – work towards a common goal.

You’ve had the opportunity to talk to Pakistani women – for instance with IDPs, internally displaced persons. You have also visited a clinic concerned with birth control, amongst other things. How do you see the role of women?
Well, very archaic and patriarchal attitudes still shape Pakistani society, though the upper classes often defy such norms. Education and family planning matter very much. They give women the chance to take their destinies in their own hands. Otherwise, the number of their children and the demands of their mothers, mothers-in-law and husbands will define their fate.

Abundance of children is often a poverty problem.
It is not only about poverty. I see this in quite a radical way. What we are looking at is serious disrespect for women. They they are forced into maternity under harsh circumstance, year after year. I met one such mother in the hospital, and she told me that she has nine children. The first seven were girls, and her mother-in-law told her she would have to have more babies until she would finally give birth to a boy. Under these conditions, a lot of women barely ever recover full health. Without education, they have no chance whatsoever of self-determination. Role models and the devaluation of women cannot only be explained by poverty. If men were to have the babies, there would be first class medical centres and sufficient obstetricians in every village.

So women themselves bear part of the blame for gender disparities?
Yes, of course. Patriarchy is not something that only takes place in the minds of men. Otherwise it would not have survived for such a long time. Role models and education matter a lot. Therefore it is important to show that a woman can become a cabinet member and change something. That can be very encouraging.

You actually did meet a female minister.
Yes, one woman among lots of men. But you have to take a close look at her specific role. I always say: a single woman is changed by politics, and politics is changed by many women. It is interesting that in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, women have been heads of states or presidents, but this has to do more with the social standing of their families than gender itself.

How do you assess the human-rights situation in Pakistan?
When I was visiting Islamabad, the national – and international – media reported the whipping of a girl in Swat Valley. I strongly condemn such acts. The central government has to ensure that there is no kind of legal vacuum. Politicians must rise to their responsibilities in terms of ensuring human rights and women’s rights in particular. They have to ensure the situation is stabilised and that the many internally displaced people find support. Today, some 700,000 of them are living in desperate circumstances, and they are easy prey for the Taliban. I strongly oppose the central government’s decision not to enforce the rule of law in Swat Valley. That amounts to surrendering to a violent gang.

Has there been a different perception of the USA in Pakistan since the election of President Obama?
I can’t really tell. In any case, there is a lot of hope in Pakistani society.

What is the effect of Obama’s new strategy?
The military strategy is crucial. By indiscriminately conducting drone attacks, you only set the population against you. Caution and sensitivity are essential.

Apart from the 2 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, there is also an increasing number of IDPs. What are the risks?
If one does not pay close attention in the fight against the Taliban, tension and violence will spread from the border regions all over the country. In that case, there will not only be refugees from Swat Valley and the northwestern regions like today. Instead, refugees will come from various provinces to the Pakistani heartland. If the government continues to disregard the rights and living conditions of these people instead of tackling these issues, the risk of Talibanisation will only grow. The risk of contagion is serious because of people’s enduringly bad living conditions.

Obama says that Pakistan’s problems cannot be separated from Afghanistan’s. He is in favour of an “Af-Pak Strategy”, focussing on the fight against terrorism, but not necessarily on the establishment of a modern democracy in Afghanistan. What is your view?
The conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan can only be solved in the regional context, that is true. But fighting terror is not the main issue. Policy, I think, is what matters most. One aspect is to boost responsible governments in both countries, and to involve civil society. It is a good thing that Obama is finally putting more emphasis on civilian reconstruction. However, each country has to be considered according to its specific role.

How do you interpret the results of the donors’ conference in Tokyo?
The international community is rising to its responsibility towards Pakistan. More than $ 5 billion have been pledged to the country. I find it particularly important that European donors have tied their pledges to the condition that Pakistan’s government actually implement reforms in the economy and the polity, enforcing the rule of law nationwide and fighting rampant poverty. These are the criteria for assessing the government’s future performance. What I find insufficient, however, that there is no “contract” that would define the obligations of Pakistan’s government in terms of reforms and governance along with the financial obligations of the international community.

Who or what, according to you, is inspiring hope in Pakistan itself?
Women, because they approach things differently and are less prone to violence – and of course civil society. There is also hope – and I hope it will be justified – that those who have come to power through democratic elections will take their responsibility seriously. There are fairly hard times ahead, but the situation is not hopeless.

Questions by Eleonore von Bothmer