Trip Information Page | Interactive Travel Map | Text the SecretaryAbout the Author: Ashley Bommer is Special Advisor to Special Representative to Afghanistan & Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. She previously worked on the “Text SWAT” initiative whereby donations of $5 were made to UNHCR for refugees in the Swat Valley by sending an SMS on a personal cell phone.
Pakistan, the world's second largest Muslim nation, is often viewed in America as a land infiltrated by extremists and has even been labeled by Newsweek as "The World's Most Dangerous Nation." Whereas I have grown to love this country and its people: spirited shopkeepers along the cobbled streets; women conversing over chai tea; hungry diners huddled over steaming clay pots of chicken handy; the calming sound of morning prayer.
But living in Pakistan is not easy. The suffering of the citizens of Pakistan is often overlooked. The people live in fear of terror. Last week, a bomb ripped through the middle of downtown Peshawar. Merely two years ago, I strolled through Peshawar's bazaars and bobbed in and out of rug shops. I can't help but ask how the situation has changed so radically in such a short time. Today, the entire city of Peshawar is on lockdown. You can't get anywhere from anywhere, and the shops are blackened shut.
And on top of the constant security threats, there is poverty, joblessness, and desperation. There is little opportunity for youth. The boy from South Waziristan does not know where he can get a job. The farmer in Dera Ismael Khan cannot purchase fertilizer for his crop. The student can't get a loan. And the tourism operator in Gilgit desperately waits at the internet cafe to see if he can email friends to drum up business.
Something is broken. People want help. They want an alternative to the terrorism and hopelessness. Despite the United States longstanding relationship with Pakistan it is clear: Government to government and military to military ties do not always translate directly to the people. The people here do not think of America, and the American people, as a long term ally and friend.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Pakistan to help change this misperception. She responded to the negative perception of the United States with an American style vigor and demonstrated her committment to 21st century statecraft by engaging not just with the government but also with the Pakistani people. She met the government and military officials, but reached beyond normal channels to emphasize a new connection with the people of Pakistan in boisterous townhalls and forums with student groups, businessmen, and civil society leaders. She engaged women, tribal elders and Pakistani talk show hosts and senior editors. She spoke of her commitment to working with the people of Pakistan as partners, that her priority is “first and foremost, listening and consulting with one another.” Secretary Clinton set out the basis of American engagement “by underscoring the fact that I am here because the Obama Administration and I personally am committed to Pakistan and to the Pakistani people.” She spoke of a “broader partnership, one that we hope will improve the lives of people in both our nations in many ways, so that more people can develop their talents and make the most of their God-given potential.” She confronted the negative image of America and championed a new page: country to country, people to people.
But what really was amazing is that she did this while also bringing a new technology and communication forum to this country of 170 million people. At Government College in Lahore, she announced support from the United States for the first free Pakistani mobile phone-based social network, known as Humari Awaz (“Our Voice”). She declared that the United States would fund the first 24 million text messages for people to communicate directly with one another in what she noted is “a service you can use on your cell phone to distribute news stories, to invite people to an event, to share your thoughts and opinions, to report problems that you see, to call for actions to solve those problems.” With more than 95.5 million mobile phone users, many of whom are youngsters, the mobile platform have enabled immense opportunity for wide range of community strengthening and social uplift applications like the one that was launched today.
The Director of Wireless at the Ministry of Information and Technology, summed it up in an email earlier this week. "Social Connection can transform society," he wrote, "and in Pakistan there is immense opportunity for using technology to deploy citizen centric services, that can help bring about socio economic change for the Pakistani people. Active involvement of Pakistani stakeholders both in the public and private sectors will be crucial to achieve optimal results."
Leveraging the immensely popular SMS medium, the Humari Awaz network will allow Pakistanis, many of whom do not have access to computers or the internet, to participate in the freedom of social networking and communications on infinitely diverse themes and subject of their choice using their mobile phones. In addition to linking friends and families, the network will be able to provide those interested in any issue at all to connect: from the rural farmers and sellers. to wholesalers and their retail outlets, with instant industry related information regarding prices, new orders, weather and road conditions or news.
As I finish this post and get ready for tomorrow, I hear Saima Mohseni, leading correspondent for Dawn News, Pakistan's first English language news channel on television, say, "It's a media charm offensive ...the U.S. Secretary of State's three day visit to Pakistan has taken the country's tv screens and radio airwaves by storm. Her team's organised more coverage than we've ever seen before for a top U.S. official." And then I smile as she picks up her phone and introduces Humari Awaz and discusses that for the first time Pakistanis have the chance to engage with the Secretary and each other by texting the words HELP or MADAD to 7111.
In the first day of service over 20,000 texts were sent using the “Our Voice” platform: 703 user ids were created, 1,360 followers linked up, and 2,363 updates were posted. Over the first weekend, 1,564 keywords were registered, followers reached 7,012, and total SMS sent has reached 232,947.