Travel Diary: Secretary Clinton Encourages Use of New Media Communications in Pakistan

Posted by Ashley Bommer
November 2, 2009
A Sunset Silhouettes Children Playing on a Beach in Karachi
A View of Roadside Stalls in Lahore
Pakistani Women Wait to Buy Food at a Roadside in Hyderabad
A Man has Lunch at a Roadside in Pakistan's Commercial Hub of Karachi
A Woman Prays at Badshahi Mosque During Friday Prayers in the Old City of Lahore
A Pakistani Man Watches the Sunset on the Outskirts of Islamabad

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.



Texas, USA
November 2, 2009

David in Texas writes:

Secretary Clinton's visit to Pakistan accomplished goals for both Nations. We get more first hand experience about the concerns of the people and Government of Pakistan and they get a much clearer more positive view of America's desire for a stable Pakistan. The Secretary did an outstanding job. I continue to admire her efforts and am proud of her leadership.

Texas, USA
November 2, 2009

Loren in Texas writes:


District Of Columbia, USA
November 2, 2009

Paul in Washington, DC writes:

Ashley -- thanks so much for this. Will the DoS be publishing any more details about how this system works from a technical perspective? Very curious about Pakistani partners, where the infrastructure for this effort sits and who manages it, plans for future use, online components, etc. Thanks!

California, USA
November 3, 2009

Masood in California writes:

Secretary Clinton, good work! Great way to reach out to the masses in a direct and rather personalized manner.

November 3, 2009

Tahirkheli in Pakistan writes:

Well put together Ms Ashley but you know what people of pakistan who for generations have been victims of geography deserve some sincere consideration now. It's been long overdue and if it has come it's got to be for real."Charm offensives" are easy to undertake but we must all work togther to prevent them from turning to perception (or misperception) of "offensive charm". Sustianed engagement is the keyword and I know Ms. Clinton will keep the statesmanship going. I feel she's got it in her.

Virginia, USA
November 4, 2009

Dan in Virginia writes:

Sounds like a great step forward. Careful on how much intel you get on the SMS messages and letting others know how much you track, as it sounds like many would like to remain anonymous. Additionally, you may be forced to disclose this information with officials which would be a concern if there is still corruption internally with acts of retibution nullifying the gain.

Open and free communication is beginning of a democracy.

Florida, USA
November 4, 2009

Betsy in Florida writes:

Hurrah! Welcome and celebrate connections between people around the world. This is fabulous. However, there must be some substance between us that brings aid, hope and change. This we need to discover and work towards together.

Ehsan U.
November 5, 2009

Ehsan U. in Pakistan writes:

Dear Sir,

I am Ehsan Ullah, working as tour oprater in North Pakistan as with the swat problems and around peshawer our bussiness is gone very low.
As you may know the North Pakistan Gilgit, Hunza and Bultastan are the very safe destinations. Can you kindly help us to bulit a +ve image for this area, as the 85% people are related to this bussiness and only industry in North Pakistan.

Thanks for any help.

DipNote B.
District Of Columbia, USA
November 6, 2009

DipNote Blogger Ashley Bommer writes:

Ehsan: Thanks very much for your comments on the dipnote blog post highlighting the State Department's efforts to support social networks and networking in Pakistan. One goal of this tool is to help Pakistanis communicate and link-up with one another. Your case highlights how this tool can be used in a very practical way, that is, to ensure people in Pakistan are aware of issues that are important to you and to other Pakistanis. In your case, you could use Humari Awaz to highlight tourism opportunities in Northern Pakistan by creating an SMS group focused on this issue.

To learn more about how to use Humari Awaz, SMS "HELP" or "MADAD" to 7111

Thanks again and all the best!

Indiana, USA
November 10, 2009

Bridget in Indiana writes:

The newly unveiled Humari Awaz network seems like a wonderful idea to promote citizen connectedness and to boost the Pakistani economy, technology and social communities. The free flow of information and ideas is certainly a great step in the right direction on the path to democracy. Like Paul, I too would be intrigued to learn more about the funding for this project as well as any technical details that could be provided such as who is privy to this service and any proven improvements to the economy, such as increased tourism or a better employment rate. Please let us know if there is a way to track this fascinating project!


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