Tough but essential

THE government has ignored the country’s sliding economy for far too long. Until a few days back, it appeared to have totally lost its focus on the economy. It seemed as if the entire federal cabinet was preoccupied with politics, and the government couldn’t spare even a single minister to attend to the worsening economic and financial imbalances in spite of clarion calls from the central bank and others. The announcement, however, of what the finance minister termed on Friday as a ‘crucial’ macroeconomic stabilisation programme is expected to renew official focus on the sliding economy.

The stabilisation package, which seeks to discourage luxury imports, put an end to government borrowings from the central bank and cut subsidies and other government expenditure in the short term, is likely to bring about the much needed macroeconomic stability, narrow fiscal and current account deficits, tame inflation and preserve foreign exchange reserves. According to the minister the strategy put together to cope with the macroeconomic challenges was ‘homegrown’. He, however, acknowledged that the government had ‘consulted’ multilateral lenders like the IMF and the World Bank before finalising the stabilisation programme.

Apart from other measures, the government’s firefighting effort primarily focuses on complete elimination of energy subsidies by the end of the current fiscal to cut expenditure for reducing budgetary deficit down to 4.7 per cent of the GDP. The oil subsidy has already been eliminated with the recent domestic price adjustments, and gas is expected to become more expensive over the next few weeks. The price of electricity has already been raised by 47 per cent, including 16 per cent general sales tax, in two months and whatever remains of subsidy on it will be gone by June 30, if not before. That will save the government several billions of rupees it has to pay out of the budget.

There is little room for disputing the principle behind the elimination of subsidies. But the fact remains that the poor- to lower-income segment of the population suffer the most whenever government support on basic necessities like energy and food are withdrawn. A big majority of the population will be forced to slash essential expenditure on education and healthcare to cope with the higher food, transport and energy costs if their income does not keep pace with higher costs. It is where the government needs to intervene and protect the poor and the fixed income groups. But the government, it seems, is more likely to focus only on the macroeconomic stability at least for the time being and not on the hardships the people are going to face owing to the elimination of subsidies. And that will be tragic for the poor of the country.

Defeating terrorism

THE carnage at Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel has shocked Pakistan and has been rightly condemned. The target may have been ‘western’ but the timing — soon after iftar — ensured that the majority of victims were Pakistani. In the days ahead, the bombing will take to a fever pitch the debate about whether Pakistan is fighting its own war against terrorism or America’s. The debate will miss the point: it is an internal war, and it goes to the heart of what we want Pakistan to be. Do we want a country that provides a decent standard of living in a safe environment for its citizens? Or do we want to fight ideological wars that will condemn us to a vicious cycle of death and destruction? For the terrorism apologists, a strange distinction holds: that those opposing the Americans or Indians or the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan are not our concern because they do not want to harm us. This is not true. They do harm us because they retard our future and, as the Marriott bombing so viciously demonstrated, they destroy our present.

More urgently than ever, the defence establishment needs to get its act together. The civilian leaders and their uniformed counterparts must draw up a clear policy to fight terrorism. Pakistan is not faced with an ordinary law and order situation and the terrorist violence is not confined to a few areas. A counter-insurgency strategy is needed for all parts of Pakistan and the defence establishment must quickly pull together every strand of available resources. No doubt even the most efficient administrations in the world would be taxed by such a task. But what is truly distressing about Pakistan is the utter lack of any visible direction. Since Aug 6, Pakistan has been fighting militants in Bajaur. Yet virtually no one in the country is aware of who we are fighting and why. Worse yet, it’s not clear who is responsible for the operation: the political government, the military or both? Is it any surprise that the people are confused and split when they do not know who we are fighting, why we are fighting and even who ‘we’ is?

Disaster preparedness

AS we near the third anniversary of the Oct 8, 2005 earthquake, which this year will coincide with the International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, it is heartening to note that some form of a permanent disaster management infrastructure, which did not exist on the day the quake struck, is finally emerging. The National Disaster Management Authority, established in Dec 2006 for implementing the disaster management policies of the National Disaster Management Commission, recently signed a memorandum of understanding with a leading European rescue service to establish three specialised urban search and rescue teams in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

The NDMA is also organising the first national disaster risk management conference-cum-exhibition in Islamabad to impress the need for full activation of provincial as well as district-level disaster management authorities, including one in the federal capital. Meanwhile, the recent modernisation of Islamabad’s fire-fighting service and the expansion in the Punjab cities of the emergency service, Rescue 1122, first established in 2004, are other positive additions to our disaster management infrastructure. Then there is also the National Volunteer Movement formed about a month after the Oct 8 earthquake to coordinate the relief activities of individual volunteers and several private organisations. This continues to encourage public volunteerism by recruiting, training and maintaining a pool of young people ready to be mobilised and deployed to help in disaster relief and rehabilitative operations.

However, one important aspect of disaster preparedness that we need to focus greater attention on is public awareness through education and community participation, an aspect which international agencies concerned with disaster reduction have been promoting since the post-tsunami 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. One of HFA’s priorities emphasises the use of knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels. Children in schools are not only vulnerable to threats posed by natural disasters; aided by teachers and administrators, they can be powerful agents of change as well, provided they are armed with the knowledge of how to prepare in advance, how to act on warning and how to reduce risks at home and in their communities. It is therefore essential to make disaster-risk education a component of the national school curricula. As with various other aspects of life including career, health and civic consciousness, building a culture of disaster prevention, preparedness and resilience also begins at school.

OTHER VOICES - North American Press

Immigration deception

The New York Times

YES, immigration is a complicated and combustible issue for political candidates — and the economic meltdown is everyone’s top priority. No, that is no excuse for ignoring immigration or lying about it to voters, as John McCain and Barack Obama have been doing.

Mr McCain lied first, in a Spanish-language ad that accused Mr Obama of helping to kill immigration reform last year, by voting for amendments that supposedly doomed a bipartisan bill. The ad lamented the result: “No guest worker programme. No path to citizenship. No secure borders. No reform. Is that being on our side?”

For Mr McCain to suggest that Mr Obama opposes the “path to citizenship” and “guest worker programme” compounds his dishonesty. Mr Obama supports the three pillars of comprehensive reform — tougher enforcement, expanded legal immigration and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.

Mr McCain was an architect of just such a comprehensive bill. But he is also leading a party whose members rabidly oppose the path to citizenship. So, in deference to them, Mr McCain now emphasises border security as the utmost priority. Except when he’s pandering in Spanish.

Mr Obama’s retaliatory ad, also in Spanish, was just as fraudulent. It slimed Mr McCain as a friend and full-bore ally of restrictionists like Rush Limbaugh, even though Mr Limbaugh has long attacked Mr McCain’s immigration moderation. It quotes Mr Limbaugh as calling all Mexicans stupid and ordering them to “shut your mouth or get out”, which he never did….

Meanwhile, the Bush administration keeps raiding factories and farms, terrorising immigrant families while exposing horrific accounts of workplace abuses. Children toil in slaughterhouses; detainees languish in federal lock-ups, dying without decent medical care.

Both candidates once espoused smart, thoughtful positions for fixing the problem. But Mr McCain is shuffling in step with his restrictionist party. Mr Obama gave immigration one brief mention at the Democratic convention, in a litany of big-trouble issues, like abortion, guns and same-sex marriage, on which he seemed to say that the best Americans could hope for are small compromises and to agree to disagree.

They’re both wrong. The country needs to hear better answers, stated clearly and forthrightly over the shouting. The answer to immigration is what it was last year: comprehensive reform that extends order and the rule of law to a system that is broken in a million complex ways. Mr McCain and Mr Obama both know this. They should get back to telling the truth about it, in English and in Spanish. — (Sept 19)

Being lost in passion

By Zafar Masud


A FEW weeks back we had discussed the yearly gastronomy festival of Paris. Let us revisit that delicious domain, but this time to discover the fabulous odyssey of a young Swiss national who was in the habit of citing the fifth-century French thinker St Augustine to elucidate his philosophy of life: “The one who is lost in his passion is not as lost as the one who has lost his passion.” But before we pursue the hot trail of Pascal Henry, a few words about the little red book of gastronomy with a name that is already familiar to most readers as that of a famous manufacturer of automobile tyres. Michelin is also known for its prestigious restaurant guide, a bible of sorts to gourmets all over the world. As any dedicated restaurant owner will confirm, being cited in the Michelin guide is an honour, being awarded one star in it is a lifetime’s crowning glory for a chef and being consecrated with two stars is tantamount to entering the realm of what can safely be described as a culinary Vatican. With three stars, a chef has the right to claim the status of a Greek god. They invariably do.

Time to return to our story. Pascal Henry had quietly followed, albeit astride a hotrod motorcycle, the modest career of a dispatch letters and packages deliveryman in the beautiful city of Geneva in his native Switzerland. His salary was modest but at age 46 he was free of any family constraints, so to speak of. This had meant some savings in the bank and a comfortable retirement to look forward to.

The wise have, through the beginning of time, agreed satiety incontrovertibly leads to tedium; and our hero was no exception. Besides, Pascal Henry had a passion: eating in good restaurants. So he decided early this summer to take a long leave from work and embark on a fantastic voyage round the globe that was to take him to the restaurants which boast of three Michelin stars in the little red book. Twenty-six of these are based in France, seven in Spain, five in Italy, nine in Germany, three in England, two each in Switzerland, Belgium and Holland, eight in Japan and four in the United States. Henry’s plan was to visit the above nine countries and grace the tables of all the 68 fabled temples of gastronomy.

There, however, was a snag. Though his lifetime’s savings were enough and some, to kick-start the mind-boggling, and stomach-churning one might add, wanderlust around the globe, travelling to nine countries, staying at hotels and dining at top-class restaurants could cost a fortune, to say the least.

So Pascal Henry struck upon a strategy that he made sure to discuss with Paul Bocuse, the dean of the French chefs from whose restaurant in Collonge in France he began his adventure on the fifth of May this year.

Following a hearty meal and a heated conversation, Bocuse was impressed enough by the young man’s gastronomic passion to have himself photographed in his company and to write a few words about him and his unusual voyage in the blank pages of an elaborate album that Henry had been careful to carry with him.

This, the young adventurer had correctly surmised, would be useful recommendation to the chefs whose establishments he would be visiting in future and the snowballing of similar tributary notes and photographs would help him, who knew, cut corners here and there on a multitude of expenses.

The strategy worked! Pascal Henry successfully savoured his way through great restaurants run by such legendary chefs as Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Bernard Loiseau, and many more, his collection of autographs and photographs growing rapidly in size by the day.

Needless to say repetitive consumption of good food and fine wines contributed to the gourmet adventurer’s own size as well and by the time he entered the door of El Bulli, the celebrated three-star restaurant in Cala Monjoi, Spain, on the 12th of June, according to his own admission Pascal Henry was eight kilos heavier than when he had begun his journey some five weeks earlier.

Ell Bulli was the 40th restaurant Pascal Henry was eating at and there had remained 28 more to go to. As he finished his meals that fateful evening he was approached by a group of journalists who had wanted to interview him. A brief conversation followed and Pascal Henry suddenly dug into his pocket for his visiting cards.

“Oh, I left them in the car. Hang on, I’ll be back in a minute.”

He never came back. He left on the table the unpaid bill and his famous album with signed notes and recommendations and his photographs with the great chefs. Today Interpol is looking for him in all the countries he had been to and rumours are rife he might have returned to Switzerland where he could be hiding under a false identity.

Pascal Henry’s disappearance remains as mysterious, and totally as illogical, as his adventure was fantastic.

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.

Blair faces grilling

By Ed Pilkington


TONY Blair opened a new chapter of his public life Friday night when the man who honed his debating skills in the rowdy context of the Westminster parliament applied them to the far more sedate setting of a lecture hall at Yale.

The former prime minister began a term-long series of seminars on faith and globalisation at the Ivy League university, in his first experience of teaching. With his new title as Howland Distinguished Fellow he has followed in the footsteps of his son Euan, who graduated from Yale with a master’s degree in international relations earlier this year.

Blair told the college paper, the Yale Daily News, last week that he was “a bit nervous”. “I was never a star student, and I’m coming along mixing with a whole lot of people who I’m sure are a whole lot more clever and smarter than I am.”

A touch of nerves was evident too on Thursday when Blair broke other new ground — appearing on the satirical current affairs show presented by Jon Stewart. Blair came across as tense and a smidgeon tetchy in front of cameras in New York as he was hit by a stream of barbed comments from Stewart on his friendship with George Bush and the Iraq war.

Stewart, who enjoys a devoted television following as one of the sharpest political observers in the US, began by reflecting on the coincidence of the Yale posting with the economic meltdown on Wall Street. “You’ve picked the perfect time to come and work in America. Did you get your money up front?”

“Yes,” Blair replied.

When the interview turned to the subject of the US president Blair was unable to disguise his discomfort. “Your relationship with George Bush seems — what’s the word I’m looking for? — inexplicable,” Stewart said, prompting a roar from the live audience.

Blair winced and said: “Here’s something I find always goes down well, particularly back home: I like him.”

“I would probably like him too if he wasn’t in charge of me,” Stewart fired back. Then he added: “It’s like we’re talking about the bad boy at school, and you’re saying, ‘You don’t know him like I know him’.”

Blair replied: “I’m not a fairweather friend. We’ve been through a lot together.” Blair faced a similar barrage of cutting quips on his decision to back Bush over the invasion of Iraq. Asked whether he still felt it was a smart strategic move to topple Saddam, Blair conceded that he had not anticipated the maelstrom to come.

“If you look at the bloodshed there’s been, and the difficulty, I would have been shocked but I would have asked why has this come about? There’s a fundamental struggle going on I’m afraid, and there are two sides.”

He insisted he had come to the view that the Iraq war was necessary “of my own accord and from my own conviction”. But he added it was not a decision he took lightly. “None of this is easy,” he said.

Since he departed Downing Street last year Blair has looked to the international stage in his search for a new role. He has taken on responsibilities as an envoy to the Middle East and as a participant in negotiations over climate change.

Blair, 55, has also modelled his activities on the post-presidential activities of his friend Bill Clinton, whose global foundation bears a close resemblance to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation that was set up in May.

Blair’s lecture series will explore several of the themes that lie at the core of his foundation. The course is focused on the public roles of religious faiths in the context of globalisation.

Students will be encouraged to think about the resurgence of religious belief and how some faiths serve as oppressive or violent forces while others make positive contributions to society.

Hundreds of Yale students applied for the course. As part of their coursework they will be asked to develop ideas about how religions can be encouraged to take a constructive part in pluralistic societies.

— The Guardian, London

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