I first became involved with journalism in the summer of 1987 as a sub-editor at the Nation. After two weeks I was promoted/kicked out into the reporting room where I spent most of my time learning how to properly structure a Punjabi sentence (i.e., pick a close female family member, state something about her body and/or sexual proclivities, and finally, insert result into whatever it is that you actually wanted to discuss, which could be anything from economics to anthropology).
The reason I mention this ancient history (besides boosting my journo-cred) is because one of my first assignments as the junior-most sub-editor was to edit an APP wire story in which it was alleged that James Bond liked his orange juice shaken not stirred. I was 18 and green back then, but I wasn’t stupid. So, even I knew that James Bond being a true narr da bacha was not prone to drinking orange juice. Ever. However, work options being what they were, I dutifully subbed the piece and it appeared in the next day’s edition.
The point is that publishing a story as ridiculous as that required a degree of cluelessness among the reading public. You couldn’t get away with that kind of rubbish any more because today every seven-year old kid knows what James Bond really drinks. And if he doesn’t, it is going to take him five seconds before he Googles the info, and another ten seconds before he is checking out James Bond and Eva Green [or your favourite Bond babe] making out on YouTube.
The internet, in other words, gives us an incredible opportunity to share information. And it is time that we started using that opportunity.
Let me give you a simple example. In 2001, I was hired by a large consulting firm to do a report on the independence of the judiciary. Since I had ample time those days, I eventually produced a 150-page thesis which tried to explain why Pakistan’s judicial system suffered from certain problems and what could be done to reform it.
While researching my report, I came across the interesting fact that there was a large amount of research out there on the judiciary in Pakistan which was simply not accessible to the public. Indeed, the consulting firm itself had commissioned numerous reports earlier on the exact same topic, none of which was generally available. To the extent any of that work was available, it was entirely through luck or through personal connections.
To give one example, I had gone to a conference to present a preliminary draft of my findings when I started talking to one of my fellow delegates, a retired judge from Canada. Lo and behold, it turned out that she too had done a report on the judiciary in Pakistan for the exact same firm I was working for.
The firm that hired me was not unusual in this regard. It’s the same with most developmental institutions in Pakistan, big and small. There are hundreds of reports on Pakistan mouldering away in the archives of ADB and the World Bank. Ditto for UNDP, DfID, CIDA, JICA and the rest of the development agencies out there.
Between all of these agencies (and the firms they employ), hundreds of reports are commissioned on Pakistan every year. Some of them are good, others mediocre. But all are useful. And yet, there is simply no way to find most of these reports unless you are already aware of them. Indeed, even if you do a Google search with my name and the name of the consulting firm I worked for, you will find no copy of that report on the web.
This compartmentalisation of knowledge is asinine. As it is, we already have a tremendous problem in Pakistan because our entire policymaking system has been outsourced to aid agencies. I have no axe to grind against multilateral agencies and I really do believe that they are trying to do good for Pakistan: my point is simply that the work they produce cannot be squirreled away and hidden. What we are stuck with now is a system in which multiple agencies commission multiple reports on similar subjects, most of which then disappear from public view. This is not acceptable.
The good news though is that changing this system is relatively easy. Apparently, all the major development agencies are required to submit copies of their reports to the Economic Affairs Division of the Ministry of Finance. Ideally, the Federal Government should set up an electronic depository and make all reports available through the web.
More realistically, all that is needed is for the Ministry of Finance to make a rule saying that a copy of every single report submitted to the Economic Affairs Division by development agencies must be simultaneously placed on Google books.
Having all reports available on the internet for free is not going to fix poverty in Pakistan. But it is going to allow those trying to fix poverty to think smarter. And that’s a thought to which I hereby raise a glass of furiously shaken orange juice.