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Alex Thier Headshot

New Frontiers in South Asia?

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My recent trip to Pakistan and India was revelatory. So much is changing in both countries, and new frontiers are opening.

I first travelled to Pakistan twenty years ago and many of the changes I see today are impressive. We drove the beautiful motorways, met with organizations doing innovative work with agriculture and crossed the land border into India marveling at the new customs facilities accommodating the increasing cross-border trade. Perhaps most importantly, we met with civil society groups preparing for Pakistan's upcoming elections which will be an historic first, a full-term democratically elected government transitioning to another. These sorts of trends -- economic growth, food security, increased regional trade (and relationships) and democratic governance are precisely what will lead Pakistan into an era of greater stability and prosperity.

Many serious barriers to success remain as well. Electricity rationing ("load-shedding") plagues the country and its economy. Extremism and insecurity have become a far reaching presence in many parts of the country, threatening so much of the good that Pakistanis are doing for themselves. Educating their girls, eradicating polio, improving relations with their neighbors. Political violence and domestic violence abound. It is a country and a people very much engaged in a struggle for its future.

The good news is that Pakistanis aren't taking these challenges sitting down. On the periphery of Islamabad, local community activists, fed up with intermittent access to clean water caused by the city's inefficient, outdated water pumps and load-shedding staged protests for months this year. The city's development board was spurred to action by the protests. With assistance from the U.S. government, administered by USAID, they worked with the community to install a new energy efficient, cost-effective pump. These new pumps (187 planned) not only meet the needs of the citizens, they will save the local government responsible for providing water $900,000 a year in electricity expenditures, conserving power for other uses and quickly recouping the cost of the total investment. I was lucky enough to be at the inauguration of the new pumps and the positive feedback USAID and the city officials received from the same community activists that only months earlier were engaged in protest, was overwhelming.

That will be the relationship -- the relationship between the people of Pakistan and their representatives that will form the basis of meaningful progress for the country.

The push for progress is not only at the grassroots level. I met with Nargis Sethi, the new Federal Secretary for Water and Power, who has made it her mission to aggressively track every megawatt produced in Pakistan and make sure energy consumers, including the politically powerful, are paying for their consumption. I also met with Saleem Mandviwalla of the Board of Investment, who is working hard to bring new investors to Pakistan. And I met with our key partner, Finance Secretary Abdul Wajid Rana, to enhance the U.S. government's ongoing partnership with the government to improve the delivery of services to the citizens of Pakistan.

The United States' partnership with Pakistan extend beyond government to civil society as well. I was able to participate in a signing ceremony to initiate an agribusiness project with 12 non-governmental organizations that will provide training to up to 45,000 farmers to help increase productivity and sales of horticultural and livestock products. I drove to Lahore and met with key private sector leaders there as well. One of my favorite USAID projects is a partnership with Nestle that is helping small dairy producers -- mostly women -- increase milk production and linking them directly to agribusiness, which significantly boosts their income. The business community in Lahore is preparing for the huge potential change the trade liberalization with India might bring. Some are justifiably nervous about their ability to compete. But most are inspired by the opportunity.

My excitement about the future of regional trade led us to go witness in person the burgeoning traffic across the Pakistani-Indian Wagha-Attari border crossing. I was impressed by the famous martial ceremony that occurs as the border gates are closed each day, but even more by the lines of trucks moving across, which promises greater trade and economic activity between the two countries that could potentially diminish historic distrust and divisions.

In India we met with government officials, trade associations and entrepreneurs, journalists and analysts. Everyone seems poised for change. My favorite stop in India was the Azadpur fruit market, Asia's largest. I met there with India's largest importer of fruits from Afghanistan and an Afghan exporter. They are bringing more and more Kandahari pomegranates (130 this year) driven in trucks from Afghanistan across Pakistan to India. With minor improvements to the supply chain -- sorting in Afghanistan, refrigerated trucks, speedier customs -- this trickle could become a torrent. In those sweet pomegranates you could taste a more hopeful and prosperous future for the region.