By Senator Sehar Kamran (TI)

Oct 7, 2015

The road not taken, yet again“All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.”
–Benjamin Franklin

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit on Science and Technology (S&T) was due to be held in Islamabad on 11 November 2015. It would have been the first ever Heads of State/Government level meeting of the OIC dedicated to the promotion and advancement of Science and Technology in the Muslim world. The Summit was to have been preceded by the COMSTECH General Assembly on 9th and 10th November 2015, where OIC Ministers for S&T would have discussed and endorsed the Summit outcomes in the form of the document that was to have been the ‘Islamabad Declaration’, and took 2 years of hard work and input from 157 scientists to take shape. All this is no longer to be.

With it, Pakistan has lost another golden opportunity, worth $200-$300 million of investment, as well as quite possibly COMSTECH itself. The excuse – unsurprisingly – is security concerns yet again. Ironically, the concerns do not stem from the 50-odd Heads of State and numerous other dignitaries that were to visit Pakistan, but from the top political strata of our own government that does not appear to have sufficient faith in its own security arrangements, particularly ‘in light of the Badaber attack. Further irony that this decision comes mere weeks from the celebration of Pakistan’s Defense Day, where this same leadership was falling over itself to parade its faith and pride in the country’s security institutions. At a time when the Pakistani nation stands united behind its forces and has high hopes from Operation Zarb-e-Azab; when we celebrate our National days with zeal and zest; when security in the country is stronger than it has been for many a year, so much so that we have had successful visits by the Chinese President and visiting cricket teams from Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the decision to cancel the summit over security concerns will be a major blow to the morale of the entire nation.

But the greatest misfortune of all perhaps is the utter apathy and disinterest of the government towards any and every arrangement that had to do with what would have been a historic event, as is reflected in the callous manner in which the entire affair has been handled.

In the wise words of the great American entrepreneur John Scully, “The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” We, clearly, are not of that ilk. For those who may not understand just what it is we have lost with our failure to host the OIC Summit on S&T, let us examine what the Summit had to offer.

Pakistan made its commitment to host this event during the OIC Summit in Cairo in 2013. At the time, other member countries including Malaysia, Turkey, Iran and the UAE also expressed their interest in hosting the Summit, citing their recent advances in S&T and questioning Pakistan’s credentials. However, strong Saudi support and encouragement, and Pakistan’s capacity as the Chair of COMSTECH afforded us this honour.

Independent from the Summit, it is also mandatory for COMSTECH to hold at least one General Assembly session every two years, and it is important to remember that no session has been held since 2011. Failing to meet one of the basic statutory requirements is an indication of COMSTECH’s inability to function effectively under the patronage of Pakistan, at a time when several other countries would only be pleased to step into its shoes.

Hosting of the Summit by Pakistan, on the other hand, would not only have provided an opportunity to reassert our leadership role within the Muslim world, and underline Pakistan’s significance as a scientifically advanced Muslim country, it was also a great opportunity to demonstrate that the country is not isolated, as is often projected, while showcasing its S&T achievements and opening potential markets for its services and products. The occasion could have been further utilised to reassure the international community of the improving security situation in Pakistan, and its stability as it emerges as a regional platform for multi-faceted collaborations.

The motivation for increased scientific and technological cooperation among Muslim countries is multi-fold. While it is important to maintain and strengthen S&T engagements with the more technologically-advanced West remains undeniable, certain challenges facing Muslim countries are peculiar to them and could be much better addressed through such collaboration. Additionally, many Muslim countries face similar challenges, and possess similar levels of development as well as shared values. These factors, leveraged by pooled resources, expertise, technology and experience-sharing, can facilitate better understanding and S&T cooperation, particularly regarding issues that may be of lesser concern to the West.

The S&T Summit would not only have led to discussions and planning for collaboration on research, but also tackled issues regarding the employability of Muslim Youth, and put into pipeline collaborative technical and vocational education programmes for skill development. Other areas for potential cooperation included application of technologies for enhancing water, food and energy security in OIC countries, as well as on health-related issues including vaccines and medicines.

The Summit would also have been an opportunity to discuss cooperation and open markets for Pakistan for peaceful uses of nuclear energy – in the health, food safety, and agriculture sectors – in accordance with IAEA standards of nuclear non-proliferation, safety and security. Discussions on cooperation in space technology and the mapping of natural resources in OIC countries to this end could have been possible.

The working document for the summit prepared in consultation with over 157 leading scientists, proposed a 10-year actionable agenda, and assigning a major role to Pakistan in the implementation process for the next ten years.

The OIC Secretary General had also been lobbying for this Summit himself during recent visits to over 16 OIC countries, where he personally encouraged these states to participate in the Summit at the highest level. He arranged briefings for the Ambassadors of OIC countries, both in Jeddah and Riyadh, on the significance of the Summit, and engaged a UK based media house to project and cover the Summit proceedings. All this had generated a high level of interest in the Summit.

This cancellation is an embarrassment, and has seriously undermined confidence in Pakistan within the Muslim world. The enormous opportunity and the event are perhaps lost, but massive space has been opened for introspection of where it is exactly that we as a nation wish to see Pakistan ten or even twenty years down the line. Given this hasty and undeliberated decision and its far-reaching impact, should there not at least be some public scrutiny over how such decisions are taken?

S&T is undeniably a key driver for socio-economic progress. The pursuit of knowledge and the new frontiers which follow naturally will witness an ever-increasing impact on all of humanity in the 21st century, and science and technology not only offer the tools for making change, but also for managing it. But as Havel put it, “Vision itself is not enough. It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs”.

In the April of 1984, Nobel Laureate and renowned physicist Dr Abdus Salam made a speech at the UNESCO House where he said, “An aspect of reverence for the sciences in Islam was the patronage they enjoyed in the Islamic Commonwealth. To paraphrase what H.A.R. Gibb has written about Arabic literature on the sciences; ‘To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditional… on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. Where Muslim society was in decay, science lost vitality and force. But so long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in patronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning.’”

We would do well to remind ourselves of all that we have lost and continue to lose since the Islamic Commonwealth ended its patronisation of the sciences. And we would do well to understand that it is exactly this same mistake we have repeated today.

Same version of the article appeared in The Nation

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