By Anjum Altaf
Let me explain.
Imagine a number of you are in a boat out at sea and a hole opens up in the bottom. If everyone waits for another to do something, everyone will drown. Someone will have to do something for a chance of survival. Right?
Now extend the metaphor to your community or your country where a number of big holes have opened up in the bottom. And there is no one plugging the holes. In fact, there are a lot of people enlarging them instead. All of you are intelligent. What do you see as the likely outcome?
The point I am making is the following. Most societies have their share of activists motivated by all sorts of reasons. Their presence makes it possible for the majority to go on with their day to day engagements confident that even if they do nothing the boat would be taken care of and steered to safety
Pakistan, unfortunately, is not in that happy predicament which is why we cannot afford to be a community of consumers. A sufficient number of us have to take on a more active role to ensure we have the kind of future in which normal lives with friends and families can be lived and enjoyed.
You can, of course, choose the domain of your activism but let me be specific about what I am looking for at this time so as to provide a concrete possibility for consideration.
As some of you know, I have been interested in cities, especially small cities, for a long time (1, 2). There are two major reasons for this interest. First, more than half the world’s population now lives in urban locations and half of that urban population lives in medium and small-sized cities. So, from an economic perspective, small cities should have a major role to play in national development. What exactly is that role?
Second, a significant amount of extremist sentiments is coming out of small cities. So, from a sociological perspective, something is going on there that we need to understand. At this time, small cities are so little studied in South Asia that we cannot even hazard intelligent guesses without doing a lot more investigative work (3).
But what kind of work do we need to do? I realized quite some time back that we cannot follow the traditional modality of top-down studies carried out to publish papers or submit reports to government departments. In Pakistan, these can help one obtain academic promotions or earn consulting fee but they do not lead to any meaningful policy interventions in the small cities themselves.
So, while we have done some work (4), our approach has been very different. We have engaged with residents of small cities to listen to their narratives, we have visited the small cities to understand the context of those narratives, we have identified issues that are common to many of the cities, and we have tried to form an association of small cities that could articulate their needs and demands from a common platform.
At the same time, we hope to create an information and communication exchange that would connect activists in each of these cities so that they could learn from each other and mobilize together. In short, we aim to energize an urban movement from below that would highlight the importance of small cities, articulate their social and developmental needs, and give them political clout by facilitating a collective voice and platform for their residents.
We have completed quite a lot of the essential work and we now have the structure to move to the next stage of linking the residents of the cities in which we have carried out the pilot phase of our work. What we need now is a core set of lead metropolitan activists who would help to trigger the movement in the cities.
As part of the launch apparatus we have two websites (5, 6) that are designed to advance the movement. While I am very pleased that the membership of these sites has continued to grow, I am disappointed that most members have opted for the role of consumers of the type I mentioned at the outset. They passively read what is added to the sites and hopefully add to their knowledge.
But that is not what we expect of them at this stage. We need at least some of the members to be our lead metropolitan activists. So, for example, if we have a member from Jhang we expect that member to identify a few dynamic residents of Jhang, say a student, a college teacher, a lawyer, a labor representative, and a health worker. We expect the member to communicate to this group what we are trying to do, to familiarize them with the instruments we have developed, and to instruct them in how to become active participants in the information exchange as representatives of their cities.
Once the association of small cities becomes reasonably active we can think of hosting a physical get-together so the activists can get to know each other better and decide for themselves where next to take the movement. At that time, we will step back from our pro-active role and just become an advisory body that would provide the technical or research input the association might require for the advocacy of its interests.
This is an ambitious and exciting agenda but without this kind of an inclusive and collective effort we cannot hope to inject some much-needed dynamism in our society. And, for this to happen, we need some people to put up their hands and assume the role of activists for a limited period of time.
I hope you will agree with me that we are not in the position of all being a community of information consumers only. Some of us have to act on that information if we are to ensure the future that we desire.
Hence, this appeal to you to contribute a few volunteers. There are enough of you to take turns so that this does not become overly onerous. In fact, it can become a very exciting opportunity to learn about the economy and sociology of the country to which we belong and to contribute to a positive transformation of its future.
Please identify yourself as a volunteer and get in touch.
- What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Original
- What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Update
- Perspectives on Small Cities: Part 1 and Part 2 – Presentation at Cornell University
- Small Cities Initiative: Listen and Learn Phase. – Study
- Small Cities Initiative – Facebook Page
- Small Cities – Website