I’m in Karachi after two and a half years of Pandemic gridlocks, and it’s been a whirlwind of a homecoming. Besides grappling with the major and minor curveballs that my micro and macro environments tend to throw at me off and on, I have also been able to indulge in some nostalgia: found my little book in which I’ve put down a few poems that I’d written in my teens. Even at that tender age, external stimuli hit hard! 😅 Below is one of my verses from my adolescent days.
I was walking through the woods one day With my thoughts in a turmoil Oblivious to nature was I - To the trees and the grass and the soil
I was attempting to decipher The meaning of strife and war Was it political agitation For the enforcement of a law?
Or was it as I believed the cause Of a moment’s disarray Of a value old as age itself - The simple Human Way
Where was the compassion that Bespoke the worth of one? Had the shield of dignity and love Been replaced by the gun?
Where was the pride in good deeds Where was the humility? Was everything really shrouded by The veil of frailty?
Frailty of causes And frailty of sense Had the once true noble values Become a mere pretence?
I was looking for the answers I was seeking a refuge From the grief and the confusion that Had overcome me like a deluge
It was then that I heard whispering The soil, the grass, the trees “You already have the answers Now you only have to see
When man was made a brother Unto the other one The moulding of a sacred Tradition had begun
So when war threatens to break this bond Their spirit shall hold them fast For that was always meant to be Unto the very last”.
US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and now a Taliban Government
It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.
Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man like Zia Ul Haq, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.
Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.
And now in a not entirely shocking but surprising turn of events, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. I’m not even sure anymore as to how appropriate the term “fallen” is in this case. After all, for 40 years, the country was propped up by mostly US military might and the puppet government that it supported. The powers that be, were quite completely ignorant of the real dynamics of the region: the centuries old tribalism, the multicultural factionalism. They were attempting to colour Afghanistan with the same brush that they have done in almost all of their other failed military endeavours of the 20th and 21st centuries. They were trying to homogenise the country; bring it to heel via a myopic vision that they thought was applicable to all the tribes, all the different kinds of people that made up the rich social and cultural fabric of Afghanistan. They failed, utterly and completely.
The below are a few key reasons for this most recent watershed moment in the country:
⁃ The average Afghan, (mean age: 20 years) having lived in a state of mostly active war, has developed an innate distrust of its sham government and its “enablers” (the West). They see the country as having been taken over, “invaded” by the US; and that has never been a sustainable state of affairs for the proud, sovereign Afghan people. And so, after 40 years of occupation, many in the beleaguered country preferred to opt for the dystopic, ultra orthodox approach of the Taliban since it also brought with it freedom from the invading forces. There was thus, a perfect storm created at the centre of which was the formidable desire for self determination.
⁃ The last 20 years have purportedly seen billions of dollars siphoned towards the Afghan cause. But when you have a country with no economy to speak of, no development and no nation building, the aid tends to find its way into the local pockets of the crooked and the powerful. And so it has been with Afghanistan with very little of the aid finding its way to the communities at large. Investing in building trade and industry would have been the optimal way to make real, effective inroads into the lives of the people. But that requires sitting down with the people, understanding them and working with them at grass root levels. That was never the agenda of the US. They wanted things done their way backed by the full force of their military might. Which brings me to the third point.
⁃ The average Afghan also saw that there was massive corruption in the government, among the very people who were supposed to lead them out of their war-driven poverty. Over the past 40 years, a complete and utter trust deficit had grown between the people and their “infidel-supported” puppet government – there was no fifth, sixth or twentieth chance left to give to their leaders; no opportunities for do-overs by their government. And so, the exit of the allied troops also served as the inflection point for their exploitative, demoralised leadership to be overturned. That the Taliban were doing the overturning was inconsequential. At the end of the day, they in all their perverse, radical glory, were still their fellow citizens, their brothers in arms.
And so it was, that on a balmy August day in 2021, Afghanistan was once again a free country. Bizarre as it sounds given who freed the proud Afghan people, that for them, is the inalienable truth.
The million dollar question now is how the brand new Afghan sovereignty will be managed by the Taliban leadership. It is important to note that they as a faction, are also older, wiser and more cognisant of global norms, ethics and diplomacy. They are aware also that they are no longer a rag tag militia group hiding in caves and living on the edge with no clear and sustainable vision or mission. They have been catapulted against all odds (or indeed because of them!) into the role of the leaders of their homeland. They know they’ve outgrown the plundering, riotous band of robbers and murderers that they were. They know they now have the formidable task of the leadership and governance of almost 40 million people. The Taliban are aware that almost overnight they have morphed into statesmen.
The million dollar question beckons again: how are the Taliban going to go about being national leaders who will also be welcome on International platforms? A state that other countries will engage with on trade, diplomacy, military/defense, intelligence and foreign aid? They know they cannot exist as a dystopian island unto themselves; even if they have the inclination, they don’t have the means.
The early glimmerings in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover indicate that it can go either way: their spokesperson is articulate and willing to share their points of view and to be questioned by mainstream international media. So far, the sound bites have been almost liberal by historical Taliban standards.
While I, as a woman, would not want to be a citizen of the newly independent state, I would still pause before summarily dismissing the new regime. We are living in strange times where no nation can lay claim anymore to being more righteous than the rest and presume to lead the natives out of their ignorance (everyone now has public skeletons in their History closets). These are also times where global ethics and policies are constantly being reshaped by the voices of the people of the world as they look for the truth; as they learn to separate the chaff from the grain on the information super highway.
While everything right now points to the country being pulled back into the dark ages, while our knee jerks are all about reclaiming the land back from the Taliban, we need to pause. We need to wait and watch. Like I said, we are living in strange times and while we continue to champion human rights, to raise our voices for the basic freedoms of every citizen everywhere, we still need to be aware that the one size of the western democratic ideal doesn’t fit all.
Closer to home, countries like Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran have a direct stake in this new equation since any militant activity will tend to spillover into these countries either in the form of terrorism or refugees or both as has been the unfortunate case in Pakistan. Now is the critical juncture where all the allies (and the adversaries!) in the region need to come together to make this transition in the Afghan government as seamless as possible, while also ensuring that the small steps made towards modernization and individual emancipation in the country over the last few years, are not completely decimated by the new orthodox Islamist regime.
We are such a plagued nation, full of dichotomies and hypocrisies. Respectability, patience and civility have forsaken our national psyche a long, long time ago.
And so we blunder and bluster and we barge ahead with nothing to show for our high-handedness but a spiritually depleted image of the crescent moon and star … It is heartbreaking to think this is the best we can be.
The very essence of our religion continues to be hijacked by those that want to keep pulling us into the dark ages. In the midst of all the inane interpretation and bizarre commentaries around the tenets of our religion, we have gone from one abysmal depth to the next. Each “moral incidence” so much more ludicrous than the last, that we have as a nation quite absolutely forgotten real empathy, intelligence and our sense of community. We have forgotten what it means to be a part of a religion that is innately compassionate, tolerant and peaceful. Case in point: our freakish position and regulation around Blasphemy. A colonial construct, it never existed in its current form and fury in the predominantly Muslim ruled subcontinent before the nineteenth century. And then, it was signed into law to ensure that the differences between the 2 major religions were highlighted rather than the similarities which had bound them into a relatively homogenous society before then. That served to keep the two communities divided and separate which suited our occupiers in their machiavellian Game of Thrones.
Since then and more than in any other Muslim country, the Blasphemy Law has become a chip on our collective Pakistani shoulders that we love to invoke when we want to remind ourselves of who’s the boss. What we fail to take into account is that in a country that is 97% Muslim, we are overhwlemingly The Boss. Our religion is not under threat; we are not a minority trying to keep our vulnerable communities safe. We are the ones in control and therefore the ones obligated to show compassion and forebearance. Instead, we have as a society and a State created a monster in the name of religion.
The truth of the matter is that Islam has not laid down any set definition or punishment for Blasphemy. (Remember… Islam started out as a compassionate, progressive and tolerant religion). As such there are as many interpretations of the word and the laws governing it as there are scholars and Muslim countries. And yet, we in Pakistan have ensured that we make the ultimate brutal joke of the concept, punishing only those who are the least capable of defending themselves – the poor and the minorities. Our short history is rife with shamefully copious examples.
There is much to be done on the socio-religious fronts in our besieged country to render our communities more humane and inclusive. There is also ample opportunity to mend our policies where they are the most cruel and unusual; and our Blasphemy Laws are as good a place as any to start.
And so it was on another quite uneventful day that the PM of our besieged nation finally put in his two bits to exacerbate our social dilemma just a little more. The tenuous progress that we had made, all things considered (the “Aurat” [Women’s] March, the now audible Moderate social segment lobbying for change, the little everyday triumphs of the Pakistani woman) were pushed right out the window with a single damning sentence. With one unthinking response, Imran Khan gave license to 120 million of the nation’s denizens to judge, demean and assault the other 120 million based on nothing more than macho whims and fancies.
Still, I’m sincerely hoping it was a primal knee jerk reaction not entirely thought through (our patriarchy is copiously given to that). The alternative would mean that he’s been well and truly conditioned by the right wing brigade outside of his home; and by the crystal balls of a soothsaying spouse inside.
If I put aside all emotions and outrage (and believe me, that takes some doing in this case) and analyse it for what it is, it still comes across as grossly irresponsible coming from a Head of Government. More so, because so many of us who believe in a better, more progressive, more prosperous Pakistan have consistently jumped to his defense over the past not entirely scintillating 3 years. When his naysayers condemned him; when his detractors demonised him; when other global leaders criticized him, there was a bulwark of us who stood by him, defended him and made excuses for him. After all, he was a newbie in politics and he had the right to make his share of mistakes in matters of governance and international diplomacy.
But this…. this has really been heart breaking. Disappointing. Infuriating. Like the tragic submersion of the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. One would think that for someone who’s been married 3 times, who consistently exercised his right to seek the most optimal mate for himself; one who obviously appreciated a woman who knew her mind, was aware of her rights and who lived by those credos, would be more sensitive to the adversities that the average woman suffers in Pakistan. Whether it is exercising her right to education, to working, to her freedom, to her basic safety, to making every effort to be the fullest and best version of herself. Instead, Imran Khan behaved like the archetypal patriarchal male who’s been caught with his shalwar down and has to somehow deflect the blame elsewhere.
The truth is, there is still no one else out there to honestly attend to the matters of the State. Here the qualifying word is Honesty. In our nation mired as it is in subversive political antics and corruption; where every preceding head of State has somehow managed to defraud, snatch and steal from the ever suffering public, IK was an honest to goodness breath of fresh air. We the women have, through the unceasing trials and tribulations perpetrated by the men in and around our circles of life, learnt a wisdom that has also been our survival tactic: to look at the larger picture, put aside even monumental grudges and march on. That’s what makes us formidable but also vulnerable. So while we march on Mr.PM, we also look to you to do your duty: Apologize publicly to the 120 million women of the country that you’re leading. Not because we would wither away without those words of redress, but because we want to continue to feel relatively safe in the land we call home.
It seems like the great American nation has been roundly cursed with the evil eye; like the hexes and insidious incantations of overtly and covertly jealous nations are finally beginning to take effect. Indeed, the star spangled banner is looking increasingly tattered as it waves in the buffeting, tearing winds of change.
Or it could be that Uncle Sam is finally reaping as he has sowed for much of the last 200 years. Demon seeds of racism, inequality and toxic individualism are now putting out chokehold tendrils as the country grapples with not only the pandemic but also a social fabric that appears to be coming apart at the seams.
The road rage episode and the mass shootings, 3 tragic incidences in rapid succession, appear to be the tip of a now grumbling, grousing iceberg. At least two of the three acts of terrorism were perpetrated by young men barely out of adolescence. It isn’t difficult to form a reasonable hypothesis about what has happened. Here’s my informed conjecture:
The 4 year Trump presidency unleashed an era of brute honesty that was heretofore unprecedented. Contrary to the popular sentiment rife amongst his detractors, he was not the cause of the social mayhem that is playing out in America; he was in fact that pariah magician that reveals the deepest, darkest secrets of his trade to the masses. And so, with grandiose fanfare (aided in no small measure by the force of his absurdly narcissistic personality) he exposed the festering underbelly of the great American nation.
The American dream was shown up for what it really was – a utopian ideology pandering exclusively to the whitest and the most dogmatic denominator of the citizenry. With the raw truth finally seeing the light of day, social chaos was bound to follow. The pandemic of course hasn’t made it easier, innervated by the stunningly ridiculous outrage of the average American at having to take precautions for the greater good of the community. What the whole world is seeing is an America that is no more than a loose amalgamation of individuals who are living together as long as they are not expected to sacrifice their space, their time or their right to go maskless wherever they please. It appears that the concept of community in its true sense has dissolved into defiant, impenitent individualism quite some time ago.
The ones hit the hardest by this disruption of everyday civility and tolerance are the infirm elderly and the hormonal young adults. The former have little in terms of strength or capacity to fight off the virus, biological and social. The latter however, on the threshold of newfound independence and the unlimited freedom America promises, are flexing their muscles with the brute abandon of untrained warriors. With no outlet for their bursting world of expectations, these hapless young men didn’t entertain second or third thoughts about their actions. Call it frustration, guns for the taking, or an explosive coming of age, the fact is that they felt empowered, indeed emboldened enough to kill. They went down the path affording them the greatest adrenaline rush to appease their heightened agitation with the suddenly stifling world around them. Can you blame them for their actions? Not if this was an ethical society that had accepted its failings as a protector and nurturer of its people. But like so many other morally failed and failing nations, America too will blame the messenger (the hapless killer) for the insidious last note he delivered. A note crafted and etched into the social fabric by a successive line of self serving politicians masquerading as statesmen (Ladies: thy counteracting wisdom is still in short order). And so, the Machiavellian state passes on its treacherous buck to its citizens, making them pay for its moral bankruptcy.
While psychologists and sociologists may have a plethora of whys, wherefores and what-to-dos on the current American condition, there is one thing that stands out like a sore thumb. A simple soreness that if healed, can stop the gangrenous decay from befouling the rest of the body politic. Basiccompassion and a sense of community. If there’s one thing that we in the global backwaters with our emotionally replete cultures know, it’s a deep sense of community: a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together**. These are simple overtures of our humanity that have got lost in the grand American pursuit of individual freedom.
Now more than ever, the Union will benefit from reaching out and offering psychological support to the young and the old, the marginalised and those living on the peripheries of society. I’m not speaking of divisive, half baked gun control laws or grand multi trillion dollar conciliatory, tranquilizing, short-lived plans of rehabilitation and reparation. I’m referring to something as simple as the mushrooming of wayside safe havens/ Conversation Kiosks where people can come in and just talk through the turmoil in their hearts and their minds. The vestigial need to connect, to be acknowledged, to see oneself as part of a bigger, better, vibrant whole, are essential in identifying and addressing agitation, loneliness and hopelessness – all three, treacherous inciters of discontent and violence. Getting the nation to open up at grassroot levels, having them exorcise the demons of alienation and social marginlization, giving them a sense of communal purpose appears to be the likely and unsurprisingly elemental panacea to the great American unrest.
And so, my prayer for the socially and psychologically battered people of the United States is for them to find the strength to finally accept one another for who they are; to unlearn the hate for those who don’t look like them and see the beauty in diversity. For everyone to finally feel like part of a bigger community, not the black, not the brown not the white denominators, but the American community. It doesn’t have to be pitch perfect; it just has to be real and it has to be taught to be aspirational. And with that, there will be ever greater hope for true peace and prosperity for all.
**Quote from McMillan and Chavis (1986) “Sense of Community”
Earlier this year, after decades, the island of Sri Lanka welcomed the Pakistani cricketing legend of yore. Thankfully, the political mantle is still too new to disenchant the international fan base. Not that I think he is a corrupt bag of officious bones in the manner peculiar to many of his South Asian compatriots and indeed, his very own predecessors. No, he’s just a little soft in the head; a natural affliction, I have come to believe, when one decides to not go down the oft trodden path of political corruption and depravity. The cerebral mush of course, leads to an entirely different set of bureaucratic disasters. The long and short of it is that Imran Khan’s heart is in the right place but his brain is an addled brew of eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog*... And so, even with the best of intentions, the empire double doubles, toils and troubles!* But i digress… and can you blame me! Like everyone else in our beleaguered country, I too am a devoted armchair warrior and am wont to vent.
So why did our PM Imran Khan visit Sri Lanka?
What an interesting question, full of intrigue and the promise of riveting conspiracy theories (rubbing my hands gleefully and wanting to quote more eccentric old world verse!)
So here’s my take on it. The global power structure is gradually changing, and the South Asian bloc wants to be ready to play its part. Colonially-seeded geographical antagonism is seeming more and more irrelevant and incongruous as our unipolar world dithers on its North American weighted axis. As the US struggles with its burgeoning domestic issues, its inconvenient truths, it seems less and less likely to hold the moral mantle of global leadership. And when that dignity, skin deep though it may be, is shaken, the fall of the rest of the edifice is not far behind. No one wants to be told what to do by someone who can’t keep peace in their own backyard. And so, when some little but worthy nation somewhere tells Uncle Sam to mind his own business, we need to be ready to play our parts in catalysing the new equilibrium. Who those game-changing tRICksters* will be, is anyone’s guess. What is pertinent is that success will depend on there being some semblance of peace and harmony between the mighty neighbours of the Eastern hemisphere. And that peace has to begin ground up; with the smaller warring nations politely brought to heel first, so to speak. And so it was that on a swarthy February day, in the golden arms of the south Asian tear drop island, Pakistan was brought into the loop of the Global Reset. Because having two bickering nuclear armed neighbours in the region is generally not favourable to the efficacy of grand plans. And so, a meeting of the two estranged sisters, India and Pakistan, was arranged.
It is also interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Pak PM’s visit, the citizenry was treated to rather strategic Indo-SL combined military aerobatics, showcasing the battling might of mostly the Indian airforce. A polite but stratospherically overt reiteration that while there is some appetite for absurd but fit-to-current-form alliances, it’s best not to forget who the Saber Holdersare and who the Saber Rattlers are.
All this of course is a funny-feeling-in-the-gut conjecture; the waxing eloquent of conspiracy theories. But these days, when truth has so often been stranger than fiction, the civic mingling of sworn enemies is not such a far fetched ideal. The proof of the gesture will of course be in how the two neighbours deal with each other going forward. (Watch out for startlingly long periods of peace along usually tempestuous/ skirmish-ridden borders).
Wade Davis’ words are a reverberating mantra for our times when he said, “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”.
Let’s hope America continues to scratch the surface of its domestic/ social inequities, leaving little power vacuums across the globe. Let’s also hope that the Prodigal Sons of the East (daughters are in scarce order!) rise to the occasion. When the time comes, it will take a concerted effort of going against the grain of everything we know to be our patriotic truths, to seed a new epoch.
*eye of newt.... verse quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth *tRICksters: the RIC in the word stands for the 3 global powerhouses of Russia, India and China.
In the spirit of well-meaning satire, a droll little tribute to our visiting PM, Imran Khan. You’re still our best hope.
The flags are flying at full mast The PM’s coming to town The green and white, oh what a sight For diplomatic, foreign affairs of the heart.
He’s also got the go-ahead To traverse through enemy space The Indian stratosphere, oh dear oh dear What if he disappears before arriving here! A conundrum, a tragedy, a veritable geo-political disgrace.
But when all is said and done and he brings His cooperative politicking to town Then if things go his way or the way of the Modi Is superfluous as he leaves some of his aura behind That persona, that charm, oh what a man! It is Love Actually* that i feel for Imran Khan. The icon, the enigma, the sportsman turned statesman of Pakistan.
(Yes, with sugary sweetness this verse is replete, But I hope you can read the gentle comic relief)
And so I end this tribute with a nod and a cheer, You’ve got your hands full our PM dear, So while you’re trippin’ around, This erstwhile seaside town Do get some R&R with Lanka’s favourite Arrack and beer.
A gender-optimal philosophy for more effective, ethical and harmonious global leadership
I’ve been thinking. Not quite in the usual staring into space for a moment or four, while wispy little disconnected thoughts do a bit of a foxtrot around the noggin. But more akin to the aftermath of a persistent intuition, a nagging logic that marches around the brain until one’s forced to contend with it. And so this opinion piece has come stridently into the light of day, hoping to give some pause for thought, or at the very least, to become part of the endless, reverberating ether of information.
World Leadership. That cunning, convoluted beast that has taken on a form that neither the gods of war (NATO) nor the cormorants of peace (the UN) nor any semblance of a half way evolved human ethic would have ever envisioned for it. From hiding in its dank, dark cave because some post facto stab of conscience made it scurry back, it now proudly, fearlessly, openly dons the mantle of bigotry and apathy. It struts about our borders, spies into our lives and tosses a western grenade when neighbours become too peaceful. That beast has to be fed and war is its nutriment of choice.
I don’t want to go on a prolonged impassioned whinge about the state of our lives and indeed our very species as the Cognocentibus – the original Intelligent Beings that have somehow gone awry. That understanding and knowledge now is like organized religion: after thousands of years of wrangling with querulous belief systems, everyone knows what there is to know, yet there is power in creating ever new vacuums of faith and filling them with ever more profitable doctrines of fire and brimstone. And so it is with the way we behave with one another across our planet. We know the ultimate panacea is some semblance of peace and equality for all; but that’s no fun when you’re riding the Cock Horse to Banbury Cross* and can partake of over USD 90 trillion dollars* of global riches on the way.
So what am i really getting at?
A changed world order. I won’t say new; that would be naive and ideological and by those very facts, impossible to achieve. But i will say, modernised, reconditioned, improved. Here’s what I believe will at the very least, begin to bring about some viability, some sanity and some heart into our lives.
–No MAN over the age of 65 should run for the office of President or Prime Minister. More and more we see how the patriarchal septuagenarians and their seniors have doggedly held on to mores and codes which are not only outright dogmatic and sexist, but increasingly at odds with mainstream thought and ethics. The barely veiled misogyny and racism in the hearts of the fagged and ageing US congressmen are a sputtering but compelling beacon for other similarly inclined world leaders. And it was difficult to miss Japan’s 83 year old ex PM, Mori’s absurdly sexist comment made recently in his capacity as the 2020 Olympics Head https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/12/tokyo-2020-chief-yoshiro-mori-resigns-over-sexist-comments . It is time for these seniors to sit back, dated ideals and all, and let the global human equation finally begin to re-evolve.
–At least 40% of all senior political appointees to be women. We have some absolutely scintillating examples of wise and wonderful female leadership: Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia to name a few. However, women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 21 countries, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader. As of October 2019, the global participation rate of women in national-level parliaments was less than 25%, with only 14 countries having achieved 50 per cent or more women in cabinets(unwomen.org). More than two-thirds of these countries have applied gender quotas – either legislated candidate quotas or reserved seats – opening space for women’s political participation in national parliaments. With some concerted effort, these indices can be made more representative of global male/female population ratios. Indeed, it is high time for women to resolutely take the other half of the global leadership reins.
–Head of State tenures to be capped at 5 years at one time, with the opportunity to run again after at least 5 years, for no more than another half a decade. This will serve to discourage self serving oligarchs and quell dynastic politics. The shortness of the tenure and with it, the duly limited opportunity for power-mongering will mean that only the serious nation builders will apply for the job of running a country. This will, in time, spearhead the creation of a new brand of Statesmen and women who will safeguard the interests of all their people while leading their nations to peace and prosperity.
–Every Executive Government position holder and parliamentarian to undergo Executive courses on World History covering the last 500 years, with special emphasis on how their particular region has impacted or was impacted by the events therein. This would entail essential courses on colonialism, slavery, the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries and their respective aftermaths. A specially designated, international body of scholars will keep the content of these courses true and relevant to the times. This simple yet critical geo-political prescript will help to bring about global baseline knowledge and sensitivity around some essential truths that are still dogging the socio-cultural fabrics of so many nations. Reparation and healing will then begin top down, via an informed, “woke” and upstanding world leadership.
There is much to be said for the sadly dismal distribution of global wealth and the vulgarity of the Billionaire concept in our current times. But that will require more than just a shift of quotas and governance standards as these are the very themes considered as stalwart markers of success and happiness. It will take a few generations of unlearning to erase the greed that is now inherently a part of our DNA. And for that reason, I am not putting it down as a current critical imperative; the prescribed hopeful/ logical/ nuanced global administrative change will gradually take care of it.
In the aftermath of the last 4 years and indeed post the apocalyptic past year of the Pandemic, I’m hoping, like so many others, that our humanity, the simple homogeneity of our species and Better Sense prevails. I’m hoping that by embracing the best parts of our human collective, we can finally create a better world for ourselves and for our children; that we can finally be more than just ghosts in our dated, jaded, cracking shells.
*Ghost(s) in the Shell: title inspiration from the American adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s original 1989 manga/ Japanese anime of the same name. *”Ride a cock horse...”: part of an old English nursery rhyme *USD 90 trillion: the approximate USD value of global GDP as of 2020
2020 has induced a knee jerk reaction all its own. The instinct to be glad to have seen the back of it as it goes careening into the past, swept along by our combined tsunami of emotions, is palpable in the various conversations had around it. I have tended to hesitate making my voice one with the rest of the inflamed clamour. I have tended to warp speed away from the present to take a far and away, Space Odyssey-like view of the last 300 odd days, and counting. If you ask me then, it is almost like a universal recalibration of the important things in life, presented to us in cosmic fable form; Aesop and Arthur C. Clarke hitting more than a few psycho-social home runs in the timorous expanse of our current life-space.
I have a couple of friends, lovely people, who, simply put, have been bested by life mentally and emotionally. Who have, over the years of “living a productive life” been inextricably caught up in undefined little crags of disquietude – one could call it manic depression on its bad days. Occasional bouts of frustration and anxiety have, over time, taken permanent space in their psyches. So insidious and sly has this psychosis been, that its backlash of exasperation, rage and the unrelenting need to fit in just so, are now synonymous with the spirit of enterprise, success and community. Caught up as we all are in this crazy limbo between life and the final farewell, the essential catharsis comes in the shape of frequent and voluble sounding off on one another. We rave and we rant about the government’s woeful ineptitude, the kilos that just keep piling on, the hijacking of our religion by the crazed Right and the lack of a glass of wine when you need it most to get just a little comfortably numb. We are, one and all, veritable shrinks; roles we have inadvertently taken on, given the stigma (and cost!) attached to the clinical psychological recourse. But when we’re talking of a chronic mental pandemic, everyone pitches in to do their bit in braving a dear one’s purgative assault on their senses. We absorb until our own cups brimmeth over, and then, we return friendly fire!
The truth is, we have all been existing in some version of a survival mode.
And then the pandemic struck.
As it took root and raged, these friends, through no impetus of their own or the social and professional structures they so meticulously occupied, were suddenly left to themselves. Their ties to the lives they’d lived, severed for a few months. And so, left with no choice, they sat back and healed. The transformation has been stunning. They appear happier, calmer and at peace – at least for now. In all its perverse, blood thirsty ravagement, the Pandemic has somehow also helped to heal in the simplest, most unexpected way – by enforcing long bouts of time-out on us in the (mostly!) safe havens of our abodes, enabling us to once again understand and appreciate what it is like for the mind, heart and soul to realign.
I can make the above keen-eyed observation if you will, with some level of distance from the malady we call a “Successful Life” because 5 years ago, i decided to give a bit of a flying kick to what had become my reality – work, workout, dinner and bed – ad infinitum. I may even have, over time, transcended in some modest way, to a higher plane of mindfulness and centredness: Each new day is a blessing, I value my health, I cherish my peace of mind and the sum total of my acquisitive aspirations now boils down to experiences rather than material appropriations.
This past year of being forced to sit back and smell the Araliya*, has been just about long enough to bring us as a species to that critical crossroad. The question before us is that when we do re-embark on the bandwagon of industry and undertaking, how do we proceed from there? Do we continue to live with each day blending insipidly, blandly and sometimes aggressively, even militantly into the next, underscored always by burgeoning bank balances and power mongering? Or do we embrace the timorous quality of life itself and the need to re-evaluate and make it really worthwhile?
For my part, I have this instinctive gut feel. Gone are the days (or very nearly) when bosses evaluated one’s productivity as being proportional to the number of hours that were spent in the hallowed Halls of Slog, empty and fruitless though many of those hours might have been. The new generation workforce impelled by the way our conventional workplaces and work lives have been altered over the past year, is looking for ever smarter, ever shorter, ever more flexible ways to get the job done. In another decade or so, the look and feel of Human Capital will itself undergo a sea change: it will be about new ideologies, epiphanies and insights rather than the sum total of man hours spent on a project, that will determine success. The workforce will be intrepid, and driven on a whole new level – explorers of the very frontiers of the human equation.
And that universal affliction – that global psychosis brought on by the bullheadedness of the 21st century that our lives are so woefully beset by – that may just finally find its nemesis in a post pandemic Feierabend.
“To create the new, we must first de-create the old, and the reality of de-creation is as strong as the reality of creation”**
Feierabend: A German term meaning the time of leisure and relaxation between the end of the work day and bedtime. It denotes a connection to one’s core, of family, friends, hobbies and ones mindspace. In the context of this feature, it means a whole new ideology of how we gauge progress and success as we more fully embrace our humanity.
*Araliya: The colloquial term for the fragrant Frangipani or Plumeria flower/ tree
**Quote by Helen Vendler, an American literary critic and Porter University’s Professor Emerita at Harvard University.
Customer Experience Managementand Training are probably the organizational success streams that are closest to my heart. Partly because they are usually relegated to the realms of “ticking off the Regulatory checkboxes“ and the “good to have but not the most critical corporate exertions”; but also because i have spent the bulk of my corporate life across 3 separate organisations, methodically trying to disprove the above mindsets. I have met with mostly success as my team and i have doggedly gone after service, process and knowledge breakdowns and shown time and again how, when left unaddressed, they unequivocally cause the enterprise to copiously bleed out customers and revenue.
The service industry is a unique ecosystem mainly because it is the sum total of the experiences and perceptions that its customers take away from it. The fact that it does not deal with delivering any tangible goods or products like a washing machine or an Xbox, means that there is no immediate gratification following a sale, regardless of the intangible/ impalpable awareness of that sale. In the service industry, it is all about the experience as the customer walks away solely with an impression of her hotel reservation or the perception of how easily (or otherwise) her term deposit was fixed. The service industry then, is the merchant of a cumulative array of commerce-driven emotions if you will.
It is no surprise then, that I have always found Customer Experience Management, especially of the financial services variety, a constantly intriguing thing. The service and process culture of any organisation represents its great underbelly; and if there are discontented rumblings therein, the whole corporate beast is innately compromised.
How does Management care for this emotionally and experientially complex creature – the Organization – that is both, its ward and its sponsor?
Via a robust Customer Experience Management and Training manifesto that is tailored to address the unique challenges of that particular organization.
Customer Experience Management: Right from the start, have a robust customer experience measurement and service recovery capability in place. In my experience, some variant of the below four-fold approach, depending on Organizational culture, size and life cycle, has proven to be the most comprehensive, simple and effective:
1- A Service health barometer: This translates to an all-encompassing and continuous gauge on the pulse of your customers. Emotions and therefore experience satisfaction are as fickle as the best laid plans. What is good for today may not be optimal in 3 months time. VoC* adroitness enables the organization to stay on top of what is relevant to our customers both in terms of current pain points, USPs* and future product and process goals. This VoC is mostly externally driven via customer-initiated feedback and complaints and (for bigger organisations) also internally driven, via company-solicited product and service feedback channels.
2- A Service measurement index: Once the feedback is received from across the external and internal channels, highlight the top 5 – 10 areas of customer concern, delight and aspirations to be managed as below:
Build service measurement metrics for the areas requiring improvement to identify process, people and knowledge bottlenecks. Institute a regimen to gauge the ongoing health of these areas post a remedying intervention.
Actively share the USPs with the product and service teams. Build metrics around the unique selling propositions and measure performance albeit on a less frequent basis to ensure they remain healthy and delivering.
Ensure that the customer-identified product and service objectives/ aspirations are made a part of product steering committee meetings to discuss their viability and efficacy vis a vis overall satisfaction and returns.
This measurement and action cycle is not a one-time exercise but a continuous loop to ensure the organization always stays abreast of its issues while proactively safeguarding and growing its customer and revenue base.
3- Process and product Optimization: This is a critical next step to the bottlenecks emanating from the VoC and the Service measurement metrics. Without it, the CE cycle is like a toothless tiger – all roar and no bite. This is by its singularly curative nature, the most laboriously and strategically challenging function. The battles on the improvement landscape can appear many and daunting. Let the VoC be your primary guide assisted by overarching management insight into identifying the improvements which would elicit the maximum bang for the buck in terms of impact on the bottom line.
The last point deserves a special mention all its own because of its substantial effect on the overall wellbeing of the organization. And that is Training or Learning.
4- Training: The issues emanating from the VoC and the service indicator assessments are of 2 main varieties: process/ pricing related (the hard bats) and knowledge/ behaviour related (the soft bats). Usually, the hard bats are the first to be addressed because they bring to the table, the necessary professional complexity if you will, to seem like the exclusive conduits to creating satisfied customers. A lot of times the real low hanging fruits are left to the more astute competition to harvest and feast on. Those fruits are the basic knowledge and behaviour gaps that end up not only creating customer dissatisfaction, but also circuitously lead to an increase in complaint volumes and service delivery re-work, as easily avoided misdemeanours pile up for remediation at best, or walk out the door with, often times, our silently detracting customers.
Some Shrewd Wisdom:if organisations spent half as many resources on addressing the knowledge gaps that are identified via their VoC streams as they do on full blown, overarching learning initiatives, they can cut their complaints by a third and increase satisfaction by over 30%.
These knowledge and behaviour gaps can be bifurcated into 2 main types:
The training needs that are more extensive and require a classroom setting to be delivered and learned.
The training needs that are quick and easy to fulfil and basically comprise of minor tweaks in the way the frontline staff interacts with the customer at the first point of contact of the service delivery. These are the FPOC* Quick Kills that make up about half of the training needs identified via the VoC. These are veritable process refinement gems and are all too often ignored or just genuinely never perceived, ironically, because they are so obvious. We in the corporate world do suffer from what I call the Penchant for the Highbrow, thus missing the Simplicity of the Sublime!
In conclusion, a strategically relevant Customer Experience and Learning program is a 360 degree protocol, starting and ending with the VoC. The fleshing out of the structure in between is what gives the enterprise its fangs and its claws to cut through corporate gristle and get to the heart of things that are central to the well being of the organization. It is no secret then, that a successful CE enterprise requires knowledge, passion, empathy and grit. The professional that i am today has a lot to do with my embodiment of these values as I, without omission, undertook the role of the resident “fixer upper”. It was also a dogged perseverance in finding solutions even in the midst of the most turbulent corporate maelstroms, that led to success.
*VoC: Voice of Customer feedback streams allowing for customer complaints and suggestions to be formally recorded and actioned.
*USP:A Unique Selling Proposition refers to the unique benefit exhibited by a company, service, product or brand that enables it to stand out from competitors.
*FPOC:First Point of Contact or the point when a particular service stream commences.
Too often, in the everyday throng of the corporate world, Management tends to lose sight of many of their star players. The race to better the bottom-line translates into a disproportionate recognition of the sales staff, who are bringing in the business. This imbalance is further exacerbated by the notorious bell curve that shapes most corporate performance appraisals: there are a limited number of distinctions that can be allotted and these are summarily assigned to the usual suspects.
While this system is great in the short term, it is unsustainable and damaging in the longer term. In the relentless competition for limited business, where the pie doesn’t grow as proportionately as the hands digging into it, it becomes a self-defeating endevour. That is because the robustness of the new business is not supported by a congruously adequate operational and service structure/ platform. This disparity translates into dissatisfaction, both internal and external, culminating finally into good staff and customers abandoning their loyalty to the organisation and the brand.
What, then, is a workable panacea to this conundrum?
Where the company is in an early growth phase, skewing your rewards structure towards the left to make it more sales driven, is in fact, a good approach. Based on the presumption that the basic operational and service infrastructure is already in place and functionaing, the objective then can predominantly be to mobilize new business.
Up to what point, then, can this skewed rewards structure be gainfully applied?
That strategic pivot needs to be meticulously defined as the acceptable number of complaints per 1000 customers or the Complaints Ratio. This will also define how the company aims to position itself in terms of a niche or mass market service provider or both. If you’re the former, then a complaints ratio between 5% and 7% will work; if you are catering to a more specific, smaller/ discerning subset of customers, then a complaints ratio of less than or equal to 1% should be the standard.
Right from the start, have a robust feedback system in place to not only capture customer driven complaints but also bank initiated VoC* streams. (I will go into more detail on Customer Experience systems in another blog post). To ensure that the business that your sales teams have so laboriously extracted from the market, remains within the realms of your brand, it is essential to define and keep in perspective the goalpost at which to recentre the rewards program of the company towards a more balanced sharing out of bonuses and compensations. This then, will be defined as the Tipping Point at which the company should regroup and review their performance enhancement techniques and payouts.
Talent Management: While the compensation and rewards system may be frontline-skewed depending on which part of its life cycle the organisation is at, there are other steps that can be taken to ensure internal organisational robustness. A key element here is talent management. This is a hybrid financial and non-financial/ psychological reward system that ensures the company retains its best and brightest even while it is predominantly focusing on business acquisition and growth. Enter the HR department and the Management Committee. These 2 entities will need to work in focused tandem to ensure the success of any talent management initiative. The modus operandi is simple:
–The top performers in every unit across the organisation need to be identified. This is your talent pool.
–An HRRM* needs to be designated to each of these individuals. These RMs will regularly (every quarter at least) engage with their professional wards to find out how they’re doing/ discuss skill set development opportunities/ identify possible new positions/ optimally manage expectations – basically a VoE* and staff development session.
–Each one from the talent pool is also assigned a Mentor who is a member of the Management Committee. They also meet regularly where the conversation is about aspirations/ life goals/ sharing of experiences – basically a Character and Ethics building session.
It is incredible how effective and motivating non-financial reward and recognition programs are. Human beings at their core, are an amalgamation of emotion and feeling. These psychological gestures of appreciation are sometimes more effective than even financial rewards and result in a thriving, loyal, market leading work force. Having said that, both financial and non-financial acknowledgment structures that are highly skewed towards just a few functions/ units, lose their temerity and effectiveness with time. ManCom* wisdom plays a big role in finding that right balance, at a given inflection/ change point in the life of the organization of keeping all their people feeling appreciated and happy to be a part of the brand.
Succession Planning: This element of the corporate rule book is not given half as much importance as it should be. I have seen a number of fabulously managed units/ companies fall to the wayside when the manager leaves. The culprit: poor to non existent succession planning and training. There are a couple of reasons for this inadvertent oversight: the first, mostly because it just is not on the company radar, which means there is no trickle down incumbency of this factor into performance appraisals. This also means that it usually doesn’t tend to happen and even if it does happen, it is haphazard and personality driven rather than systematic, continuous and goal oriented. The other reason has to do with our human emotions again – an insecurity about being challenged or even being outshone by the Second-in-command. This i have also witnessed and have seen the natural/ most probable successors to a job role, leave the organisation as they are sidelined and trivialised.
Again, a robust succession planning system needs to be in place to ensure the organisation does not fall into the rut of outsourcing most key positions or losing its essential human capital of promising/ talented one-downs.
It has now been over 6 years since i decided to take a sabbatical if you will, from my corporate career. I embarked on it more in the spirit of a healing process (life had thrown a few curveballs at me in 2012/13), rather than a wild abandonment of the work rigour, resulting precariously also, in the sudden and definitive staunching of a hitherto steady income!
Even so here i am, half a decade on, happier and probably somewhat healthier and wiser too! However, you can take a person out of the corporate halls of slog, but you can’t take the corporate exactitude out of the person. And so, i have over the last 5 years, approached all my experiences across the service industry spectrum, from the hospitality to the airline to the internet service providers with my customer experience hat adroitly perched upon my head. I have, quite a while ago, given up even the pretence of being a congenial, everyday customer with a heart full of forgiveness and a kind blurriness of mind reserved especially for appalling episodes of experiential breakdown. I notice everything and while i have made earnest efforts to not treat every service gaffe/ misdemeanour like it was committed by a flawlessly trained prodigy, i do pick my “service battles” from the point of view of identifying those likely eliciting the maximum bang for the buck. So while i won’t voice the mental angst of grossly delayed service followed by fumbling/ bumbling remedial efforts, I will respectfully opine on the myriad different withdrawal regulations that are applied to my NRFC* account – each disparate rule a tribute to its creative forger and executor of the day. The subsequent explanations to central bank auditors could make for a whole new banking science fiction genre; not to mention the plethora of post facto documentary and explanatory toil that I, the customer, would likely have to undertake to help the institution to regularise its stream of inadvertent but almost lovingly repeated foibles.
And so, to cut to the chase, i’ll go right to the helm of affairs – to the leadership of the organisation. That seat of power that can make or break the best and the worst of enterprises.
So what does a good Management Team do to create organisational success?
There are a few simple but utterly alchemical factors here that can convert even a seemingly jinxed piece of corporate enterprise into a decent success. I will explain each in successive blog posts.
Creating and Nurturing a Distinct Organisational Culture: There have been a couple of times, (twice for those inclined to use “couple” to mean a scattering!) where i have become part of a company culture where i felt like i was working for a home enterprise. The work environment being so disparate across the board that it ranged from an all out gestapo reenactment in one unit, to a space bubble with barely a shared ethos among its occupants, in another. And although the 2 units were highly dependent on each other in a particular product value chain, the twain barely ever met in purpose, harmony or delivery. Left unchecked, this work culture dissonance had added over a month to the end to end delivery turnaround time of the particular service. Complaints were rife; staff had been changed multiple times; bonuses were withheld. But despite the best of intentions, the issue stuck like the karmic backlash of a past life. Simply because there was no defined work culture, ethos or a shared Big Picture.
This work culture incongruity is a death knell for companies, especially in the service industry where, unlike in consumer goods producing FMCGs*, the end-user gratification is a sum total of their experience at that point in time with the organisation. Think of opening an account at a bank; your entire takeaway is nothing more than the knowledge that you have a new account in a particular bank underscored by the experience that accompanied that fact. Therefore, leaving the objectives of a mid-sized to large corporation undefined to its daily drivers and facilitators translates into the inevitable gross dilution of end-user experience that in time leaves nothing of the original/ intended USPs* of the company
Enter the dual magic of the Vision and Mission Statements*.These vessels allow management to clearly, concisely and effectively embody not only the existential purpose of the company; but also right to the T, what it means to be a part of the company as staff, customer, supplier and advertiser. (I’m personally not a big fan of shareholder stakes being vocalised in these statements). Building focused understanding, enthusiasm and energy behind these formal statements help to create and perpetuate a distinct company culture. People respond because by nature we are social creatures, and these statements of purpose then become the catalyst for nurturing a community of professionals with a clear unified end goal. A robust company culture though, is not a static thing. While the primary values remain unchanged (e.g. an FI’s* focus on technology, accessibility and financial security), the culture around those values is ever evolving to successfully accommodate the continuous diversity of its people, systems, customers and the external environment. The openness to change needs to be learnt/ imbibed at the get-go; imparted with veracity, in the very earliest of company orientation training programs.
Company management, the ManCom*, is the rightful custodian of the Vision and Mission statements; while every staff is the practical incumbent. In the best organisations, Management role models these values in visible ways to give them meaning, relevance, and to embed them into the DNA of the organisation at large. A game-changing organzational culture is one where its staff members are recognizable almost anywhere in the positivity of their bearing, attitude and pride of affiliation. For me, one such organisation was ABN AMRO bank in the late 90s into the mid 2000s in Pakistan. It was a poster child for hitherto unknown brands taking the market by storm; and continues to be a professional alma mater for so many even after it has ceased to exist in that particular market.
And so, a cohesive organisational culture which brings people together into a work community of purpose, is the first cornerstone of an organisation that successfully leads the charge and is able to cement its position as a leader in the industry.
*NRFC account: Non Resident Foreign Currency account
*FMCG: Fast Moving Consumer Goods
*USP: Unique Selling Proposition
*Vision and Mission statements: AMission Statementdefines the company’s business, itsobjectivesand its approach to reach thoseobjectives. AVision Statementdescribes the desired future position of the company. Elements ofMissionandVision Statementsare often combined to provide astatementof the company’s purposes, goals andvalues.
*FI: Financial Institution
*ManCom: corporate parlance for the Management Committee