Landing in Karachi today is the economic
equivalent of visiting a huge spaceship moments
before blastoff. You can feel the engines rumbling,
the ground shaking, and you only have a few seconds
to either jump off or be rocketed into the stratosphere.
What city has the fastest growing stock market in
the world? Karachi. What English language high school
consistently tops out the Scholastic Aptitude Test
(SAT) scores? Karachi Grammar School.
What country has the fastest growing cell phone
market? Pakistan. The statistics go on and on. Reading
statistics is no substitute for seeing a place.
So I stuffed my American preconceptions into a suitcase
and headed out from Seattle.
“These are the good times for Pakistan,”
said the Cathay Pacific manager in Los Angeles,
who is originally from Karachi. Decades of neglect
are eingcompensated (and in some cases overcompensated)
by the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Investment is pouring in from countries in the Persian
Gulf, fromIndia, and especially from China. China
is building a massive port in a Karachi suburb
that sits at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. China
sees Pakistan as a means to expand its market presence
throughout the region.
Only US firms, burdened by preconceptions, are holding
back. American firms are afraid to even market computer
hardware and software to a rapidly expanding
market that is flush with cash and ready to spend.
Indian IT firms are gradually moving in because
their own software economy has experienced labor
shortages and price increases. Pakistan is 30 percent
than India for information technology outsourcing.
According to Karachi-based Alt-Source Communications,
Karachi alone has 300,000 English-speaking job seekers
in the 18 to 35 year old range who are interested
in and qualified for call center work.
Arriving in Karachi
The plane touches down in Karachi
in the middle of the night. The fashions here are
different than the US, but the people are warm,
friendly and surprisingly gentle. In Indian airports,
it is a struggle to keep
control of your baggage. Here nobody bothers me.
My government-supplied escorts are noticeably absent.
Strike one. After half an hour of waiting, I hop
cab and go to the hotel where my government tour
planners had assured me a room. Strike two -- with
lots more to come. If this happens to you, take
stride. The private sector is where the action is.
The government here is remarkably hands-off -- perhaps
a little too hands off. In India, when there is
problem, the government will often become involved
in a major way. In Pakistan, the reaction is often
for government to pull back or to engage in negotiations
with disaffected groups
Expo Pakistan 2005
I’m here to attend a national export-oriented
trade show from February 2 through February 6 and
then to screen software and call center facilities
possible outsourcing contracts from the US. Expo
Pakistan 2005 is a big deal here because large international
trade fairs do not happen very often in this country.
I happened to be passing through here when the last
one was held, 35 years ago. The Pakistanis don’t
need to look very far to see how trade shows can
function if they are done well. In New Delhi there
are 10 to 12 major trade shows every year for IT
firms, with other metro regions hosting their own
lavish displays. Trade shows are a well-developed
industry in India and the Indians are good at
The ultimate intellectual trade show is India’s
Kolkata Book Fair. It is held in February every
year, with specially constructed temporary buildings
brimming with rare titles and stampeding crowds
intellectuals for whom the book fair is the ultimate
literary pilgrimage. Who needs Stratford-on-Avon
when the Kolkata Book Fair beckons?
A Tale of Two Cities
Comparisons between Kolkata and Karachi
are inevitable. As megacities of similar size straddling
opposite sides of the Indian subcontinent, they
have both been languishing in economic obscurity
until now. Both their governments have committed
themselves to turning things around, to starting
the economic engines of their huge labor forces,
and to create the future rather than erpetually
chase after it.
Both megacities have image problems, but Kolkata’s
intellectuals are not afraid to wax poetic about
the joys inspired by their much-loved and long neglected
metropolis. In contrast, rapid social change in
Karachi has left many people here with an identity
crisis and self esteem issues. The fact that visas
to the US from Pakistan are now so hard to obtain
is not helping the situation.
Both megacities will succeed. But Karachi has a
better urban infrastructure than any big Indian
metro, less traffic, far better tax policies, and
tension. Wages for manual work are higher than in
India and there is less extreme poverty here. The
fact that alcohol is rare contributes to a happier,
healthier and more productive populace. Karachi
has a vibrant alcohol-free nightlife. The residents
here love to eat out and then go down to the
beaches. There are throngs of well-mannered young
men and women strolling around on the beaches until
well past 2 a.m.
The city’s main beaches are well lit and,
in my experience, are safe for Americans alone.
I’ve been down there late at night with fellow
graduates. Rutgers alumni appear plentiful enough
and successful enough to be in a position to establish
a permanent alumni clubhouse in one of the neighborhoods
near the beach.
A big question about Pakistan is
the status of religious minorities here. The roughly
600,000 Hindus in Karachi are part of the economic
elite, have almost assimilated, and have generally
adopted lifestyles similar to the larger population
-- much to the bane of vegetarians who visit here
from the US and India. Christians and a smattering
of Zoroastrians run the primary and secondary schools,
which contributes to the acceptance that those groups
experience. The Christians who I talked with all
spoke about how comfortable they feel here. Everyone
who I spoke with was respectful of the US and Americans,
even though they did not always understand or agree
with US policies.
On February 2, 2005, on my second full night in
Karachi, I’m whisked off to the expo to hear
President Musharraf deliver the opening remarks.
are the best part of the show. As a front-line country
in the “War on Terror,” there have been
attempts on his life. Despite those attempts, the
former commando has been traveling widely and meeting
large numbers of
people up and down the country as if he was campaigning
for office. His bodyguards make that happen.
Democrats for Musharraf
In a rough survey of about 100 people
that I conducted here, every single person spoke
Musharraf. Most said that Musharraf is just what
the country needs right now. The word “modest”
is often used to describe him. Some would preface
endorsements by saying: “As an avowed democrat
...” One of Musharraf’s themes is openness
and transparency in government. In the upcoming
privatization of a large share of the government-owned
for example, he is having the bids opened and inspected
by journalists who have been critical of the government
-- a public process that we have yet to see
in the US. The press’s openness to criticize
Musharraf is remarkable and would have been unthinkable
five years ago. The criticisms that I’m most
interested in are those having to do with the pace
of land reform and the social consequences of Pakistan
not having moved forward as fast or as extensively
as India has done
with the land reform efforts undertaken since both
countries gained their independence in 1947. As
Musharraf began his opening remarks at Pakistan
Expo 2005, a small explosion occurred between us.
There is a popping noise and a burning object falls
from the ceiling. Without flinching, Musharraf assures
the crowd that it is not a gunshot, telling everyone
that he can distinguish gunfire from other sounds.
The crowd laughs. It turns out that
a lamp overheated had burst.
Musharraf emphasizes the continuity
of purpose and policies that his government is using
to create a stable business environment (something
that is sadly
lacking in the taxation policies of neighboring
countries). Although the United States is contributing
to stability in Pakistan, there are few Americans
the Expo crowd. Musharraf spoke of moderation in
Islam. Islam serves
as a unifying force in what is actually a surprisingly
secular country, something that none of Pakistan’s
neighbors except China can say about themselves.
In Musharraf’s speeches on Urdu language television
stations, he is much more blunt than he is in English.
“We have a problem,” Musharraf tells
audiences, speaking in frank terms about the issues
facing Pakistan and how the country needs to change.
“Come visit Pakistan,” Musharraf tells
the crowd at Expo. If you visit, you will be pleasantly
surprised, he adds.
I know, because I am. I’ve stayed on after
the Expo to gather practical information on how
both IT and non-IT firms operate, information that
will be presented here later. (Courtesy E-Commerce
Times) (Anthony Mitchell , an E-Commerce Times columnist,
has been involved with the Indian IT industry since
1987, specializing through InternationalStaff.net
in offshore process migration, call center program
management, turnkey software development and help