Lahore- I visited different parts of Pakistan over the last week, having talks with officials, journalists, academics and others. I must admit it was certainly a pleasant experience to feel quite welcomed here as a Turk and at times I was even overwhelmed with the feelings of affection generously extended by Pakistanis. It is no secret that the Turkish and Pakistani peoples have shared a common spirit of brotherhood ever since Indian Muslims supported the Ottoman Empire and its successor state Turkey against British colonial power.
Despite this unique richness in their respective public perceptions, the two countries have so far failed to exploit the tremendous potential for mutual cooperation in many areas, starting with commerce. The trade volume is not where it should be considering that the countries have a total consumer market of over 250 million. The trade volume between the two countries was $998 million last year, which heavily favors Pakistan. This dismal figure represents a drop in the ocean of the $300 billion in trade volume Turkey maintained in 2010. Though the latest government statistics represent a glimmer of hope on the horizon because trade volume jumped almost 40 percent from $608 million to $848 million in the first eight months of the year, we are still nowhere near where we deserve to be. Officials set the target at $2 billion by the end of next year, which may be realistic under the current pattern but still a small dent if you ask me.
Why then have we been failing to lift the level of trade for many years? Some raise the issue of connectivity as a major obstacle before progress on the level of trade and point out that the Lahore-İstanbul freight train via Iran may be the best option to offer competitive logistics to boost business interaction if and when we are able to modernize tracks and retrofit them to have high-speed trains. Others question the lack of effective follow-up mechanisms to monitor progress on many memoranda of understanding (MoU) that political leaders have signed. There may be some other good arguments out there as to why we cannot make solid growth on trade.
For me, however, it seems the most important challenge comes from our failure to develop a functioning model that will bring both public and private actors to improve our ties in many areas. Like a hinge, governments can only act as a pin to make the hinge work smoothly so that the doors of trade can open both ways.
Unfortunately, the usual fallacy we so often fall victim to in our experiments is that we expect too much from high-level official exchanges and senior political meetings. We think we can easily fix problems by bringing presidents, prime ministers and ministers together while we know very well that the solid and sustainable relationship can only be formed with small smart decisions, or rather the culmination of small decisions over time. If you have not taken these small baby steps throughout the course of time to lay the foundation, you cannot expect change to happen in a short time.
For example, we have many national brands in Turkey, from pastry chains to appliance manufacturers, that do not make it in the Pakistani market. This large portfolio covers not only small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), which is a must for the sustainability and viability of trade ties, but also big boys in the business community. Imagine if we had Simit Sarayı, a Turkish bagel and pastry chain, stores all over Pakistan, or famous sweets maker Güllüoğlu. This would help Pakistani consumers associate themselves with Turkey beyond the sentimental historical references. Since there are so many similarities between the two cultures and cuisines, Pakistanis would feel very comfortable in shifting their preferences to Turkish offerings.
Establishing themselves in Pakistan would also help Turkish firms take advantage of highly competitive labor costs in producing their goods in Pakistan for consumption in local markets or export to third countries. Don’t forget that Pakistan has much better access to some markets in the region than Turkey and it would act as a gateway to these markets.
We can drop the old argument that the Pakistani and Turkish economies are competitive and rival each other. This is no longer true. If you look at the industries in which both countries are highly competitive, there is not much resemblance. In fact, they are rather complimentary. Even in the textile industry, where both countries are strong, Pakistan is mostly concentrated on exporting low-cost textile products while Turkey opted for developing high-quality fashion brands in the international market. This might be a win-win situation for textile manufacturers in both countries.
Though the Pakistani economy is not doing great at the moment, it is still growing, albeit at a lower rate. It will eventually get out of the jam and bounce back, considering the young and dynamic population the country has. For that, the Pakistani government knows it is imperative to invest in improving its infrastructure so that the economy will have a good base to build on. Turkey could help Pakistan overcome challenges, from addressing energy shortages and the construction of residential/commercial buildings to modernizing railway, motorway and airport networks and turning money-burning state enterprises into lucrative profit-making companies.
But above all, the most important contribution Turkey can make to Pakistan is to help it overhaul the education system so that the young population will drive the economic boom of Pakistan in the future. Industry’s close collaboration with educational institutions and recalibrating the focus in education on key industries that will carry Pakistan to the next level are two key ingredients for Pakistan’s performance in the future. In that sense, I was impressed with Punjab Governor Latif Khosa during a candid conversation in the Governor’s House in Lahore. He mostly focused on the significance of education. He said the country needed to invest in education to teach the young population to excel in research and IT technologies.
On a rather positive note, I was really encouraged to see that Pak-Turk International schools, a joint effort of both Turkish and Pakistani investors and philanthropists, have come to have 18 schools in 13 cities in Pakistan. The success of the educational model these schools employ comes exactly from what Khosa refers to: emphasis on research and cutting edge technology. There are very many reasons to be hopeful but both Pakistan and Turkey must act fast as others in the region and the world are also working to attain or maintain the edge.