Democracy in Action on a Very Big Day

Pakistan government officials react to news of bin Laden’s death before sitting in on Needham Town Meeting.

On a day when people across the United States were celebrating a victory for freedom and democracy, two women from Pakistan got a good look at perhaps the purest form of American democracy: the Town Meeting.

Siara Atta and Iffat Malik have been visiting Wellesley and Needham over the past several weeks, seeing town elections, talking with local officials and learning about how various departments work, from the library and the Council on Aging to the police, fire and Department of Public Works.

Atta is the first director of the Balochistan Province’s Women’s Development Office, and Malik is the director for finance and administration for the Sindh Province Disaster Management Authority.

On Monday night—as Americans continued to react to the news of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death and considered what it would mean for the United States, Pakistan and the rest of the world—the two women attended Needham’s 2011 Town Meeting, where the topic of conversation was not terrorism and international politics but zoning bylaws.

Before the meeting got underway, Atta and Malik talked about their experiences in the two towns as well as their reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death the day before in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

“My first reaction [to the news] was, at least we got rid of one terrorist, so that’s good,” Malik said. “We in Pakistan are also facing the brunt of the whole instability of terrorism, so maybe it’s a step in the right direction. Overall, we are satisfied that we are making progress.”

Malik said she felt larger public opinion in Pakistan was against extremism and that “the government and the people are on the same wavelength when it comes to that.”

“Pakistanis are united in this: that we have to get rid of whatever fanaticism or extremism is there,” she said.

As a peacekeeper working for “international peace and tranquility,” Atta said the death of a terrorist was a good thing. But she also worried about repercussions—angry bin Laden supporters hoping to avenge his death and further instability in an already troubled area of the world.

“In our country, there have been suicide bombers, there have been terrible things happening, which obviously no human being wants,” she said. “My only concern is that by killing him, I don’t know how many more Osama bin Ladens will come up to fill the void. He was a hero for so many people. This might create more Osama bin Ladens. I don’t know.”

As a government official, Atta worried that some bin Laden supporters would blame the Pakistan government, accusing them of collaborating with the United States or “bringing information to the Americans.”

Atta also worried about international perception of her country, and that further instability could hinder trade and international aid.

And she addressed a concern that she said many of her fellow countrymen share: that with bin Laden eliminated, Pakistan would be left to fend for itself.

“Some of the population in Pakistan, they feel that the Americans are always for their own national interest, that they use and exploit Pakistan, and once Pakistan has been used, they leave us all alone to face the consequences,” Atta said. “So even though Pakistan helped the USA in finding Osama bin Laden and going through this operation, this can actually lead to more instability in Pakistan and create more law and order issues. We might end up having more suicide bombings, which is the drawback.”

Though she has concerns for her country’s future in the face of bin Laden’s death, Atta said she looked forward to sharing what she had learned in Needham and Wellesley when she returned home.

“It’s been very informative,” she said. “Everything here goes through the Board of Selectmen, and they sit together and decide what should be done for the town, the pros and the cons. We don’t have that system; we don’t go through the selectmen. It’s a very positive thing. […] Every town is a model of democracy. They are the laboratories of democracy, and they are all running a different way.”

Atta said she found it interesting that Wellesley and Needham, though similar in size and location, operate differently in many ways. She also was impressed by the transparency of local government.

“In our system, the federal takes over everything, so there is a big gap between the federal government and the local government,” she said. “Here, things are done at the local levels with the help of the selectmen committee, so the problems of the people are solved in a very close fashion. Things are happening very closely, when at the federal level [in Pakistan] the gap widens, so it’s difficult to solve the problems.”

Malik also felt the experience had been beneficial—and that being in a U.S. community was much different than seeing it in the news.

“There are certain things that you can really feel when you visit a place. When you are really in contact with the people and with the town management and move around the cities and towns, it gives you a much warmer and closer feeling,” she said.

So was she surprised by anything she saw?

“People are very hardworking here and very passionate about their work,” she said. “Everybody’s so much into their work, and the skills and the required knowledge is always there with them. They have to keep moving with the times and seeing what the needs of the people are.

“I really don’t know what the people actually think of the town managers,” she added, laughing, “ but I believe that they have something in them which makes them feel the need of the people and move along and come up with solutions.”

After leaving Wellesley and Needham on Friday, the two women and the rest of their group will return to Amherst to wrap up the program, then travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with Sen. John Kerry, who helped launch the exchange program.

They will then return to Pakistan and meet with their departments to share what they have learned.

At Needham’s Town Meeting on Monday, Moderator Michael Fee thanked the women and their government for supporting the United States in its efforts to find bin Laden—“the same person who rejects concepts of free speech, self-determination and democracy that are embodied in our 300-year-old Town Meeting,” he added.

Fee wished them an “informative, enjoyable” trip and said he was sure that the people of Wellesley and Needham would learn as much from Atta and Malik as they had learned from the towns.

“I wish you all the success in discharging your responsibility when you return to Pakistan—a country that stands as an example of democracy and freedom and civilized society in the face of great pressures,” he said.

The inaugural U.S./Pakistan Professional Partnership Program for Public Administrators began on April 3 and is funded through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is coordinated locally by the Institute for Training and Development of Amherst and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.


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