A few days ago, I helped to organise a seminar about climate change in Islamabad, planned by the Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA), with support from the Norwegian Embassy. They wanted to be involved in an 'in topic. Except for the fact that there is a large community of Pakistanis in Norway, there are certain similarities in climate in the mountain areas in both countries. Norway, too, has glaciers, although far from as impressive as those of Pakistans Hindu Kush and Himalayan areas. The climate is also opposite, with Norway having more rain than it needs, cool summers and cold winters. Pakistan has hot summers and very mild winters. Pakistan has too little rain. Well, it wasnt my intention to write about climate change and environment today. Id rather like to draw a few broader lessons from the seminar and indeed about such seminars generically. Because when you have foreigners, experts from Norway and international organisations present, there are always some questionable aspects in the relationship between the foreigners and the locals. Who sets the agenda and who has the answers? Is knowledge from above or below? If we are being lectured to, should we listen, maybe even learn, or should we feel maltreated? There were many good speeches, by locals and by foreigners. The speech by Alice Harding Shackelford, the Director of United Nations Women, or UN Women, (earlier named UNIFEM), was particularly lively. She spoke well and in powerful language, as she always does, and I have known her for several years now. She has great sense of humour, which is useful when talking about issues where some are very much opposed to what you want to achieve. Gender parity and empowerment of women belong to those areas. Thus, the UN heads work is indeed important, and being a Scandinavian man, I have long ago realised that there is no question about the need for greater equality amongst people, indeed between men and women; and we must also work for equality in other fields, between rich and poor, black and white, North and South, and so on. However, when I had listened to the UN heads convincing speech, I became a bit worried, too. Again, there was nothing wrong with her message. Not at all, for example, when she explained that 80 percent of the agricultural work in Pakistan is done by women, and when she argued that those who do the work must also have the power over decisions and profits. Or, when there is a 'Climate Change Policy Document in Pakistan not having included women, then there is a need to correct that, yes, very fast. However, why should a UN head have to mention these things? She is a foreigner living temporarily in Pakistan, and she is the head of a United Nations organisation, not a local NGO, a government office or a local village group. Yes, she knows something about Pakistan, but how much? And, to be honest, what does a UN head care about the poor people in the country? Professionally, a UN head is concerned, but then tomorrow, the person may be transferred and he/she is gone, leaving everyone behind, for a new staff member to take over. A United Nations office is important to put issues on the agenda and best practices up in front of us. The UN heads are supposed to say: This is what we think is best (well, if and when they really feel they can say that). They should also tell us when we dont meet the standards and when we are not on the right path, such as in the case of Pakistan when it comes to provision of education for all (EFA), where we are far behind the 2015 MDG targets in all fields; enrolment, quality, gender parity, and other fields. I worked with UNESCO in Pakistan some years ago, and it was my job to do what Alice Harding Shackelford did at my seminar. I went up and down the country talking about the importance of EFA, especially for refugees since that was my main field of responsibility. Everybody listened and everybody agreed, especially those in the air conditioned conference halls that we mostly used, where we could sit comfortably for long hours. But how deeply did they agree? And what would they do afterwards? What would we as speakers really do, except for saying the right things and taking the moral high ground? I remember, too, that some young researchers and sharp refugees themselves would not be all that impressed with the nice words from the UN staff and international NGO speakers, or, maybe we should say, the UN and NGO 'talkers. People like the UN Women head, and in a more modest way, this writ, are important in helping change the world, reach great equality between men and women and in numerous other social, economic and cultural fields. But are we really the right persons, representing the right institutions, organisations, countries and subgroups and classes within countries, to achieve the results? Would perhaps others, notably local women and men, labour unions, interest groups and so on, have more impact? True, some of the things a foreigner can get away with saying can sometimes not be said by a local, and sometimes, a foreigner has more halo and glory, so I believe some of what my UN head and I say is important and can have an impact. But what we say is only important to a very limited extent. And more worrying, sometimes we may stand in the way for locals so they cannot take the mantle and do the work themselves. Foreigners can be important at seminars in the city hotels, but do the messages really trickle down to the villages and the shantytowns, and are the recommendations practical enough to follow? Besides, if my UN head and I get out of the way, maybe the sun could shine on those we talk about? Maybe then they could get the chance to participate themselves. Yes, participate, but also lead. Because I think we as do-gooders and well-wishers often take away the possibility to lead from the locals. This is certainly a concern for the UN agencies, donor agencies, international NGOs and all kinds of experts and 'talkers who are passing by. What should we do then, because Alice Harding Shackelford said the right things? We should help share ideals, policies, best practices, and suggest what information we think is important, and where to find it. We can help by giving examples from elsewhere in the world; in my case, I could find good and valuable material from Norway, and also from the African countries, since I have worked there for long. Poor African countries often do better in girls education, for example, than Pakistan does. But then, when that much has been done, we should try to help and encourage local government and non-governmental organisations to do what is their responsibility to do. We should let the local experts shine, researchers, teachers, students, and so on. We should help let the ordinary local people shine. We should all help release the wisdom of the locals, of women very often, and of youth, and also old people. We should help facilitate, or at least, encourage the local institutions, organisations and individuals to do the best they can do, and sometimes add some donor funds. If I get a silver crown, if the UN and bilateral organisations and their representatives, or I as an international social scientist, get recognition, that is the least important. But if a local woman gets an award for mobilising other women in agricultural fields, healthcare and so on, that is important. And if a village woman or man does what none of us city folks and foreigners can do, we could perhaps show up, sometimes, take part in celebrations, but just listen and learn, too. Finally, did you have an opportunity to watch the BBCs Hardtalk programme on Tuesday this week? We were all reminded by the Buddhist Tai thinker, writer and activist Sulak Sivaraksa that we should learn from the poor. We should not only tell them what to do. Often, the wisdom and happiness cannot be found in globalism or capitalism, but in poor peoples ways of living and solving problems. And if and when they, too, get a fair share, women, too, of course, then we will all be happier, the oppressed and the oppressor. n The writer is a senior social scientist based in Islamabad, educated in Norway and Sweden, with three decades of work experience in development research, diplomacy and multilateral aid. Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com