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Can academic diaspora help Pakistan?

As Pakistan completes ten years of continued democracy, it is important to recognise the services of Pakistan’s professionals abroad

Can academic diaspora help Pakistan?

Recently Pakistan Institute of Development Economics had hosted an interesting panel discussion with the theme: Brain and Brawn for Change. During this session, the author along with other panelists argued that for the foreseeable future, Pakistani diaspora will continue to play an important role in national development. However, we have only narrowly looked at the diaspora; perhaps as a source of remittances from abroad, which help Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves particularly in times of balance of payments crises.

This myopic view has unfortunately not allowed the state institutions to look into strengths of highly skilled workers — which helped them to move and settle abroad. These strengths relate to the knowledge, experience and overall intellectual power of such persons who are an asset for any country where they happen to reside. Perhaps the most neglected of the types is the academic diaspora which includes intelligent and highly resourceful Pakistanis working abroad in the fields of medical, engineering, law, economics and areas of natural, social and behavioural sciences.

This year all political parties going into the general elections will defend comprehensive party manifestos. Almost all of them will promise science and technological developments. They will talk about how important it is for the country to now invest in developing an understanding of rapidly changing technologies around artificial intelligence, robotics, and blockchain. Almost all manifestos will touch upon socio-economic benefits of fourth industrial revolution. However, none of these otherwise well-intentioned documents will inform us ‘who in Pakistan will deliver all this?’

Perhaps the answer to this question lies with Pakistan’s academic diaspora. All state institutions requiring ideas and help with implementing some of the above mentioned complex technologies can reach out to Pakistanis abroad. However, such efforts at individual level usually have limited impact on national development. There would be so many vice chancellors, professors and other academicians of Pakistani origin abroad who can lend their knowledge (e.g. through channels of mentoring) however such brains need to be viewed as part of the overall human capital of Pakistan. They need to be demonstrated that their advice is respected and implemented for change in policy and practice.

To attract remittances from Pakistanis living abroad the government of PML-N had introduced Asaan Remittance Account and M-wallets. But what schemes could be formulated by the next government to attract ideas, knowledge and experiences of Pakistanis living abroad?

To start with, it is important that our foreign office and embassies abroad see academic diaspora as ambassadors who can correct perceptions about Pakistan. Years of violence in the region and resulting law and order difficulties for Pakistan have in turn shaped a doubtful image of the sixth largest population in the world. The foreigners, including potential investors, see several parts of the country unsafe for long term engagement. The recent successes towards achieving peace in the country need to be communicated. Perhaps Pakistanis in foreign think tanks and universities could help.

Second, in a survey conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), academic diaspora expressed a deep sense of frustration in light of their past experience in dealing with public institutions. For example, several academics from abroad revealed how time to time Planning Commission had reached out to them for help and support with formulation of development plans and sectoral policies. However, despite of significant hand holding provided by such individuals, Planning Commission’s own follow up was weak. On several occasions the policies for which input was provided never saw light of the day. Even the inputs provided were lost owing to lack of knowledge management systems all across the federal ministries and provincial departments.

To avoid losing such minds it is important to connect academic diaspora with tertiary education institutions — known to have better institutional memory and ability to connect with foreign professionals. The role of such diaspora should be clearly defined in national and sub-national innovation policies.

Third, the academic diaspora needs to view the government as a credible partner to engage with. This can only happen if top leadership leads the way in this direction. For example, during the first year of Prime Minister Modi in office, he went abroad to meet with the Indian diaspora thrice; with a key objective to persuade many of them to experiment their ideas in collaboration (e.g. through joint ventures) with counterparts back home.

Fourth, just like globally reputed universities are known to have alumni offices to coordinate with graduates abroad, both China and India have set up national institutions to coordinate and follow up with academic diaspora. Such a national institution should have a three pronged goal to: a) act as the first window for engagement with academic diaspora and provide necessary information and follow up services; b) continuously strive to strengthen state-diaspora relationship through instruments already available with foreign missions abroad; and c) mobilize diaspora’s intellectual capital. This should be easy at least in countries where Pakistani diaspora may already face several types of discrimination.

Fifth, the next government should focus on financially supporting networking among academic diaspora. This will provide sustainability to networks and associations set up by Pakistanis abroad; ultimately giving them recurrent opportunities to come together and identify how they will collectively help Pakistan’s development. China started providing such support several decades back and continues to do so until today.

Sixth, to effectively seek sector-specific knowledge it is important to have information regarding specialized expertise of academic diaspora abroad. Institutions such as the Overseas Pakistani Foundation may be facilitated by the government to establish a database on such lines. The Higher Education Commission can help in this regard as it already has established contacts with foreign faculty abroad.

Seventh, we need to explore the reasons as to why it remains difficult to convince academic diaspora to come back to Pakistan perhaps even for sabbatical reasons. One way to address some of these reasons may be to provide a place (and effective voice) to this highly educated diaspora on the policy table. Perhaps Planning Commission and provincial Planning & Development Departments can invite adjunct positions where Pakistanis from abroad could come and deliver their services on short to medium term contracts.

As Pakistan completes ten years of continued democracy this month, it is important to recognize the services of Pakistan’s enduring professionals abroad. Future governments should formulate policies that regard the diaspora options theory i.e. policy orientation with the goal to utilise economic, human and social capital of migrant population which in turn can revitalise skills development and investment in regions and places where they maintain ancestral ties.  

The writer is joint executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan. His book ‘Pakistan’s Agenda for Economic Reforms’ was recently published by Oxford University Press. Twitter: @vaqarahmed

Dr Vaqar Ahmed

The writer is joint executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan. Tweets @vaqarahmed

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