The challenges that Pakistan faces are all too real. These pages are, in fact, an unending litany of all that is not going right in Pakistan. Indeed, our greatest challenge is to reverse the immense negative trends that glare us in the face. But it is also important to recognise, celebrate and encourage the trends that are progressing in the right direction. Arguably, the key to achieving the former lies – at least, partially – in whether we can progressively invest in the latter.
In this spirit of identifying positive trends that have the potential for large-scale and long-term societal improvement, let me offer five examples of things going right in Pakistan. This is neither a comprehensive offering, nor presented in any particular order. My list emanates from the belief that a failure today to recognise that which is good – even when less than perfect – will condemn us tomorrow to lamenting the unfulfilled potential of the same. And that would be a terrible waste.
A giving people. In the year 2000, a landmark study by the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP) discovered that twice as much money was contributed annually by private philanthropy in Pakistan as the then total foreign assistance. In 2006, my book ‘Pakistanis in America: Portrait of a Giving Community’ estimated that the giving and volunteerism by the Pakistani diaspora in the US is worth more than a billion US dollars. My own recent experience at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) has reaffirmed and reinforced my faith in Pakistanis as a giving people.
Despite a deep cynicism that pervades our societal persona, acts of generosity and giving are abundant all around us, at all times, in all forms, and at all scales. Our giving may not be particularly well-organised, it may be more directed at individuals than institutions, and you may often hear complaints of how it is used, but the undeniable fact is that we are a giving people. Not just the most affluent amongst us, but all. Importantly, in the absence of a formal social security apparatus, private giving acts as a social safety net for many. Across the country, the sufaid-poshi (middle class façade) of so many is maintained by acts of personal giving without which our social landscape would be even more fractured than it is.
Desire for education. There is a palpable desire and demand for education in Pakistan – especially amongst the lower-middle class and the poor. This was not always so. Until fairly recently a major challenge was convincing the relatively poor to invest in the education of their children. Today, one consistently finds parents investing more than what they can afford in the schooling of their children. Not merely because the cost of education has gone up, but also because of a strong desire to give – even if it has to be ‘buy’ – the best education they can for their children.
It is not a trivial matter that the belief in education as a passport to success is beginning to set roots in society, especially amongst the lower-middle and lower economic classes. Arguably, the growth of private schools and the changing landscape of higher education are driven not only by government policy and governance failures, but also by demand-side impulses.
Of course, the myriad challenges that beset our education system at every level – of which the most vital ones relate to education quality much more than quantity – stand in sharp contrast to this growing desire for education. The tragedy is that this strong desire for education has not yet translated to actual improvement. Indeed, in many instances it has been the reverse. However, it need not always be so. Ultimately, there can be no greater driver of quality in education than households that begin to recognise and demand quality.
Pakistaniat. Pakistanis are incessantly and incurably obsessed with Pakistan. We discuss, debate, deliberate, delineate, dispute and eventually devour all things Pakistan with a passion that is both unusual an endearing. I realised just how important ‘Pakistaniness’ is to Pakistanis in the years I edited the website pakistaniat.com. The intensity, emotion and centrality that we invest in discussions related to Pakistan is beyond the norm; is more pervasive than most want to acknowledge, and cannot be dismissed as simple flag-waving.
The constant struggle to grapple with and put meaning into the idea of ‘Pakistaniness’ is a very real and meaningful struggle, especially (but not only) amongst the young. All too often, this merely motivates deep and often divisive fractures of identity that translate into impassioned argument about whose ‘Pakistaniat’ is right and whose is not. But on more rare but also more rewarding moments, the same epicentre can release an immense positive energy that we suddenly discover amongst ourselves when confronted by a common cause that we can all agree on: an external threat, a natural disaster, a game of cricket. If only we could find ways to create more common cause.
Entrepreneurship. In many developing economies the logic of necessity dictates a constant search for novel solutions to overcome hurdles posed by adversity, scarcity and lack of opportunity. In South Asia we have a long and illustrious history of such ingenuity and a special word for it: ‘jugaar.’ Within the culture of jugaar lies the roots of what may be called Survival Enterprise. Today, battalions of the educated young in Pakistan are transforming this legacy into a new wave of knowledge-based innovation and entrepreneurship.
The energy and excitement that is on display anytime an entrepreneurial competition is held anywhere in Pakistan is not just unmatched, but outright infectious. There is clearly a wave of enterprise and innovation running through our educated youth – especially, but not solely, those armed with the liberating spirit of information technologies. It has begun to show up in the still infant but growing world of the Pakistani internet, in successful web businesses being run out of small-town Pakistan, in the emergence of Pakistani designer brands, in the mushrooming of boutique and chain restaurants. But it is most evident in the choices that our young are making at colleges and universities. Suddenly it has become cool to think about entrepreneurship.
Voice. Belonging to a generation whose greatest sin was having remained silent in times of tribulation, there is probably nothing more endearing to me in Pakistan today than the fact that many of the things that we do identify as our strongest signs of hope are, in fact, manifestations of a society struggling to find voice.
Charges of having turned into a cacophony aside, the rise of the electronic media in Pakistan needs to be credited for having transformed the national discourse – mostly for the good. Also worth celebrating is a new generation of Pakistani music, which has given voice to a renewed social consciousness. The debacle of ‘Eye to Eye’ notwithstanding, the (re-)emergence of music with a mission on contemporary issues – education, inequity, corruption, distortion of history, injustice, Sufism, etc – has allowed the young in Pakistan to engage, enthuse and educate the national discourse in a new and powerful voice.
The manifestation of societal voice is debate and discourse. Debate can sometimes be divisive. Discourse can sometimes be jarring. But no matter how uncomfortable the questions – on the role of democracy, of institutions, of law, of the media itself, and maybe one day also of religion – a society that gives voice to its internal angst is better off than one that does not.
By: Adil Najam
The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.