More than 20 years ago when the internet was young, the world realised how easy upward social mobility had become. It was then that the tech giants of today, like Google and Amazon, were born. And the world hasn’t been the same since.
During these two decades, countries have seen widespread transformations. From an economy teetering on the brink of default and forced to airlift its national gold as a pledge to the IMF in 1991, India began a journey of economic growth that seemed unstoppable before Narendra Modi’s rise. China began its public sector reforms in the very same decade and now it is considered an economic world power. Turkey is another example of the rags-to-riches story. From the days of the currency crisis and dollarisation to today’s economic progress, it has come a long way.
And the past two decades have characterised our failure to launch. Time and again, we have allowed geo-strategy to trump geo-economics. When faced with the colossal void named change two decades ago, we considered the risk and our knees gave out. Other countries plunged headlong into the void and have been greatly rewarded for their bravado. If insecurity had held us back then, after seeing the successes of the world, we have no excuses now.
I know the debate around these subjects is so warped in Pakistan that you mostly come across either those who think that the country cannot be fixed or those who consider the current direction and rate of reform to be satisfactory. Sadly, truth is lost somewhere between the two extremes. Pakistan is not the fisher king from Wagner’s Parsifal that it cannot heal. Or Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, who is cursed to keep moving the same boulder again and again without much progress. But decades of lopsided development – often forced in fits and starts – have resulted in glaring omissions and neglect. That is where we are not even trying.
Take creativity for instance. In 2015, the Toronto Martin Prosperity Institute identified three criteria to gauge a society’s creativity. Technology (the research and development investment and patents per capita), talent (the share of adults with higher education and the workforce in the creative class) and tolerance (the treatment of immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities and the scope for civil liberties). Based on these three criteria, it came up with a Global Creativity Index. This is a list of 139 countries in which Pakistan holds the 111th position. The sixth most populous nation in the world could barely make it to the list by the skin of its teeth. And if you go through the names of the countries behind us, there is nothing to be proud of. What is wrong with us?
To comprehend the problem let us break it down into three subsets based on the above-mentioned criteria. Technology first.
Have you ever wondered why our exports keep declining constantly and sharply? It is very easy to blame the government for everything and be done with it. In the broader sense, the government is responsible for this decline, but not in the way you would think. The conventional mind would put the blame on the fall of the agriculture sector, the global commodity market slump and the government’s failure to come up with a solution to fix it all. But there is a limit to which you can blame the government for societal failure. We are most affected by the commodity market slowdown or the agriculture sector because we mostly export raw commodities without much value addition. In my sixth grade, I memorised the names of the items we export and, in all this time, little has changed. Where is our resourcefulness as a people? Why do we not diversify?
The way we treat knowledge as a people is mainly to blame. What to talk about acquiring patents annually, we do not even seem to have accurate data available in the public domain to gauge our failure or relative success. Do you see any valid data for annual inventions, any forum to pitch new products or ideas or even well-organised job placement data? I don’t. Whose responsibility is this? Do we have venture capitalism in this country? Do we have technology incubators wherever we have fresh graduates with the appropriate skill sets? I think not. And please do not mention a few odd exceptions. They don’t make the rule.
Talent comes next. Take a look at our education institutions. What subjects are we teaching at these institutes? Are we inculcating leadership skills? Even the most advanced degree courses are not updated with the speed which merits the fast-paced changes in the world. How many research journals have you seen being published in this country? How many professional magazines have you seen? How many job placement agencies are there? Are there any effective career counselling programmes in our schools? Do you present enough successful case studies to our young lot to inspire them? And to top it all, there are accusations of plagiarism. A student is supposed to respect the faculty when the head of the department is accused of plagiarising his or her PhD thesis? I know each of these lines deserves treatment in a separate piece. But we, at least, need to start asking these questions. Do you think anyone is asking them?
And finally, tolerance. For a split second after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, we thought that the environment was becoming more tolerant. For 15 years or more, we had been beaten to a pulp and were unable to find our bearings. But terrorism was apparently on retreat. We thought we could wing it. But since the entire subject was inadequately handled when Pakistan did not have a democracy and key decisions in the fight against militancy were made, our society remains deeply divided.
Mashal Khan’s death bears testimony to the scope of the problem. After the introduction of NAP, you might not have seen too many signs on television but a whispering campaign has been going on behind the scenes. The space for dissent still keeps shrinking because there are too many stakeholders in the system and it is surprisingly easy to offend one or more of them. Free speech is hardly free speech if you spend most of your time looking over your shoulder to guard yourself against potential assailants.
All of this needs to change. However, it seems that the people who are capable of asking these questions are either tired, apprehensive, complacent or fleeing the country. I have been writing on these issues for the past two decades and, trust me, it’s like banging your head against a brick wall. People in positions of authority – both in the public as well as the private sector – should take note that if immediate steps to correct these flaws are not taken in another couple of decades, there is a strong likelihood that we will be among the most vulnerable people on the planet. This is the age of creativity and innovation. If we don’t get this basic fact, we are already toast.
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.