Sunday May 22, 2022

Pakistan’s way forward

October 03, 2018

On August 31, I had the opportunity to make a detailed presentation to Prime Minister Imran Khan. This was a wonderful occasion as we now have a prime minister who is honest and determined to lift Pakistan from the abyss into which it has sunk, particularly over the last three decades.

He needs expert advice and a team of ministers that can implement national programmes at breakneck speed. I emphasised in the hour-long presentation that there was only one way forward for Pakistan: to radically change directions and focus on the steps needed to move towards a strong knowledge economy.

I illustrated my point through graphs to show that the money lies in the ability of nations to manufacture and export high-technology goods while natural resources and low-technology goods have considerably diminished in value, relegating those countries that don’t have the necessary scientific and engineering capabilities to the group of least developed countries.

Given a committed, honest and visionary leadership, this can be achieved, particularly in a country with about 100 million people below the age of 20. Although this is a huge resource, we need unleash its creative potential by diverting funds from other sectors to promote quality education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship – just as countries like Singapore, Korea, Finland and China did.

The hardest challenge was faced by China as it is a huge country that had a population of about one billion in 1980. Lifting such a huge country out of poverty was an enormous task. China, like Singapore, realised early on that the single most important task was to use technology to launch the country as a powerful nation into the next century.

There are, indeed, interesting parallels between both countries as they focused only on high-technology manufacturing because that is where the money lies. Both countries singlemindedly decided to use science and technology as engines for socioeconomic development. This lifted both countries from the abyss of poverty and deprivation, and the strategies that they used point the way forward for Pakistan.

To address rural poverty, China launched its Spark Program in 1986 that helped to pull millions out of poverty. Almost simultaneously, it launched the National High-tech R&D Program (or the 863 Program) that represented the largest programme in science and technology in the 20th century. This initiative was directed at addressing the key problems facing the country and included agriculture, electronic information, energy resources, transportation, materials, resources exploration, environmental protection, healthcare, and other fields.

This was a fantastic initiative that tapped into China’s large population and entailed sending hundreds of thousands of the brightest young men and women to top universities abroad. The foreign training programme has continued to expand in subsequent decades. Last year, some 600,000 students were sent abroad for training while about 500,000 students returned the same year after being trained abroad. They were immediately absorbed in universities and national research institutions, triggering a huge tsunami of international patents and scientific publications, overtaking the US in many emerging scientific fields.

The 863 Program shaped the face of China as it is today, with the country’s prowess in engineering and technology allowing it to manufacture super-fast trains, space satellites, supersonic fighter aircraft and high-speed computers, and become the world leader in quantum computing, supercomputers, genomics and new materials.

This programme mobilised institutions and researchers to achieve national targets. A related initiative, which launched in China in 1988, was the Torch Program that focused on the development of high-tech products in fields such as biotechnology, electronics, information technology, integrative mechanical-electrical technology, new materials, and advanced and energy-saving technologies.

In contrast, the PhD training programme that I had initiated as the HEC chairman during 2003-2008 has collapsed due the sharp cuts in the commission’s budgets imposed by the PPP government and subsequently by the PML-N.

It is alarming that the PML-N released only Rs15 billion to the HEC against an allocation of Rs35 billion in the last financial year, dealing a mortal blow to the higher education sector. A similar attempt to stifle the science and technology budget was witnessed, with only Rs0.9 billion being released against a small allocation of Rs3.5 billion. The PML-N government’s criminal neglect of science and technology is evident from the fact that we spent Rs257 billion on the Orange Line last year, but only Rs0.9 billion on the development budget for science and technology. The enemies of Pakistan lie within us like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The present government has many problems to consider. It has only a small majority and won’t be able to approve new laws against corruption as it will not be able to muster the required support. It has also had to compromise and include ministers within the cabinet on the basis of political expediency rather than merit.

Moreover, developing a knowledge economy doesn’t seem to be on the new government’s radar as it is involved in firefighting to tackle the problems created over the last decade by previous governments. While addressing the immediate challenges, it shouldn’t lose sight of the real engines of growth; agriculture; and selected fields such as information technology, low-cost energy based on hydroelectric power and coal, tapping into our mineral resources, and promoting innovation/entrepreneurship through a series of incentives.

In order to make progress, it is imperative that we change the present system of governance and move towards a presidential system of democracy, where we elect the president through a direct vote and the president consequently selects his own team of technocrats that are experts in their respective fields.

This is what Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah had advocated in 1947. His hand written note in this respect is reproduced in “The Jinnah Anthology” (page 81, Oxford University Press). This note is available in File 42 of 1947. This was unsealed by President Ziaul Haq and a copy of it was given to Sharifuddin Pirzada while the original is available in the Jinnah Papers in Islamabad.

Similarly, the 18th Amendment has damaged the federation of Pakistan. In most cases, the additional funds that have been transferred have led to greater loot and plunder by our rulers while weakening national efforts in health and education. Parliament and Senate largely comprise people who were responsible for the mess that we find ourselves in, and they will never allow such changes in laws. This can only be done by the chief justice by invoking a clause in the constitution that allows basic public rights and interests to trump other constitutional provisions.

We must implement Jinnah’s vision in order to move forward as it will be extremely difficult for the present government or for any future governments to deliver in the present situation.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).