Can we take credit for their success?
Every so often we celebrate the news of a Pakistan-born national living abroad being acknowledged for excellence in their field. This week Pakistan-born molecular biologist Asifa Akhtar became news because she was selected as a recipient of Germany’s most prestigious research funding award for her cell-biological work on the mechanisms of epigenetic gene regulation. Seven years ago Shahid Khan made headlines for being a Pakistan-born billionaire to take control of Premier League club Fulham. Even earlier, Pakistan-born refugee Fawad Ahmed, who left because of death threats from extremists, was lauded as a leg spinner to debut in the Ashes. And of course, Pakistan-born Malala needs no introduction.
The list is long. The Overseas Pakistani Foundation, registered under the Emigration Ordinance, 1979, has been keeping track and boasts of the success of 31 overseas Pakistanis from writers such as Hanif Kureishi, CBE, to politicians such as Sadiq Khan. Twenty-five of these big names live in the US and UK, while the rest are in Canada or France, and one each in Hong Kong, Norway and Germany.
When one of these people hit the news cycle, Pakistanis, both at home and elsewhere, feel proud to see “one of their own” excel on the international stage. And while this feeling is perfectly valid, it would ideally be accompanied by some introspection on why that person is being described as Pakistan-born in the first place. Why did they leave Pakistan? Was it for better financial prospects or in pursuit of a safer, or both? Or was there some other reason?
The ability to earn a better livelihood (or have a quality career in your field of choice) and feel safe are two crucial components for a conducive environment in which people can make meaningful contributions to the societies they live in. And Pakistan fails to provide both for many of its citizens.
Some of those who are proverbially “left behind” struggle against the established norms and systems in their professions. Others try to adjust and fit into institutional cultures. If we consider the example of the realm of academia, the outcome is poor research and publications. In the last two years alone, a former officer of the Higher Education Commission and a director were forced to resign over plagiarism in their books and papers.
Only last week it was discovered that university rankings are also another “racket” in Pakistan in which undeserving universities are able to gain a higher rank in subjects that aren’t even offered on their curriculum! It is small wonder then that those scientists, academics and researchers who are capable, find a way to leave the country in the hope of establishing themselves elsewhere. In September, it was reported that of over 130 students sent abroad for PhDs on government funding, 82 chose to stay abroad despite their commitment to return and work in Pakistan.
The irony is that Pakistan also depends on remittances from overseas Pakistanis who sent back $2,338.6 million in November. It would even appear financially viable for Pakistan to continue to send its citizens abroad. The highest numbers of Pakistanis living abroad can be found in the Muslim world: Saudi Arabia has 5.5 million, the UAE 3.9 million, Oman 0.8 million among others.
It thus seems to be unfair to take smugly credit for their achievements. For, in a sense, is it not a form of failure which led to their success? One could argue that successive Pakistani governments failed them and it appears that this trend will continue because whether Naya or Purana, the system just doesn’t seem to have the will, or the desire, to retain its talented citizens and invest in them. It is always easier to take credit for someone else’s work as if it were of your own doing. And isn’t that just another kind of plagiarism?
Summaiya Zaidi is a doctoral candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University and is studying the intersections of law, history and society