I have received numerous responses to my recent post on Washington’s lack of Pakistan experts. Thankfully, I’m not the only one lamenting this deficiency.
I heard from frustrated Washington-based professionals who focus on the so-called “soft” issues of Pakistan: education, civil society, and small and medium business development. They regret how their work is repeatedly overshadowed by Washington’s debates about security in Pakistan and the Afghanistan War, and how the city’s “experts” lack the knowledge to inform this work.
This is a great loss, because these issues are so critically important to understanding Pakistan. Take business development. Nearly 90 per cent of Pakistan’s non-agricultural jobs come from small and medium business enterprises (SMEs). In rapidly urbanising Pakistan, ignoring SMEs effectively amounts to ignoring a chief driver of the country’s economy.
Several readers offered historical explanations for the Pakistan knowledge gap. A long-time South Asia scholar traced this story back to the 1960s, when the South Asian Studies field was enjoying popularity in the United States. At a time when America was enmeshed in the unpopular Vietnam War, he told me, budding US scholars found the nation of Gandhi more appealing than the one mired in military dictatorship. The US counterculture’s affinity for India was a factor as well, he adds. Today, America still has nothing like the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
In more recent times, many aspiring scholars have shied away from visiting and doing research in Pakistan because of visa problems or security concerns. And as several people mentioned to me, one cannot truly become an expert unless you visit the country — particularly because portrayals of Pakistan in the United States are so often at odds with actual realities on the ground. An American who consults in Pakistan wrote this to me: “Learning about Pakistan involves becoming immersed, living among the people, traveling with them, seeing their country through their eyes. In fact, what I thought I ‘knew’ about Pakistan pales in comparison to my real-life experience.”
That said, it’s unrealistic to expect wide-eyed Americans to flock en masse to Pakistan to learn what makes the nation tick. Fortunately, the next best resource to help reduce the Pakistan expertise gap can be found right at home: the Pakistani American community. Several members of the diaspora wrote to me with a simple message: We’re here to help.
While exact figures are elusive, estimates suggest there are several hundred thousand people of Pakistani origin in the United States. On the whole, they tend to be relatively prosperous; a New York Times study finds that their most highly represented professions include doctors and accountants. Not surprisingly — and as explained in an invaluable book by Adil Najam — this diaspora is highly philanthropic and contributes generously to Pakistan.
One sees this connection to Pakistan in other ways as well. Last Saturday I was interviewed on Radio Hot Pepper, a Dallas, Texas-based station that caters to the diaspora population. I marveled at the passion with which callers debated host Parvez Malik on various matters of Pakistani politics; the phone lines were so jammed with callers that it took me multiple attempts to get through to the studio line.
The diaspora remainsso connected to Pakistan, in fact, that its members sometimes decide to resettle there after many years in America. Ijaz Nabi and Najam — both now at LUMS — are two prominent examples.
Pakistani-American organisations abound in the United States. The American Pakistan Foundation seeks to aid in Pakistan’s economic development, while the Pakistan American Leadership Center aims to help shape Washington policymaking. Yet there is so much more that the diaspora can do on more fundamental levels. How about visiting elementary schools to talk to children about Pakistan’s food, art, and music? Or serving as adjunct instructors and teaching evening classes about the country at universities or community colleges? (Incidentally, 54 per cent of Pakistani Americans 25 and older hold at least a bachelor’s degree). Or facilitating Skype-powered discussions between American businesspeople and their counterparts in Pakistan?
I acknowledge this outreach won’t interest everybody. I sometimes meet jaded Pakistani Americans so disgusted with their country of origin that they want nothing to do with it. Several years ago I hosted a screening of the documentary film Made in Pakistan — which follows the lives of four young, middle-class Pakistanis. The audience was quite satisfied — except for some angry Pakistani Americans who accused the filmmakers of sugarcoating the realities of poverty-ravaged Pakistan.
Still, these outliers don’t detract from the broader diaspora’s strong affinities for Pakistan. So even if Pakistani Americans can’t do much about America’s designation of Pakistan as the world’s most dangerous country, they can humanise Pakistan by equipping their fellow Americans with a better understanding of it — and in doing so help reduce that yawning expertise gap.
Michael Kugelman is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.