Dawn News

When the Pakistani diaspora returns home

-Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

I recently met Roshaneh Zafar, founder of the venerable Kashf Foundation. I came away very impressed.

What impressed me the most was not Zafar’s foundation — though it deserves much praise for being one of the world’s most renowned microfinance organisations — but rather her own life story.

Zafar was privileged enough to come to the US to get her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Yet, instead of returning to Pakistan to pursue a career in politics or corporate finance, she decided to work directly with the Pakistani people. In her case, low-income females — nearly 300,000 of them.

This then got me thinking about the Pakistani diaspora. How many of them choose to return to Pakistan to help ease the nation’s plight?

For sure, many if not most Pakistani-Americans and US-based Pakistanis retain strong links to Pakistan. Some do so by staying close to relatives still in the country, or via the Internet and the various Pakistani media outlets accessible in America. Others quite famously exemplify the diaspora’s “giving” bonafides. We often hear about the remittances sent back to relatives, yet it’s equally important to acknowledge the humanitarianism. This largesse can be seen in the work of groups like APPNA, but also from the quiet actions of individuals. I know of various Pakistani-Americans — who otherwise rarely visit Pakistan — spending extended periods in the country to provide relief assistance after the 2010 floods.

Then there are the many diaspora organisations dedicated to Pakistan. Some, such as the various chapters of the Pakistani American Association (from North Carolina to Florida), promote Pakistani culture. Others, such as the Pakistan American Business Association, advocate business ties between the two countries. Still others are unabashedly political.

In the context of politics, only in recent months have I begun to fully understand the considerable influence Pakistani politicians’ exercise over the diaspora. As I’ve suggested before (only somewhat in jest), Pervez Musharraf seems to have more supporters in America than he does in Pakistan (and he has an extraordinary public relations operation to sustain his apparent popularity here). Then there’s Imran Khan, whose PTI party was scheduled to hold a jalsa in New York City until it was abruptly postponed with no apparent explanation. When Musharraf spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center last summer, many of the 400 people in attendance were Pakistani-Americans. I suspect a visit by Khan would draw many more.

Yet my main interest here is those diaspora members who decide to go back to Pakistan — and not simply to visit relatives or attend weddings. I’ve previously alluded to Ijaz Nabi and Adil Najam, long-time successful professionals in this country who returned to Pakistan to join LUMS. There are also the likes of Pakistani-American Nadia Naviwala, a Harvard-educated, one-time USAID staffer who not long ago decided to relocate to Pakistan to serve as the US Institute of Peace’s country representative there.

These are only the more well-known cases. I recently received an email from a young, newly minted law school graduate, born and raised in America, who had decided to move to Pakistan — where she had never lived before. I imagine there are other examples like this one.

So what inspires diaspora members to return to Pakistan? More than three years ago, a blogpost by Nosheen Abbas highlighted the various opportunities diaspora members perceive in Pakistan, and the sense of attachment that attracts them.

In truth, I doubt there’s one overarching motivating factor — and certainly not idealism. Several years ago I had lunch with a deeply cynical diaspora member who lamented — as many do — the hopeless state of Pakistan. Not too long after this conversation, he returned to the country to take a prominent position in government. He was likely drawn to Pakistan by a job, not by do-goodism.

Another question is how diaspora members are treated once they arrive back in Pakistan. Do they encounter hostility? Are they dismissed as out-of-touch outsiders?  And, in the case of those born in the United States, are they tainted for being Americans?

On all accounts, I suspect the answer is no. Various Afghan and Iraqi diaspora members (from accountants to politicians) have returned to help rebuild their countries of origin, a process that seems to be encouraged in these countries.

Pakistan is not a nation trying to rebuild, but it is a nation trying not to fall apart. Contrary to those subscribing to messiah theories of governance, Pakistan cannot be “saved” by a single great leader. Rather, it needs better institutions — both state and private — with both the ability and will to truly respond to the basic needs of the masses.

If diaspora members choose to leave stable and comfortable lives in America and come to Pakistan to help strengthen these institutions, then I don’t see why they should be received with anything other than appreciation.

The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org and follow him 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.

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Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (35) Closed

Jul 07, 2012 11:39am
Pakistan wil remain and will stand all odds. Pakistan is strong nation its all iternational politics talking of Pakistan disintegration.
Jul 06, 2012 07:23pm
The Diaspora is desperate to return and operate from Pakistan with the following basics in order: 1 - Poor Security as this is the biggest hurdle. Pakistan is a very difficult place to visit for the obvious Criminal & Millitant Activity. This is a pre-condition for all types of visit. 2 - Chronic Corruption! in everyday basic life duties...as well as in business, government dealings, justice... 3 - Availability of Good Education & Health services....... 4 - Merit and respect for all people of pakistan...irrespective of Race, Religion, Creed, Caste, Province etc etc
Agha Ata
Jul 06, 2012 07:26pm
A question... why do Pakistanis always look beyond Arabian Sea, Atlantic sea or Pacific sea for help to come from. Many people living and enjoying in Pakistan are even more prosperous and wealthy and educated than those who come from overseas to help. Why can't they, too, help their own people?
Iftikhar Husain
Jul 07, 2012 11:02am
Pakistan can be helped by visionary leader to whom we are all waiting. there may be a delay but there is a hope for that person to come.
tahir malik
Jul 07, 2012 03:57am
these great acts by lone angels delay the much needed revolution that is the only hope for the oppressed people of Pakistan. lesson from other progressive nations.......is....... make judiciary stronger, good will follow.
Shaan - San Diego
Jul 07, 2012 03:50am
Thanks Michael for a reminder to all Pakistani Americans that there is lots we can do back home. I just returned spending half a year in Karachi. Was amazed to witness the vibrancy of the city and resilience of people to pursue as much of a normal life while dealing with terror attacks, power load shedding, daicoits and hold ups. I am now in the process of re-engineering my life such that six months out of every year, I can stay in Pakistan and give back to my native land. Opportunities are immense and I am excited !!
Shaan - San Diego
Jul 07, 2012 03:51am
Thanks Michael for a reminder to all Pakistani Americans that there is lots we can do back home. I just returned spending half a year in Karachi. Was amazed to witness the vibrancy of the city and resilience of people to pursue as much of a normal life while dealing with terror attacks, power load shedding, daicoits and hold ups.
Jul 06, 2012 11:41pm
The motives of returning diaspora are mostly suspect, not because of cynicism, but because of past performances (or lack thereof), and mostly because of the "hero syndrome" some of them seem to suffer from, i.e. feeling ,like a hero for having returned to the homeland to "serve".
Amjad WYne
Jul 06, 2012 10:57pm
"Pakistan cannot be saved by a single great leader" - I disagree - but we would not know until we have one (great leader). For now, we only have thieves and corrupt leaders working hard to destroy everything.
Jul 06, 2012 04:16pm
Another organization which is more than 25 years old is Association of Pakistani Scientists and Engineers of North America (APSENA) should also be mentioned. Apsena provides technical assistance thru knowledge transfer to our counterparts in Pakistan in energy and environment. Individual members hold workshops and lectures in various universsities at no cost.
Syed Abbas
Jul 07, 2012 01:42pm
Karachi born Mohammed Ali Jinnah was among the first Muslim diaspora to have returned home. He will not be the last. Over the last 45 years I have seen people move to the West and back regularly. Those who move to the West say that they are coming here for the sake of their children - safety, education, upbringing. Those who move back (often with children born here) say that they are going to Pakistan for the sake of their children - safety, education, upbringing. It is free world. While man made Brazil for the Brazilians, Germany for Germans, Allah made the entire universe for the Believers. Borders do not exist for a Muslim. Said so well Iqbal .. Cheen o Arab hamara, Hindostan hamara, Muslim hain hum watan has saara jahan hamara.
fragile emptiness
Jul 09, 2012 02:46pm
Doctors save and not kill? If that is true, then they wont have lost any lawsuits.
Nadeem Shah
Jul 07, 2012 10:36am
Imran Khan is acting like he is the Messiah who is the only one who can save Pakistan....such arrogance.
Jul 07, 2012 10:03am
What is left to be destruyed there? It already is dying a slow death. Bravo Pakistanis, we do the job our own self, do not need any outside help. Thanks but no thanks.
Jul 07, 2012 05:12am
Return of pakistan diaspora home is not new. Pakistani elite return home after successful stints abroad. Since the british rule in india this trend is on-going but the situation in pakistan is deteriorating at alarming pace. I believe that no diaspora can help pakistan until its people are not ready to help themselves.
Jul 06, 2012 04:42pm
'Pakistan is not a nation trying to rebuild, but it is a nation trying not to fall apart.' So True.
Jul 07, 2012 05:15am
..and those who do decide to return are but a raindrop in the whirlpool
Umesh Bhagwat
Jul 07, 2012 05:29am
The call of the motherland in distress cannot be denied!
Jul 07, 2012 06:32am
"Was amazed to witness the vibrancy of the city and resilience of people to pursue as much of a normal life while dealing with terror attacks, power load shedding, daicoits and hold ups..." - WAS IT AMAZEMENT OR IS IT WORTH LIVING IN THAT KIND OF AN ENVIRONMENT?
Jul 07, 2012 06:56am
There is word for it and it is not resilience but rather it is - being numb.
Jul 07, 2012 07:47am
Pakistan is not a nation falling apart. If USA exits out of afganistan and leave us to our own i dont think so we have any problem
Jul 07, 2012 08:01am
It's about social responsibility and it starts with the government of Pakistan- they don't invest in the people, in enterprise, plus there is so much corruption in Pakistan, which drains the country financially (incl. corruption in politics), this is where the changes should start. And it's about taking political responsibility on behalf of Pakistan- for example, stopping the drone attacks. We don't exactly have the most fearless, brightest, patriotic government in the world. Shameful.
Jul 07, 2012 08:59am
Michael! Diaspora returns for many reasons but primarily they are two; save children from western culture and show off the wealth earned abroad. Many top notch docs return because they can have a fairly decent practice sans any accountability of malpractice.
Jul 07, 2012 05:13pm
So true. Without good leadership people are a herd, with leader they become nation.
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti
Jul 07, 2012 05:53pm
Pakistan can attract Pakistani diaspora by extending visa duration to minimum 5 years, Waving visa fee and reinstating the free domestic air ticket on PIA.
Mohammed Khan
Jul 08, 2012 12:18pm
Michael, thanks for your incisive comments. As a member of the diaspora, I try and do my bit through modest philanthropy and involvement in education which I believe is the salvation for a society that is being rented apart by schisms. pakistani society needs to embrace modernity in the trusts ense, not just its visible, outward symbols but an embedded set of tolerant values based on a common humanity rather than medieval ideologies, honour codes, machismo and confusing religious faith with the obligations of citizenship, e.g. paying taxes, learning to live in a community, observing the rule of law- things that we take for granted in the west. It may still take 3-4 generations bit we will be headed in the right direction. We need to invest today in the future of our childrens' education and bring them out of the dark ages.
Raj Patel
Jul 09, 2012 05:51am
People like Pakistani don't need enemy.
Jul 09, 2012 08:20am
Your logic is a little weak here. US trained doctors bring wealth of knowledge and experience. The lack of accountability is not there fault. If there is a lack of malpractice insurance (read no value of life) then it is not their fault. Doctors save and no kill.
Jul 09, 2012 08:21am
not whirlpool. Desert
Jul 09, 2012 08:22am
on PIA? hahahah
Jul 09, 2012 08:25am
and why not. They all have better experiences/knowledge/exposure and education. Why not give credit where it is due. When you deny respect and acknowledgement of their experiences you are basically shutting them out from returning home.
Jul 09, 2012 08:26am
A masters or Ph.D from USA has no match in Pakistan, Agha Sahab.
Jul 09, 2012 08:27am
could not agree with you more. You are 100% correct.
Sofie Mian
Jul 17, 2012 08:18am
A well written piece. However, it just touched the surfice of the topic and didnt have any depth. "Pakistan is not a nation trying to rebuild, but it is a nation trying not to fall apart." is a true and very precise observation of the auther which has earned him my respect for this comment alone!
Dawn Fan
Jul 18, 2012 05:50am
Very interesting read.