I RECENTLY heard about a young Western academic who spent a decade in rural Punjab conducting ethnographic research for his PhD.
On completing the degree, he took up a research position in India. Why border-hop and abandon the networks and research base that took years to establish? Apparently, the academic wanted a job in a place where his family could live with him.
Moreover, the shift was seen as a strategic career move because there are more opportunities (collaborations, research grants, dedicated university departments) to pursue research on India than Pakistan.
This individual’s trajectory points to the serious dearth of academic research and publishing about Pakistan under way at Western higher-education institutions. That there is little literature about Pakistan may be hard to believe: it seems as if a book on Pakistan is published every other day by foreigners looking to cash in on tricky geopolitics. But these books focus almost exclusively on security and terrorism and are often published by journalists, diplomats or former military officials addressing policymakers or lay readers.
Serious academic research on Pakistan — involving extensive datasets, historical contextualisation, scientific evidence or ethnographic research, particularly in the social sciences — remains hard to come by. It is even more rarely conducted by a foreigner as opposed to a Pakistani citizen or expat.
Heady nationalists may ask why this is a problem. Why do we need foreigners telling us about our country? Primarily because Pakistani academics based at local universities aren’t doing the job, and someone has to.
The current state of higher education in Pakistan is no secret: with a few private-sector exceptions, our universities are under-resourced, poorly staffed, highly politicised, incapable of producing original research that will be published by international academic journals and plagued by plagiarism. The level of critical thinking currently imparted in public-sector universities can be gauged by recent news reports that the Pakistani Taliban are successfully recruiting college students, and of course by the unquestioning embrace of the ‘water car’.
The lack of rigorous academic research in the fields of economics, climate change, political science, sociology and dozens of other disciplines is consistently reflected in poor policymaking. Pakistan is younger, more urban, more middle class, more resource-starved and more connected than ever before. Anyone who knows the country well can sense this, but little data exists to quantify and chart these changes and thus inform adequate policymaking.
Good service delivery is impossible in an information vacuum — how can you plan for medium-term developments if you don’t know what’s going on? While Pakistani academia flounders, foreign researchers are well-situated to compile important datasets to guide policy.
Foreign researchers can also help kick-start better academic culture at Pakistani universities. Along with their knowledge and expertise, they will bring grant money, training in new methodologies, ties to international universities, and introductions to journal editors and networks of other academics who could be tempted to work in Pakistan.
Academics could also serve as invaluable interlocutors with foreign governments on Pakistan’s behalf since they are the experts that politicians consult when devising foreign policy.
While based in Washington on a fellowship, I noticed that academics working on Pakistan were regularly courted by the policy community, and inevitably had a more nuanced view of the country than former military and intelligence officials or diplomats whose opinions are also solicited.
Many of those academics had lived in Pakistan for several years, spoke Urdu or another regional language, and boasted friends — not contacts — who kept them abreast of developments within Pakistan. Their advice to government officials often highlighted Pakistani interests and concerns. Such interlocutors will prove more important in coming years as academia and policy intermingle further.
Increasingly, governments rely on professors to endow dubious or controversial foreign policies with gravitas. Take the example of Bradley Strawser, a professor of philosophy who argues that the US is morally obliged to use drones, and is unsurprisingly being thrust before the media gaze as often as possible.
As an academic, Strawser does not have the taint of a government or military official and can therefore earn the public’s respect and trust. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were another academic who had researched drones in Pakistan to counter Strawser’s views with the moral force that academic integrity offers?
Pakistan’s global image could also benefit from encouraging international academics to do in-country field research. Right now, most foreigners writing about Pakistan are international correspondents whose jobs revolve around making headlines — unfortunately for us, bad news sells.
But no one is writing about the subtle changes that don’t make for quick news stories: the growing presence of women in the workplace, mobile-phone entrepreneurship, indigenous sustainable farming practices, the slow embrace of solar power among Punjabi villagers. If analysed by academia, these aspects of Pakistan will eventually seep into global consciousness through public lectures, journalism and travelogues.
To their credit, Pakistan’s policymakers have already acknowledged the immense value of foreign academics. The National Education Policy 2009 calls for foreign experts to monitor educational quality and supports increased collaborations with international universities.
Soon after its creation, the Higher Education Commission also launched a Foreign Faculty Hiring Programme, which sought to attract up to 300 foreign academics to Pakistani universities annually. However, in a 2006 evaluation of its Medium-Term Development Framework, the HEC acknowledged that the programme had met with little success owing to concerns among local faculty that foreigners would introduce ‘foreign influences’ and steal jobs.
In other words, it seems that Pakistan’s higher-education system has fallen victim to the same paranoia and xenophobia as society at large, sadly to its own detriment and that of the country’s.
The writer is a freelance journalist.