Dearth of research

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. Twitter: @humayusuf

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Comments (12) Closed

Aug 06, 2012 04:36am
Huma - This is a rarely talked about issue but very very significant in building an alternate discourse for Pakistan in the western world. A good quality research is rare to find for Pakistan. And those who have committed themselves to this noble task (such as Akbar Zaidi) had to pull this on their own without much help from government or private sector. Thanks for highlighting it.
Aug 06, 2012 04:08am
Too sad!
Salar Maiwand
Aug 06, 2012 07:03am
i totally agree with you. I came to know about the dearth of academic and non-jouranislistic writings on Pakistani society when I started my studies in the US. we had a class on south Asia and there were few social science books assigned on contemporary Pakistan. I asked my professor whis is it so and she replied she couldn't find books on Pakistan. on the other hand there is a lot written about India and other South Asian conutries.
Atif Javed
Aug 06, 2012 07:21am
I don't agree with the writer that "most foreigners writing about Pakistan are international correspondents whose jobs revolve around making headlines" because this is what our own media is doing too, Sensationalize general public to enhance their media rating. Has someone ever wondered why Canada and USA who are neighboring,enjoy almost same weather, same education level and similar employment opportunities so grossly differ in crime rate? It is because USA media shows crimes round the clock whereas Canadian Media show programmes of social welfare and self improvement. No wonder one day Pakistan will reach at the climax of crimes because of the promulgation of crimes on media and we will have dysfunctional government machinery because of never ending criticism. A common observation the substantiate my argument is the notion of "Every one is corrupt so why not me" or "this is how its done in Pakistan". After all there is some system function in Pakistan because of which country if surviving. We never see that being discussed or argued/appreciated. Weldon Pakistani Media. We have no right to blame international media once our own media is exactly following their lines.
Aug 06, 2012 08:22am
Before you try and embark on the project of building an' alternate discourse' in the Western world, you need to look around and change the present discourse in pakistan itself. To begin with you might have to start reading history and correct all your history books. False propaganda doesnt survive for long , no matter how many billions of dollars are put into it.
Aug 06, 2012 10:06am
I agree with you Huma. After working for 15 years in Pakistan, I got an opportunity to work or study in North America. I decided to get a research-based Masters degree here and to dedicate at least a year of my life to research on a particular problem (in my field) in Pakistan - solely from my own resources. I am sorry to say that during the course of my study, I feel that as a nation, our attitude towards research is not favorable. by many of our countrymen. Sadly, most of the people in Pakistan has the perception that research is just a waste of time. What we don't realize is that research is necessary for development; for diagnosing problems and finding their solutions. Probably research is the number one reason of development of developed countries.
Aug 06, 2012 10:28am
This article highligths an important problem. I recall when I was completing my undergraduate dissertation on the rise of MQM, I strugled to find relevant research on the topic. I was told by my adviser that there was very little research on this area. Of the few works I did find none were by Pakistani's, the majority were by westerners with the remainder coming from India.
Tariq Mian
Aug 06, 2012 12:02pm
Nice and thought provoking article. I don’t know what’s going on these days, however, five six years ago, once I did little research and visited websites of different departments of a few Pakistani universities. Especially Social sciences and got shocked. I did not find even one reference where I can refer that someone doing research on a current relevant topic. You can easily notice lack of quality, motivation and above all “passion” for work. On the other side, don’t forget that when current government took away a big chuck of funds for the post graduate programs. No one, I mean no one spoke against it except one politician, Imran Khan. Where were the university students and academia? Did not they fail to protect there right and play their role? You can give number of example like that to make a point. For me it is nothing but failure of our education system and overall failure of our society. We have to admit that we failed to protect not only our future but also out present. At this stage, the only hope we have is form individuals and private sector. But, how long we can survive like that? We have to revive our institutions because only they can play effective role. Private sector needs to step in to facilitate the institutions in the absence of government.
Zahiruddin Khurshid
Aug 06, 2012 02:12pm
I have recently concluded a research study on the Contributions of Pakistani authors to Foreign Library and Information Science (LIS) Journals. The findings are: The highest impact factor score of a foreign journal in which a Pakistani author has published his article is 1.905 as compared to the highest-scored American journal on the list is 5.041. Librarians are enjoying faculty status up to the professor rank. On the other hand, most of them are not visible in the world library literature. They have not contributed a single article to the global LIS literature. Z. A. Bhutto introduced a new education policy in the early 1970.s which introduced the rotation system for chairmen of LIS departments. This policy opened the door for incompetent teachers to get Ph.D degrees from their own universities by just writing a thesis in Urdu or English language and get a Ph.D degree to qualify for a professorship through non-academic means. They may be well known in Pakistan, but nobody knows them through their research or writing at the international level. There was a time when most faculty members at the University of Karachi would make serious efforts to get a Ph.D degree from an accredited program of a foreign university in order to qualify for an academic rank starting from Assistant Professor to Professor, because of the university requirement for the position. If we want to achieve any recognition among the community of scholars, we should not allow any degrees acquired through non-recognized and non-accredited Ph.D programs.
Aug 06, 2012 03:15pm
Pakistan is a sinking ship.
Aug 06, 2012 11:13pm
Not really, but we need to completely root out the present corrupt leadership ( a big chunk of it!)
Aug 07, 2012 01:17am
Very true Atif javeed.......things are tending as you did expose....