SPEAKING at an event in Jacobabad last week, US Ambassador Richard Olson said that his country would continue to build “a long-term partnership with Pakistan by extending cooperation in several key areas.”
The ambassador was in the city to inaugurate a medical facility built through funds received from USAID and to meet local leaders and inform them about the projects being undertaken in the area. The US, the ambassador reiterated, is “committed to strengthening the foundation on which Pakistan can build a more prosperous future”.
A day or so before the ambassador delivered his speech in Pakistan; President Barack Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term. The speech was replete with new policy proposals on a variety of topics, from clean energy to jobs and immigration. In the bit
about immigration, President Obama presented some details about a new visa program that his administration is developing together with American technology companies. The speech did not provide many details of the plan which seeks to enable companies in the US to keep skilled workers and to attract innovators.
More details emerged a few days later when US senators introduced a bill called Startup 3.0. The bill, which is being touted as a bipartisan effort supported both by Republicans and Democrats, seeks to create a new skilled visa category for immigration to the US. Named the STEM visa, the programme seeks to increase by 75,000 the currently capped quota of visas available to highly skilled workers and enable international Masters and PhD students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields) in US institutions to avail a path to citizenship. The idea is simple: if the best talent that is being nurtured by these institutions is kept in the country, then their capabilities and research skills remain there too.
In addition to creating the new visa, the bill would also help secure 50,000 visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs that raise up to $100,000 in startup funding to start technology-based businesses in the US, demonstrate the ability to hire more staff and create jobs. The bill also contains tax breaks for foreign investors in these areas and other regulatory reforms that would reduce the number of obstacles faced by foreign-born innovators from doing business and developing companies in the US.
The bill comes in the footsteps of several other measures incubating in the Senate and the House that focus on increasing the number of H-1B visas available to skilled workers seeking permanent residence in the country. Some of these moves — a departure from the aversion American politicians have had to the idea of bringing in competition for US workers that are facing a job crisis — came after a visit by 12 CEOs from Silicon Valley who told senators and members of Congress the frustrations of trying to develop startup businesses in the country.
These developments are good, and those that stand to benefit most from them were paying attention. On the heels of President Obama’s words, Indian newspapers and media reported at length on the new effort, several of them noting that the additional 75,000 visas a year for immigrant entrepreneurs and 50,000 visas for foreign-born STEM students were designed to attract more Indian students to stay in the US or develop their startup companies on American shores. Their calculations may be right; not only is India experiencing unprecedented growth in its own technology sector, but a large percentage of Indian students studying in American universities are enrolled in STEM fields.
This provides an interesting and unique challenge to Pakistan which, if Ambassador Olson’s words are any indicator, is negotiating its own terms of friendship with the US. Pakistani science and technology students, while having tremendous talent, are often stymied in their ability to develop ideas or partake of an education at research institutions in the US.
Much of this is owing to the mistrust between the two countries and the security issues of clearance and background checks that impose huge and often damning delays, even when Pakistani students are accepted by US institutions on merit scholarships.
In effect, these delays, obstacles and refusals serve to keep Pakistani technology and science students out of the global labour workforce that the US is hoping to attract. When Pakistani students with exemplary grades and impressive ideas face the wall of suspicion that is the current visa regime between the US and Pakistan, they are effectively excluded from international competition and from the ability to develop ideas that can benefit not simply Pakistan but the world in general.
The USAID projects that Ambassador Olson spoke about last week — the dispensary in rural, healthcare-deprived Jacobabad and numerous other similarly well-intentioned initiatives dotted all over Pakistan —ultimately seek to build trust with Pakistan and convince the Pakistani people that American commitment to them is substantive. If this is indeed so, then one way to do it would be to discuss ways in which Pakistani students that obtain scholarships to US universities to study science, technology, engineering or mathematics can be permitted to avail of these opportunities and not turned away at the door of opportunity and achievement.
Aid projects see a lack of services, a want, a need — be it literacy or sanitation or healthcare — and try to fill that need by resources from an external source. Whatever the individual dynamics of an aid project may be, its core identity is as an act of charity, benevolently given.
Rewarding achievement by recognising the merit that is present — the potential that exists — is, instead, an exchange of equality. In the wake of so many failed overtures of trust and cooperation, perhaps the US and Pakistan can consider trying this one.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.