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Diaspora’s mindset

May 28, 2019

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The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

BEFORE coming to power, Prime Minister Imran Khan constantly pointed to the Pakistan diaspora as an untapped resource that would contribute generously for the country’s good once he took office. As a Pakistani who has been part of the US-based diaspora, I can see where he was coming from. Immediately after the PTI came to power, social media activism in the US was consumed by diaspora encouraging each other to do more for the country.

Ten months down, diaspora chatter is downbeat. The intuitive reasoning is that things haven’t improved much under the PTI. In reality, the reasons may have more to do with the diaspora’s mindset.

The fact is that the US-based diaspora is far more parochial than one would expect of a relatively successful, well assimilated expat community. To complicate matters, successive governments in Pakistan have failed to translate their desire to extract greater support from overseas Pakistanis into targeted strategies that appeal to the diaspora in question.

Take US-based diaspora in white-collar jobs. They have the greatest potential to do more. Unskilled and semi-skilled labour are already helping to their maximum ability by sending remittances to their families.

Ten months down, diaspora chatter is downbeat.

Highly skilled professionals tend to help in four ways: contribute to philanthropic causes in Pakistan; invest in profitable ventures that generate local economic activity; use their influence in US policy circles to promote Pakistan’s case; and physically relocate back to put their skill sets to use. In each case, things aren’t operating at potential.

Large funds pour into Pakistan for philanthropic causes. A 2007 book by Adil Najam, Portrait of a Giving Community, documented how Pakistani-Americans have kept up the spirit of charity. These inflows, however, are haphazard, most often transferred through informal family networks and usually devoid of any larger understanding of overall needs. The state must be faulted for not having a mechanism to define national priorities for in-bound philanthropic contributions. There are also no transparent mechanisms that would allow the donors to know, beyond doubt, that the funds have reached their intended recipients if they were to channel them to more strategic initiatives coordinated by the state.

The diaspora have shied away from private efforts to pool resources going to identical causes. The result is redundancy and a supply-demand mismatch in terms of where the money ends up.

The diaspora’s commercial investment choices also tend to be driven by an extremely conservative mindset. Too many expats gravitate towards investing in ‘safe’ sectors, most prominently real estate. Millions of dollars therefore pour in to be parked in what is arguably one of the least fruitful sectors from the point of view of generating local economic activity.

The state can be critiqued for lagging in creating adequate incentives to alter this behaviour. But I suspect the kind of investment certainty the diaspora want is impossible to provide in Pakistan’s current context. State efforts would have to be combined with a more entrepreneurial spirit and less jaundiced view of doing business in Pakistan.

In terms of political influence, the politically active diaspora have failed to make their mark. In Washington, D.C., many influential Pakistanis are active in trying to improve Pakistan-US ties. But as an aggregate, the community is as divided by petty issues and personality clashes as they would be in a Pakistani context. Successive Pakis­tani ambassadors in Washington have tried and failed to gel these influencers together.

Finally, the discourse around public service in Pakistan is often too entitled for my liking. Most successful diaspora feel they’d be doing the country a favour if they move back and work for the state. Most are looking for the right prominence to take the plunge. I experienced this my­self recently in the wake of misinformation that I had accepted a job in the public sec­tor and was returning to Pakistan. Some encou­raged me to base my decision on the prominence of the job, not on the kind of contribution I could make. And most were against it, arguing that I would be wasting my time and effort in an unappreciating environment.

Pakistanis in the US have every right to expect the Pakistani state to do more for them. But they must also be willing to come out of their shell. They have much to learn from their Indian counterparts. The much-famed Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley delivered for India despite the red tape of the Indian system. They did not let it deter them; they became politically relevant by sidestepping parochial interests and organising their lobbying model along the lines of the American Jewish community; and more and more Indians in America are voluntarily returning to their country — despite the bureaucratic and systemic hurdles that await them.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2019