As we Pakistanis isolate the virus, and reassert our resilience — let's smile awhile

April 09, 2020


Pakistan is the happiest country in South Asia, and the 4th best when it comes to growth in the gig economy. — Creative Commons
Pakistan is the happiest country in South Asia, and the 4th best when it comes to growth in the gig economy. — Creative Commons

Perhaps more than at any other time in recent and contemporary history, and without any disrespect for the departed and with best wishes for the infected, we could do worse than to refer to universal human resilience in general. And to reflect briefly on the Pakistani people's resilience in particular.

Some familiar bad news first. Our country ranks abysmally low in several vitally important global indices. In the Human Development Index — ironically, brilliantly initiated in 1990 by our very own Dr Mahbubul Haq — Pakistan ranks 152 out of 189 countries. In the related maternal mortality rate, with 178 mothers out of every 100,000 perishing at, or soon after bringing forth a new life, we rank at 149. That is about a whole bus-full of our women of child-bearing age, at least about 30 human beings, falling fatally into a ravine every single day, every day of the year.

When it comes to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Index, we have plunged almost to the bottom with a place at 151 out of 153. Though only somewhat better in other areas such as Transparency International's corruption index — at 120 out of 180 — and the World Press Freedom Index — 142 among 180 — Pakistan is obliged to become the world's 11th largest importer of arms because our belligerent neighbour India still deploys about 70 per cent of its forces in a Pakistan-centric direction.

Before the rationale for this comment's title, I wish to record deep my scepticism about the veracity of one of the indices cited above. Even while acknowledging the gross failure to adequately invest in health, education and improved access to basic services, through conditions observed first-hand during travels in numerous developing countries, specially other Muslim and some Arab countries, the indicators used by WEF to rank the status of Pakistani women near the bottom in 2019 are misleading and distortive, and therefore quite absurd. Of about 100-105 million Pakistani girls and women, the large majority do suffer oppression and deprivation. But accounting for the country being the fastest-urbanising in South Asia, and noting the increased and rapidly growing visibility of millions of girls and women at all levels of education and in a wide range of professions, the country's rank in gender equity certainly deserves to be far better than several other countries that have been inexplicably placed higher. These include one glaringly well-known example in which, even today in 2020, women do not have fundamental political rights, nor is there any form of the vigorous democracy that throbs in Pakistan.

Yet global indices in general do have a reasonable, minimal credibility — especially if they place our tormented, beloved Pakistan higher than expected. Two of these are my current favourites. First is the World Happiness Report which places Pakistan at 66 out of 153 countries. Though 65 countries are ahead of us, our rank makes us virtually far higher and happier than all other South Asian countries. One says "virtually" because the global ranking curiously does not include Bhutan, the country that heralded the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a more appropriate measure to use than the Gross National Product (GNP). Second in South Asia comes the Republic of Maldives at 87. Then there's Nepal at 92, Bangladesh at 107, Sri Lanka at 130. India came second last — at 144, and at the end came Afghanistan — at 153.

We even outrank a more economically prosperous Muslim country from another region — Malaysia ranked 82 — that many Pakistanis have been attracted to partially adopt through its "Second Home" programme. In West Asia, Pakistan flies higher than Turkey at 93 and Iran at 118. In the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, with its entrenched political restrictions on women's participation still in place notwithstanding recent social relaxations, is notably higher at 27. The explanation could possibly be that the spill-off from oil wealth helps gloss over some crude realities. And finally, it would be awkward for us to leave our all-weather friend China trailing us at 94.

The happiness report was initiated in 2013 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network led by eminent economist Jeffrey Sachs and a few others soon after a high-level meeting at the UN inspired by Bhutan's proposal. Of the 10 leading institutions associated with the Report, three are the respected Universities of Oxford, Columbia and British Columbia as well as the reputed pollster Gallup.

Asking respondents as to how they perceive themselves in social, urban and national environments, the survey elicited answers in the social context on whether they had some one to connect with, their sentiments on generosity and trust and on having a sense of freedom to make key decisions. Though the last of these queries — for most women and the poor in Pakistan — must have received responses mainly in the negative, reactions to the other queries must have been possibly better. A basic question comprised as to where, on a ladder of 10 rungs, with zero being the lowest and 10 the highest, the respondent placed herself/himself in terms of the "best possible life"? With a representative sampling, Pakistanis emerged higher than 87 other nationalities.

How does one reconcile this pleasant, positive status determined by independent, impartial overseas sources with the low level of self-esteem and cynicism abundant among many intellectuals, the media, and other prominent opinion leaders in our country? One recalls the remonstrative remarks of the award-winning British journalist Peter Oborne made at the 2019 Adab Festival Pakistan held in Karachi. He bewailed the intensity and volubility with which many in Pakistan conduct self-denigration whereas he sees a nation that epitomises rich human and cultural values and other dynamic qualities. Several foreign visitors have also noted this tendency among some Pakistanis.

The second index one notes with pleasure is for the Global Gig Economy. The gig economy refers to value produced by individuals who are not full-time 9 to 5 employees but who work online, either from their homes or through various other forms of carrying out freelance work. The report is formulated by Payoneer, a US-based firm that facilitates fast payment transfers for online work, and is based on data from about 200 countries with over four million customers. Observing the output among about 300,000 freelancers, the latest report places the growth rate of Pakistan's gig economy at the top in all of Asia, and globally at number 4, behind only the United States, UK and Brazil.

With a rapidly-growing youth segment using 4G at relatively low costs, Pakistanis recorded 47% growth in 2019, markedly ahead of India at only 29% and Bangladesh at 27%. Most of this output by freelancers is not captured by conventional GNP measures and then there are the undocumented industrious maids who clean three to four houses in a single day — and millions of undocumented daily wage earners in diverse sectors.

As we work to overcome an unprecedented global crisis and remain conscious that many aspects of our country require urgent reform, we can draw strength from both the explicit and implied dimensions of the good news. Here is categorical confirmation that our unbounded compassion, our generosity (especially by the poor), our friendliness and our ingenuity imbue us with extraordinary capacity to effectively confront adversity.

Yet some aspects tickle and tease. One reason for our high happiness ranking is surely that all Pakistanis, regardless of faith or sect, believe profoundly in divine benevolence, i.e. "Allah khair karega". But then all other South Asian peoples, placed well below Pakistan are also devout religionists. And those countries too have bulging youth segments that are internet-focused.

So what gives Pakistanis more good cheer and makes them more enterprising than our neighbours? Is it our inimitable origins, our unmatched ability to rise against all odds? Our iron will to survive as a nation? As we search for answers, as we isolate the virus, and reassert our resilience — let's smile awhile.

The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister and the author of Pakistan: Unique Origins; Unique Destiny? ( )