How U.S. Higher Education Partnerships Can Promote Development In Pakistan

If the United States and its allies help address the core structural development problems within Pakistan many of our security concerns will also be resolved. As I have written before, the United States needs to broaden the way we look at Pakistan.  For decades, security issues have dominated Washington’s Pakistan agenda while “soft” issues have been an afterthought.  From Islamabad’s perspective, the “soft” issues include some of their most important challenges.  These soft issues might be characterized as Pakistan’s “6Es”: (non-security) engagement, economics, entrepreneurship, education, energy, and (gender) equality.

Most of the international community engage Pakistan through an “AfPak” lens or an “IndoPak” lens, but Pakistan cannot be defined completely by its relationships with its neighbors. Afghanistan has a population of 25 million while Pakistan’s population will soon exceed 200 million. India continues to grapple with its own development challenges and opportunities, many of which have little or nothing to do with Pakistan.  Pakistan is the sixth largest country by population in the world and is projected to become the fourth largest country by 2050. To understand Pakistan requires analysis through its own sui generis set of issues and opportunities.

Despite a very poor country brand with the international media, Pakistan has undergone a series of positive developments that merit recognition.  These developments set the table for the sort of policies and investments needed to move the country on a path traveled by Indonesia or Brazil.  The country had its first peaceful democratic transition in 2013, and for now, the military, the civilian government, and civil society are broadly aligned on security issues.  This optimism must be tempered by recognizing that the military remains Pakistan’s central institution, and that pockets of conflict and extremism persist throughout the country.  While the military has seeming gotten out of the coup business, it is still the “back seat driver” for many parts of the government and economy.

Pakistan’s economy has been growing for a number of years, and it is on track to complete an International Monetary Fund ( IMF ) program from start to finish for the first time in its 70-year history. Pakistan’s growing middle class, which will expand from an estimated 40 million people today to 100 million people by 2050, represents a powerful engine for change, demanding both improved services and greater access to opportunities. One key area of expanding demand and potential growth lies in the energy sector.  Pakistan’s abundant coal reserves and access to water flowing from the Himalayas mean it could be the “Saudi Arabia of Coal” and the “Saudi Arabia of Hydropower.”  Pakistan also has significant wind, solar and geothermal potential.  However, if current trends continue, by 2050, India’s economy will be 40 times larger than Pakistan’s, and China’s economy 100 times larger.  It is in both U.S. and Pakistani interests to see that Pakistan grows a lot faster.

To seize its full potential, Pakistan is going to need more capable people to lead industries that will carry its future growth; run it’s national, provincial and city governments; and grow its universities. The government has made some increases in spending on education, up from 1.9 percent of GNP in 2004 to 2.5 percent in 2014; Pakistan aspires to spend 4 percent of GNP on education so it is still not where it needs to be. In Pakistan’s higher education institutions approximately 45 percent of students are women, but at the basic education levels the numbers are much lower, with some provinces at eighteenth century education participation levels: more than 50 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend primary school, and more than 75 percent of girls do not attend secondary school. The Pakistani government knows you can’t have a twenty-first-century economy with eighteenth-century basic education levels for girls in its rural areas.

An American University
Image courtesy of Flickr user Nathan Forget under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Given all of the above, Mr. Ahsan Iqbal, Planning Minister of Pakistan spoke at my day job on Friday and announced that the Government of Pakistan hopes to train 10,000 Pakistani citizens as PhDs in U.S. universities over the next ten years.  Minister Iqbal said, “the transformation of Pakistani society hinges on the development of human resources and increased partnerships in education.” Minister Iqbal said that the government of Pakistan will put up some of the money to fund these students, but will need partnership from others in the international community to fully realize this goal.

This proposal mimics what other countries have done as they build the capacity to “pay for their own development.”  Brazil, for example, has launched its own education initiative with the United States, Science Without Borders, in an attempt to fully fund study abroad for 50,000 students pursuing degrees in science and engineering in the United States. The goal of the program is to bring academic, scientific and technical skills to a new cadre of students to help build a brighter economic future. In the case of Brazil, the private sector and public-private partnership focus is significant and plays a large role in funding and training.

Minister Iqbal is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and his thinking is influenced by his own education within the United States.  In his public remarks, the minister mentioned the shocking fact that there are more Iranians studying in the United States than Pakistanis.  Iran has around 70 million people and is a major adversary of the United States.  How is it possible that Pakistan, with nearly 3 times the number of citizens and a much stronger relationship with the United States, has fewer students studying here than Iran?  The government of Pakistan does not have enough money on its own to pay for all these PhDs, but there are a number of potential partners that can come together to support this initiative.

A new partnership using Pakistani government money to increase the number of students in the United States will need help from a series of partners, as well as a strong commitment from top leadership in Pakistan and the United States. Such a partnership will need some sort of coordinating secretariat in the U.S. and could seek to leverage support and networks from the Pakistani diaspora.  The Pakistani diaspora has money and networks, but has yet to succeed at the levels of the Indian diaspora in terms of organization and influence here in the U.S. An additional challenge is identifying ways to ensure Pakistanis return to Pakistan at the end of their studies to fulfill their part of the social contract of building a better Pakistan.

 American universities seeking global curriculum and diverse student bodies will benefit from having Pakistani students who enjoy a reputation as hardworking and studious.  These universities should find ways to provide scholarships to supplement the efforts of the other potential partners.  This partnership will also need U.S. and Pakistani corporate support, and should build on the pathways, networks and possibilities built through generous and ongoing U.S. government funding of Pakistanis studying in the U.S. through the Fulbright program.  There are likely little or no additional government monies for this in the budget of the United States. That does not mean the U.S. government cannot facilitate, convene and leverage the monies it is already spending in Pakistan on higher education in order to make this program a reality.

We need to view Pakistan not as a “security problem to be solved” but as a large country with complex and compelling challenges and opportunities. As Pakistan continues to grow it will need to place 1.5 million people in the formal economy every year.  A Pakistan growing at eight percent a year is an ambitious but realizable goal and is the only way to absorb the growing youth population. For those who want to get a divorce from Pakistan, we are “stuck with them” and they are “stuck with us” given Pakistan’s strategic importance and size.  The potential higher education partnership will help solve its long-term 6E problems and will create new networks and consumers and contribute to our own national security.

Article Published in on February 29, 2016.

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