Pakistani experts: Lack of opportunity, not talent!

Published: December 6, 2012
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They just don't hire Pakistani experts! ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

My post is a response to the op-ed put up in Dawn, by Moeed Yusuf of USIP on The need for experts from Pakistan in DC’s policy think tank circles.

In his piece, Yusuf makes a call for more experts of Pakistani-descent, which would enhance more fruitful and comprehensive discussions on issues relating to Pakistan.

He lists three reasons why Pakistan or Pakistanis have been portrayed in a negative light.

1) The focus is Afghanistan, so Pakistan is considered through an Afghanistan-tinted lens; the discussions are centered on ‘Af-Pak’ rather than Pak alone.

2) The lack of individuals, who have worked in both Pakistani and US contexts. In other words, experts who have on the ground experience in Pakistan, meeting a diverse group of Pakistanis in diverse regions of Pakistan.

Yusuf writes;

“[M]ore often than not, such experts tend to focus on the narrow set of issues most prevalent in the common narrative and often do it from an outsider’s perspective. This is so since research based on secondary sources or a narrow set of primary contacts — these usually tend to be the elite of Islamabad in Pakistan’s case — naturally gravitates towards issues that have already been written about extensively in the public domain. At some point, such works become self-referential and thereby end up iterating and reiterating the same conclusions on the same topics.”

3) Absence of Pakistani-American experts due to a generational gap and career divides. He notes that Pakistan was more of a hot topic in the 1980s with a resurgence post 9/11. He also highlights that Pakistani-Americans tend to stray from government positions and go into medicine, banking or law.

As a result of these factors, Yusuf argues, there is a dearth of Pakistani-American experts on Pakistan issues.

Most of Yusuf’s points are correct.

However, he does not address another serious point; the lack of hiring or employment opportunities for specialists on Pakistan in the think tank,  or even government circles.

A very quick internet search of opportunities focusing on South Asia in New York and Washington DC, indicate sundry internships (unpaid) or fellowships at think tanks like Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), New America, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Brookings. There are no positions listed for subject matter experts or research associates or assistants focusing on South Asia, let alone Pakistan. This is seemingly true for the private sector if one searches security-focused firms like BAE systems or Booz Allen Hamilton.

Many of the current ‘experts’ on Pakistan at these think tanks have been scholars for anywhere between five to 20 years. They may have shifted from previous government positions into the think tank community, which is true across specialisation for many different concentrations. I can think of two Pakistani-Americans who have successfully joined think tanks in DC as specialists, and two Pakistanis who are considered experts in their fields.

Simply put, there is a lack of space and real opportunity for Pakistani specialists to join this academic community, even if they have on the ground experiences, contacts, and research that would benefit these think tanks.

This is not limited to think tanks but also government agencies, which is a detriment to the field of scholarly research. Often, Pakistani-Americans have a nuanced understanding of Pakistan-US relations and niche Pakistan issues, such as governance, innovation, development, and even health care in Pakistan.

The comment that Pakistani-Americans are not entering the fields of political science, international relations, and academia is simply not true.

Post 9/11, there has been a boon for Pakistani-Americans to consider these fields and pursue higher education. Self-exclusion isn’t the issue at hand.

Finally, the end of Fulbright research grants to Pakistan is something that should be addressed in subsequent years. If the Pakistan-US relationship and the security situation in the said fields improve, perhaps, it would be possible for think tanks or the US government to send interested specialists out to Pakistan through this incredible research program. Over time, discussions in DC would evolve based on these newer insights and then, maybe, just maybe things wouldn’t look as bleak as Mr Yusuf suggested.

Follow Nadia on Twitter @sheikhandbake

Nadia Sheikh

Nadia Sheikh

A policy consultant and aspiring Pakistan expert based in Portland, Oregon, USA. She tweets at @sheikhandbake.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://na deep

    The implicit argument is that the current american approach is flawed and having a few pakistanis in these think tanks will change matters in favour of pakistan.
    The question these authors have to ask themselves is this:

    What is the pakistan point of view that is apparently neglected – that the people of pakistan are suffering – we get this. That is why we are asking you to recognise the true face of JUD. That is why the Americans are asking you to clamp down on the Haqqani network.

    However if the Pakistan point of view is – the Afghan Taliban are our strategic assets, we have done enough and JUD is a humanitarian organisation…the evidence on the ground proves this to be patently false – pakistani experts or not.

    The issue at hand is not the dearth of pakistani experts – everyone stood up for Malala because she was right – there was no question about it – whereas when you say that we cannot give voice samples of men who are being tried for bloody murder of 160 people – then even blue-blooded pakistani experts cannot vouch for you.Recommend

  • GrimmJow

    nah, they just lack talent.Recommend

  • Zafar

    Ms Shiekh,
    I have lived in the US for nearly 30 years. You really puzzle me. I can tell you since 911 there has there been such a massive academic interest in this region. Even before that because of the Soviet intervention in Afganistan there was much interest in this region. I remember going to many seminars back then. Actually I heard many American scholars say that the US is being distracted from the real major tectonic shift in world power which is the rise of China. Recommend

  • Falcon

    I have an alternate perspective. Except few names, most of the people in the field are bad researchers, if the sole source of your information is newspapers, op-eds, or glamorous titles (Ex; Pakistan on the brink) on Pakistan, you don’t know much about Pakistan to make enough contribution. There is a serious dearth of critical thinking in Pakistani American intellectual space and that is why root cause of problems or their interrelationships are not well understood. Lastly, there is also a bit of systemic bias at play. When you are shopping for a specific point of view, all other perspectives seem less relevant. Unfortunately, D.C. is famous for sidelining such truthful though bitter voices because Af-Pak policy is primarily determined by defense establishment rather than serious academics.Recommend

  • Parvez

    What little I have read on South Asian affairs and Pakistan in particular I find the analysis, views, conclusions drawn by foreign writers are more knowledgeable, unbiased, clearer and forthright than those by our local ones. You may say I am biased but I find our writers simply lack what it takes to put down a good study. This could be attributed to the lack of a proper environment that would encourage this type of intellectual activity. Recommend

  • Ali S

    I don’t blame any Pakistani who is genuinely talented and competent if he tries to get out of this hellhole of a country in search of a better life for himself and his family – and there is a very significant number of those who have done so. And Pakistanis themselves – everyone from top government officials to military fatcats to the common man, poor or educated – are wholly to blame for the sad state of affairs they’re in. Until and unless they’re willing to identify their fault and fix it, they should suck it up instead of looking for others to help them through it.Recommend

  • bball

    The discourse is dictated by what cards you are holding and not by how many pakistanis you got in a particular thinktank who often end up being the sole readers of their own writings. If you have something to offer as a nation then just watch the discourse shift in washington. And yes, who could blame the pakistanis who actually are smart enough to wanting to go into medicine or law or banking rather than poorly compensated Pak policy at some organization.Recommend

  • Cautious

    The USA position on Pakistan isn’t much different than the rest of the World — so once again were in the position that Pakistan is right and there is something wrong with the rest of the World. Your not going to cure that with more/better Pakistani analyst.Recommend

  • Akhter

    Somethings are “defensible” and some are “indefensible” what role? could any learned specialist on Pakistani/American affairs have in a Think Tank is beyond me, For any positive outcome you need a positive Pakistani policy one that is clear and rational, therein lies your problem for we as a nation are represented by spineless cretins who have no vision as to the direction Pakistan as a nation should take (on ANY matter), hence all the double dealing and connivance with extremist elements which in my view is unforgivable and the real reason we as a nation are so despised across the world. To truly change our image we need to change our own behaviors and accept that we are at fault (not always/everything but majority of our foreign policy). Recommend

  • Gustaakh Maula

    Pakistani is neither lacking talent nor opportunity. In fact before 911 Pakistanis had more opportunity in terms of Job’s and immigration in both Europe and USA. The strong inclination of establishment and by large the support in form of silence by Pakistani people has changed the world view of Pakistanis as dangerously intolerant towards non muslims. This along with past two decades of highly miscalculated policy of encouraging madrassa moe than universities and supporting terrorists more than dialogues has what led to Pakistanis being an isolated community. We still have time to fix our priorities and make Pakistan a secure, liberal and progressive country. Else we will soon be joining the likes of Somalia ( if we already haven’t). Forget Kashmir for now and focus on our own people’s development. We have to be strong to get world support on Kashmir. Recommend