A Pakistani Spring is not enough

Published: January 5, 2012

In Pakistan, instead of going with the motto 'overthrow the system," our youth is trying to 'improve the system'. PHOTO: AFP

The Arab Spring has captured the imagination of young people around the world with a powerful message about people taking control of their own destiny.

In Pakistan, the spirit of the Arab Spring is playing out to a different tune. Instead of adopting “overthrow of the system” as their battle cry ala the Arab Spring, a visible and growing number of young, educated professionals in Pakistan are channeling their energies to incrementally improve the system by engaging with the current set up. Young Pakistanis, including many who have traveled to the West to get educated, are returning home to make active contributions in fields as diverse as public policy, journalism and police reform.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Pakistan’s youth already has freedoms that their Arab brethren are laying down their lives for; the right to elect their own leaders, the right to speak freely, and the right to assemble and protest. However, even with these rights and a democratic government at the helm, the political system in the country isn’t responding as quickly as it could to create a secure, economically stable future for its citizens.

Sana Gulzar, a Fulbright scholar who recently returned home after completing a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism says:

“Pakistan is where I need to be right now”

A few days after flying back from New York, a bomb blast in Karachi “validated” her decision to return by serving as a reminder that the country needs young people like her right now.

“I had forgotten how it felt emotionally to be in a country which is at war,” says Sana, who didn’t want to settle in the US after her education. She was eager to return home and use her journalism skills to tell stories about ‘real people’ in the country instead of the violence and political shenanigans that usually get disproportionate coverage in the media.

A passionate broadcast journalist with a documentary film to her credit, Sana recently joined the BBC Urdu Service. “It’s time to let go of the 90’s mentality, when people used to think that being active in politics or journalism is dirty,” Sana remarks, arguing that young people need to step up and influence society positively through their work.

“Pakistan has hit rock bottom or is pretty close to it,” says Sana, going on to explain that a turnaround is possible and will be triggered by young people. “We have the systems in place; it’s just a matter of putting our energy together to make the systems work.”

Interestingly, a growing number of educated professionals in Pakistan are trying to do just that. Meet Saad Gulzar (not related to Sana Gulzar), a young academic from Lahore with the swagger of a rock star in the making.

Saad has a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore as well as a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Columbia University. He’s currently working as the ‘In Country Economist’ at the International Growth Centre in Lahore, where he engages in original research that will enable the Pakistani government to deliver better public policy outcomes.

Commenting on his return to Pakistan after studies abroad, Saad argues that the important thing for him is to be surrounded by thinkers and be in an environment where his own thinking and research can flourish. This is precisely why the International Growth Centre (IGC), housed at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of the premier academic institutions in the country, is the perfect place for him to work.

“I wanted to go into research with practical field experience,” says Saad, who among other things, promotes the overarching importance of evidence or research backed policy making to help create better public policy outcomes for the Pakistani government. In many ways, this is exactly what the country needs right now.

An Arab Spring style revolution would be an underwhelming and inadequate response to Pakistan’s problems today. Instead, what Pakistan needs is for young people like Sana and Saad to step up and deliver solutions to the problems that the country faces in their respective fields on interest.

What is remarkable is that we’re beginning to see this happen organically and simultaneously in fields as diverse as education, micro-finance and police reform. Despite the disproportionate media coverage given to Pakistani talent fleeing the country, bright young men and women are also coming back to make active and meaningful contributions to Pakistani society. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon but one that is gaining momentum and has the potential to snowball into a Pakistani Spring led by educated professionals.

Pakistanis have learned, the hard way, that a leadership change at the top isn’t necessarily a panacea for the country’s problems. Unlike the Arab Spring, young people here aren’t betting on street power to take charge of their destiny. Instead, they are slowly and quietly betting on themselves.


Muhammad Bilal Lakhani

A Fulbright Scholar and author of “For the 21st Century Muslim: Real Life Lessons from the Holy Quran”. He blogs on life in Pakistan at "Pakistan: Beyond the Headlines" and tweets as @MBilalLakhani (twitter.com/mbilallakhani)

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

  • Sabih Shad

    “Pakistan is where I need to be right now”

    I wish more people would be willing to realize this.Recommend

  • Sunil

    Could not agree more, ” Pakistan is the where I need to be right now”, it’s a very positive sign that despite of all the brain train we are facing there are people who are concerned about the current needs of the mother land, additional I think peer pressure is something which is major source of impact among young people, with the efforts of people like Sana and Saad we can impact many other talented and educated young professionals who can be source of changeRecommend

  • Modazul

    Pakistan won’t improve itself. It’s us who need to do something about it. We need to try our best with sincere and honest intentions. I’m a muslim and what I’m taught is to try our best and then leave it upto Allah. If it’s good for you, Allah will give you what you want and when it’s the best time.Recommend

  • Ali

    What a breath of fresh air to read this. I wish all of them well. May Pakistan prosper – Ameen!Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Great article. We need more people like you. Articles like this give people like me a reason and hope to come back home. Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    In the 1990s Indians also used to listen to similar stories. But, back then it was just not true. Yes, some Indians came back to start the Infosys, WIpros and what not, but most stayed back. A large percentage of them stayed back.

    But, it is true now. Many do come back because of the simple reason that the salary they get in India is good enough to lead a comfortable life and Indian Cities have almost everything that their counterparts in the US posses. Also, because the visa regime has been tightened in the West. I studied in an environment where virtually everyone went outside to study at one point in their lives. But, none of them have plans of settling in the West. But, it was not so with the previous generation.

    These stories sound good but are not true when it comes to percentages in Pakistan. Most stay back in the West.

    Realist is the best indicator of the future. If you misread it you are the only loser. There is nothing in Pakistan to come back to. Your article is just a beautiful dream.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Great article and although you are talking of people who could be counted on your fingers, maybe a few more, but then a beginning has to be made somewhere. Where I disagree with you is that change, to be meaningful in the context of a country, has come from the top, by example.Recommend

  • geeko

    Always have to read some bitter Indian destroying the mood… India in the 90s was worse than Pakistan could ever be; before the economic liberalization, your country was nearly bankrupt, literally, so their concerns were, at worse, legitimate. In 2012’s Pakistan, there’s a dynamic of change carried out by the growing middle-class, which will shape the whole society in the near future – a basic sociological phenomenon – and Pakistanis abroad should contribute with their knowledge and skills – and they definitely have the opportunities to do so.

    Pakistan jindabad :-)Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com Anoop


    “India in the 90s was worse than Pakistan could ever be”

    Seriously, man? India lagged behind Pakistan, yes, but only with respect to poverty line. But, India did not have a sugar daddy like Pakistan had in the US in the 1980s, thanks to the Afghan war.

    When was Pakistan ever better off than India? India has been a stable, working Democracy, whose fruits we are seeing now. Liberalization was meant to happen, but due to the obsession with Nehru’s socialism in India, it got delayed than it should have.

    Stability breeds prosperity, not the other way around. India’s Infosys, WIpros started in the 1990s. Where are such job making machines in Pakistan from the 90s, if we assume that Pakistan was indeed prosperous then? Infosys and Wipro directly employ around 3.5 Lakh people in India. Jobs created by them indirectly runs into several more lakhs.

    India had the stability, governance and an economy waiting to take off, despite the balance of payment crisis of 1991. It had the institutions like the IITs and IIMs, whose alumni later started companies like Infosys.

    A Gambler can also make a lot of money when things are going his way. But, he can also lose it as quickly. A hard working man, with talent and a basic foundation will always win the race. That is the story of India and Pakistan when contrasted. Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Disagree with you. To be honest, Pakistanis are having much more trouble than Indians for settling in the west because of the worldwide security-mania post 09/11. Because of this and over-exposed urban cultural strands of west, many Pakistani families also feel culturally threatened; as result of which they would rather head back to a Muslim country. Lastly, there is a new sense of nationalism in rise in young Pakistanis. Putting this altogether, higher magnitude of reverse brain drain is expected than before.Recommend

  • geeko

    Yeah, seriously: Khalistan, Naxalites at their peak, … that was the every day’s news in Bharat… rings some bells, ‘stable democracy’ ? When was Pakistan better than India ? Quite simple: from 1948 to 1991 – just type ‘Hindu rate of growth’ on Google, and it will eloquently explain you India’s situation for the its first decades of existence as a nation, when (Indian incl.) economists were mocking it openly for it’s inefficiency.

    And Pakistan, living on aid ? Do you know that economic aid doesn’t equates PIB’s growth, esp. in a semi-feudal society like Pakistan where aid doesn’t goes into infrastructure building or civil enhancement, but politicians greedy pockets ? You know what’s even funnier ? Aid stopped after the Afghan war, because of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Once again: Google it.

    Also, is the fact that Infosys & co were born in the 90s a coincidence, either ? Well, live in your delusion; you are the guy who comes here trolling, I don’t really give a toss about India to be honest, it’s just that India, for the greatest part of its life, was not a prosperous nation filled with 1.2 billion millionaires, and that’s what I meant : basically, I was here to congratulate the author about the article, no more, but you guys just can’t breathe without putting some dirty stuff here.

    (hope this post will be approved, as all trolling attempts are)


  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com Anoop


    Yes, 9/11 is also a factor. For the Indians Recession and the resulting tightening of visa rules is.

    Think unemotionally about it. West doesn’t mean the US alone. I believe visas for Pakistanis to the US has gone down tremendously since 9/11.

    Why would a talented, educated Pakistani come back to Pakistan? Is he guaranteed to get a job in Pakistan commensurate to his potential? An Indian may not have in the 90s but today he can. He has the option of coming back to his beloved India.

    Practicality always trumps nationalism.

    One more thing, an Indian in the 70s,80,90s and the Pakistanis of today just because they chose to live in another Country doesn’t mean they love their Country any less. It only means they have to follow their dreams. So, let us not treat this subject like that.Recommend

  • Roamer

    @Anoop: I am unable to understand what you are debating about, why do Indians have so much insecurity about Pakistan and its growth and poke your noses with anything to do about Pakistan and that too on Pakistani forum? you didnt grew up in Pakistan and probably you have never been to Pakistan ever in your life and then you try to write to give your biased opinions as if you are a subject matter expert on Pakistan. The best thing for you will be, since you believe Indian system is so great, please put the killers of Samjota Express behind the bars and have them executed. Try to fix your own system before pointing fingers at others.Recommend

  • Shahida Munim

    Awesome and energizing article,
    Insha Allah we would succeed as long as we keep our intentions pure and do it for the sake of Allah SWT and not expect any reward from anyone,Allah’s help come for those who are in the right path,even if the whole world is against you.Do not pay attention to negative comments.Just as it takes only one candle to light a dark room,it takes few good people to make a change,as long as we follow the teachings of our creator.Recommend

  • jen

    come on, this is a bright outlook! have some faithRecommend

  • Shahida Munim

    The most civilized and huge empire in history was pharoah(firoun),what happened to them is a big ibrat(lesson) for all of us and especially the so called “successful and developed nations”,not to be arrogant and underestimate anyone’s power,trust in Almighty Allah and following his commands is the only way to success in this world and the hereafter.Recommend

  • Ali Kazmi

    What a wonderful and heartening article :)Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    Please approve this comment, its going to be long one.


    You talk about Khalistan when a Sikh is the Prime Minister of India. That is very smart of you.

    Naxalites are tribals who are inspired by the Maoist ideology of chaos. Do you even know why they have taken up arms? Or, how strong they are? Or, how many attacks have taken place in the last year? So, debating about this with you seems useless.

    “when (Indian incl.) economists were mocking it openly for it’s inefficiency.”

    The problem with you is you are partly right and add up some more junk to fit your world view. It was not the efficiency which was the issue, but the socialist policies of the Indian Govt, a Nehruvian era hangover. After 1991, the Hindu growth rate has risen tremendously, hasn’t it. India has just in 10 years acquired the status it deserved.

    Wasn’t one of the arguments of Pakistan was that Muslims could not be able to compete with the Hindus in commerce in a free India? When the policies were fixed we are seeing how true that argument was.

    ” Aid stopped after the Afghan war, because of Pakistan’s nuclear program.”

    If you Google it, you will also find out that when India tested its nukes it had billions of dollars in its kitty and a cushion. But, Pakistan was almost broke. You will also realize that Pakistani growth in the 1990s when Aid was stopped to Pakistan was very very low.


    1990 4.459
    1991 5.417
    1992 7.57
    1993 2.097
    1994 4.369
    1995 5.062
    1996 6.599
    1997 1.703
    1998 3.494
    1999 4.184
    2000 3.906
    2001 1.967

    Compare this with India.

    1990 5.63
    1991 2.136
    1992 4.385
    1993 4.938
    1994 6.199
    1995 7.352
    1996 7.56
    1997 4.128
    1998 6.02
    1999 7.238
    2000 5.83
    2001 3.885

    So, the above data proves 2 things. Without Aid Pakistani Economy was barely growing in the 1990s without aid(as you pointed out) and Indian Economy after the start of Liberalization started achieving its true potential and there were no one to give India the kind of aid Pakistan received from the US and now China. So, your above assertion that Pakistan is not dependent on Aid is very funny indeed.

    There is also another observation. Aid to Pakistan has slowed down in the recent years due to Pakistani duplicity in the WOT. So, has the economy. Pakistani Economy grew at 2.5% last year and is expected to grow at the same rate next year, when you consider the high population growth of Pakistan This is when India is clocking a phenomenal 10% in 2010 and 8% in 2011.

    Pakistan cannot even manage to grow at 1/3rd India’s rate.

    It is important and worthy to note that when the Economic Liberalization began India had its foundations set. That is why it took off the way it did. If you dont give much importance to it, who cares, the World does. In 2011, India was the only Country where all the powerful leaders of the World visited one single Country, especially from the P5. All of them came here, with goodies and expected goodies from us. Shows how important India has become and has grown from an Aid receiver to an Aid giver. Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop


    “The best thing for you will be, since you believe Indian system is so great, please put the killers of Samjota Express behind the bars and have them executed. ”

    Dude, they ARE in jail!!! Don’t you read the news? I am not talking about the bigoted Urdu ones.

    They are in jail and will stay there for a long time. Its India, not Pakistan. And, oh! Nobody is showering rose petals on them nor are the guys who unearthed them shouted down.

    Since, you are bringing unrelated topics, can you tell me why Hafiz Saeed, a man declared to be a Terrorist by the UNSC and Interpol, is roaming around and spreading his hateful mindset? Or, why does Interpol website list Karachi as the area where Dawood Ibrahim lives, a man who has killed around 200 people in a single day in 1993? Seems to me that the World’s Terrorists are in Pakistan..Recommend

  • Saadia

    @ Mr Anoop

    I am sure someone has said this before in the forum. You don’t know anything about Pakistan’s realities and problems. Reading it on the news does not make you an expert. The article never made a comparison with India.If NRI’s are coming back to India because they get everything there that they would get in the West then good for them and for you. Even if some of us are deluded ,as you believe, then it is our problem not yours. This is a Pakistani forum where people are discussing their own issues. Either add something constructive or don’t bother. If you just want to vent your biases then please go to an Indian blog you would be in great company there.Recommend