Frank Islam (Washington): Realising the importance of overseas diaspora, Prime Minister Imran Khan has made a passionate appeal to Pakistanis living abroad to donate at least US $1000 for the construction of Diamer Bhasha Dam. Responding to the call, a prominent Pakistani-American entrepreneur Tahir Javed pledged to generate over US$200 million for the project. Many others from all over the world have also come forward to support this cause. However, regardless of the success or failure of this particular project, the fact remains that overseas Pakistanis have a key role in the country’s progress and prosperity. They are a vital resource, contributing to the economic, political, and social developments of Pakistan. The current government of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) enjoys massive support in this segment and the policy makers are hopeful that this group will join them in realising the vision of a new Pakistan.
Although the Pakistani diaspora is spread across the world, the government in Islamabad always accords special importance to Pakistani Americans, owing to their contribution towards the country and their influence over policy makers of the United States. The Pakistani Americans are generally well educated and affluent. According to state department, United States is home to about 500,000 Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans. During the last fiscal year alone, Pakistan received remittances worth US $2.71 billion from the United States. A 2015 Migration Policy Institute study of Pakistani-Americans revealed that nearly a fifth of households report annual incomes over $140,000. The median household income of Pakistani-American families is $60,000 — a full $10,000 higher than the figure for American families overall. It is not just that Pakistani Americans are doing well; they are also inclined to stay connected with Pakistan through investments, philanthropy, and personal involvement.
According to Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at Washington-based think tank Woodrow Wilson Centre, US-based diaspora is highly philanthropic and spends generously on causes in Pakistan. In his article for the book “Pakistani Diaspora, Corridors of Opportunity and Uncertainty”, Kugelman details higher education level and status of Pakistani Americans. According to him most common occupation of Pakistani Americans includes the affluent careers of medicine, accounting and financial analysis. Overall, 32% of the Pakistani diaspora in the US holds professional or managerial jobs in fields like engineering, law, science, education, finance and human resources.
These figures illustrate the amasing potential of the Pakistani Americans to help Pakistan and its 200 million people. This help could be materialised in a variety of ways but in my view, there are five key areas where the attention should be focused.
During the last fiscal year alone, Pakistan received remittances worth us $2.71 billion from the united states
Education: More than half of the population of Pakistan is illiterate. The country needs dire help in the education sector. US-based Pakistani diaspora is already helping the country improve its access to education through small basic education projects. But there is a need for an organised effort on this front. The PTI government should devise a mechanism under which overseas Pakistanis are encouraged to own and manage certain public sector schools in Pakistan that could serve as model institutions to be replicated locally. This will help the PTI government implement its vision on human resource development.
In addition, Pakistani Americans educationists should also volunteer to share their knowledge and experience with Pakistani universities and educational institutions. Joint research projects could be initiated, while faculty/student exchange programs could also be organised with the help of Pakistani professors serving in US universities and colleges. In addition, wealthy Pakistanis should sponsor talented Pakistani students for study in US educational institutions. Because of the difference that education can make, higher education is one of my personal priorities for philanthropic investment. In February 2017, my wife, Debbie, and I were in India to dedicate the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex at Aligarh Muslim University. We have also pledged to support development of a technical college for women in India. I hope affluent Pakistani Americans would also start similar initiatives in Pakistan. One final thought is that while higher education is important for all, higher education for those in the lower strata of society is most critical, because they are most disadvantaged in terms of educational empowerment.
Health: Health sector in Pakistan is also in dire need of help as crowded public sector hospitals are under-resourced and basic health facilities are scarce. Given the fact that a considerable number of Pakistani-Americans are involved in health care profession, this sector needs more attention.
Pakistani doctors in the United States have already set-up a prestigious body called Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA).
This organisation is involved in a number of welfare projects inside Pakistan in the areas of health, education and poverty alleviation. However Pakistan needs more help in health sector. Pakistani American can help establish centers of excellence in various Pakistani cities to help improve quality of health care in the country. Basic health is also an area that could be improved significantly through the help of organisations like APPNA. Pakistan can also learn from US experience in controlling infectious diseases and the initiation of programs on vaccines for TB, dengue, and respiratory syntactical virus through public-private partnerships.
Energy and water shortage: Pakistan is an energy-starved country. Some would argue that electricity shortage has caused more harm to Pakistan’s industry than the menace of terrorism. Although the previous government claimed that the country had managed to produce over 10000 megawatt of electricity during last five years with significant help from China, Pakistan still needs more energy to cater to the needs of its growing economy. The country is also facing an acute water shortage.
Experts have called for construction of more dams to save water and generate energy. Pakistani-Americans can help Pakistan not only through their donations for Diamer-Bhasha dam but also through their investment in renewable energy projects in the country. Their investment in energy related projects could be critical for Pakistan’s industry and its overall economy.
Innovation and entrepreneurship: As the US based diaspora is well educated and affluent, it can help Pakistan in innovations and entrepreneurship. With the introduction of 3G and 4G services in Pakistan and increase in the internet penetration, the country is ready for further development of its IT sector. US-based IT specialists can help Pakistan prepare IT solutions as well as train local IT experts. In addition, US investments in small Pakistani start-ups can give a significant boost to entrepreneurship in the country, which in turn will help in creating jobs and in creating companies across Pakistan.
Improving bilateral relations: Pakistan and United States have been historically enjoying very strong relationships. But at times these relations have suffered setbacks. Currently the bilateral ties are experiencing a difficult time. Pakistan cannot afford further deterioration of its ties with the United States.
This is the time that influential Pakistani-Americans should accelerate efforts to bridge the gap between the policy makers of the two countries. Increased people to people engagements are necessary to remove misunderstandings and build confidence. The Pakistani Americans can play a key role in strengthening U.S Pakistan Partnership.
Pakistani Americans have the character, capacity, competence and responsibility to be leaders in addressing the pivotal areas I have identified and in many other areas as well. In fact, many are already doing so. However, Pakistani government should also come up with incentives for Pakistani-Americans. A recent move to grant voting rights to overseas Pakistanis is a welcome step. The Pakistani government should also create a friendly environment for investment in the country and grant more facilities to Pakistani diaspora so that they feel encouraged to start business and other initiatives back home.
On the issue of Diamer-Basha Dam, one wonders how the government will reward the overseas Pakistani for their contribution. In my view the contribution should not be limited to charity. It should be an investment with clear goals and return mechanism. I know numerous Pakistan-American groups and individuals who are extending a hand to help Pakistan achieve its full potential. I urge more Pakistani-Americans to join them as allies in this most important joint venture between Pakistani-Americans and their counterparts in Pakistan.
The writer is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC