Pakistan’s Future: Our Children

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Atta-ur-Rahman FRS N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.

During the last 3
months I have
travelled across China, visiting various cities, from Beijing to Shanghai, from Changsha to Wuhan and Hangzhou. This has been in connection with our efforts to set up Pakistan’s first Minerals Extraction and Processing Center of Excellence, Pakistan’s first Center of Excellence in High Speed Railways transportation, Pakistan’s first Center of Excellence in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, Pakistan’s first Center of Excellence in Viral Diseases and a Center of Excellence in Agricultural Engineering and Food Technologies. On 28th May I had the pleasure of meeting the President of China, President Xi Jinping, at a function attended by over 10,000 guests, and that day I had the honour of being formally elected as “Academician” of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a unique privilege.
During these visits I was approached by hundreds of Pakistani students who were unanimous in their concern about their future, as the funding of universities and science & technology institutions had been severely cut by the previous government, so that they now have no jobs to go back to. Most had tears in their eyes as they pleaded with me to appeal to the Prime Minster to restore the situation in the higher education sector that existed when I was Chairman HEC during 2002-2008, when their placements in universities were assured a year before they returned. I tried to assure them that they had a visionary person as the Prime Minister of Pakistan who understood that quality education was the key to socio-economic development, and that I had already made a detailed presentation to him on 31st August this year about the importance for Pakistan to drastically change directions and migrate to a knowledge based economy. Restoration of the status of HEC to an autonomous body, and integration of the education system of Pakistan were among the key decisions taken. Unfortunately bureaucracy moves at its own speed, and though 2 months have passed, even the minutes of the meeting with the Prime Minister, which was attended both by the Federal Minister of Education and the Chairman Higher Education Commission, remain to be issued. The decisions seem to have evaporated into thin air, leaving a void.
No amount of good intentions can change a nation unless the process of implementation of decisions is aggressively followed up. Good governance is not just about integrity but also about competence. It is only through expertise at the highest level in each field that the Minsters and Secretaries can deliver. The Prime Minister is presently trying to win a cricket match but has a volleyball team to do it. Without top technocrats as Minsters and Secretaries, it will simply not work. This is the hard truth.
The least that the government can do immediately is to form Task Forces for each Ministry, that are headed not by the Ministers or Secretaries but by independent top professionals and experts in their respective fields. These task forces should determine priority projects geared to alleviate poverty, develop a knowledge economy, enhance high value exports and help to transition to a knowledge economy. They should guide the Ministers and Secretaries regarding which projects to implement and also serve as watch dogs over the performance of each Ministry, reporting directly to the Prime Minister.
Non-performing Minsters, secretaries and other officials should be summarily replaced. Many promises were made by our Prime Minister, and his charisma eventually won the day for PTI. Now the time has come to deliver and this requires brutal performance assessments and actions.
As I travelled across China, I had the opportunity to reflect how this nation has changed since 1974, when I first visited this country. The vision of President Mao that government officials must be public servants, backed by futuristic policies of President Deng and now President Xi have resulted in the meteoric rise of China.
Mr. Trump has been trying unsuccessfully to block this growth of China by restrictive policies on import of Chinese goods. However it is too late for USA or any other country to block the progress of China as the process of socio-economic development of China is based on the solid foundations of developing high quality human resources through massive investments during the last 3 decades in education, science, technology and innovation.
What the present government needs to understand is the critical role of high technology industries in the present global industrial scenario. Natural resources and low value goods have lost their significance and only those nations are marching forward that have the leadership with the vision and can put in place policies, and strategies to develop export oriented high technology industries. Most Ministers in the present government do not have a clue as to what these policies must be and how to go about implementing them. One need not look far— China, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore present excellent lessons of what we in Pakistan must do.
China has rapidly developed from its labour-intensive industries in the 1970s and 1980s to the present day technology-intensive industries. This required promotion of R & D activities, and institutions such as Korean Applied Institute of Science & Technology and Korean Institute of Science and Technology in Korea, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tsinghua University and Beijing University backed by the Torch program in China, and the National University in Singapore played critically important roles in the implementation of the policies.
A key policy adopted by China was to attract foreign investments into sectors that required advanced technologies. Special Economic Zones were established by China in a few coastline provinces near Hong Kong, that led the industrialisation process and helped to transition to value added technology intensive industries. Government incentives were used to direct foreign investment into advanced technology industries. Economic Technology Development Zones and High Technology Development Zones were established where scientists and engineers with the required expertise were made available across China to facilitate the establishment of high technology industries.
A number of measures were taken by China to (a) upgrade technology level of its business enterprises, (b) establish high technology industrial zones, (c) link Foreign Direct Investment to the development of indigenous technologies, and (d) make massive investments in universities and research centres so that the required manpower could be made available. These have led to a huge increase in the manufacture and export of high technology goods, transforming China into an economic giant.
Alas, Pakistan has gone in the opposite direction during the last decade, after an excellent beginning during 2003-2008. Between 1947 to 2003, not a single university was ranked among the top 500 universities of the world. Due to the steps taken by HEC during 2003 to 2008 under my stewardship, by the time I resigned and left HEC in 2008, four of our universities were ranked among the top 250, 300, 400 and 500 of the world according to the Times Higher education (UK) rankings. The severe budgetary cuts imposed by the PPP government and later by PML-N government then led to the collapse of the higher education sector and not a single university is today ranked among the top 500. What a pity. It is now up to the present government to resurrect higher education from the ashes.
The future of Pakistan lies in our children and we can only progress if we give the highest national priority to education, science, technology and innovation with focus on high technology manufacturing.
The author is the former Federal Minister of Science & Technology & Information Technology, Chairman of Higher Education Commission. Currently he is President of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries and Co-Chairman of UN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation for UNESCAP.

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