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Pakistan’s brain drain and how to overcome it

We have heard it often enough at dinner tables and formal discussions about Pakistan’s youth and one issue is brought up repeatedly – Pakistan’s brain drain. With 63% of this 220 million people country under the age of 30, the brain drain represents a significant proportion of the population and their resentment to leave Pakistan which in turn mirrors a deeply flawed system where Pakistan is unable to retain and utilize its best talent.

While there may be different reasons for the youth to reach its full potential in Pakistan, some of which include lack of opportunity, tough circumstances, an unforgiving environment or unsupportive parents. Looking at the numbers, around nine million Pakistanis currently work abroad which includes both skilled and unskilled labour as well as students going abroad for their undergrad or graduate studies. Thus, it is not surprising when we hear the remark, Pakistan may reh kar kiya karo gay [What will you do if you remain in Pakistan]. These remarks are a sobering reminder of the deep resentment and mistrust of the opportunities in ones homeland, in fact, if Pakistan were able to utilize its best talent it could become an industrial powerhouse in the area and help with some other deep seated issues such as the balance of payment and the import-export issues. While the recent investment of two major companies namely, Kliner Perkins and Nestle, are promising signs of a hopeful future as well as the Serie A funding secured by young Pakistani college graduates, it still goes a long way towards addressing the issues that would (partially) stop the brain drain.

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In this article, I present four potential solutions and their applications.

  1. Providing the relevant opportunities

Special institutions should be set up to recognise talent from the primary level (especially in STEM) and the children should be accordingly groomed to help them perform for Pakistan at the highest levels and for them to fully recognise their potential. This is based on the US magnet school system where the children are put on an accelerated track and taught advanced concepts to fully satiate their need to learn. Although this is by no means a perfect system as the child is too young to fully acknowledge or appreciate their interests and passions, it would still be the first step toward solving this problem. Another suggestion would be to establish institutions that target unconventional study areas. For example, name a music college in Pakistan or one that provides a similar program. This is a major reason why students flock abroad as their desired subject is non-existent in Pakistan.

  1. Financing

Many a times the most talented and resourceful hail from the most underprivileged of backgrounds and thus financing can serve as a key enabler to help recognise their academic dreams and ambitions. It is worth noting here that although there are opportunities in Pakistan, they are disproportionately available to students from the major cities, e.g. Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad etc. An example of providing opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds while fully appreciating and utilizing the diversity of Pakistan’s talent is the LUMS NOP program which provides students from far-flung areas to study at the premier institute of Pakistan while they are fully-funded and many of them then go abroad for their graduate studies and return to Pakistan as a productive member of society.

  1. Fostering a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation
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According to a recent estimate, almost 80% of Pakistani startups were initiated by people under the age of 30, many of whom were fresh college graduates. This goes on to show the deep level of entrepreneurship and how prevalent this culture is in Pakistan. The government and other public institutions can promote and encourage this culture by providing grants to such startups, which will in turn lead to an increase in their number. The most common reason for Pakistan’s youth not pursuing these ideas seems to be parental, along with peer approval as well as the fear of failing. One Pakistani graduate summed it up. “The fear of failing is greater than the hope of succeeding. We are afraid of hearing taunts from our parents and elders for the rest of our lives and so seek out a regular 9-to-5 job.” Thus, many startups never even take off which is one of the reasons for Pakistan’s youth to go abroad to recognise their entrepreneurial dreams. In fact, many of the Pakistani startups were also started by entrepreneurs with foreign degrees.

  1. Lessening the Gender gap

Pakistan was recently declared as one of the most unequal countries for women where women trail men in the level of education, number of opportunities and even their socioeconomic condition. Women are oftentimes not even allowed to venture out of their homes which reflects the traditional patriarchy of many middle class Pakistani households. Many a times, even parents discourage their daughter to work or even attain the level of education required for such jobs. This is more damaging as we have half of our populace, unable to productively and effectively contribute their ideas or their opinions while unable to participate due to their gender, go abroad to pursue their careers and lead meaningful and impactful lives.

Thus, in conclusion, the brain drain represents a serious flaw of our inability to retain our best talent and the above presented potential solutions can help stem the problem if the government and the institutions are willing to play their part in helping Pakistan grow on an economic and social level.

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