It is now widely accepted that Pakistan is a country with a robust societal structure. In his recent book, Pakistan: A Hard Country (Public Affairs, 2011), Anatol Lieven states that Pakistan is “in many ways surprisingly tough and resilient as a state and a society”. This resilience manifests itself in many forms; the country’s largest welfare organisation, the Edhi Foundation, is an oft-cited example. Although he started his organisation with only Rs5,000, Edhi now has more than 300 centres across the country. His foundation has saved 20,000 abandoned babies, trained 40,000 qualified nurses, housed 50,000 orphans and delivered one million babies. This is an extraordinary achievement for a private organisation that refuses to accept government aid.
And Edhi is not alone. There are countless other examples that demonstrate the strength of our society. The population’s ability to respond to natural disasters — like the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the floods that submerged the country in 2010 and 2011 — is recognised globally. In 2009, Pakistanis around the country opened up their homes for Internally Displaced Persons from Swat. Pakistani society coalesces in times of peril; this is what gives us strength.
Supplementing this societal strength, there are several promising trends worth mentioning. Pakistan’s retail economy is meeting the country’s burgeoning consumer demand. Outside crowded urban areas, the country’s notorious underground economy is in plain sight. Despite poor research and development, bumper sugar and cotton crops are expected this season. Our banks have huge spreads at about seven-and-a-half per cent, compared with an average of three-and-a-half to four per cent in the developing world — a clear indication that there is room for additional availability of loanable funds. More than 31 million Pakistanis — approximately 17 per cent of the population — use the Internet, with the number of users tripling in the last five years. On the mobile front, 120 million people — roughly two out of every three Pakistanis — subscribe to a mobile service. About 70 per cent of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 30.
With booming retail and rural economies, an increasing inclination to technology and a very young population, opportunity surrounds today’s Pakistan. But, it is not enough to simply point this out. The country will progress only if we are able to harness this potential and utilise the opportunity of our times. The past has demonstrated that this task is not easy. But in the past, we have ignored a usable mechanism that will aid our progress. In the past, we have ignored innovation.
Now is the time to change the past. In today’s Pakistan, innovation must become a large part of the public psyche. In our schools, innovation should be stressed and at the workplace, it should be encouraged. Innovation requires risk, but it provides a substantial reward. It provides solutions to previously puzzling problems. Every mind, every Pakistani, can innovate — all of us have something to strive for. If you spearhead an NGO, embrace social entrepreneurship and follow the example of organisations like Ashoka. If you can programme, build medical software that can save lives. If you are a mobile service provider, empower young Pakistanis with the ability to learn through their phones. If you are a bank manager, utilise the space your large spread gives you to increase the availability of capital. If you grow sugar cane, rice or wheat, embrace new varieties — there is opportunity in change. Start small and build on that. A new Pakistan requires new thinking and new practices. No matter what the specific problem, innovation is the answer.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2012.
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