Changing tides: Pakistan's 'brain drain' in reverse

Pakistan will continue to be disadvantaged by a brain drain until all expats can feel welcome to return and contribute

Azeem Ibrahim July 28, 2012
Pakistanis all over the world have an interest - if not an obligation - in their homeland to do what they can towards its success as a nation. Around 7 million Pakistani’s live abroad, and in 2012 sent home approximately $13 billion in remittances

While this revenue is vital to the country’s foreign exchange reserves, it’s the expertise of these expatriates that is needed, just as much as their money. The absence of highly qualified doctors, engineers and scientists is playing havoc with the long-term economic growth of the country.

A Gallup survey in 2000 confirmed the widely-held view that there has been a continuous brain drain from the country.  Not only qualified professionals and university graduates, but even semi-skilled or unskilled workers want to leave Pakistan in search of better prospects, with as many as 38% saying they would prefer to permanently settle outside the country. Official estimates of Pakistan’s Overseas Employment Corporation, are that close to 36,000 professionals, including doctors, engineers and teachers, have migrated to other countries in the last 30 years - an unofficial estimate puts the number closer to 45,000.

Since the recent international financial crisis and the global economic downturn, a number of skilled and educated Pakistani Americans and Canadians have begun to return home, as new job opportunities become  available in fields such as healthcare, engineering, law, banking, information technology, mass media and industry. This is a welcome development for a country that has been noted more for its brain drain, with so many educated and ambitious Pakistanis leaving the country for better opportunities.

However, as younger graduates face a shrinking job market in the US and the UK, Pakistan with its urgent need for development is both welcoming and familiar, and is attracting some of its brightest minds back to their homeland.

Pakistan has not always honoured its intellectuals, notably Mohammad Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate.  His work was the precursor of the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, as he theorised the existence of proton decay, earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. He directed research for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb until 1974 when he left the country to protest the government’s declaration of the Ahmadi sect as unbelievers. Salam was a devout and patriotic Pakistani and even in exile contributed to Pakistan’s scientific community through his work at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Many prominent scientists today recognise him as their mentor and his life should be honoured for his belief that “scientific thought is the common heritage of mankind”.

The current debate in Pakistan about dual nationality is a symptom of the pervasive nature of the expatriate experience. The government of Pakistan recognises and allows its citizens to hold dual nationality in 16 countries, including the UK and other EU countries, the USA, Canada, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

However, Pakistan’s Constitution stops an individual being chosen or elected as a member of parliament if he or she ceases to be a citizen of Pakistan or acquires the citizenship of a foreign state. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, recently resigned over this issue, but has been reinstated and the Supreme Court also temporarily suspended MP Farahnaz Ispahani for holding dual US-Pakistan nationality. It is commonly acknowledged that Article 63(1)(c) of the Constitution needs revision, and the term “acquired citizenship” needs to be defined.

Until all Pakistanis can feel welcome to return home, to contribute to the country’s development, to hold office and to earn salaries and respect such as they enjoy overseas, Pakistan will continue to be disadvantaged by the ‘brain drain’.

The future is too important to neglect. It is to be profoundly hoped that the trend will continue and that professional and skilled Pakistanis will continue to come home to help implement the civic and economic changes, so urgently needed in their communities.

Read more by Azeem here or follow him on Twitter@AzeemIbrahim
Azeem Ibrahim An International Security and Geopolitics Lecturer at the University of Chicago. Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He is the Strategic Policy Advisor to Imran Khan and he tweets as @AzeemIbrahim (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Gohar Hanook | 11 years ago | Reply Every one is in a good line of argument. Now doubt we have many serious problems and these problems are not new. If we really want to bring the change then we should promote awareness and should encourage the people to get education that has germs for change. Traditional system of education has produced nothing. Agreed with Reader.We are deeply and socially chained in problems that you have mentioned above. We do this deliberately even though we know that it will conceive bad consequences but we don't notice them and do it as if we don't care. When we our self commit such disgusting things in front of our kids and then give them lessons to do the same when they reach their time. So all we need is the change in our current attitudes, this way we can sow a good, progressive seed in the minds of future leaders.
Reader | 11 years ago | Reply @Raw is War: I am sorry to say about your arrogance, I don't know about education and area of study, but the people in the West from Pakistan have self respect, you living in pakistan as false status holders, steal the property, grab the positions without merit, with fake degrees make this nation very respectable. Steal electricity from power lines, import waste and sell as quality product, send street guys as Olympic officials on fake documents. This is your status ?
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