Dealing with our intellectual crisis

Published: September 8, 2017
The writer was the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan 2010-13. 
He tweets @nadeemhaque and can be reached at

The writer was the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan 2010-13. He tweets @nadeemhaque and can be reached at [email protected]

Naveed Iftikhar, a young Pakistani scholar who is emerging as a thought leader, has forcefully lamented our intellectual crisis, ie, the lack of a serious, informed debate on key challenges in Pakistan.

This is a persistent problem and earlier generations of intellectuals lamented it as well. Ejaz Haider convened a debate on something similar when he was among the leadership at the Daily Times. (I have written similar laments for decades).

Naveed’s thoughtful piece rightly pointed to the media, government and society’s lacking and demand for thought, research and ideas. Let me add the key reasons why the space for intellectual growth is so limited in Pakistan that even the ground rules for a discourse are not yet determined.

In my recent book Looking Back: How Pakistan became an Asian Tiger in 2050, I note that a debate occurs when several leaders of intellectual thought participate fully on issues of their choice in a concentrated manner. They actively confront one another’s ideas, acknowledging contributions with the sole purpose of advancing knowledge. The audience of the debate gets increasingly involved and eventually owns the emerging knowledge.

Normally such a debate emanates from universities and think tanks where well-known public intellectuals are housed. Scholarship leads debate. Through publishing, holding conferences and seminars they create a vibrant evidence, analyses and forward looking thought for change.

Unfortunately, universities here have been colonised by the bureaucracy which controls rules, funding and even recruitment. In turn, through years of seeking funding, training and research from aid agencies, the bureaucracy allows no local funding for local research. Instead, policy and research has been now fully outsourced to donors. This leaves our researchers/thinkers in the cold with only two choices: play research assistant to donor consultants or migrate.

The few conferences that are held through donor funding are ceremonial events to host and honour VIPs. At these no research is presented, no discourse happens. Speakers — many of whom have no research — make their favourite speech while donors push agendas to please headquarters.

Why is it that in a country of 207 million people, which in its early days produced Mahboobul Haq and Abdus Salam produces no fresh thinking and citations? Yet when you look through donor reports they see no need to attribute ideas to Pakistani thinkers or even cite their work. All thought has to come from outside the country.

This is because most researchers in Pakistan survive on donor contracts. Following funding sources they have to agree there is little original thought in-country. Besides they have to protect their market, they must show an intellectually-barren country.

Sadly without citation there is no knowledge. Intellectual thought is one long conversation within humanity. Citations are the best way to acknowledge receipt of messages and replies. Growing number of citations show growing consensus of thought on hypotheses, theories and empirical regularities. Eventually citations even lead to public awareness of key policy ideas and lay the basis for change.

Donors regularly talk of ownership of policy. Yet they undercut ownership when they refuse to give equality on policy development to local thinkers. When they refuse citations and attribution of originality to local thinkers they stunt the development of public thought leaders so essential to local debate and ownership.

Citation communities as they appear show a body of evolving knowledge that has broad participation. Audiences learn how the subject has evolved and how various minds have contributed to it. The knowledge of such a development process and the teamwork involved develops confidence in the proposed idea. How can you trust ideas that appear to be coming from only one individual who claims to have thought it all up in his bathroom?

In official meetings of donors and policymakers frequently claim “no need for research; all we have to do is copy best practice.” In my book, I have followed many important thinkers such as Easterly, Farmer, Page to suggest that human systems and networks don’t really replicate without cultural adaptation and idiosyncratic innovation. Policy then becomes “learning globally, solving problems locally.” This requires local research, thought and debate. Mere copying fails. Perhaps that is why donor policies have wasted decades.

Even in the environment of intellectual disdain that we live in, researchers can do small things to lay the foundations of an intellectual tradition. They could start listening to one another, citing and reviewing one another’s work, developing a system of no frills/no VIPs seminars and conferences. They could associate thinkers with policy ideas, hypotheses and theses and begin to talk about them instead of accepting the notion that all ideas come from donors.

Can such boldness and community be found among our intellectuals?

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Chico Rod
    Sep 8, 2017 - 11:26PM

    I think you fall into a trap of grandiose ideas. Instead, I say start small. Ask yourself something simple. How about these:

    Why do all sweet shops serve the same mithais? Why are laddoos always round? Why does patisa always look the same everywhere? Why is burfee always cut the same way? Who do things taste the way they have for generations? Why no sugar-fee?
    Why do we have the same clothes that we had decades ago, despite our changing lifestyles? Why no additional pockets (for phones)? Why no wrinkle-free cotton? Why no odor-repellant fabric?
    Why do we serve basically the same in Pakistani restaurants. Have you ever been to a restaurant that reinterprets Pakistani food?

    None of this is about think-tanks. None is about intellectuals. But it points to some profound fact about our culture. I think you need to think deeper to explain what’s behind it and I look forward to reading it someday.Recommend

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