Perspective of an expat academic

Published: September 11, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. 
He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Much of the discussion in the last few days has revolved around the resignation of a member of the Economic Advisory Council of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the subsequent resignations that followed. Much is also being said about the motives of expat academics, their allegiances and their lack of interest in helping the people of Pakistan. Here, I want to provide some perspective on why expat academics choose to engage and what drives their relationship.

Let me clarify two things. First, what I share below is my own perspective and is shaped by my own experiences and those of some of my colleagues. Others may disagree — and I welcome that debate. I have engaged formally and informally with public and private institutions in shaping curriculum, formal and informal, advising and contributing to policy discussions on SDGs, drug quality improvement and biotech innovation.

Second, engagement of diaspora is not a Pakistan only phenomenon. A large number of countries and governments engage their diaspora through various mechanisms. In this regard there are formal programmes in Eastern Europe (eg Romania, Slovenia and Serbia) that took shape in the 1990s. Closer to home, both India and China have formal and informal mechanisms for academic diaspora to engage.

Let us now examine the first question — ie why do academic diaspora engage with home countries. Here, it is important to note that often the most prized possession of academics in the US, Europe and elsewhere is their time. Second, the currency that matters to most academics is research publications. On both of these matters, engagement makes little sense. It takes away time and rarely leads to quality publications. Thus, the academics engage only because they want to pay the debt of gratitude to the country they love. It is neither a question of loyalty, nor a question of advancing a hidden agenda. It is because they care for the people and want to improve their condition.

Now let us examine the second question — ie the conditions in which the academic diaspora wants to engage in. Myself, and many of my colleagues who come from abroad and work in the US or Europe, work in places where we are a minority. Most of us recognise and deeply cherish that we are able to do research and push the limits of knowledge forward despite being in the minority. This sense of dignity and respect is a fundamental value that most of us hold very dear, and want to see in all environments that we work in, including in Pakistan. Most academics would refuse to work in environments that challenge their core values. For some this means to never be part of a committee that has no gender diversity. For others, this may mean refusing to be on a committee where the chair is known to abuse or harass. Many academics, including myself, would be outraged and offended if anyone were to question our personal and private choices.

Ultimately, myself and many of my Pakistani academic colleagues who work outside the country want the best for the country and its people. We will give our time and services readily. We want Pakistan to prosper, and want to play a part in it. But we want to work in an environment of inclusion, diversity and trust — because we know, from our own experience, that without such an environment, we would have never prospered academically. Standing up for diversity, individual respect, and personal dignity is not a statement where we put academic fraternity above national interest; instead, it is a small way to hold ourselves to an aspirational standard for a better Pakistan. Pakistan Paindabad.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2018.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • C M Naim
    Sep 12, 2018 - 7:13PM

    Well said. I hope it is heeded. Recommend

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