Nothing special

The country is not suffering because a tiny minority of super smart people left — there are many other reasons

Muhammad Hamid Zaman May 16, 2023
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman


As the national census reaches its conclusion, there are, once again, murmurs of brain drain. Once again, many in the country (including media) are talking about how the “best” brains leave the country, and those who are left behind are somehow inferior and incapable of solving complex problems. Many among my own family and friends also think that those who leave are somehow smarter, more gifted and more talented. While I fully recognise the deep challenges the country faces, and the natural, genuine and understandable desire to look for better opportunities outside the country, I have never believed in the argument of brain drain. I do not think that I myself, or those who are outside the country, are smarter or more gifted in any shape or form. The events of last week further cemented my belief.

Before I explain my reasoning, let me give a bit of context. I am friends with, and engage and interact with, Pakistanis in the US who are affluent, well settled and work in a variety of sectors that range from academia to healthcare, small businesses to software development and work in corporations large and small.

As the political events of last week unfolded, many in the expat “well-educated” community responded in ways that were similar or perhaps identical to what we saw in Pakistan. They were just as prone to conspiracy theories and were eager to spread information that was neither confirmed nor meeting the basic sanity check. Most of it, as was expected, turned out to be untrue and was simply political propaganda. Like many other Pakistani expat communities with particular political preferences, people I know were comfortable with the idea of violent public anger and were happy to see it unfold. Their reaction, as was in parts of Pakistan, was driven by emotions and impulse.

On the one end, their reaction speaks of their connection to the country and engagement with the events there. The fact that they are affected by the events in the country says a lot about their enduring ties to the country and this bond must be cherished. Yet, on the other hand, it also underlines the fact that like many back home, they are not interested in serious thought, analysis or reflection. Despite the physical distance, they do not challenge the information they get, or evaluate it in on merit. They only view it from the partisan lens as their fellow compatriots in Pakistan would. They consume, internalise and channel conspiracy theories just as those in the motherland. They fail to realise the potential of 245 million people, and have safely assumed that the hopes and destiny of a stable future must be pinned on a single person, or a handful of people.

Of course, this is not a perfectly homogeneous group but neither is the Pakistani population. My argument is simple — the expat community is no more gifted, intellectually rigorous or a special breed. They are not successful because (as a group) they are brilliant or possess some extraordinary skills that are absent from those who are in Pakistan. The expats are successful because they are lucky and worked hard in a system that (by and large) rewarded hard work. Many got to leave the country in the first place because they had the financial means and connections. Many others in Pakistan are probably far smarter but not well-connected enough, or affluent enough, to try their luck outside the country.

The expats are indeed privileged, affluent and beneficiaries of a system that despite being imperfect, rewarded their creativity and effort. They contributed to a system and benefitted from the efforts of others. One could replace them with another group of Pakistanis, and those Pakistanis will prosper just as much. They are just as smart (or as emotional or vulnerable to misinformation) as those in Pakistan. We should stop treating them, or anyone else, as special. The country is not suffering because a tiny minority of super smart people left — there are many other reasons.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2023.

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