Building a new international narrative about Pakistan

As a young country of 190 million people and strategic geographic surroundings, Pakistan has a lot to offer the world.

Ibrahim Khan May 25, 2014
The writer is an undergraduate student at Harvard University. He is also Chairman Emeritus at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy Jr Forum. He tweets @ibrahimakhan

A  few weeks ago, I co-chaired the first annual Harvard College Pakistan Weekend (HCPW) at Harvard University. The conference welcomed 22 speakers from as far away as Lahore, Pakistan and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. More than 250 students and professionals attended the conference, with representation from all over the United States. Students travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts from more than 25 universities ranging from Harvard itself to schools in California and Nebraska.

The motivation for the conference was clear: that the international narrative about Pakistan is flawed. Much of the discussion about the country centres on security and foreign policy troubles. Although Pakistan currently faces a major security challenge, viewing the country through such a narrow prism is unfair. As a young country of 190 million people, with a substantial endowment of natural resources and strategic geographic surroundings, Pakistan has a lot to offer the world. HCPW 2014 began moulding a new international narrative about Pakistan that focuses on the economic potential of the country.

There were three major takeaways from HCPW 2014. The first one was that Pakistanis should expect a lot from the booming technological space in the country. Our technology panelists were unanimous in their belief that all Pakistan now needs is one $100 million company to announce its arrival on the international technology scene. We should expect this to happen within the next decade.

The second major takeaway was that Pakistan’s private banking sector is ripe for investments. Given favourable capital ratios and recent movements of banking stocks at the Karachi Stock Exchange, the future looks bright for the sector. More broadly, we concluded that foreign investors have to dig deeper than what is on the surface in order to notice investment opportunities present in the country.

The third and final takeaway was a holistic and hopeful one: Pakistan will fulfil its potential.

There are substantial benefits of reconstructing our international narrative. We often hear of soft power — an idea that describes the ability of a country to achieve foreign policy objectives based on its perception around the world rather than the use of force. Joseph Nye most prominently developed ideas on soft power in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. As the title indicates, his thesis is fairly straightforward: in an increasingly globalised world, the key to international success is no longer force, but is instead soft power. Pakistan currently has a branding problem, which means we have no real soft power to bank on. At the HCPW, we started the process of developing Pakistani soft power.

By welcoming attendees from all corners of the United States and speakers from all corners of the world, we have built a network. We hope this network propagates the new international narrative we have started developing. As every individual returns to their respective communities — whether it is speakers returning to Lahore or attendees returning to California — each individual has to continue the conversation started over the recent April weekend.

In order to ensure that we continue the good work started at the HCPW 2014, we are building a new institution. The Harvard Pakistan Forum (HPF) will be launched in the next few weeks. HPF will have an advisory board that consists of past speakers, faculty members and alumni who will help in the organisation of future conferences. The HCPW had a substantial impact but it is important to ensure that this work is a sustained effort.

The amount of passion and vigour I saw for Pakistan at the HCPW was very reassuring. As I told the HCPW community, all of us must remain committed to Pakistan. Pakistan is a land of infinite potential; the missing link is a source of activation energy for this potential. It is young people like those who attended HCPW 2014 who will provide the required activation energy in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2014.

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np | 7 years ago | Reply

IT is not just through the prism of global terrorism that Pakistan is viewed - although finding Osama safely ensconsed close to your military training school and the man who helped to find him being jailed did not help your country's image.

Some other images are intolerance and plight of minorities with Hindus, Ahmadis, Shias (especially Hazaras) fleeing/forcibly converted; polio workers being killed; suicide bombers in mosques, markets, hospitals, playgrounds; honor killings; nuclear ploriferation; killing of journalists; silencing of liberal voices; women increasingly fading away from the public square.

It's not a pretty picture. Until the reality changes, the image is unlikely to change.

Overseas Pakistani | 7 years ago | Reply

Huh? Let's first improve the product, then we can improve the packaging and branding. Otherwise, it's all just false advertising and most countries will not fall for it more than once.

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