By: Naveed Ahmad

DOHA: The best and the brightest have been looking outwards for decades. Pakistani politicians, generals and bureaucrats Ė the champions of patriotism Ė invariably prefer their children to study and settle abroad. The middle class follows suit.

The lower middle class pays hefty amounts to human traffickers to reach Europe via Iran and Turkey or to reach Australia via Thailand and Indonesia.

Various categories of economic migrants include highly skilled professionals ranging from scientists to surgeons and physicians to engineers and software developers. In a normal world, such migration is categorised as brain drain. This is in short the story of Pakistanís manpower migration.

Gallup Pakistan, in its survey last year, found that more than two-thirds of Pakistanís adult population aspires to leave the country for work with half of them leaving for good. The figure comes in sharp contrast with Gallupís 1984 study that found only 17% Pakistanis wanting employment abroad. Over the past three decades, the discontent level for livelihood within adult population soared by 50%.

Translating the trend in real numbers, the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development states that around 2.765 million people left Pakistan over the last five years for livelihood, a figure that canít even be matched by high discontent Muslim countries like Egypt. Over 6 million Pakistanis migrated from the country over the last two decades, notwithstanding the odds brought forth by post-9/11 visa restrictions.

With the export-import balances to Pakistanís perpetual disadvantage, Islamabadís reliance on foreign remittances is tantamount to being addictive.

The higher the expatriate Pakistanis, the greater would be the remittances. Itís time for a spoiler alert since remittances fell by nearly 2% during the last 10 months, mainly from the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Donald Trumpís immigrant phobia, coupled with Brexit-fever in the UK, pushed the expatriates in a saving mode, while falling oil prices shrank the spending power of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Remittances from Saudi Arabia declined 5.6% to $3.70 billion, United Arab Emirates 1.8% to $2.44 billion and 1.7% to $1.34 billion from other nations of the GCC. The remittances may not beat the record $19.9 billion in 2015-16 State Bank of Pakistan had recorded till June 30, 2016.

Ready for reverse brain drain

What could be better than skilled professionals returning to Pakistan with valuable foreign experience and significant savings? Given the lack of public sector reforms, power cuts and red-tapism coupled with corruption, itís a high-risk proposition. However, driven by a motivation to serve the country and making a name for themselves, there is a steady stream of patriotic investors.

Asad Badruddin, in a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation, noted that around 5,000 graduates return to Pakistan from universities in the UK, the US and Canada every year. Badruddin himself leads a movement Ė Pakathon Ė that aims to reinvest the countryís expatriate human resource back home.

Pakathonís Returnerís Program is designed to empower expatriates ďwho want to launch projects in Pakistan by connecting them to funding, resources and a community of like-minded change-makersĒ. The movement aims to connect the returning citizens with ďaccelerator programs operating in PakistanĒ.

Such initiatives feed into other parallel movements in the same direction aspiring to spearhead Pakistan into advanced economies using smart technologies and social innovations.

The phenomenon of teaming up of foreign-experienced Pakistan and unemployed education youth has marginal role of Pakistanís state-run institution, which largely preserves old-fashioned officialdom than innovation and modernity.

Notwithstanding the sincerity of purpose, the idea of reverse brain drain largely remains platonic. The professionals come at their own risk with an undated return ticket as a backup option. While the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) does raise hopes for high-skilled foreign-experienced professionalsí consumption, the initial results have been disappointing.

The Planning Commission has failed to impress upon the finance ministry in its bid to start some ground-breaking initiatives.

The future is the game

With the age of robots and high-performance mechanised machinery becoming more affordable and widespread, the demand for hardworking construction worker, house-worker and semi-skilled technician will diminish in the GCC market.

For labour export purposes, Pakistan requisites a supply chain of self-confident, well-groomed and multilingual proficient professionals ranging from nurse to surgeons and software engineers to scientists.

The GCC countries diversifying away from reliance on oil can thus continue to be the main source of the countryís priceless foreign remittances.
As much as Pakistan needs foreign remittances to strengthen its economy otherwise hampered by low-tax collection and exponentially high imports, the society canít afford to lose surgeons, physicians and scientists.

Thanks to the stateís short-sighted policy of relying on the expatriatesí remittances and ignoring the intellectual resources they may invest in the country, the outward flow of highly-skilled Pakistanis has grown against all odds.

Given conservative or hyper-nationalistic policies in the US and the UK, a good number of expatriate Pakistanis must be weighing alternate options. Islamabad must come forward with bold incentives for its critical mass borrowed to the west for years and decades.