Threatened in the bud: the fragile existence of policy research and advocacy in Pakistan


The international focus on Pakistan has affected how knowledge is produced within Pakistan, and who for. Looking ahead, Pakistani research faces a multiplicity of threats, even as non-governmental voices proliferate.

Marco Mezzera
24 September 2012

The last few years have witnessed a surge in the international community’s level of attention to the so-called political context of aid receiving states. Without a solid understanding of the formal and informal power structures and relationships running through a country’s governance system, the reasoning has been, it is utterly impossible to devise effective intervention and development strategies. Some Western governments and multilateral agencies have thus started to develop assessment tools to facilitate such a political-economy understanding of local realities at both the national and sub-national levels. What these assessments have actually attempted to do, albeit implicitly in order not to ruffle the sensibilities of the countries being analysed, is to identify possible drivers of change and reform that could be supported.

In fragile contexts this has often been a difficult quest. Pervasive insecurity, violence and corruption strongly limit the space for reforming voices. But if one specific area outside the strictly political arena needs to be identified, where such agents of progressive change could emerge, it is the realm of knowledge production and advocacy activities.

In situations where state institutions are worryingly weak, there is a desperate need for local centres that can develop capacity for strongly independent analysis and even use the results of such analysis to either critique or support these faltering institutions.

Pakistan is no exception to this scenario. In recent years it has probably been one of the countries that have attracted most attention from an international community that is keen to understand how it can be saved from perdition. Pakistan’s centrality in global efforts to counter Islamist terrorism has been the main reason for this interest. The country has been dissected in all its political, social and economic facets by a growing army of foreign experts. At times, knowledgeable voices from within Pakistan have been identified, but they have often been used to legitimise external theories rather than to share their views on the issues at play. Indigenous knowledge has been looked for and consumed superficially to satisfy immediate information needs instead of being deepened for long-term capacity-building and advocacy purposes. Amid this quest for local sources of analysis, little attention, if any, has been paid to such capacity-building objectives.

The country’s research landscape can currently be described as resting on two main building blocks. The first is formed by state academic and research institutions, which have suffered from the same historical decay that has afflicted Pakistan’s public educational sector. In general, they show a systemic incapacity to adapt to the rapidly changing external environment by transforming their operational style and the type of products that they deliver. Instead, they have remained stuck in strongly bureaucratic and top-down mindsets, where quantitative methods dominate research, even in the social sciences, leaving no space for political economy-driven analysis.

The other building block – non-governmental entities – on the contrary, has been in constant and rapid evolution, trying to keep up with the quantity and peculiarity of the demand coming from the international knowledge market. Within this diverse group there is a mix of private academic institutions, independent think-tanks, consultant-like groups, research organisations with strong affiliations to political parties and one-person institutes. But the growth of the sector has been so intense over a short period of time that numerous cracks and differences have emerged, and opportunistic behaviour and low-quality research have become increasingly apparent. The need to recognise the diverse array of actors and the quality of their work – and eventually to offer support for capacity building to the most deserving among them – is slowly emerging within the international community, but for the time being mainly opportunistic considerations remain central.

The same international pressure that directly affects Pakistan’s research and knowledge community has also played out in other related sectors, triggering competitive processes that have had profound impacts on the sustainability of research and academic institutions. The build-up of humanitarian operations, either as a counter-insurgency component or in response to natural disasters, has increased the need for international actors to search out and hire the best possible people in Pakistan. Agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development are said to offer local salaries that are almost ten times higher than those that a standard research institute normally offers to its employees. These differences become even larger in terms of state universities’ remuneration systems. Thus, one of the most disrupting effects on the long-term capacity of Pakistani research institutions is a brain drain that has resulted in young and brilliant researchers leaving for better paid jobs with developmental NGOs or the private sector.

But other more subtle effects of the influence of foreign actors on Pakistan’s internal knowledge market seem to have crept into the system. Remarkably enough, most – if not all – of the analysis being produced in Pakistan is meant for foreign consumption. There is no noticeable stream of interaction linking Pakistani research institutes to government institutions. Thus, in general, critiques of state practices or policy recommendations do not directly reach these national institutions. They may eventually do so, after having been channelled first towards international entities. Research undertaken about a year ago even revealed extreme cases whereby recently established research centres were hired by secretive foreign organisations to undertake surveys in areas otherwise off limits to outsiders. For example, the craving for information on the inaccessible and extremely dangerous Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan is so strong that foreign groups and interests are constantly on the lookout for sources that can freely move around in these areas and gather data, or simply for impressions on the evolution of the situation on the ground. These needs and practices do not have to be directly associated with foreign secret services’ activities, as many of the conspiracy theorists in Pakistan insist. A whole spectrum of state-affiliated think-tanks and private (security) firms are keen to collect such first-hand information for their various clients.

Amid this increasing quest for analysis that is “made in Pakistan”, it is remarkable that the mega city of Karachi plays only a small role in the national research context. Despite its impressive size and economic potential, the metropolis appears to have been left on the sidelines of research activities on sociopolitical issues. With the exception of a few institutions providing high-level courses on business management and international finance, the social sciences landscape is fairly dreary. The policy community, both domestically and internationally, tends to be located in and focus on Islamabad, the national centre of political power.

Karachi’s remoteness from the federal capital, however, can only be regarded as a partial explanation for what appears as the city’s steady decline in research on sociopolitical issues. The widespread violence affecting this city of 18 million people is probably a better explanation. This violence has in fact infiltrated the city’s main university campuses, turning them into sites of open confrontation among various political and ethnic factions, with a devastating impact on the regularity of classes. For instance, during a visit to Karachi University in December 2010, I found the campus officially closed because clashes among students had erupted the day before. As explained by the director of the university’s Pakistan Study Centre, the university had long been affected by sudden clashes involving armed student organisations. This trend continued shortly after my visit: 2011 began with a two-week delay in the holding of classes “under the watch of army rangers deployed as peacekeepers”. The two national parties involved in an endless violent confrontation in Karachi (which in 2011 killed about 685 people), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party, have extended their conflict to university campuses, where they deploy brutal and coercive means to gain influence among students.

The violence encountered on university campuses in Karachi, unfortunately, is not an isolated phenomenon. Across the country, centres of higher education have become mirrors of the growing intolerance that is spreading throughout Pakistani society. Religious bigotry has established a foothold in many of the country’s university campuses and gender segregation is now a common feature. Teaching staff have also borne the brunt of this growing confrontational mood, with students increasingly resorting to intimidation to either restrict the intellectual debate or, more pragmatically, to demand better grades for an examination.

In the words of the director of the Pakistan Study Centre, “while in the 1960s and 1970s the major threat to free thinking was coming from the state, nowadays it comes from society, under the semblances of extremism”. Unfortunately, it seems that the seeds of violence that have been copiously scattered in Pakistani society in recent years are starting to bear fruit in unexpected places and contexts. These dynamics do not necessarily have a direct impact on the quality of the research produced in universities. However, in the long run this worrisome trend may strongly reduce the space for free intellectual expression and consequently limit research and analysis.

On the other hand, it is also true that despite all the challenges to the development of research capacities in Pakistan, in the last few years there has been a visible trend toward the growth and consolidation of research institutes. Some of them appear to have been founded primarily to take advantage of the favourable “market” climate (i.e. the demand for research on Pakistan), while others have shown a sound capacity to contribute to the national and international debate about the most pressing sociopolitical issues facing the country. It is in the interests of both domestic and international actors to keep these sources of enlightened debate alive so as to avoid total occupation and control of the intellectual space by extremist narratives.

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