In Review Review essay

Seven global forces shaping Pakistan's future

Updated Jan 31, 2019 05:59pm

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A woman protesting Britain’s exit from the European Union | AP
A woman protesting Britain’s exit from the European Union | AP

The most fundamental point that needs to be made right at the outset is this: Pakistan’s future will be determined – as has always been the case and for all nations – by the decisions that Pakistan and Pakistanis will make. Everything else is context. Having said that, the rest of this essay is an enquiry into the global context in which these decisions might have to be made in the coming year and beyond.

The dazzling pace of political events and the bewildering intensity of political opinion and analysis in Pakistani print, electronic and social media can leave anyone short of breath. It also makes our analysis rather temporal. Most importantly, the ‘in the moment’ nature of discourse can divert attention from the longer-term global forces that form the context of at least some of our own political drama.

This essay seeks to identify seven key global forces that are likely to be of consequence to politics and society all across the world, especially in Pakistan. First, however, an important distinction needs to be highlighted: this is not a list of the key challenges (or opportunities) that Pakistan will confront; it is, instead, a selection of the most significant global trends that are likely to define the context in which Pakistan will have to operate.

One: A new world disorder

Writing in early 2017, I suggested that whatever the world order there was, it was already imploding before our eyes. I wrote, “[…] like passers-by who are simply incapable of looking away from a car crash, our morbid curiosity keeps us fixated on the latest tantrum from Trumpland, or the newest Brexit brouhaha.” But these episodes are symptoms of a deeper phenomenon: a rather medieval disorder characterised not just by an uncertain balance between the great powers but a loss of trust in structures and institutions of international cooperation.

In the two years since, the recognition that the world order is not what it used to be has become quite mainstream. There are at least two dimensions of this change that are of particular importance to countries like Pakistan.

First, not just the balance between the great powers but also their relationships with allies are in flux. It is not just that China is rising, or that the United States, while still pre-eminent, is losing its sheen. Nor even that the Europeans are struggling to hold their union and India is trying to gatecrash into major power status with intense global diplomacy. It is also that long-stable alliances are suddenly unstable or, at least, uncertain. Turkey, still a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), is flirting with Russia; Israel is wooing Saudi Arabia and its circle of influence; China is redefining the infrastructure as well as the diplomatic map of the world with its Belt and Road Initiative. Because there is uncertainty about who will end up at the top of the heap, it is also unclear who stands with whom, for how long and at what cost. Increasingly, countries like Pakistan are, and will be, asked to choose sides. And that will be neither easy nor without consequence.

Only a fraction of Pakistan’s youth is equipped to compete in the global, digitally driven market  | White Star
Only a fraction of Pakistan’s youth is equipped to compete in the global, digitally driven market | White Star

Second, the political commitment to international institutions – and, in fact, to international cooperation – is clearly on the wane. The two great experiments of the last century – the United Nations and the European Union – are both under stress. The upstart Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) calls into question the well-established balance within the world of international finance institutions (IFIs). The mesh of global institutions and treaties that signified the norms and rules that held the international order in place, is fraying everywhere — from trade to environment to human rights, even security. Unfair as the structure of international institutions might have been, their weakening leaves developing countries, like Pakistan, even more vulnerable to the whims of the mighty.

Ironically, Pakistan’s two most important foreign relationships are with the two main protagonists in this new disorder: the United States of America and China. Neither this, nor the fact that Pakistan’s perception of these two relationships is distinctly different, makes things any easier. It only increases the stakes for Pakistan and gives it less breathing room to reflect. It would really have helped if Pakistan had more friends in the international system. It has very few. Now would be a good time to start making more friends.

Two: Democracy redefined

Populism. Authoritarianism. Ultranationalism. Xenophobia.

Across the world, democracy seems to be yielding this crop with disturbing frequency. These may not yet be the norm but they are certainly no longer the exceptions. Yes, there are variations. Yes, the extreme does not always win. But what would have once been deemed unthinkable emerges as a distinct possibility, place after place, election after election. Not surprisingly, given this mix, we also see ever more divided, ever more polarised, election results. Is democracy becoming a tool for cementing differences and disdain much more than bringing people together? One really wonders.

Moreover, all across the globe, electorates are demanding ‘strongmen’ — those who see power as useful only if it is exercised. Vladimir Putin in Russia. Xi Jinping in China. Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Donald Trump in the United States. Narendra Modi in India. Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. Jair Messias Bolsonaro in Brazil. Muhammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. The list goes on. About half of the world’s population, two-thirds of the world’s economy, and three-fourths of the world’s military is now under the control of one strongman or the other. Each inclined to demonstrate power by deploying it.

US President Donald Trump | AP
US President Donald Trump | AP

Scary as this is for the prospects of war, even more scary is the fact that in most (although not all) cases, these leaders are being elected because of their authoritarian streak. Clearly, the market for autocrats is hot. This, I believe, is directly linked to what I have called the “politics of anti-politics” that is sweeping the democratic discourse across the planet. I have defined it as “a deep disdain, not only for politicians, but for the idea of politics”. All across the world, and certainly in Pakistan, politicians are winning by attacking the very act of politics; portraying politics not just as a bad word but also as a despicable act. Even the great champions of inclusive non-autocratic democracy, like Justin Trudeau in Canada or Emmanuel Macron in France, have been elected on the clarion call of not really being ‘politicians’.

The strong sentiments of public discontent with politics as usual that all of them are able to feed off are very real. But the undertone of attacking the very idea of politics is dangerous because it immediately brings into question the idea of democracy. Murmurs of what was once a very Pakistani refrain – ‘what has democracy done for me lately?’ – are now also being heard elsewhere in the world. Not always with the same brazenness but with the same resonance. In some places, this can lead to old-style military takeovers (as, for example, in Thailand) but it has more commonly led to street agitation (as, for example, in France) and, at least in a few cases, it has resulted in a willingness to give autocratic leaders the room to ‘experiment’ with the limits of democracy (as, for example, in Turkey).

In the face of economic, social and technological disruptions, the limits of the idea of democracy seem to be under strain. But, for the most part, democracy itself is not being questioned. One certainly hopes that this moment of global introspection will yield better democracy and the path to that seems to run through stronger institutions. It certainly does in Pakistan.

Three: Regional tumult

There are Pakistanis, maybe many, who believe that Pakistan’s greatest asset is its geostrategic location. I have never found this argument to be convincing. The sum of seven decades of experience suggests that the neighbourhood we are in has given us more angst and heartache than benefits. Of course, changing one’s location to a secluded island is not an option. A country cannot change its geographical location but it can try to understand its realities and learn to deal with them as best as it can.

Crew members of a Chinese ship take pictures with Pakistani security officials in Gwadar  | AFP
Crew members of a Chinese ship take pictures with Pakistani security officials in Gwadar | AFP

The great reality of our region-scape is that the tumult it has always been in is not going away anytime soon and, most likely, it will become even more tumultuous. Consider the whole neighbourhood. To Pakistan’s west, daggers are drawn on Iran –– not just by the United States but also by Saudi Arabia and Israel. The logic of why Pakistan must have better relations with Iran is impeccable but the practicality of how to walk this tightrope is confounding. Looking towards our north-west, if there is one issue more important than all others for Pakistan, it would be to improve and normalise relations with Afghanistan. Historical fumbling by Pakistan and Afghanistan, and more recently by the United States, however, make the attainment of this goal difficult, at least in the short term. To our north, is an emerging great power rearing to rise. We could benefit from the Pakistan portion of China’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative but we have to always realise that, being a rising power, China’s appetites are only likely to grow with time. To the east is India, with its historical malice towards Pakistan, which has only heightened with time, including in the public and media spheres. Here is another one-billion-person giant trying to find its own place in the new global dispensation while being egged on by the United States also to serve as a counterweight to China’s rise. India’s horrific treatment of its minorities and inhuman clampdown in Kashmir, meanwhile, continue to remain unnoticed by most of the world because its gigantic consumer markets are too attractive and Pakistan’s international reputation too sullied for protestations on these counts to be heard.

The point to be made is that none of these realities – India’s malice, China’s ambition, Iran’s isolation, Afghanistan’s mayhem – is likely to change anytime soon. The very least Pakistan should try to do is to not be caught in the crossfire. Practically, this highlights the need for heightened diplomacy along our western borders. Afghanistan’s distrust of Pakistan runs deep and very powerful backers seek to impose isolation on Iran. But there is no more important test of Pakistan’s regional sincerity and diplomatic prowess than finding ways to overcome these challenges. It cannot be easy to do so but the possible dividends would make it very well worth the effort.

Four: Energy in transition

The greatest technological revolution we are living through right now is the energy transition that will likely continue through the first half of this century. It will not lead to a total move away from all fossil fuels but it will result in a shift towards a mix of energy sources for a variety of uses. Only a fraction of the total energy needs of the world will be coming from fossil fuels. The speed with which the death of coal has come about, and the dramatic fall in the prices of renewable sources of energy – especially wind and solar power – signify that the transition is already happening, and smart planners across the world – including in many developing countries but not in Pakistan – are working feverishly to capitalise on these gains.

Coal being unloaded from a truck in Karachi  | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Coal being unloaded from a truck in Karachi | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Across the world, construction of new coal plants is being halted and old ones are being decommissioned. Bloomberg estimates that the global use of coal as fuel will fall from 38 per cent (of the total global installed capacity to produce electricity) today to 11 per cent by 2050. Wind and solar energy could make up as much as 50 per cent of the world’s electricity mix by the same year. Much of the turnaround is happening in developing countries. China, for example, was the third largest producer of renewable energy (not counting hydroelectric power) in 2010. It was producing 33 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources that year. In 2017, it has produced 300 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources, becoming the largest producer of renewable power and registering nearly a tenfold increase in seven years. It was also in 2017 that developing countries, as a group, for the first time added more capacity to produce clean power than the one generated by fossil fuels. This included 94 gigawatts of new generating capacity from solar power and wind alone. This has mostly happened because of the rapid technological gains and price drops seen in renewables — and not because of regulatory pressures. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that renewables will be price competitive globally with fossil fuels by 2020.

The opportunity before developing countries, like Pakistan, is to leapfrog into the 21st century technologies (renewables), without going through the same cycle of outdated technologies that more established economies had to go through. And to do so for economic and developmental reasons — not for climatic ones. The cellphone is a good analogy to understand the choice that many developing countries can now make. Just like many countries in Africa and Asia were able to bypass fixed landline technologies and directly go to the, by then, price-competitive wireless options, the opportunity today is to bypass the 20th century – often the 19th century – energy systems and leapfrog directly to the 21st century renewable systems. Given that energy investments are both large-scale and long-term, the opportunity is most attractive for countries that do not already have large, installed energy capacities and are looking to expand. In fact, they can sometimes have significant advantage over established economies that have large amounts of extant capacity to produce energy from fossil sources.

Of course, the historic energy transition we are currently experiencing is much more than just the move away from coal or towards more wind and solar power. The range of new energy sources – many technologically preferential for different uses – is astounding. For example, the progress in battery technologies has not only revolutionised the future of mobility but also of medium-scale electricity storage from renewable sources. The net result is a truly historic opportunity for developing countries to make a quantum leap in terms of economic development — to bypass more established energy economies and directly adopt advanced technologies. The future will belong to the countries that jump on this transition early enough to benefit from it. To not do so is like insisting on buying a cassette player in the age of MP3 players and iPhones.

Five: Digital dilemmas

Lots of questions, of course, are being asked about the ways in which information technology might manifest itself in the future. The short answer to them is that we do not know except that we know that information technology will continue to surprise us. More importantly, there is a frantic race to be digitally prepared for the future in all the ways possible, especially including readiness to adapt to new digital opportunities as they evolve and emerge.

The power of information technology, especially for developing countries, comes most importantly from its amazing versatility as a platform for commerce and creativity. By all indications, the real number of Internet users in Pakistan has grown tremendously in recent years. According to data collected by Bramerz, a digital advertising agency based in Lahore, there are 148 million mobile connections in Pakistan, 54 million active Internet users, and 35 million active social media users. Of these, nearly every social media user is on Facebook (35 million) and on YouTube (30 million); about 3.3 million of them are on Twitter and 5.5 million on Instagram.

In terms of commerce and creativity sector, however, the consensus seems to be that while the potential of the sector is great, it is not yet being fully met. For example, according to the Pakistan Software Export Board, the total worth of Pakistan’s software exports is five billion US dollars. By comparison, India’s software exports are in the range of 120 billion US dollars. Both numbers are subject to definitional debate among experts, but what is not in debate is that there is much room for Pakistan to grow in terms of meeting its digital potential, both in terms of exports and in local commerce.

While there is a constant stream of feel-good news about innovation, incubation, start-ups, and young people using digital technologies in creative ways, the quantum of Pakistanis actually involved in these activities seems small in comparison to the size of the country and, also, in comparison to other countries. If there is a sector of economic activity that should be ‘ripe’ for growth in Pakistan, it is the digital sector. This should not just be among the country’s best bets for economic contribution but also for employment generation for a burgeoning youth population. More on that later.

Thousands of residents of Thar have migrated in recent months due to an acute water shortage | White Star
Thousands of residents of Thar have migrated in recent months due to an acute water shortage | White Star

Commerce and employment are, however, not the only areas of global concern about digital futures. Especially since accusations that Russia used social media to manipulate voter preferences in the 2016 elections in the United States, there is much concern all around the world about social media as a tool of information and, even more, of misinformation. Pakistan, with its own very exuberant social media, is no exception. It is disheartening, however, to see the inordinate excitement that can be generated when talking about social media as a weapon of misinformation rather than as a tool for information. Most glaringly, this can be seen in the great attention that technical sounding terms such as ‘5th Generation Warfare’ can generate among Pakistan’s young social media warriors. That there are four ‘generations’ of warfare is not an intellectually mainstream idea, although it is popular, and its creator, a conservative American author William Lind, has himself been quite critical of the randomly defined ‘5th generation’. Much more importantly, however, the idea of using information and narratives as a weapon is an old one. That is what they once called propaganda. It has always been corrosive and corrupting. More than that, it is a losing battle and a terrible waste of the energy and effort of our youth.

Six: The age of climate adaptation

That climate change is one of the most important challenges facing humanity is not news. The news is that we have now entered what I have called, in other writings, ‘the age of adaptation’. An era in which we have to worry not only about reducing our emissions so that future climate change can be reduced or reversed – mitigation – but also learn how to deal and live with the impacts of climate change — adaptation. Because the industrialised world has so miserably failed in meeting its mitigation goals, the age of adaptation is a reality that Pakistanis across the length and breadth of the country are already confronting.

Although climate negotiators continue to elevate hope over evidence, scientific data suggests that it will now be nearly impossible to meet the Paris Agreement target of restricting climate change to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This means that even as the world has to redouble its efforts towards climate mitigation, the most vulnerable countries, of which Pakistan is one, need to begin preparations for living in a world with climate impacts. This is all the more important because we will have to bear the burden of adaptation ourselves since the international system has shown very little appetite to assist with or provide resources for adaptation in developing countries.

The single most important challenge for Pakistan in the age of adaptation relates to water. In fact, one can say that water is to climate adaptation what carbon is to mitigation. This is because many of the most immediate impacts of climate change relate to water — sea-level rise, floods, droughts, glacial melt, etc. In Pakistan’s context, water stress very quickly becomes a food security issue. Vector-borne diseases are another key area of concern in the age of adaptation as is migration triggered by loss of livelihoods due to climate change. While much of the effort in adaptation goes towards disaster relief, the fact is that climate adaptation is best viewed with a developmental, rather than a disaster, lens. Unabated and ignored, climate change can also have security implications –– most strikingly through imperiling water and food security, but also by directly affecting military preparedness, as well as by diverting military resources towards a constant stream of disaster management and law and order duties.

Already accustomed to nearly annual floods in the northern regions, nearly annual droughts in Thar, nearly annual deadly heatwaves in Karachi and nearly annual pollution upturns and smog in Lahore, the average Pakistanis are well aware of how climate is impacting their lives and what living in the age of adaptation means in real terms. With global mitigation efforts moving as slowly as they are, we should be prepared for more severe impacts, including in Pakistan’s coastal areas. While Pakistan should continue to try to harness international resources to bolster its own adaptation efforts, the fact is that much of the cost of adapting to climate impacts will eventually fall on the poorest Pakistanis. The opportunity, to the extent one exists, is in making adaptation a part of all development planning and, in essence, to move towards ‘climate-proof’ development. The costs of doing so, in a number of cases, can be offset by the benefits.

Seven: 212,742,631 Pakistanis

According to the 2017 census, there were 212,742,631 people in Pakistan by the summer of that year. According to the Pakistan National Human Development Report (PkNHDR), released the same year for which I was the lead author along with Dr Faisal Bari, 29 per cent of these Pakistanis are between the age of 15 and 29 years, and as many as 64 per cent are under the age of 30. This makes Pakistan the fifth most populous country in the world (behind China, India, the United States and Indonesia). It also makes Pakistan one of the youngest countries in its region. It is going to remain so until around 2045. By that time, we would have added up to 110,000,000 more people to our population.

A crowd gathered at the entrance of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Park to attend a food festival | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
A crowd gathered at the entrance of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Park to attend a food festival | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

These Pakistanis are and will be competing in what is increasingly a global knowledge economy. Our research on the PkNHDR suggests that the young of today are not being equipped to face this competition. As a thought exercise, based on our survey and other data, we tried to imagine what the youth of Pakistan would look like if we could computationally condense all of them to a representative sample of 100 young people. We found that 30 of the 100 would not be able to read or write; only six would have 12 years or more of education; only six would have access to a library, only seven to a sports facility and just 21 to a park; only three would have ever been to a cinema; and only three would have been to a live music performance. On the flip side, 59 would say that they do not play sports or do so only infrequently. In each of these categories, the inequities are compounded for women.

By not having met the essential human development needs of our population, especially our young, we have also deprived them of the essential tools needed to participate and benefit from the global knowledge economy. This deprivation is most profound in the area of education. The PkNHDR found that, if enrollment growth remains at current levels, it will not be until 2070 that the constitutional provision (under Article 25A) of putting every child in school will be met. It will take a fourfold increase in annual enrollment rates to reach that goal by 2030. But the problem is deeper. Even those who do get to school are mostly unlikely to get an education that prepares them for the world they will inherit. To create the 1.2 million to 1.5 million new jobs per year that are needed to cater to this youth bulge, workers in Pakistan would need to be linked to the global economy. The data suggests that too many of them will not be ready to do so in meaningful ways.

If humans are a nation’s biggest resource, then human development must be a nation’s greatest responsibility. Pakistan has not been fulfilling this responsibility particularly well. By not doing what we must, we risk missing the many great opportunities that a thriving global knowledge economy might have to offer to the nations of the world.

This essay is an attempt to take a broad view of key global realities – moving from the broadest geopolitical challenges to the most individual concerns of human development – that would contextualise the future in which Pakistan will need to make its most important decisions. I have identified seven key forces: 1) a world placed in turmoil because of great power struggles; 2) modern democracy finding itself stressed by economic, social and technological disruptions; 3) a region likely to remain in tumult in the mid-term future; 4) a historic opportunity to leapfrog developmentally by making the right energy choices; 5) a need to catch the commercial and creative energy of the digital economy; 6) the necessity to learn to live in the age of climate adaptation; and 7) the daunting challenges of preparing a young population to benefit from a global knowledge economy.

It is, of course, not possible to do full justice to each of these subjects in this space. I have tried, instead, to highlight the key forces and within them the elements that are most contextually relevant to Pakistan. The goal is to spur a conversation on how our national decisions are likely to be influenced or benefitted by broader global trends. It is only fitting, however, to conclude by reiterating the very fundamental point that I had begun the essay with: Pakistan’s future will be determined – as has always been the case and for all nations – by the decisions that Pakistan and Pakistanis will make. Everything else is context.


The writer is the founding dean of Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.


This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.