Why educated Pakistanis are voting with their feet

By Kazim Alam
Published in Dawn on June 21, 2023

KARACHI: Novelist Mohsin Hamid was taken aback by the fact that his co-passengers on a recent connecting flight from Istanbul to Bologna, a city in northern Italy, included about 30 people from Lahore, predominantly young men going to Europe apparently as labourers.

The author of acclaimed novels like The Reluctant Fund­amentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia used this little anecdote to drive home his point about the rising number of Pakistanis from both ends of the education spectrum moving overseas to find work.

Talking to Dr Ali Khan, dean of the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in a podcast organised by the Consortium for Development Policy Research, Mr Hamid said the latest wave of emigration is fuelled by an “incredible level of inflation” and uncertainty on the political and economic fronts.

“The rupee has plunged like never before… There’s a randomness and predatoriness in the system from which even the highest of the elite is not immune,” he said.

Dr Khan agreed with him, noting that the economic woes have deepened “in last six months” with people moving abroad at a level not seen since 1971, a year that saw a full-fledged war leading to the secession of the eastern wing of Pakistan.

According to data released by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BEOE), as many as 832,339 Pakistanis obtained employment abroad in 2022, up 189 per cent from a year ago. The number of emigrating Pakistanis hit 315,787 in the first five months of 2023.

According to Mr Hamid, Pak­istan has been “shedding” bright and well-educated people with “intellectual capital” for a long time. But those with capital in the conventional sense of the word — i.e. money that earns a return on local investment — have been confident until recently that their family-run enterprises offer a better lifestyle in Pakistan than employment in an overseas market.

“Economic capital holders seem to be very, very uncertain and are considering moving out. That, to a certain extent, is unusual,” he said, adding that the current panic in the moneyed class is once-a-generation episode. “It’s a grim indicator.”

A national failure to create good jobs owing to a lack of industrialisation along with “wild uncertainty” in economic and political realms have added to the sense of urgency among the youth to move out of the country, he said.

“What’s going to happen to you if you have a car accident with a wrong person? If you have a wrong last name or wrong religion? Pakistan is a state that’s incredibly predatory… to a level where no one has protection,” he said, noting that even the reasonably “well-connected” elite is now finding it difficult to navigate the predatory state.

Speaking to Dawn on Tuesday, independent economist Yousuf M. Farooq said educated professionals like engineers, doctors, accountants and managers emigrating as a percentage of total people leaving the country rose from 1.2pc in 2011 to 6.5pc in 2023.

A key reason for the sharp jump in emigration among the well-educated is that income in urban areas takes time to adjust in the aftermath of a devaluation, he said.

Secondly, educated professionals enjoy a higher degree of access to resources, which allows them to find overseas employment quicker than their unskilled and semiskilled counterparts, he added.

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