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As with any commodity, or commoditised corpus, knowledge too can be squeezed into the neoliberal matrix of microeconomic analysis, where knowledge is framed as a function of supply and demand. If one proceeds from this constraining prism, then one might surmise that the developing world as a whole, and a country such as Pakistan more specifically, suffers from a supply of knowledge. One may deduce this from the low literacy and numeracy rates, from low rankings of universities on international tables, from the percentage of GDP accorded to public and private education or R&D. One would thus conclude that the solution would encompass higher spending on education, R&D, and the creation of many universities and think tanks. They would be given large budgets and would have armies of staff at all levels, working on research and publishing their findings frenetically.

I too was partial to this jaundiced view when I arrived after my PhD in Pakistan. I surmised that the creation of an autonomous, well-managed think tank staffed by highly competent and driven people, as would be manifest in CASS (by way of example), would help address the supply constraint in knowledge. My simplistic assumption was that a vast corpus of knowledge-supply had to be assiduously built, and well-meaning policymakers and decisionmakers could draw upon its rich substance to inform their thoughts and their work. I have come to realise, however, that the problem is not one of supply, but rather of demand. In other words, even if a large supply of knowledge is available, it would go unexploited because the demand from policymakers and decisionmakers is too low. This is not a problem specific to any knowledge-domain, but to the entire system and its underlying value assumptions, along with the values of those who make decisions with consequences for society.

Four points help to elucidate the demand-deficiency:

  1. The Proliferation of Universities: it was once thought that, since Pakistan did not inherit virtually any of the higher education institutions left by the British in 1947, it would have to construct an educational base with substantial allocations for universities. Various education policies crafted over subsequent decades laid an emphasis on this as well. Fast-forward 75 years, and Pakistan in fact has too many universities relative to the most important ingredient for a university: the professor. There are nearly 250 universities in Pakistan that are recognised by the HEC, but can one confidently claim at there are 250 professors of immense international renown in these universities? This professorial absence is a key factor the crisis of graduate education in Pakistan. Every local politician promises his constituency a full-fledged university, and has the relevant budget allocated for the construction of buildings and other bells & whistles, with no recognition of the fact that the singular ingredient for a thriving university is its professoriate. The requisite focus on professorial formation is nowhere to be seen in at least 200 out of the nearly 250 universities, and that is where the first consideration rests. But then the true problem arises. Even for the handful of excellent universities that operate in Pakistan, which do produce large bodies of published research, the question is: who is listening to them? Where are the transformational observations to be made based on their research? The productive professors are not being listened to by policymakers, because they have no demand for their ideas, studies, or perspectives. As a result, these professors remain in their ivory towers, despite a desire to see their work translated into impact for the public.
     
  2. Proliferation of Think tanks: There is no shortage of think tanks, research institutions, and laboratories in Pakistan. I was astounded to hear of how many there already are, working in a great many fields such as security, human development, economics, agriculture, international relations, and technology, among others. But these institutions all work in silos, and one only catches a glimpse of all the work being done in various moots in which CASS has been a regular participant. As the mic goes around the table, every institution’s representative shares what they are working on, and the culmination of all the remarks might lead one to assume that Pakistan is in fact a cutting-edge knowledge producer. This may well be a misapprehension because many people in this world have a tendency to exaggerate their work. But even if one holds to the claim that the corpus of knowledge is large, one is compelled to ask: why does the country not benefit from all this work? It is because there is no adequate coordination mechanism to share their siloed findings. But coordination will simply improve the supply; what will be done about demand? A coordination mechanism is premised on channeling the corpus of research into action by policymakers and decisionmakers. This will, again, require sincerity on the part of those who presume themselves to lead the people.

  3. The Colonial System: The institutional systems of Pakistan carry the DNA of British colonialism, a point that remains true for the most downtrodden nations of the Third World who have yet to wrest themselves free of that legacy. The Foucauldian operating rationality of the colonial regime was to produce a small cadre of yes-men, and a lot of gunmen underneath them, to execute the will of the colonisers. Their will, in turn, was that of plundering the native lands and extracting all possible wealth, only to ship it off for consumption to Europe. There was no place for indigenous inputs into research; only for local informants to assist the colonial enterprise. 75 years later, the operating rationality has not changed, and the system does not generate indigenous demand for knowledge. Whatever functional knowledge is required, it can come from the donor class sitting in Washington and London. The donors come, without local finesse, awareness, or goodwill, only to dictate reductionist thoughts. This undercuts and ultimately stifles the demand, albeit not the supply, of local research.
  4. The Test of Youth: The cliche that is advanced in the dismal knowledge market of today is that ‘the youth must come up with solutions.’ ‘Young people are the future,’ we are told, and they must think ‘out-of-the-box’ to rescue the nation. In the framing discussed earlier, this would be akin to having new producers entering the market to offer a novel supply of knowledge. Again, one is compelled to ask, where is the demand for their knowledge? It is easy to write the young people off because they are the product of a flawed system, but one must be aware of their hunger for a better future, as expressed in many peaceful and creative ways in recent times. A good case study for whether the old profiteers of the status quo truly care about a new and youthful knowledge supply is in the postulation of new technologies for old problems, as in blockchain-based voting. This model is not just out-of-the-box, it’s straight out of the 5th dimension, radical and powerful. But can it, or will it, garner traction from those who need to demand knowledge? It remains to be seen.

As such, two short-term supply-side improvements can be postulated, but even they will not address the demand-deficiency problem. The first is greater coordination for sharing of knowledge and best practices among research institutions as well as universities, so that at least the productive elements of these institutions are aware of each others’ work (producer discovery in the knowledge market). The second is in consolidation, where there should be fewer universities but with multiple campuses and fewer but better think tanks with multiple offices (market structure reform). That said, the key ingredient remains the mindset of the decisionmakers: it needs to be far more sincere, merit-based, curious, and benevolent. Only then will the demand catch up to the supply.

Dr Usman W. Chohan is Advisor (Economic Affairs and National Development) at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com

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