April issue 2014

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 10 years ago

Despite the ability of this nation to produce competent professionals in fields as varied as engineering, medicine, accounting and information technology, why is it that we lack an entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to innovate in these very fields on the global stage?

The World Bank development indicators suggest that between 2009-2013, Pakistan’s annual expenditure on Research and Development was 0.33 per cent of the GDP and only 92 patent applications were filed in 2011. Between 2005-2010, there were only an estimated 162 full time researchers and 64 technicians per every million of the population that were engaged in research and development.

Based on reputed international standards and measures, Pakistan ranks in the bottom three countries on the Global Creativity Index (GCI) and between 99-104 out of 115 countries on the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI). On the Global Innovation Index (GIE), Pakistan ranks in the bottom six, doing worse than countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, that possess not even one-twentieth of Pakistan’s GDP. Pakistan is also lagging behind countries such as Iran and Zimbabwe, which face international trade sanctions.

Apart from the obvious obstacles such as geopolitical instability, an energy shortage and weak governance, what is it that causes us to lag behind other nations that face similar environmental challenges as ours, yet are doing better at innovating and entrepreneurial venturing?

At the policy and planning level, we are reminded constantly that Pakistan needs innovation to sustain economic growth, that manpower needs training and that entrepreneurship will be the key driver of prosperity. The Planning Commission of the Government of Pakistan proposes a framework to address this need and the recently established Ministry for Human Resource Development and the launch of the recent Youth Loan Business Scheme are intended to equip the country’s manpower with training and finance.

But does all this address the crux of the matter, the critical issues at hand that affect everyday ground-level functioning, the social discourse and the narrative that surrounds these shortcomings? These as such have little to do with ability or resource,  and more to do with barriers embedded in culture and education, which hinder our creativity as individuals and our innovation capability as a country.

Competing in a global knowledge economy demands much more than intelligent, trained and hardworking minds. They must also be able to think out of the box, experiment and do things differently than prescribed.

We, as a nation and people, attach social and monetary expectation with acquiring education. Education is seen as a means of improving one’s ability to earn better and place oneself well in the social hierarchical order. It is considered an investment that will give a lifetime’s monetary return.

The belief that if you study hard and do well academically then you will have a job is something most people subscribe to. Seldom is education viewed as a process through which one discovers their interests, develops purpose, improves their ability to generate new ideas and do new things. As a society we have become extremely risk-averse and unwilling to try things differently when it comes to our education or our career choices because we associate too many social implications with it.

The current education system in Pakistan typically revolves around the desire for students to be able to demonstrate their ability of reproducing knowledge that has been disseminated to them from a very early stage. They grow up to become efficient rote learners. Those that can recollect the most and reproduce the quickest under assessed conditions are recognised as the achievers. Those that may think differently, do not score highly under assessed conditions and are deemed the under-achievers. The assessment system discourages creativity and rewards those who can best recall what is expected.

We must realise that this current education system was conceived and designed for a different era, based on the economic needs of the industrial revolution. Built into this was the intellectual model of the mind in which so-called real intelligence consisted of people’s capability for deductive reasoning. This remains deeply embedded in our genetic makeup structure as what we consider to be academic ability. That essentially there are two types of people: academic and non-academic, or the smart and the not-smart.

The system hinders the inherent creativity of children and people, in general, who are curious and creative by nature. By the time children have become adults and make the transition to higher education and into the professional workplace, they have become accustomed to this way of thinking and judge the world according to it. Only a few can break through these barriers and think beyond the norm; the majority remain slaves to their circumstances, unwilling to take risks for fear of failure.

This is not to say that progress and change is not occurring. The growing wave of newly trained doctoral academics in Pakistan as well as universities are experimenting with new approaches to research and experimentation, while being appreciative of the importance of varied methodologies.

Another crucial factor is the role of female entrepreneurs. Women make up more than 50 per cent of the population and any nation’s economy thrives when women are given the same opportunities as men. Gender-specific barriers and stereotypes must be overcome in Pakistani society for women to make an equal economic contribution.

Fundamentally, if we are to grow and be recognised as a nation of entrepreneurs and innovators, we need to make a cultural shift and modify our approach to education. Presently, we are trying to meet the future by doing what we have always done in the past, and it’s not working.

More than ever before, it is about making  a necessary paradigm shift in culture and education that allows for critical thinking and experimentation not only in schools and universities, but in all corridors of life, including the home and the workplace.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue.