Ahsan Iqbal discusses youth and global connections

Nov 11, 2013| Courtesy by : dukechronicle.com

By Elizabeth Djinis  | dukechronicle.com
Ahsan Iqbal, the Pakistani federal minister for planning and development, visited campus Wednesday for a talk hosted by the Pakistani Students Association. He discussed his vision for Pakistan in 2025. The Chronicle’sElizabeth Djinis sat down with Iqbal on the way to the airport to discuss his role, the Pakistani government and the differences between Pakistani and American higher education. 
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The Chronicle: What do you think are the most important aspects of your job?
AI: I’m responsible for the long-term economic development planning of the country, but currently we are facing some pressing economic challenges—first and foremost of which is the energy crisis. So while we are working on developing Pakistan Vision of 2025—which is a long term plan—we are also working on short term efforts to overcome energy crisis, which is impeding Pakistan’s overall economy by 2 or 3 percent. My one job is to look after future economic transformation development plan and second is to also fix some of the short term problems through investment and development projects. So we are making major investments in the energy sector.

 

We have also started a major initiative, which is about institution reforms and organization of the public sector. A new initiative started by ministry, seeks to modernize public sector management, make it more performance oriented and more citizen friendly and bring better responsiveness because of the very dynamic nature of the changes in the needs of the people. The public sector and government departments have not aligned themselves with the new challenges. One of our jobs is to undertake reform and initiation in the government through different initiatives, one of which is a civil service reform that will seek to make our civil service more performance oriented and give it a new look so that they can seek more collaborative solutions, as well as focus on citizens as customers and divide better quality of service using new technologies.

TC: Do you think your job consists of managing a successful team or formulating orders for implementation?

AI: It is a mix of both. We also have to get new ideas for future development of Pakistan and we are seeking breakthrough ideas, which can lead our development process. However, my challenge is also more complicated because this ministry was merged with Ministry of Finance in 1999 and that has proven to be a very disastrous step. There was no institution looking after long term planning needs of the country, as a result of which there is the present energy crisis. Nobody was projecting and working to look at the future demands and work on the source of a new supply of energy. So now, when our government came into power, the revived ministry of planning had expanded its scope planning development and reform. So because we have created the ministry of planning and reform, we are facing a serious institutional crisis.

One of my challenges is to recreate capacity in the ministry and to bring the right kind of people who will lead this process. We aim to make ministry of planning level—the role of our ministry is to become a development think tank for the government. Our job is not to look at the laws. Our job is to look at the horizons and to look at the emerging challenges as well as opportunities and do something about them today. In partnership with the concerned ministries and departments.

TC: What was the thought process behind merging the ministry and planning offices?

AI: There is always a thinking in Ministry of Finance that long-term planning and finance should be together. That way it becomes easier for the Ministry of Finance to have control over the development process. But in the process, what happens is that finance ministry is so much caught up in day-to-day management of economy and responding to fiscal pressures, that no one has time to look at the long term issues and the long term issues are compromised for short term compulsions. Therefore, we realized that the right way was to separate Ministry of Planning and Development from Ministry of Finance, so that it can independently do the planning and devote itself to the full time business of working out new ideas for our immediate and long term challenges.

TC: At the Divinity School event on Wednesday, you outlined your Vision for Pakistan in 2025, a large part of your position. Could you summarize its goals here?

AI: We are in the process of finalizing the vision. This will be finalized after a broad-based consultation with all political parties, all movers and shakers in the country so that it has a very broad ownership in the country. That will be very critical for its success….

The seven key areas on which we are focusing are number one, first priority is to have energy security because without energy, the economy cannot try. We have energy crisis and we have to overcome it and provide energy for future laws.

We want to develop internal drivers of thought by focusing on domestic globalization of resources to increase savings and investment rates, fostering innovation through science and technology and developing a robust sector. These are the drivers of thought.

Number three, we are focusing on building human and social government. Pakistan has a very young population and we have to provide them with good education and this can become a demographic dividend for us…. In the past, we ignored this area and that resulted in our not realizing our full potential for development.

Fourth part is that we are focusing on a provision in 2025 to transform our economy from low-value, commodity based items to value-added products. By developing the triangle of public sector, private sector, and research institutions to revive low value sectors, the knowledge which will enable them to move higher on the value chain and also be competitive in the world markets.

Fifth is to develop a modern infrastructure to support high growth rates and promote regional connectivity. Pakistan lies at the heart of three—south Asia, central Asia, and China. We envision creating North,-South and East-West economic corridors to integrate the three regions which have a combined population of 3 billion people, which is almost half of the world. If this region is integrated it will not only bring opportunities for Asia, but also for the global economy.

The sixth is developing small and medium enterprises and private sector as the agent of growth. Worldwide we see that public sector and governments have lost their fiscal muscle. They’re part of identity crisis, how the shutdown took place. European economy is in crisis, so private sector has to take the lead role and our job is to make the private sector the leader in investment and economic growth and create maximum jobs….We want to create a very modern public sector, using newer technologies to implement policies of the government and most efficient manner and also to serve the citizens in the most effective manner.

Pakistan has a very young population and that poses serious challenge and opportunity for us. If we neglect this population there will be a spring revolution every spring so we have to provide them education and skills, which are marketable, so they can have jobs and a good quality of life.

Recently the government has initiated major projects which are targeted at youth. These include providing internships to more than 10,000 young graduates coming out of university and industry in government departments to give them experience for better employability. More than 15,000 youth who are schooled about will be given training in vocational and technical skills so that they can be self employed and more than 100,000 youth will be given small lots for business start-ups so that they can look for entrepreneurial pursuits, rather than seek jobs. Then they will pursue small businesses.

One major initiative has been to provide knowledge tools to youth in major universities. Government is providing 150,000 laptops to merit-based, needy students who cannot afford a laptop so that they are also able to connect themselves to the global digital resources and benefit from global knowledge. We have established 4,500 computer labs in high schools and so that we can bridge the digital divide.

One of the challenges of our time is that the paradigm of education has changed from pen literacy to computer literacy. This new paradigm is very much in favor of urban population centers, where they have better access to online facilities. So the government has a responsibility to make sure that we do not create information haves and information have-nots.

 

TC: Having attended university in both Pakistan and the United States, how would you say your experiences differed?

 

AI: I’m very impressed in U.S. higher education system. U.S. universities have played a great role in development of many countries. If you look at Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, look at China, Thailand, India—all of these countries have thousands of their students come to U.S. universities, get higher education, and go back and contribute to development of their country. Unfortunately, in recent years Pakistani students have not been very fortunate to have this experience because of difficulties they face in getting visas. I hope more Pakistani students can come because the knowledge and opportunities that exist in U.S. universities are not available anywhere else in the world.

My experience at Wharton School where I went to get my MBA degree was a very transformational experience and that has helped me greatly in my work as well as my contribution towards Pakistan’s development and I hope there are more young boys and girls who can go through the same experience.

We are seeking very active engagement with research centers in USA and universities so that we can have more exchange programs, more students coming here. Our model for future development is one of collaboration between government, private sector, and academia both nationally and globally. So in that spirit, it was a great opportunity to come to Duke University, meet with our Pakistani students, internal students and with the faculty. We hope that we can have more links with Duke University…. We would also like to see more and more Pakistani students come here to make a contribution towards the diversity of the student body.

Pakistan as I said is in a very interesting part of the world where a lot is happening recently. It is the country with the sixth largest populace, so nobody can ignore it. It is located in the most important area of the world, where a lot is happening. And as I said, Central Asia, China, this is the future in the 21st century and we are at the heart of the 21st century.