Max Becherer / Polaris for NBC News
Momina Khawar, 21, is a college educated woman looking at the economic future of her native Pakistan and wondering if there is a place there for her to fulfill her dreams.
This story is part of a series – Future Shock: Millennials in Crisis – looking at how young people around the world are grappling with the transition to adulthood in a challenging global economy. Check back for more reports from Spain, China, Turkey, Kenya, Iran and Mexico.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – While Pakistan continues to grapple with terrorism, drone attacks and trouble in neighboring Afghanistan, the country can add another issue to the list: a brain drain of its most talented young people.
Momina Khawar is one of them. Like many 21-year-olds, she has big dreams. But her home country isn't able to fulfill them.
The Islamic University student is preparing to graduate next year with a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations. Confident and composed, she recently laid out her plans for her future.
“I want to be a development expert,” Khawar said. “I also want to be a magazine editor. And I also plan on standing for elections in the next five or ten years.”
But even Khawar, a member of Pakistan’s privileged class, knows her plans come with inherent limitations. Although she has the means to comfortably live among the tree-lined, wide boulevards of the country’s capital city of Islamabad, she believes that in order to reach her goals, she will ultimately have to leave Pakistan.
“There are not many universities who are offering [specialized] kinds of programs, so I have to go abroad,” she said. “Secondly, if you are educated, you are qualified, you don’t have the ideal jobs [here.]”
Khawar’s frustrations are echoed by her peers, other students making the transition from their sheltered student bubbles to the hard realities of adulthood in Pakistan. In a nation where 91 percent of the population believes the country is on the wrong track, according to a recent Pew Research report, dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement easily cut across distinctly-drawn class lines.
“I believe life has afforded me a lot of comfort and luxury already, and I’ve been given a lot of good raw material,” said 22-year old Sara Sajid Mumtaz, a student of law at the Institute of Legal Studies in Rawalpindi.
She said that one of her biggest challenges as she attempts to start her career will be “rising above” the problems pulling down Pakistan – a floundering economy, a calamitous energy crisis, and a recent history of political upheavals preventing leaders from enacting meaningful reforms. Her future plans, she says, will have to include leaving her home country.
While Pakistan’s elite are just a small sliver of the overall population – 60 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people live below the poverty line, on less than $2 a day – Khawar and Mumtaz are certainly not alone.
According to recent reports, over 5,000 Pakistani students are currently enrolled in higher education institutions in Australia, at least another 5,000 are studying in the United States and nearly 9,000 in the United Kingdom, by far the most popular destination for Pakistanis lucky enough to have the money and opportunity to study abroad.
What they’re fleeing is an economy that a measly 9 percent of those surveyed in 2012 Pew study rated positively, down from 59 percent in 2007. Just 38 percent said they were better off than their parents; 65 percent said their own children’s economic advancement would be “very difficult.”
Pakistan’s Overseas Employment Corporation, a government agency charged with facilitating Pakistanis’ employment in foreign countries, estimates that close to 36,000 skilled professionals have migrated to other countries in the last 30 years. Experts say that while that “brain drain” can have a positive impact on a country – in the form of money earned overseas sent back home, for example – the long-term consequence is the absence of much-needed human capital in countries that badly need it.
The assumption that those who can, leave – even if just for a while, is woven into every conversation among this well-heeled crowd. Twenty-one-year old Bisma Khan is upbeat about her future prospects as a lawyer, but “only because I have the opportunity to go outside this country, to explore the world, to get the kind of experience that a lot of people here cannot.” Anum Qureshi, 18, qualified her 10-year plan with the caveat, “If I’m not here in Pakistan…”
But if the nation’s elite are this cynical about their future prospects in-country, what about everyone else?
Pakistan is young and growing fast. Of an estimated 180 million Pakistanis, two-thirds have yet to reach their 30th birthdays. Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says Pakistan’s “youth bulge,” and simultaneous intense rate of population growth – at 2 percent, one of the highest in the world – is making for a dangerous mix, particularly if nothing is done to support the next generation of Pakistan’s young adults.
“There needs to be concern about the consequences that can arise if you have such a large, young population that simply cannot lead a productive, income-generating, happy life,” said Kugelman. “But the youth should not be seen as a problem, they need to be looked at as a policy issue to be addressed.”
While the recently-elected government, which brought back a party and prime minister previously in power, may be seen by many young Pakistanis as old wine in a new bottle, Kugelman says it’s unfair to expect the government alone to solve these issues. Private sector industrieslike IT could potentially step in, he argues, not only to provide vocational training and jobs for the millions of young adults lacking both, but literacy programs and funding for small-scale energy projects to benefit many more.
Without these sorts of efforts within this “small window of opportunity,” Kugelman says the future for Pakistan’s next generation is grim.
Momina Khawar, meanwhile, is hopeful her plans to concentrate on education and health development issues, and eventually run for office, will mean she’s only away from Pakistan for a short while.
“Probably I’ll go abroad for my [Master of Philosophy degree] or my PhD, but I do plan on living here,” she says. “We're already suffering from a massive ‘brain drain’ and I'd hate myself to contribute further to it by settling elsewhere. I need to make sure I put into effect whatever I study and learn within Pakistan.”
First published September 2 2013, 9:03 AM