Dr Hussain Nadim
Dr Hussain Nadim, Executive Director, Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) Image Credit: Supplied

I was virtually introduced to Hussain Nadim in 2013. I was the op-ed editor of a national daily, and Nadim was the special assistant to the then Federal Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal. It didn’t take me very long to notice that Nadim was one of the few columnists whose writing denoted something substantial, with a clear aim to start a conversation.

What distinguished Nadim’s writing was his utterly realistic description of Pakistan’s issues, his sharp analyses of the root causes of various problems, and his rational and do-able suggestions for the micro and macro development of Pakistan. The scope of his ideas was startling in its maturity, its depth. Nadim was twenty-five-years old.

What I didn’t know then was what lay behind Nadim’s intellectual maturity: his background, both personal and professional. His minority background had developed in him, as he says, “a certain perspective to see Pakistan from a lens that the majority is unaware of.” Nothing, however, deterred Nadim from pursuing his dream of a bigger cause, a better Pakistan.

BA in international relations, summa cum laude, from George Washington University, Commonwealth Scholar for postgraduate studies at University of Cambridge, and PhD from University of Sydney, Nadim’s pursuit of education was not just a compilation of degrees but a demonstration of his deep love for knowledge and learning.

Currently, Dr Hussain Nadim is Executive Director, Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), a think tank that is a component of Prime Minister’s Office National Security Division. Dr Nadim has worked at Wilson Centre and USIP in Washington as a senior Pakistan expert. In 2016, Dr Nadim was included in the Forbes 30 under 30 list for his work in the public sector, the area of expertise for which he is a recipient of several international awards.

Eight years later, Nadim is a remarkable personification of actions-speak-louder-than-words philosophy. His work is a constant reminder of how your ideas in your twenties are not fantastical rhetoric but a roadmap for how you wish to change things, and how to make that wish a tangible reality.

I asked Dr Hussain Nadim a few questions:

Your work at the Planning Commission and IPRI have a certain similarity—your passion for tangible change. What is the motivation for your distinct interest in the importance of data and digitalization, and focus on the talent of Pakistan’s young for a sustainable and systematic transformation?

Having spent over a decade inside the state system, I have recognized that the traditional and long-sequence reforms are impossible given the nature of the knots within the system and the political dynamics that are prevalent in the country. That made me re-think our reforms strategy, and out of that came the theory of change using a 3D approach: datafication, digitalization and disruption. A theory that I trialled and tested at IPRI with monumental success.

In just one year, using the same level of financial resources, and with a team of newly hired young professionals, IPRI was not only able to become a central think tank providing policy input to the government but it was also ranked at seventy-four in the Global Think Tank Index published by the University of Pennsylvania.

My experience at IPRI makes me believe that data and digitalization will render irrelevant the traditional state and governance structures and individuals in the system, opening the door for younger professionals. A new mindset will pave the way forward for Pakistan to enter a new age, powered by data and digital technologies led by a generation of young leaders.

You are one of the few people who are trying to retell Pakistan’s story. What is your definition of Pakistan?

Frankly, I am not much into re-telling or revising a story; my goal is to create new stories for Pakistan. This is because we are where we are today because of all the good and the bad we did in the last seventy years. Therefore, there is no one story of Pakistan but many stories, both positive and negative that we need to embrace as a young and determined nation. The most important, however, is our ability to tell our own story.

For a very long time, Pakistan’s story, in a classical postcolonial sense, has been articulated by the outsiders with their preconceived notions and prejudice. Nobody knows us better than us, and we should have the confidence to tell our truths unapologetically. Hence, I spend a lot of time focusing on the future and imagining what type of Pakistan I would like to see. I look at Dubai and other GCC countries, I look at Southeast Asia, and there is inspiration all around us.

So, my definition of Pakistan is less to do with borders and more to do with the people that make up Pakistan. And when it comes to people, I am convinced that Pakistanis are inherently good-hearted, charitable, and resilient people who will go out of the way for those around them. My wish is to see our people inspired, trained, and equipped enough to be part of the larger debate and effort to help the global society, and our civilization move forward into an exciting future, driven by technology and deep space exploration.

You work with data for national security and governance; explain its relevance for Pakistan’s short- and long-term well-being.

As hard as it is to believe but our policy making in the country for the last many decades has been on the hearsay and intuition of those on the top. The net result? The policies were not only disconnected from the ground but were rooted in confirmation bias because they reeked of elitism and prejudice. A bulk of my work is to do data for the national security apparatus to help it make critical decisions. Sometimes those policy inputs are as small as guiding the decision makers on the usage of specific words and terminologies in bilateral engagement with different countries; other times, it is as big as developing a strategic communications plan for the Afghanistan crisis using deep data analytics.

The integration of data tools and increased usage of data in the government machinery is an important step in not only developing evidence-based policies but also gauging the efficacy of the existing policies, which is a critical element for any change.

Change, the big word tossed around almost nonchalantly. What inhibits change in Pakistan?

Ah, many things, you’ve stepped on a pinched nerve. To start off, there is the core issue of the elite capture of the state. For as long as a deeply apathetic elite continues to hog the system in its favour, it will resist any change to save the status quo. Second, I always say that if you want to change an organization or a nation, change its HR. In Pakistan, there is no space for younger and fresh minded professionals because all the decision-making positions and slots are reserved for post-retired officials who continue to get re-hired in different positions. Therefore, the doors to any change are essentially closed.

Then there is an issue of the general negative mindset around money and business. For some reason those doing businesses and wanting to make wealth are viewed negatively in a society that associates increased wealth with greed and vulgarity—perhaps due to the experience with the elite. That regressive mindset around money and those that make money creates an overall negative environment for new businesses.

Lastly, there is a critical issue of the decision making at the top. Those responsible for decision making have spent decades in the system compromising and playing politics to know the costs associated with decision making. In a way, it is considered much better to not make any decision throughout your career than to make wrong decisions and be penalized for it. The question is how you bring change in a system that is designed to not take key decisions. Even a more important question is how you would change the mindset and focus of the nation from being deeply political to that of deeply entrepreneurial.

Your work on Afghanistan is comprehensive. What is your evaluation of Afghanistan’s current situation?

I have spent a good portion of the last two years, and especially 2021, working on Afghanistan. What has transpired in the country is deeply unfortunate, especially when the Afghan leadership, including Ashraf Ghani and Amarullah Saleh, abandoned Afghanistan and its people, creating a chaos in the country.

Moving a bit more into nuance, the situation in Afghanistan now is as bad as it was last year or the year before that. The only difference is that we now have access to data from ground because of Taliban. It is unfortunate that for decades the Afghan people suffered under the foreign occupation and the puppet regime in Kabul that not only plundered the aid money meant for the Afghan people but also looted their national wealth, causing a deeper level of poverty and hunger in the rural areas. What is even more disappointing is that the same Afghan leadership blatantly lied to the Americans and the international community of the development happening in Afghanistan when in reality people were suffering.

That explains how the Taliban were able to take over Afghanistan so swiftly, and without any resistance—it had less to do with Taliban’s popular support and more to do with the absolute rejection of the Ghani government in Kabul.

The situation right now is slippery and can move into any direction, but I believe Pakistan has played an excellent role in bringing together the international community, especially through the OIC, in support of Afghanistan. I am optimistic that the international community will rise to help the Afghans in this time of need.

Your work is extensively focused on Pakistan’s young; do you have any advice for them?

Success is an accident, great success is not. Therefore, develop a discipline and be inspired. We live in an exciting age, powered by emerging technologies and deep space exploration, where there are endless possibilities, and anything is possible. Be part of something bigger and meaningful.