Professor David Bloom's speech, The Aga Khan
Karachi Pakistan, February 7, 2001
Thank you Dr. Talati for those kind words of introduction.
- Your Excellency Governor Mohammadmian Soomro
- Madam Minister
- President Kassim-Lakha
- Rector Vellani
- Captain Isani
- Syed Babar Ali
- Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a great pleasure to be here at the AKU, which has certainly
been among the strongest and most faithful supporters of the Task
Force on Higher Education.
In May of 1999, which was early on in the work of the Task Force,
while our plans were still in the putty stage, I had an opportunity
to share the early thinking of the TF with a rather extraordinary
group of AKU faculty and staff. The group raised fundamental questions
and offered much thoughtful advice. My recollection is that the
group was anything but shy on that occasion. I hope we can enjoy
the same frank and intense level of engagement this afternoon.
I would also like to acknowledge the remarkable hospitality of
the AKDN, which organized and hosted one of the main meetings of
the Task Force in Geneva. President Kassim-Lakha, Dr. Vellani, Dr.
Talati, and other senior staff did a great deal at that meeting
to enlighten members of the Task Force on a range of matters. And
somewhat more recently, the Task Force received several hefty doses
of constructive and thoughtful comments from that same troika on
early drafts of its report.
Because of this close association between the AKU and the Task
Force, Professor Rosovsky and I had hoped that we would have an
opportunity to revisit the AKU and share the fruits of our collective
labor. Its very gratifying to have that wish come true at
From Professor Rosovskys brief introduction to the Report
of the TFHE, you know that the Report has two core messages:
first, that higher education matters to the pace and process of
economic and social development;
and second, that the obstacles to higher education reform and strengthening
are formidable, but they are not insurmountable.
What Id now like to do is to spend a few minutes expanding
on and reinforcing these two core messages. I would also like to
further unpack the ideas contained in the TF report in the interest
of informing and stimulating some discussion.
If you examine the Task Force report closely, especially the chapter
on the public interest in higher education, you will see the potential
benefits of higher education spelled out. These benefits include
the well-established boost that higher education provides to productivity
and income for the people with higher education.
But higher education also confers benefits above and beyond enhancing
the incomes of those receiving the education. It also promotes gains
at the societal level. These gains are caused by the multiplier
effects that emanate from higher educations contributions
to entrepreneurism, leadership, and governance. For these main reasons,
one of the main contentions of the Task Force report is that higher
education must be viewed as a vital ingredient in building stronger
economies and societies.
These contributions of higher education to national development
have been true in the past, but will be even more true in the future,
given the growing importance of knowledge in a world economy that
is growing increasingly competitive, and, I might add, increasingly
unforgiving of laggards.
Pakistan must, of course, plan for tomorrows world, not yesterdays,
which means moving higher education closer to the center of its
national development radar screen.
But we also have to show a little humility about the theme of this
workshop. Yes, its true that higher education is a crucial
determinant of national development, but we mustnt get carried
away into believing that higher education is the panacea that will
thoroughly transform Pakistan and cure its woes.
Social and economic development are complex processes in which
lots of factors play a role.
One of the oldest questions in the whole field of economics concerns
the matter of why some countries are rich and others poor. Economists
have been working on the answer to this question for over two hundred
years, dating back at least to Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations.
If you will indulge me as I offer a very simplistic summary of the
answer emerging from over two centuries of literature, there appear
to be three sets of factors that are important:
- First, what a country has by way of resources and accumulated
- Second, what a country does to add value to what it has
- And third, how a country markets what it has.
Successful economies tend to have a number of features in common.
- They exploit their natural resources, accumulate physical
capital, and build infrastructure that facilitates economic activity
and human security.
- Their workers acquire general and special skills, which they
continually apply to their most productive uses.
- They trade vigorously in goods and services, technology,
- And they have liberal policy environments that encourage competitiveness
as judged by an international standard.
The point here is that higher education contributes to economic
growth and human development not just by training workers. It also
contributes by enhancing other channels of the development process.
It spurs the accumulation and wise use of resources, the creation
of favorable and forward-looking policy environments, and the organic
generation of increasingly vital national resources in the area
of science and technology.
In this connection, its important to note that market forces
alone will not ensure the development of a higher education system
that promotes national needs. Markets are moved by profit, mainly
quick profit. Private interests overlap, but only partially, with
a societys long-term interest in accumulating and imparting
knowledge and its capacity for generating new knowledge.
Unfortunately, there are two political and technical difficulties
that beset us when it comes to mobilizing political commitment and
public resources in favor of higher education reform. The first
has to do with the long payback period for investments in higher
education. This payback period is measured more naturally in decades
than months, and certainly extends well beyond the normal time horizon
of political leaders, reducing the benefits to them of acting now.
The second problem is the claim that public investment in higher
education is socially inequitable because university graduates
who may reasonably be expected to be a countrys future elite,
are disproportionately drawn from the current elite and therefore
not deserving of public subsidy.
There is surely some truth to this view, but its not the
whole story and its not decisive. As mentioned earlier, higher
education confers huge benefits on society as a whole. It would
be narrow-minded and counterproductive for a society to forego those
benefits simply because they are not distributed equally. In addition,
we must keep in mind that higher education is one of the most powerful
mechanisms societies have for upward mobility: it has enormous potential
to promote prosperity among people with talent and motivation, irrespective
of their social origins.
Id like now to offer some brief thoughts on what the analysis
and recommendations contained in the TF report might mean for Pakistan.
As noted by Professor Rosovsky, our thinking on this matter has
benefited greatly from an intensive two-day dialogue on this topic.
The dialogue was held in Lahore earlier this week under the leadership
of Syed Babar Ali.
We all recognize how difficult it is for Pakistan to strengthen
its higher education sector in the current economic climate. Pakistans
health, education, and womens status indicators are poor in
comparison to other countries in the region, population growth continues
to be rapid, there are burgeoning deficits in government spending
and foreign trade, a huge burden of national debt, a narrow tax
base, and only meager levels of direct foreign investment.
It is incumbent upon us to recognize that these aspects of Pakistans
overall development performance limits its options for higher education
reform. Since these problems are especially tough on options that
require more funds, it would appear that a natural first step in
strengthening higher education in Pakistan involves devising ways
to use the available resources more efficiently. This might suggest,
for example, devoting attention to matters such as governance, rationalization
of the system of higher education, and improvement of curricula.
On the other hand, a strong case can be made for declaring Pakistani
higher education in crisis, calling for a comprehensive and holistic
set of solutions, rather than something that is piecemeal and incremental.
As Professor Rosovsky mentioned, science and technology is one
of the main thematic areas covered in the Task Force Report. He
has left this topic to me, and Id be pleased to devote a few
minutes to it.
The central view we take in the report is that a strong science
and technology base is becoming less a luxury and more a necessity
for developing countries that wish to maintain or improve their
In some developing countries, this base will be useful because
of the new discoveries developing country scientists make
especially the ones that have commercial value whose intellectual
property benefits accrue to the developing country.
But, more broadly, a strong science and technology base is important
to low and middle income countries because it puts them in a stronger
position to select and implement existing technologies, and to adapt
them to local circumstances.
As an example of this need, the case of genetically-modified food
is of some interest, especially appropriate for discussion here
in Pakistan, where the Green Revolution was first born.
GM food is produced through the manipulation of genetic material
to achieve changed properties in the living organisms that become
Although selective breeding has been used for centuries to genetically
modify food crops and livestock, advances in biotechnology promise
future changes that are far more rapid and far-reaching.
We are talking here about possibilities that range from
- improving crop yields
- to increasing crop resistance to droughts and pests
- to improving the nutritional value of familiar foods
- to using those foods to create edible vaccines against common
- to reducing the need for environmentally-unfriendly chemical
The day is not far off when we will be able to insert a gene from
a fish that lives in very cold seas into an orange so that the orange
can survive an early snow or frost.
Biotechnology innovations are being dominated by life science companies
in the US and Europe. But the implications for developing countries
are profound. On the upside we have the potential of GM foods to
help address malnutrition and ill health. But on the downside is
the risk these foods will create new allergens, or unwittingly transfer
existing allergens to different foods. Cross-breeding between genetically-modified
crops and undesirable vegetation could also lead to the creation
of monster weeds whose control requires the application
of larger amounts of yet more poisonous and environmentally deleterious
Fears have also been raised among the public of monopolized food
markets, or of growth-enhanced genetically-modified salmon escaping
their ponds and altering other aquatic environments and species
GM foods are thus creating an enormous and increasingly urgent
need for a new body of technical expertise throughout the world.
Developing countries like Pakistan will need this expertise if they
are to take advantage of the benefits of GM foods, while seeking
to minimize the risks. The situation is especially complex since
the risks involved seem to be of low probability events that could
have catastrophic impact, even more extreme than the risk of nuclear
accidents. Higher education is the natural sector for societies
to rely upon as repositories and imparters of this expertise. But
this requires huge investments in infrastructure and training, connectivity
to the world stock of knowledge, university-industry cooperation,
and international cooperation, as well as stable long-term commitments
to all of these.
It might also be noted that the example of GM foods raise many
complex issues that go beyond science to include matters related
to ethics, public regulation, business practice, community life,
globalization, and world governance. It is hard to imagine countries
addressing these issues effectively without the leadership, or at
least the aid, of individuals with a strong general education.
I would like now to draw to a close by sharing a few further thoughts
concerning the subject of what Pakistan can do in the area of higher
education reform. In offering these remarks I should say that I
have benefited substantially from the ideas of a small group of
U.S.-based Pakistani professionals that Henry Rosovsky and I met
with over dinner last month. Henry and I have promised to report
back to the group and so we will be very interested in your reactions
to these ideas.
This group made two very practical and thoughtful points that deserve
mention and I hope some discussion, as well. I also think
the points they raised were spot on with respect to our discussions
at LUMS earlier this week.
First, the group argued that Pakistans higher education system
cannot be effectively strengthened without reform of its public
universities. In other words, notwithstanding some noteworthy exceptions,
such as LUMS and the AKU, Pakistans private higher education
institutions do not collectively have the reach, the influence,
or the freedom to leverage a wholesale improvement in the quality
and coverage of higher education in Pakistan. Thus, a plan to reform
and strengthen higher education in Pakistan must confront the public
sector, which means it must confront problems of bureaucracy, politicization,
outdated curricula, run-down and inadequate facilities, paltry budgets,
underpaid faculty that moonlight extensively, poorly prepared students,
and so on.
Second, the group argued that effective reform requires more than
just articulating a sensible new vision for Pakistani higher education.
It also requires deep attention to the process of mobilizing political
will, building a broad-based consensus in favor of key reform proposals,
and marshalling the economic and human resources necessary to implement
The point here is that its easy to stand up here and say
that Pakistans higher education system needs more and better
faculty, students, and resources, academic curricula that are more
thoughtful and forward-looking, and better internal and external
Its far more difficult to devise a strategy for achieving
- This requires a deep understanding of the interests of key
decision-makers and of a host of other relevant stakeholders.
- It requires an appreciation of national needs and concerns
outside the area of higher education.
- It requires taking painfully objective stock of Pakistans
financial, human, and political resources.
- And it requires a sensitivity to Pakistans history and
culture to ensure the workability and legitimacy of the institutions
that have to be built as part of the reform.
The field of international development is littered with good ideas
that have failed to deliver their promised benefits. This intellectual
wastage is often due to inattention to the reform process, and because
clever policy ideas have not been matched by implementation strategies
that pay appropriately sophisticated heed to the harsh realities
of the field.
The Task Force report devotes far more attention to policy ideas
than to implementation strategies. But if Pakistan wants to succeed
in this area, it appears that it will have to devote significant
attention to both policy and implementation or, as our colleagues
refer to it, to both the technical and political aspects of higher