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Social unravelling

Recently i asked a colleague, who has been living in Pakistan for a couple of decades but had spent the early part of his life in the West initially studying and then working there, if he missed being abroad and regretted his decision to move back to Pakistan.

“No, no regrets, but I miss having access to good bookshops, coffee shops, pubs, parks and cinemas. But if I think more deeply about it, it is not just the goods and services that these places provide that I miss, it is the social and public space these places offer that I miss.” The answer was intriguing and so I pressed him to say more.

“I can get the books I want from Amazon and other sources in Pakistan too, but the joy of browsing through a large bookshop that is well organised and looked after is what I miss. It gave me the freedom to explore my options; when I am ordering books I am restricted to purchasing the ones I know about. Coffee shops and pubs gave me freedom to discuss a lot of issues with a lot of different types of people in public spaces.

When we think of development and quality of life, we should also consider our social fabric. “Here, I feel more restricted to family and a smaller circle of friends. Our social lives are more restricted to our homes, and the homes of friends and relatives. What those places provide is very different; they allow for a very different interaction with others and even facilitate interaction with relative strangers. Those sort of public spaces are still not as readily available in our cities.”

He added: “Most importantly, though, I miss the relative calm of everyday existence in the West. The everyday certainties of life, which remain in the background and are taken for granted over there — but not in Pakistan — is what I miss the most. The predictability of water and electricity supplies, the ease of public transport, the quality of services you can expect from both public- and private-sector providers — all of these reduce base-level anxiety in the West. Your life becomes easier due to that.”

He gave me an interesting example. One of his sons, born in Pakistan, was admitted to a public school when they moved abroad. While in Pakistan, the child had attended one of the country’s top private schools. Within a month of enrolment abroad, his son’s teacher had called my friend in for a discussion; she thought the child might have a learning disability. His son was referred to the appropriate experts who identified the learning impairment within weeks and the school, with the parents’ help, had devised appropriate coping mechanisms for him within a matter of months.

Even though the child had already been experiencing issues in Pakistan, the school did nothing nor alerted the parents to any issue, instead suggesting that he should get extra coaching as he appeared to be careless or unable to understand.

“The few years my son spent in that public school abroad saved him and us. All of us learnt how to manage his learning disability and these lessons have helped us even after we moved back to Pakistan. Can you imagine what would have happened to him if he had continued in Pakistan? Most likely, he would have eventually been thrown out of school, or he would have had to rely on rote learning to pass his examinations.”

My colleague said that he always felt more ‘on edge’ in Pakistan than he ever did abroad. “More things go wrong in our daily lives and everything takes longer to fix or address. And there is a base-level ‘breathlessness’ to living in Pakistan; a lot more happens in our lives and in society every day. In a way, it feels like entropy levels are higher in our society and so, if you want to improve in either your personal/family space or in national life, you have to work a lot harder to do that than in other places.”

I asked him if he felt that all of this might be true of any developing society, and that this might be the ‘cost’ we have to pay for living in societies that are still struggling to get their institutions right. He was not sure about that. He had not travelled enough within developing countries to be able to say with certainty whether this was just a consequence of a lack of institutional development. But he did mention that he had spent some time in Sri Lanka some time ago, and he felt that the base-level issues were not the same there. But his stay was not long enough for him to form a firmer judgement.

“I know you do not regret the decision to come back despite all that you’ve said, but would you advise young people who have a choice of moving or staying abroad to come back or stay in Pakistan?” I asked.

“It is a personal decision, but I do feel that people who are fortunate enough to have the choice should think a lot harder before making their decision. If you decide to stay in or come back to Pakistan, be prepared to deal with a higher level of entropy. It will impact your personality, your relationships as well as your ability to do things in life.”

I am not a psychologist; I do not know how deeply our personalities are impacted by our environments. But the conversation, I thought, did point out some important issues in our society and the impact they have on us that makes it worth reporting. Maybe when we think of development and quality of life, we should also be thinking about some of the factors mentioned here, and not just about the GDP, infrastructure and capital.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Faisal Bari, "Social unravelling," Dawn. 2016-10-21.
Keywords: Social science , Social issues , Social lives , Private school , Public Sector , Learning disability , Extra coaching , Institutional development , GDP infrastructure , Higher society , Pakistan