Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari is Pakistan’s Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development. Appointed in September 2018, he has maintained close ties with Prime Minister Imran Khan and has been an active cabinet member since first joining the PTI party. A British-Pakistani, he has supported a number of social and charitable causes in Pakistan and in the UK. On 17 Sept 2019, the Journal had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his role as SAPM as well as a number of policy issues in Pakistan.
Editorial Note: The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): We’ve heard a lot about your commitment to social issues and philanthropy both in the UK and in Pakistan. One of your latest projects involves building an all-purpose school in Pakistan with living facilities for over 100 orphaned children. What has your experience been like working on this project?
Sayed Bukhari (SB): It is actually not a school, but an orphanage. Ideally, we try to take in children that have been affected by the war on terror. We want to provide these children with an education so they can compete on a level playing field with children who are more fortunate and have had more opportunities.
I do quite a lot of charity work, so I decided to put all my philanthropy under a foundation, and open up my own: the Bukhari Foundation. This orphanage was one of the first projects for the Foundation.
Pakistan’s education system is not as good as what you have in the U.S. Graduating from a public school in Pakistan does not give you the same opportunities as graduating from a private school. So, we decided to keep the orphanage relatively small – limited to about a hundred children – but to provide them with the same facilities as they would receive in a middle-class family in terms of their education, housing, etc. The main goal was that when they turn eighteen, these students have a chance to compete in the same fields as everyone else. We are basically putting them into lower-end private schools.
JIA: How did growing up abroad influence your career as PM for overseas Pakistanis?
SB: I was born in London and I lived there until I was thirteen. Then I moved to Islamabad until I was about seventeen. At eighteen, I went back to London to continue my education, and ended up staying there. My father, my sisters, and I had lived in Britain for forty plus years. We were all born in England. It is a home to us.
Then the transition occurred. My family was closely linked with Pakistan and has been in politics for donkey’s years. My uncle has been an MP (member of parliament) many times, and my whole family joined Prime Minister Khan’s party about ten years ago. I had the pleasure of meeting Prime Minister Khan in London around eight to ten years ago as well. We hit it off. As a friend, I tried to help him with his charitable causes. He started putting more responsibilities on me, including, eventually, political responsibilities. When I went to Pakistan for about a week to see him [in August 2018], he threw in his own constituency at the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. He made me run that election for him, and the race was against the existing prime minister. Khan beat him by 50,000 votes. From then on, he said to me, “I want you as part of the cabinet.” I truly have a great mentor in the prime minister.
JIA: According to the 2017 UN International Migration Report, Pakistan has one of the world’s largest diaspora populations, with 6 million Pakistanis living outside the country’s borders. How does such a significant overseas population affect the country domestically? Do you believe these communities also have an impact on the country’s foreign policy?
SB: Pakistan experienced a big brain drain with a lot of our good talent, especially youngsters, going abroad. They ended up doing more work overseas, settling abroad, and not coming back. If we had this brain drain, now we need to bring it in to brain gain. Being an overseas Pakistani myself has helped me to understand the diaspora differently. It is a complex situation because the first generation that went abroad had a sole motive to work hard, earn money, and return to their village or town in Pakistan; with the second generation, this motive started diluting. Now in the third and fourth generations, many overseas Pakistanis cannot even identify with their country. A lot of them I feel, especially in the last decade, have dissociated themselves from Pakistan. I think that was purely due to the political setup that they saw back in the country – they didn’t want anything to do with it. PM Khan, on the other hand, is someone who has always had a huge appeal to overseas Pakistanis. In fact, they were the first to support him – let it be in his politics or in his charity work. So that is a game changer. The Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development was also a dormant ministry until PM Khan’s government came in. Now, it has become a vibrant ministry and that is largely due to the credibility and goodwill of the Prime Minister.
Worldwide, the diaspora is starting to affect foreign policy. Before, it was taken for granted. Let it be the British diaspora, Indian diaspora, or of any other origin, though it is primarily more so in cosmopolitan areas. In cities like New York, Houston, or London, you have to give a huge amount of consideration to diaspora communities. That’s why you have people like the mayor of London who is of Pakistani origin. Things are starting to change, and I think it is for the better because communities are becoming more cosmopolitan than they ever were before.
JIA: We are just past the one-year anniversary of your appointment as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resources Development. What changes in the country have you witnessed since the PTI party’s tenure began? What were your key policy goals coming into the appointment and how have they fared?
SB: We’ve seen an incredibly tough first year. Reason being is that we’ve inherited a lot of issues. Over the last decade, Pakistan was ridden with corruption. But more importantly, the issue in Pakistan was the decay of institutions. Institutions in Pakistan were completely depleted. Coming in, we didn’t realize how much government institutions were lacking in capacity.
If you take England, for example, just until a few months ago, you didn’t even have a Prime Minister. England was technically in political turmoil. Yet, you could still go to England and everything was functioning like clockwork. That shows strength in institutions, which Pakistan has never had.
I must stress that when there is corruption to the scale of what the previous two governments had done in Pakistan, it ends up destroying a system all the way down. When we took over the government, we realized how corrupt the entire system was from the top all the way down, and how much lack of capacity it had. One thing we have certainly accomplished this past year is capacity building. We’ve gotten the right people for the right jobs, and we’ve used the strength of our overseas diaspora to bring in people from abroad. We’ve pulled in people who have a lot of international exposure, who are neat, clean, and just want to give back to their original home country.
Another thing we’ve achieved extremely well is bringing back dignity for Pakistanis, both within Pakistan and outside of Pakistan. Now, there is a fever and buzz in feeling proud to be Pakistani, whereas before many people would shy away from it.
We are also doing our best to help the lowest classes. The Prime Minister’s main agenda has been to find a way to protect the lowest classes possible. Ending poverty is a huge agenda of the Prime Minister. He launched the Ehsas Program that we’ve given a $3 billion budget to. In Pakistan, we’ve often had an ideology of appeasement towards the elite hoping that would trickle down, but this government has taken a completely different stance in policy by trying to raise the standard of the lower classes in the hopes that this will then pick up the economy and start moving upward. Rather than a pyramid effect going down, we’re starting at the grassroots level and trying to build up. I think that is a huge step forward. The Ehsas Program is a brilliant program – “ehsas” meaning compassion.
JIA: We do know there were price controls reinstituted on naan. Was that part of the Ehsas Program, or was it a separate funding stream?
SB: The Ehsas Program cuts through about forty-odd institutions. It cuts across my ministry, the agriculture ministry, among others. It is true naan became ridiculously expensive. But we have been living, now, for many years, in an economy that has been falsely propped up. Our currency rate was propped up by the ex-Finance Minister from the previous regime for many years. They didn’t literally peg it to the U.S. dollar, but they tried to keep it as close to the dollar as possible. How does a developing country that’s got so many issues keep such a strong exchange rate? It was clear that it was fake, and billions of dollars were thrown at this process. We refused to do that. We wanted to maintain an organic economy that actually reflected the way the country was going, and then strengthen it naturally.
JIA: Freedom House estimates that Pakistan has a 15.5 percent internet penetration rate. How does your ministry deal with this, especially from the human resources development aspect, to make sure your training programs are well-publicized, that it reaches the target people if they don’t have access to that information? How do you best disseminate information?
SB: Although my ministry concerns overseas Pakistanis and human resource development, we don’t do too much on the development side of it. That is done by the federal Education Ministry and the provinces. But the Prime Minister did want me to spearhead the project a little more, so I created a committee and a taskforce with the Education Ministry and all the provinces’ ministers. We have two institutions, one called TEFTA at the federal level and another called NAFTEC at the province level. They have around 3,000 institutions across the country, again a previously depleted organization. Now we’re revamping them.
Last year, before we took over, the country only sent out 360,000 protected workers abroad. This year, within ten months of our taking over, we’ve reached 550,000. By the end of this year I think we should be reaching around 620,000. We’ve had a 51% increase in skilled workers, and a 48% increase in unskilled workers. We’re trying to push this up to the million mark again.
Just before 2015, Pakistan was sending around 980,000, close to a million people a year. But due to Arabization in many GCC countries, workers got put on hold and we lost a big stake. Now we’re actively promoting to go into other countries. We’ve signed up and we’re sending. We’ve already sent our first batch of 200 workers to Romania. We’re signing an MOU with Japan, we’ve increased our quota with South Korea by 20%, we’re looking at some European countries as well as Malaysia. We’re trying to sign a 3,000 nurses contract with the National Health Services (NHS) in the UK. We’re now looking at different countries and different sorts of skill sets that the country has never looked at before. It’s unfortunate that the country only focused on laborers before and never focused on training, for example, nurses. Now we’re working with NHS to open up institutions to train nurses, teach them English, and send them abroad so we get better remittances and better standard of living for all of Pakistan.
We’re heavily trying to find different skill sets. I must stress that the private sector also has a big role to play. It is a government’s job to govern and provide policy. Unlike the previous regimes, however, we don’t like to try and take on things ourselves which have nothing to do with us. We’re trying to entice the private sector to really lead in opening up vocational training centers and technical training centers. The result will be a big mushroom growth in the country.
JIA: We saw a projection that in 2022 around $20 billion was intended for foreign remittances, but you previously mentioned a major brain drain in the country. How do you envision the balance between training Pakistanis and helping them find jobs overseas for remittances, but also looking to maintain a local, well-educated and well-trained workforce within Pakistan?
SB: It’s no secret that Pakistan suffers unemployment. While the country is now starting to reignite, it is important that people stay in jobs and earn food for their families. There will never be too much of a shortage of sending people out. Of course, we need to balance it correctly so that we don’t send all of our best workers out and then when international companies come to Pakistan they don’t have enough of a trained local workforce. There is a fine balance.
At the moment, we’re already getting remittances of around $20 billion a year, officially. Through other unofficial channels, we are estimated to receive another $20 billion. The Prime Minister has initiated a big drive to curb the unofficial channels and bring them in through official channels. This year we’ve also had around a 13 or 14 percent surge in home remittances. That shows there’s an increase in people trying to send more money back. It shows that more people have gone out. It shows that people trust the system a little bit more, so we need to further increase those figures. We’ve got close to 10 million Pakistanis living abroad. Remittance figures should be a lot more still.
JIA: We want to be respectful of your time. Is there anything else you would like to add, for the purposes of the interview?
SB: I would like to add that Pakistan is sitting at a very different place than where it was a year ago. I firmly believe Pakistan is at that same cusp where perhaps Turkey was in the first term of Erdogan taking over – when and after that point, the country shot up and did really, really well. We, as Pakistanis that have been living abroad, have sacrificed our businesses to go back and serve the country, so we urge international countries and people to come and have a look at the new Pakistan. It’s open for business. We’re trying to get rid of all red-tape-ism, and we’re trying to increase our ease of doing business index. We want Pakistan to really become an international investment point so we urge everyone to come check out.
JIA: Those are all the questions we have today, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, especially right before a flight.
SB: Thank you.