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Pakistan’s Quiet Reformer


You’re about to read one of the most provocative and inspiring, untold stories from modern day Pakistan. You may have heard of Hussain Nadim as an oped writer, academic or perhaps the person who spearheads the celebrated Young Development Fellows (YDF) program at the Planning Commission. Very few, however, know what brought an Oxford, Cambridge and GW graduate back to Pakistan to work across diverse sectors of the country.

Hussain Nadim still remembers every detail about the day his life changed forever. It started like any other day at Oxford University, where he was studying history and politics. It was only when he logged onto Facebook and noticed a story about a mosque under attack in Pakistan that he sensed something was about to go terribly wrong. He recognized the mosque instantly – it was a mosque he had prayed in all through his childhood. It was Juma time and his father, mamu and over a dozen cousins would be praying there at the time, several of them in the front row. As he turned on the television, gunmen started firing indiscriminately and lobbing grenades at the worshippers.

“I called my father immediately,” says Hussain. “But he didn’t pick up his phone… I started thinking about how I left Pakistan when I was just seventeen and had hardy spent enough time with my father. I barely knew the guy at the time. And now I didn’t even know if he was alive.” An hour later, Hussain’s father picked up his phone. Already wounded and surrounded by dead bodies of family and friends, his father simply said ‘bahaut bura ho raha hai.’ He was in too much shock to say anything else.

Traumatized by the attack, Hussain’s family left abroad in the weeks to come and advised him not to return back to the country. “I became homeless while sitting in England,” Hussain shares. “I was born and raised in Pakistan and my forefathers helped create the country. Now we lost everything instantly. I never thought something like this would impact us, until the violence came home to our family.” As the people and family around him moved abroad, Hussain decided that he had to go back to Pakistan and actually make a difference with the education he had received. It was a tipping point that would change the trajectory of his life.

“Staying abroad could have been an easy way out but running wouldn’t end the problems in Pakistan,” says Hussain, whose parents didn’t want him to go back to Pakistan after everything the family had been through. But Hussain was determined to go back. “If everyone keeps running from Pakistan at every hardship, who will be left to fix things?” Hussain returned to Pakistan and joined NUST and Quaid-i-Azam University as a lecturer with an idea that it was only through knowledge and learning that societies can transform. “I learned at Oxford that good teachers make great countries,” Hussain shares. Eventually, he learned that it was very easy to talk about trying to make a difference and bringing about change. But actually bringing about change is a different ball game all together.

Hussain soon realized the potential and vacuum that existed in the country to progress and innovate. He worked across all sectors including security and terrorism, development, media etc. His commentary on de-radicalization of suicide bombers won him the award for most read article in Foreign Policy magazine, US, and as the youngest scholar at the famous Woodrow Wilson Center, Hussain delivered a lecture at Pentagon to senior US military leadership on US-Pakistan relations. ‘I was only 24 years old when I stood in front of the US military, and I knew I had to present the case for my country’.

A year later, Hussain joined the planning commission in Islamabad as Special Assistant to Federal Minister in an effort to bring change from within the system rather than just talking or complaining about it from the outside. “For the first time in my life, I realized how difficult the government’s job is because Pakistan has so many structural problems,” says Hussain. One of the projects that Hussain has championed inside the government is the Peace and Development initiative at the Planning Commission, which seeks to evaluate development projects in Pakistan versus the peace dividend they deliver. For example, if a road is being constructed in a semi urban or rural area, how will that road impact the harmony of the communities that live there? Will it exacerbate or reduce the ethnic and sectarian tensions in the area? Answers to these questions will influence where and how development money is spent in Pakistan if Hussain is successful.

An intervention like this – transforming a personal tragedy into a source of goodness for the country – is something we need to see more often in Pakistan. A highly educated Pakistani, giving up a lucrative and safe career in the West, to return home to join the rough and tumble of Pakistani bureaucracy shows how far we can come as a nation if we put our country before ourselves. And the Peace and Development initiative is just one of the many projects that Hussain is leading. Among other things, Hussain is bringing about a quiet e-revolution at the Planning Commission, by integrating the use of technology, emails, social media and etc.  He also launched the Young Development Program, screening 3500 applications to bring 40 talented Pakistanis into service at various departments of the Pakistani government, including Fulbright scholars equipped with cutting edge thinking in their respective fields of public policy expertise.

Hussain’s story is powerful not because of everything that he’s accomplished at such a young age (and the list is a lot longer than what we can do justice to in one article). Hussain’s story is powerful because of what it represents: the idea that one can contribute positively to Pakistani society with service instead of complaining or throwing dharnas. This is a powerful but underrepresented idea in today’s national conversation. “The youth of the country mistakenly believe that they need to enter politics or bring about a revolution to make a difference in the country,” says Hussain. “There are so many ways to make a difference. I encourage all young Pakistanis to join the government with their talent instead of complaining from the outside. That’s when you’ll understand how difficult Pakistan’s problems actually are. I disagree with anyone who says there’s no space for young people to contribute to Pakistani society. It’s up to us to take the initiative and change things rather than complaining from a distance.”

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  1. Please Don't Delete Me

    As much as all that is appreciated – More than 75% of his students (who he had on Facebook), he deleted off his Facebook profile – Just because they posted a picture or a status about PTI or Anti PML-N. Not sure how the “good teacher” part is happening here.

    Bhai itney barey Hero bhi nehi hai jitney app nei banaya hai.

    • Please Don't Delete Me

      Oh, one of those students here – who got deleted just for a Pro PTI status.

  2. Ali Q

    Great teacher. Studied philosophy from him and that one course was better than my entire 4 years of undergraduate education.

    To the haters who left the above comments: I’m also a PTI supporter, never got deleted by him. May be you were those that abused him publicly.

  3. Amjad Ali

    Anybody who has attended his mind-body-soul lecture or the lecture on dreams, or the one on the fall of Islamic empire knows what a great teacher he is. May Allah bless him, always!

  4. Nana

    Pakistani have the crab in the basket mentality, they keep pulling each other down. Pakistan need more people like Hassani.

  5. Sidra

    Good teacher? Haha. This guy has absolutely no tolerance for pluralism and an opinion different from his. Also instead of teaching us politics which name of the course all his lectures were based on religion and how PML N is the best

    • Ali Q

      What are you even talking about? Everyone in our class of BPA thought he hated PMLN, and was a hardcore PPP guy.

  6. Faraan

    The author of this post should do a story on the extraordinary contributions of Dr. Ghazala Irfan.

    She is professor of philosophy and the chairperson of the philosophy department at F.C. College. Previously she was a professor at LUMS until she retired. She is also the President of the Pakistan Philosophical Association, the President of the Pakistan-Japan Cultural Association and the Secretary General of the All Pakistan Music Conference (a 55 year old organization dedicated to the promotion of Pakistani Classical Music).

    She is one of the unsung heroes of Pakistan and one of the inspirational women of Pakistan.

  7. Ali

    Pakistan is like a poor couple who raised their children despite all the hardships one can think of, stood guard come hail or rain and allowed them to stand on their shoulder to look farther and better. Now our country is 67 yrs old, in debt and scrapping a living on day to day basis. Its waiting for its children to shoulder the responsibilities by giving and implementing better solutions. It lives in hope that it will see better days at the back of better education, better insights and better solutions learned by her children. Its time to give back. Pakistan is waiting ……