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.”