Pakistan has its share of troubles, but its economic successes tell another story

Pakistan is not a place for the risk-averse – amid violence and political uncertainty, the risks are manifold. Yet for three years in a row, the Karachi stock exchange has been one of the world’s top 10 performers.

The MSCI Pakistan Index has returned 9.3 per cent a year over a five-year period. In comparison, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index offered 0.6 per cent returns over the same period and the Frontier Index 1.6 per cent (all in US dollar terms).

Goldman Sachs has ranked Pakistan among the Next 11, along with Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. The N-11 is its selection of high-potential, high-population countries beyond the Brics group.

Pakistan’s economy has grown by an average of 5.4 per cent a year since 2010, reaching US$247 billion last year. Goldman Sachs estimates that it could reach $2.1 trillion by 2050.

This is the other side of Pakistan’s story – the country’s ability to defy sceptics and keep growing its economy despite violence and political uncertainty.

Pockets of resilience and economic success are increasingly visible in the country. Civic hacking, for example, is a global movement gaining traction in Pakistan.

“The way civic hacking works is: you see a problem, you know there is a data set to solve it – it’s just that someone has yet to make that connection,” explained Ali Raza, an entrepreneur who runs a game studio.

Mr Raza is manager at one of the civic hacking movement’s successes – the KP Civic Innovation Fellowship Program. Pakistan’s KP province is more frequently known for bearing the brunt of the past decade’s war. Yet it is taking progressive steps – the government hosts this fellowship programme in a three-way partnership with the World Bank and Code for Pakistan. Given the pilot’s success, the government agreed to host 20 fellows this year, up from 12 last year.

“It’s a big enough deal that the government understood this positive take on the term ‘hacking’,” said Mr Raza.

This collaboration is among the successes mentored by the KP Civic Innovation Fellowship Program.

“Three out of five applications that came out of the first fellowship batch alone have been adopted or sustained in some form,” said Sheba Najmi, the founder of Code for Pakistan.

An app that came out of the Islamabad Hackathon, QDews (Quick Disease Early Warning System), slashes outbreak detection time from 2.5 weeks to one day, with the potential to increase response time by 94 per cent.

“The fellowship is so exciting because all these government departments are now welcoming the citizens in,” said Ms Najmi, a Stanford graduate.

Over the past decade Pakistan has also had a surge in social enterprises. Built by entrepreneurs who watch their social bottom-line as closely as their financials, these enterprises target market gaps ranging from natural, lower-priced construction insulation to more inclusive education.

For example, Ansaar Management Company (AMC) is a for-profit social enterprise that has built vibrant low-income housing communities across the country – both urban and rural.

AMC is engaging foreign investors in a space that does not cross most minds, said Jawad Aslam, the company’s chief executive and founder.

Catering to the US$95-235 per month income household, the company’s models are filling a housing gap so far only filled by katchi abadis, or informal slums. Four thousand people now live in AMC’s four bustling multi-faith communities, which were launched in 2008. Three more are underway.

The State Bank and House Building Finance Corp have partnered with AMC to reduce mortgage payments and provide financing for the poor.

One of AMC’s backers, UK-based international development organisation Reall, has invested about $1.7 million in the company.

“We have had long-standing engagement with partners in Pakistan, and have found that while it is often portrayed as a security risk and needy place, it is in fact full of industrious, talented, and entrepreneurial people who are able to innovate solutions that can be replicated in many other contexts,” said Prashant Solanky, partner investment manager at Reall.


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