Interview with Atle Hetland, Norwegian Social Scientist, Journalist, Researcher and Diplomat

Mr. Atle Hetland is a Norwegian social scientist with four degrees in social sciences from Norway and Sweden, including an advanced degree in international education. In his degrees and research he specialized in education and development studies. He has also served as Senior Programme Officer (First Embassy Secretary) at the Norad section of Norwegian Embassy in Tanzania and he has worked in UN organizations and the World Bank. Atle Hetland is a Former Editor of the Norwegian Universities Press, mainly dealing with distance education multi-media programmes. Currently, he writes columns in Pakistani and European newspapers. He is the author of several books, and is now working on a book about religion in Scandinavia. He has special area knowledge of Eastern and Southern Africa, West Africa, and South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan).

I am thankful to him for giving me time for this interview.

Atle Hetland

Mr. Atle Hetland

Tell me about your career in the social sciences?

I was the head of a small department in development studies for some years when I was in my earlier thirties. Then I began working abroad, first in East Africa in UNESCO, handling projects in adult education and mass media. That time, UNESCO supported about 50 small, rural newspapers in many African countries. They were meant for newly literate people. Often there was little reading material in local languages and those who had just learnt to read could easily fall back into illiteracy if they didn’t read. Radio was also popular in rural areas and Easy Pesa money transfer was first started in Kenya in East Africa. Now that is popular everywhere, and other mobile banking has also developed.

I have my company HETLAND INTERNATIONAL and we provide various forms of consultancy and advisory services in education and development in developing countries, including in refugee and returnee fields and post-conflict support.

How do you see diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Norway? What are the areas for improvement?

The diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Norway always have been good. Norway has helped Pakistan in different fields. Many Pakistanis go to Norway and Sweden for study. Sweden has started charging for education, but it is still free in Norway and students go Norway to study there. Yet, the living costs are very high in Norway.

Let me also mention that there is one major Norwegian company in Pakistan, namely Telenor. Some other companies are here, but there is room for more private sector activities, such as in the energy sector. Norway is a leading land in hydropower energy production and distribution through small-scale companies, often owned by the municipalities or counties.

How are Pakistani immigrants faring in Norway?

Many Pakistanis do well in Norway. The deputy chair of the Labour Party, the largest party in Norway, is Hadia Tajik (33). Her parents migrated from Quetta to Norway, and Hadia grew up in a small town outside Stavanger on the west coast. In December, the title of ‘Honorary Citizen of Oslo 2015’, in Norwegian, (‘Årets Osloborger’, in Norwegian) was won by Mohsan Raja (30), a Norwegian of Pakistani heritage. He received the prize for voluntary work to organize care and help for the many newly-arrived Syrian and other refugees in Norway this year.

We are indeed proud of Mohsan and the 25-30 friends he mobilized – and we are proud of all the other Pakistanis who do so well in Norway. As a matter of fact, girls do better at secondary school than boys. But that may also be the case in Pakistan, too.

Let me say: “Pakistan-Norway cooperation Zindabad”

What steps are being taken for cultural exchanges between Pakistan and Norway?

Pakistan and Norway have quite a bit of cultural cooperation. Every summer, the international music festival ‘Oslo Mela’, is held in Oslo, and it was started and is run by a Pakistani-Norwegian, Saleem. I just heard that in 2016, they will also have concerts in Pakistan. Lok Virsa folk art museum in Islamabad has for many years had UNESCO assistance in music and other fields, with Norwegian funding.

I have also helped Pakistani universities establish linkages with Norwegian universities. University of Gujrat has been particularly interested in that, and finally, it seems they will now formalize their linkages.

Gujrat District is the main sending area of about 40,000 Pakistanis in Norway. I think as many as 30,000 come from there. They first started migrating in the late 1960s and now they are Norwegian citizens and have settled in Norway, mainly in the capital Oslo and nearby towns. Some have done very well and have become politicians, lawyers, doctors and so on.

How many books have you written? Are you planning to write more books?

I have written three books, which have been published in Pakistan. The largest one came in 2007 and it is almost 300 pages. Its title is ‘Learning Away from Home’. It is still available in Saeed Book Bank and Mr. Books in Islamabad.

I still learn about refugees, and I write a bit about them. Last year, I wrote a few articles for a book in Migration Studies, which was published by Quaid-e-Azam University, edited by Dr. Muhammad Hafeez, a good friend of Norway, travelling to Oslo at least once every year.

I recommend another book that I have written, ‘The Know Norway Book’, published in Islamabad and Gujrat. That book is also available in large bookshops in Pakistan. It is an overall introduction to Norway. One chapter is about Pakistanis in Norway.

What is the impact of Afghan refugees on Pakistan in your opinion?

Learning Away from HomePakistan has always been a generous host to Afghan refugees; there are in the range of 2.7 million Afghan refugees and other Afghans in Pakistan. When refugees first arrive in a country, they cost the host country money to be given protection, housing and so on. After some time, refugees also contribute to the host country’s economy. Also, many refugees have relatives who work abroad, in Europe, America, UAE and other countries. They send money to their relatives, at home in Afghanistan and refugees in Pakistan. That is essential for the refugees and it is also positive for Pakistan. Afghan refugees are not allowed to do take jobs and do business in Pakistan, but they do small jobs as laborers, and they often have to undercut Pakistani workers to get the jobs. Afghans may also work in business together with Pakistanis, who have the formal company registrations.

How long you have been in Pakistan? Please share a few memories you have from Pakistan.

I came for the first time to Pakistan in 2000 to work with Afghan refugees in UNHCR and UNESCO. After 5 years, I worked on a research project, affiliated to Hazara University in Mansehra, to write the history of education for Afghans living in Pakistan, which resulted in the large book I mentioned earlier, and two shorter books as well, with assistance from Germany (GIZ) and the Norwegian Embassy.

I have enjoyed my time in Pakistan, and now I hope I can spend some more time here until I get my pension in Norway. I already have white hair, but I don’t feel old, and besides, Norwegians only get pension from 67. So what can be better than to be in Pakistan?

I also write articles for newspapers and magazines, and I do other research and writing, as I mentioned. Sometimes, I am interviewed on PTV World and I am invited to guest-lecture at universities and supervise students.

To be a social scientist is quite similar to being a journalist. We try to observe, collect information and understand the world around us. Journalists must be quick and move from one topic to another, often with little background in the specific fields. That is quite challenging. A social scientist who is doing research can spend more time on each topic, be more systematic and methodical.

You are founder of Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA). What is the aim of this organization?

Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA) is an international friendship association, which keeps the people-to-people contact warm. I was one of the initiator of PANA, together with Sociologist Farooq Khan and Professor Daud Awan, who were my classmates at the University of Oslo 30-40 years ago. Atilla Iftikhar Warraich from Stavanger was chairman some years ago, and now it is Dr. Ali Nawaz, who did his Ph.D. in environmental sciences at UMB outside Oslo. I believe in the importance of such little associations. In the future, they may become more important together with private sector companies.

Moneeb Junior with Atle Hetland

Would you like to share any memorable event of your life?

There are so many stories to tell; I have very pleasant memories from my stays in Pakistan over so many years. But it is difficult to know what particular stories to tell.

Let me tell a story about one of my aunts, Helga, instead. Aunt Helda was my father’s sister; they were 10 boys and 3 girls in the family. Today the families are small, just 1-3 children. Her mother, my grandmother, married twice. Her first husband drowned at sea and she married his younger brother, a retired military man who was still a bachelor. When my grandmother died, quite early after all those childbirths, Aunt Helga had to ‘look after’ her father because she was not married, and in those days it was expected that she stayed with her father. He could not even boil a potato or make a cup of coffee – and if he could, he found it much better for himself if his daughter did it.

My grandfather became an old man and Aunt Helga was more than fifty when he passed away. She continued with her work as a dressmaker at home and then she took up work in a shop, which she took over when she was 62. Then at 67, like all Norwegians, also Norwegian women and men born in Pakistan, she received government pension. It was only then that my aunt finally got married!

I was a teenager that time, and with my two brothers, we had to ‘investigate the case’. We found out that she had grown up in the same village with her husband, but he had married someone else. Then in his late sixties, and a widower, he was free to marry again. In Norway, a man can only have one wife at a time.

Are there lessons to learn from such everyday stories?

As a social scientist, I find my aunt’s real life story very interesting. There is social history to learn from the story. In Pakistan, things might have been different, yet, also with similarities. We can learn a lot from everyday stories, especially if we use social science methods and comparisons to analyse them.

I hope in future, the social sciences can play a more important role in Pakistan. I believe that civil servants should have knowledge in the social sciences, even full degrees.  But the Pakistani universities must also make their degree courses relevant and practical. Students must learn how to analyse and think about society, and how they can work as civil servants. Broad, interdisciplinary knowledge is important, including contact with foreign countries.



Journalist, Android Application Developer and Web Designer. Writes article about IT in Roznama Dunya. I Interview Prominent Personalities & Icons around the globe.


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