The recently launched National Human Development Report (NHDR) by the UNDP Pakistan, titled ‘Unleashing the potential of a Young Pakistan’, made some startling revelations.
The report revealed that Pakistan currently has the highest number of youth ever recorded in its history, making it one of the youngest countries in the world, and the second youngest in South Asia. However, the report raises concerns that Pakistan’s youth bulge is potentially a ticking time bomb.
Around 64 percent of Pakistan’s total population is below the age of 30 and 29 percent is between the ages of 15-29 years. The study further stated that youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years make up 41.6 percent of the total labour force. This requires creation of at least 4.5 million new jobs over the next five years. Unfortunately, around 25 percent of the Pakistani youth is illiterate, whereas 8.2 percent is unemployed and possesses no vocational or technical skills. Furthermore, 76.9 percent of youth leave education for financial reasons, while the state spends only 2.2 percent of its budget on education as compared to the 3.6 percent on defence.
Pakistan’s youth bulge provides a serious challenge to the government which, unfortunately, is miserably failing at addressing the issue. The country is not going through a generational shift; it already has and will remain a nation of the young till at least 2050. But youth demand empowerment through better education, employment opportunities and meaningful engagement.
The current educational net enrolment growth rate of the country is a poor 0.92 percent. This means that the target of there being zero children out of school will take another 60 years to be achieved. Not only is the quality of education in Pakistan poor, it is also unacceptable as most employers complain that potential recruits are not ready to take on their respective job responsibilities. This issue is further aggravated by the fact that we still have multiple educational systems for different social classes.
The Prime Minister’s Youth Programme has miserably fallen short of providing educational opportunities to the millions of young Pakistanis desiring to obtain basic and higher level education, whereas funds are being diverted to controversial programmes such as the Prime Minister’s Laptop Scheme. Graduates often lack exposure and rigour due to obsolete, theory-based education system dependent on rote learning rather than aptitude-building and creative problem solving.
The most talented of Pakistan’s youth is looking for opportunities elsewhere. Through international programmes such as the US Fulbright scholarship, and free-of-cost higher education in countries like Germany, students are able to acquire quality education which includes creative thinking and ingenuity. Unfortunately, most of these youngsters who benefit from such opportunities choose to remain in these foreign countries, resulting in a major brain drain for Pakistan.
Pakistan can learn from models such as the one being followed in Canada where cooperative education is given preference. This model combines classroom-based education with practical work experience, preparing students to join the work force. Similarly, in Germany students are provided vocational education. We will greatly benefit from an educational system that comprises of early career counselling and vocational guidance programmes, starting from secondary schools to universities.
The government needs to divert greater funds towards educational loans, especially for those seeking and deserving postgraduate degrees. Further, entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged through seed funding for tech start-ups, engagement of micro-finance institutions for establishing and supporting small and medium enterprises (SME), sectors and business facilitation centres alongside road shows and investment conferences.
Since almost two-thirds of the country is below the age of 30, the youth is a demographic reality that must be seen and heard. Meaningful engagement is the final ingredient that will transform the youth bulge from a challenge to a glorious opportunity. Many young active leaders are working in isolation on political mainstreaming and civic education of youth through different media. They are involved in activism in diverse fields of labour rights, human rights, politics, arts, science and technology.
An open debate on the country’s future and identity must be encouraged in order to reach an authentic discourse on democracy and human rights. The energy, desire and motivation in our youth to contribute to our nation is unparalleled. The young are shouting because they want to and must be heard, because when they are not heard, severe social and political ramifications are created which include increase in crime and militancy. Political parties must encourage the youth to actively participate in society and politics. The PPP is one good example, as it has a very large and active youth-wing, the Peoples Youth Organisation, that has developed and honed young leaders who have gone on to become successful parliamentarians.
The past couple of decades have been dark for Pakistan – such as the APS tragedy – and have left the country’s youth severely traumatised. We must collectively work to provide a more conducive environment for the youth to prosper. I am certain that if the right policies are made and implemented, by 2050 the youth will harbour a new era of progress and development.
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat and currently chairman of an NGO.