Population reports and demographic analyses by national and international institutions describe Pakistan as one of the youngest countries in the world. Around 64 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 30 years and this has been characterised as a double-edged sword by social and economic development experts.
These demographics contain the potential to provide either a huge opportunity to transform the economy and our future or become a cataclysmic force that can shatter the country’s social, economic and political fabric. The likelihood of either of these scenarios is closely linked with the effort – or the lack thereof– to develop, shape, engage and channelise the immense pool of youth energy.
Our youth, who predominantly comprise PTI supporters, are attentive. This isn’t an end in itself but a good starting point for the incumbent government to build its youth-development initiatives. Imran Khan and his team will need to act fast to capitalise on the energy of the youth. The slogans and dreams for a productive, fulfilling and prosperous future for all, has worked well in previous elections. Now, is the time to deliver on building this future by working with disenfranchised groups that are living in low-resource communities, high unemployment, and an unstable security environment.
In Pakistan’s peculiar context, where the public education system has failed to provide our youth with the required social, technical, critical thinking or vocational skills, both educated and uneducated young people become highly vulnerable to the influence of anti-social elements, including radical narratives and criminal groups.
Analysts outside Pakistan have viewed this situation as a threat for regional and global peace. However, the most immediate negative impacts of this situation will be witnessed by our society and economy. In order to respond to this issue, some development partners are funding youth-development programmes in the country and others are planning to initiate an array of programmes soon. If the government doesn’t lead the agenda, these initiatives will remain project-based sporadic interventions that fall far below the required level of effort needed to deal with the issue.
Noble intentions, a grand vision, and perfectly-contrived pathways for youth development in government policies and development projects evaporate into thin air when confronted with the hard realities faced by young people in our country. The fast disappearance of public parks and playgrounds in neighbourhoods; the receding priority given to humanities and the social sciences; and the growing disconnect with literature and fine arts require urgent attention.
In addition, the discontinuation of sports and co-curricular activities at schools; the mushrooming of cramped private schools; restricted public spaces and forums for youth; and limited channels for recognising, developing and showcasing a plurality of worldviews and multiplicity of talents must be looked into for any serious effort to help young people navigate their lives in healthy ways.
The shelves of government offices must have numerous youth-related policy documents that are developed through donor-funded initiatives. Therefore, the government should not spend too much time on policymaking and taskforce meetings. Some fundamental steps should be launched immediately.
One such method is to ensure the availability of playgrounds, and promote sports and cultural activities among the youth. The government should build on youth-specific events started by the former Punjab government and enhance them by putting the youth in leading positions. Who better than PM Imran Khan – one of the country’s major sports heroes – to champion the cause for playgrounds and sports activities for the youth?
Despite the great value of public-private partnerships, successive governments in Pakistan have traditionally remained unenthusiastic about working in unison with the private sector. Given the limited resources and competing priorities for the government on the political, security and economic fronts, the private sector should be encouraged to promote sports and create spaces where the youth can express themselves through arts and crafts. We have enough examples to guide us in this approach as CSR initiatives adopted by large corporations and private businesses have significantly contributed towards social-development activities across the world.
Multinationals in Pakistan have ongoing CSR programmes that need to be mapped, recognised and enhanced by the government. It is time to activate national corporations and businesses as well. Major national corporations have huge construction and communications contracts in socially and economically disadvantaged areas of Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They should also be encouraged to start youth-development initiatives in the areas where they run their businesses. Large real-estate tycoons and conglomerates should be obligated to develop and maintain sports facilities and community centres in areas adjacent to their housing schemes.
Public libraries and local arts councils should be patronised through public-private partnerships. Literary festivals, book fairs, mushairas and other social gatherings need to be patronised by different ministries and divisions. As most private schools in urban areas are housed in small and cramped buildings, they should be compelled to manage a library or a community centre in their respective localities. Similarly, donor-funded youth development programmes should be linked with establishing these facilities, with the involvement of the youth in local communities. Youth programmes supported through foreign assistance ought not to be limited to activities designed outside Pakistan. These initiatives should create pathways for the youth to utilise their learning into a productive role in their own communities and society.
In order to reinvigorate sports and co-curricular activities in schools, establish partnerships with the private sector to establish spaces for youth activities, and encourage CSR or guiding donor-assisted youth development programmes, our government must play an active and effective role. No government – especially one that has come into power by giving young people hope for a better future – can afford to ignore its youth.
The writer is an independent professional and researcher.