Thursday February 22, 2024

Pakistan’s youth moment

May 02, 2018

That Pakistan is a young country is not news. You don’t need research to know this fact. You just need to look around you. Any street. Any marketplace. Your television set. Any political jalsa. Any office. Even parliament.

The generational change is not on its way. It’s here. It’s set. And, more importantly, it’s here to stay – at least for more than the next two decades.

The Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR), produced for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Pakistan – and for which Dr Faisal Bari and I are the co-lead authors – has been singularly focused on the last of these realities: the long shadow of Pakistan’s youth bulge.

The report, which will be launched in Islamabad today (May 2), pivots around one central question: what does it mean to be young in Pakistan today? The answers we have found are fascinating – and so are their implications.

But, first, let’s examine how we came up with the answers. For the last three years, we, along with our exceptionally bright young team of researchers, have been on a listening journey. We used every means we could envisage to get to the young Pakistan: a scientifically representative national youth survey; focus groups across the length and breadth of Pakistan; youth volunteer; social media; youth conferences; study groups; art contests; radio talk shows; and data collection and analysis.

We have heard from over 130,000 Pakistanis – experts, policymakers, entrepreneurs, employers, educators, civic activists, thought leaders, artistes, performers and celebrities. Anyone who had anything to say about the youth of Pakistan. And, everyone did. But, most importantly, and overwhelmingly, it was the youth – by our definition, those between the ages of 15 and 29 – who have been the centre of our attention and our universe. For example, the 81 intense focus groups that we held during our research took us, among other places, from Muzaffargarh to Mastung; from Kech to Kalat; and from Lasbela to Lahore.

What we found has been at once heartening and concerning: a young population that is not just the centre of, but is also the bulk of Pakistan today – 64 percent of Pakistanis are under the age of 30 and 29 percent are between the ages of 15 and 29. The demographic momentum embedded in this one statistic implies that Pakistan is not just a young country; it is going to remain young into the 2040s. More importantly, the youth of Pakistan know this and they expect being given the attention and respect this demographic reality demands.

Let me share a snapshot of what we found. If you were to computationally condense the just under 60 million young Pakistanis between the ages of 15 and 29 into a statistically representative 100 young people, you would find that only 30 of them consider themselves to be functionally literate; 29 would never have gone to school (despite all being 15 or above); only six would have 12 or more years of education; and just 39 would be employed.

More telling, however, would be the structural deprivations. Of the 100, only six would have access to a library; only seven to a sports facility; and just 21 to a park. Only three would have been to a cinema and only three to a live music performance. Around 59 young people would say that they either don’t play sports or do so only infrequently. One in the 100 would own a car; 12 a motorcycle; 10 a bicycle; and 77 would have no personal means of mobility.

And yet, you will also find a spirited young bunch with great national pride, high aspirations, much hope, and tremendous expectations. Let those who wish to ride the tiger of Pakistan’s youth never forget that this is a generation that demands and deserves better. They are politically excited and astute: 90 percent of young men and 55 percent of young women expect to vote in the next elections. Of every hundred, 48 believe that Pakistan’s future will be bright –although this means that 36 fear it will be bleak. Most tellingly, 67 believe that their lives are and will be better than their parents; only 15 expect themselves to be worse-off than their parents; 89 say that they feel happy; and 70 believe that they feel safe. All of them demand the space and conditions in which they can reach their aspirations.

There are no investments that Pakistan can make today that are more important than investing in its youth. Three investments, more than all others, are going to be key to unleashing their potential and enterprise. We call these the 3Es: education, employment and engagement. But each requires an important adjective to be truly effective. Education needs to focus on quality; employment needs to be gainful; and engagement has to be meaningful.

Quality education does not mean a focus away from enrolment and quantity. If enrolment growth remains at the current levels, it will not be until 2070 that the constitutional provision of putting every child in school (Article 25-A) will be met. It will take a four-fold increase in annual enrolment rates to reach that constitutionally-mandated goal by 2030.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the education those who are in school get is not just of a bad quality, it is also unacceptable. It prepares students neither for higher education nor the employment opportunities that exist. Employers routinely complain about the competencies and skills that potential employees bring – or, more often, do not.

The report suggests that Pakistan will need to create between 1.2 million and 1.5 million new jobs each year over the next 20 or more years. We think this is quite achievable. What is more daunting is that these need to be quality jobs that shouldn’t be casual or leave employees trapped in uncertainty. They must provide basic rights and decent working conditions to employees and give them dignity and a path to success and upward mobility.

More importantly, this goal cannot be met without improving the quality and substance of education. Even more importantly, it cannot be met without improving the opportunities and conditions of women in the workplace. The mobility of young women is one of the most important investments to make. Improved workplace facilities, including things as basic as toilets, will also be key.

Finally, it is meaningful engagement that could become the difference between boom and bust. Meeting young people in Peshawar for one of our focus groups days after the APS attack reminded me that this is a generation that has not just lived through but was also born in and has grown up under the shadows of terrible violence and war. For the youth of Pakistan, these are not memories to contend with; this is a contextual reality of existence.

No strategy for youth engagement must ever forget this basic reality. But this fact shouldn’t overwhelm everything else that makes up the rich and varied world of our youth. This world is young with ideas and aspirations. Most of all, it is young with the desire to contribute and the desire to be heard.

Engagement involves determining whether young people feel that their voice is heard in and whether they have a say in the most important decisions that will impact their lives. The fact of the matter is that the youth of Pakistan are heard shouting so often because they do not feel that their voice is being heard, and they don’t believe that it will be heard unless they shout. The less they feel heard, the more they shout. Sometimes they scream.

One lesson that the Pakistan National Human Development Report underlines is: Please, please, listen to our youth. They have much to say – and much that is worth listening to.

The writer is the founding dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University and was the former vice chancellor of LUMS in Pakistan.

Twitter: @AdilNajam