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Monday January 30, 2023

Where do we go from here?

August 21, 2022

The 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence brought with it a lot of avenues of introspection. How exactly did we achieve independence? What were the true goals of our founding fathers for the republic? How accurately have we recorded our history? How well have we done in managing our federation?

In exploring these and many other related areas of our evolution as a country, our democratic and economic governance, management of our social contract and rights and responsibilities of our citizens, the picture emerging only has specks of positivity and optimism.

Weren’t we destined to be this way, as many had professed when we chose to carve out a country in the name of faith? Haven’t scholars argued that ‘muddling through’ or ‘more of the same’ may be the most likely (and the least problematic, given other scenarios) future for Pakistan based on the history of evolution of our republic? Or is there a future scenario we should strive for beyond despair and hope?

However, as with each milestone, resolutions for the future must follow deep introspection. In looking ahead, where we go from here needs to be the leading question before each of us.

Let us begin by looking at our prospects. As a nation of over 220 million Pakistanis, we have both an opportunity and a challenge as being the fifth-most populous country in the world and the third-most populous country in Asia. The greatest opportunity in our size is that an overwhelming majority of our citizens comprise young people. With over 60 per cent of our citizens younger than 30 years of age and over 25 per cent between the ages of 15 and 29 years, Pakistan has what is defined as a ‘demographic dividend.’

The size of our youth will continue to grow until at least 2050. This youth bulge or large percentage of young population entering the working age means increased productivity for the country contributing in many areas including increase in average per capita income of the country. This opportunity can become an equally big challenge if the majority of young citizens cannot find employment and instead become a source of economic, social and political unrest. It is important to remember also that Pakistan did not enter the phase of this demographic dividend only today. The size of youth in our population has been growing and will continue to do so for a few more decades. Should focusing on utilization of this opportunity be key on our agenda for the future of the country?

There is agreement among scholars that for a country such as Pakistan, investments in youth are amongst the best investments that can be made for the future of Pakistan. But how do young people feel about the future of Pakistan? Are they pessimistic or optimistic? What kind of Pakistan exists in their aspirations? Do they believe in their own capabilities to carve a better future or are they waiting for deliverance for their own future and the future of Pakistan?

Being a firm believer that it is citizens themselves who need to contribute to what they wish to see in the development of Pakistan, PILDAT, as an initiative conceived, developed and led by indigenous Pakistanis, began investing in leadership development of youth nearly two decades ago. Projects such as Youth Parliament Pakistan have shown that the youth in Pakistan are neither passive nor disinterested in the future of Pakistan. Unlike the pessimism that surrounds leading national discourse, young Pakistanis believe they are better-off than the generation of their parents. That Pakistani youth are dismayed or hopeless may be the biggest fallacy.

Nearly five years ago, the United Nations Development Programme, in its National Human Development Report for Pakistan, also focused on the potential of youth. Titled ‘Unleashing the potential of a young Pakistan’, the human development report was based on consultations with a large number of young Pakistanis from across the country. In addition to key insights into the youth’s employment, education and access to key facilities, the report identified what it termed as key drivers of change that can empower the youth and harness their potential for Pakistan’s human development.

These drivers of change, based on policy recommendations from young Pakistanis for young Pakistanis include 3 key requirements or 3 Es: quality Education, gainful Employment, and meaningful Engagement. In other words, in addition to wanting the State to deliver on the universal requirements of quality education and employment opportunities, young Pakistanis are also keen to meaningfully engage in policies and prospects for the development of Pakistan. Nothing could be a more positive outlook for the country that such a large percentage of Pakistan’s population is keen to take a proactive approach to improving Pakistan’s future.

A latest youth survey by PILDAT conducted in April 2022 shows that a whopping majority of 84.9 per cent young respondents believe that, despite weaknesses, democracy is the best system for Pakistan. This means that despite negative propaganda against politicians and political processes spread across decades, young Pakistanis believe in the democratic process to deliver better governance. Despite unfulfilled promises of political parties on instituting effective and empowered local governments in Pakistan, 95.9 per cent young respondents are of the view that strong and empowered local governments are the key to managing public problems.

Their own economic future and the economic progress of Pakistan are among the foremost concerns of young people that trump all other concerns. In the opinion of young people, key challenges facing Pakistan are ranked in the order of inflation, followed by unemployment, poor quality of education, population growth, religious extremism, climate change, questionable quality of political leadership and threat from India.

It is this practical and nuanced view of the youth, despite scenarios of doom and gloom, that has to be the key to defining the future of Pakistan. The first priority for Pakistanis, however, is to let go of the urge to look for messianic saviours to deliver whatever form of development we want to see in our country. Waiting for messiahs to deliver better governance, a pluralistic society and a better economic future deters us from taking a proactive approach to solving our own problems. The proactive approach, instead, is for young people to be informed of the political and democratic process and engage with it.

Informed political engagement is necessary for each citizen to not just be aware of the policy decisions that are made in the country on his/her behalf but it is also through this engagement that citizens can demand much-needed accountability necessary for improvement of our governance system.

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.

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