Pakistan’s Biggest Development Opportunity

6249_112995251703_695801703_2345869_1797270_n[1]Pakistan’s security and economic woes are frequently discussed in policy circles. Little attention however, is given to the country’s youth population, which currently stands at a staggering 50 million.

When practitioners do speak about Pakistani youth, the demographic is often couched either as a security threat or as misguided.

There is a need to place a strong focus on youth participation, and youth mainstreaming. It is about time to pivot the conversation from youth as feared beneficiaries to youth as viable partners.

There is a  need to recognize youth participation and provide them with the opportunity to become partners who can offer insight, guidance and innovative thinking in the arena of development and policy.

In order to help prepare youth in Pakistan to be better leaders than their predecessors, there needs to be a concentrated effort to create channels that will allow them to not only effectively voice their concerns but also actively shape and contribute to national development efforts.

Unfortunately, as the situation stands now, local youth feel disengaged with the national and provincial policymaking process.

Furthermore, when youth particularly from rural constituencies do vote, it is largely along the lines of traditional allegiances and biradari (tribal) affiliations.

This is underscored by the consideration that where local political economy dynamics are tied to land and caste, youth will continue to act based on the ‘moral economy’ of their previous generation, and therefore, socioeconomic ties and traditional structures will continue to influence political decisions well in to the 21st century.

This is unfortunate given that close to half of Pakistan’s 84 million voters are considered youth by Pakistan’s government standards. It is also a reality check for pundits who feel that youth as a demographic entity within themselves will bring about change.

In order to turn the youth bulge into a demographic dividend, we need to work to make sure that happens.

The World Bank’s 2007 World Development Report suggested that developing countries, which invest in better education, healthcare, and job training for their young people are better equipped to take advantage of their ‘demographic dividend’ to accelerate economic growth and sharply reduce poverty.

Macro considerations aside, greater investment in education and job training helps provide urban and rural youth alike with ‘options’, the option of moving, the option of finding alternate, better sources of livelihoods from their parents, which will ultimately influence voting patterns.

Growing inequality in Pakistan is manifested in the high level of underemployment among youth from lower socioeconomic classes in Pakistan. Although the labor market has expanded, it has failed to keep up with the size of the youth cohort. Therefore, majority of non-elite young men can only find relatively menial jobs.

In addition to the comparatively slow growth of the labor market, graduates from a vast majority of public sector institutions are not considered competitive by Pakistan’s private sector firms that largely seek English-speaking individuals with diverse exposure, a broad knowledge base and robust analytical ability.

Some interesting initiatives, however, have been explored in the domestic realm in an attempt to address the above issue.

The Punjab Government, under its Youth Affairs, Sports, Tourism and Archaeology Department, under its first-ever youth policy, announced the establishment of the Job Bank-Online. The portal aims to conduct job market surveys and build a database to inform youth about potential openings and guide the educational and vocational training institutes. The Department also announced the establishment of the Youth Venture Capital Fund, which will support new business ideas and entrepreneurship amongst young men and women.

These are all welcome measures. That said, however, close monitoring and evaluation work must benchmark the Punjab Government’s progress in meeting its goals. If effective, there is space for these initiatives to be scaled and replicated in Pakistan’s other provinces.

There is need to establish additional vocational and specialized training institutes that will build on Pakistani youth’s ability to migrate abroad.

Another interesting policy measure being advocated both in within the U.S. and Pakistan is the growing emphasis on community colleges.

Community colleges could be especially beneficial in helping to equip students with the technical and vocational skills that can guarantee their successful entry into the workforce.

Moving on, while providing Pakistani youth with meaningful livelihood opportunities is important to both national economic growth, parallel efforts need to be made that will develop youth soft skills and competencies that will equip them to lead Pakistan’s local and national institutions in the future.

There is already a large number of organizations and initiatives that have been launched by young Pakistani leaders. Some of these organizations are wonderful community-based initiatives that directly work to address pressing problems in their communities.

That said, a large number of these organizations are centered around a vague notion of ‘change’ and general disillusionment with Pakistani politics. Most of them are not informed by history, and are largely disconnected with Pakistan’s mainstream political parties and government bodies.

While some of them may do incredibly invaluable work that reaffirm the general populace’s hope in the future of Pakistan, their isolation from policy making/implementing institutions impedes their ability to expand and scale.  It also does not build their capacity to effectively operate and govern these institutions as adults.

Some advocate the restoration of student unions, political parties increasing the voting rights of youth-wing members, and introducing leadership and civic education courses on campuses.

The ban on student unions was fortunately lifted in 2008 but no concentrated effort has been made to benchmark their progress.