Written by Mohsen Gul.

Michelle Grace, a 19-years old youth advocate from Malawi, recently posed a critical question to the world. She asked, “We are told that youth are the leaders of tomorrow. But when does tomorrow start?” To which another young leader replied, “Our tomorrow is always and must always be today and now.”  This stands true for youth from across the globe including Pakistan. Several reports and articles point to the youth population bulge and the need to utilise the potential of this demographic dividend. But a lesser stated fact is that this window of opportunity is expected to close by the year 2045 after which the young population in Pakistan will start to decrease. Hence, the critical role of youth in Pakistan’s current and future development cannot be overstated.

In a survey conducted with 2000 students on the future development of Pakistan, most young Pakistanis consider political instability, corruption and the lack of quality education as the key impediments to sustainable development.

As Pakistan marks 70 years of its independence this week, it is an ideal moment to critically evaluate the past policies, strategies and programmes for youth empowerment in Pakistan. It has been rightly noted by Baela Jamil, a renowned educationist, in her report on human development and youth in Pakistan that the “youth have remained systematically marginalised in Pakistan, State has been superficially courting and quoting the demographic dividend for decades without commensurate strategic action.” The youth in Pakistan have experienced a myriad of challenges since independence. While Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) advocated youth engagement in nation building, the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 followed by rise of populist Islamic socialism and a military regime created various vicious ruptures for the young citizens of Pakistan. In addition, the state became hostile towards youth participation. This averseness developed when politicians began to channel the youth into political campaigns and protests, resulting in a ban on student unions and associated activities.

The youth of Pakistan have come a long way. British Council 2015 Next Generation Report observes that the past two decades in Pakistan have witnessed the opening of spaces in society for the youth in different walks of life. This has occurred despite an environment which has been known for poor governance-induced lack of hope and sense of well-being. Nilofer Siddiqui, a contributing author to the National Human Development Report 2016 stated that “Pakistan’s youth is both pessimistic and conservative … While absolute levels of support in democracy and faith in Pakistan’s future may be dismally low, they are nonetheless greater than their older counterparts’” Promisingly, there has been a surge in youth participation in politics, social development, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Vision 2025 for Pakistan states that Pakistan will have one of the youngest workforces in the world by the year 2025. This is where lies the biggest opportunity and challenge. With the development projections of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the journey of the next 70 years needs to be guided by technological transformation and economic growth. This can only be fully realised if the youth are enabled to become agents of change. But a lot needs to be done to achieve this.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that 35 percent of the skills demanded for jobs across industry will change by 2020 so, in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution, training needs to be reconfigured to maximise opportunities for young people. Secondly, policies and programmes need to be inclusive of the 67 percent of the young population who live in rural areas. Sustainable and decent rural work opportunities need to be developed in light of climate change adaptation, counter-urbanisation and technological advancement. Thirdly, youth engagement in the social and political areas should be encouraged. Infrastructure needs to be developed to promote youth dialogue, inter-cultural harmony, volunteering and collaboration. This will also help bridge the rural-urban divide in the country. Fourthly, gender equality and equity should become the cornerstone of all youth empowerment initiatives. This should include a special focus on adolescent education, child marriage, sexual and reproductive health and rights, digital divide and gender violence.

The above recommendations coupled with an encouraging environment will help young people to acknowledge their ability to bring about the required change in Pakistan. In a survey conducted with 2000 students from across Pakistan on the future development of Pakistan, most young Pakistanis consider political instability, corruption and the lack of quality education as the key impediments to sustainable development.  By the year 2047, when Pakistan completes a century of its existence, young people believe these problems will have been drastically reduced. This hope can only be realised by the collective action of government, industrial & voluntary sectors and academia. So, at the dawn of 14th August 2017 the people of Pakistan should remember Jinnah’s message to the nation: ”What we have to do is to mobilise our people and build up the character of our future generation. In short, this means the highest sense of honour, integrity, selfless service to the nation and sense of responsibility, and we have to see that our people are fully qualified and equipped to play their part in the various branches of economic life in a manner which will do honour to Pakistan.”

Mohsen Gul is a PhD Researcher in Environment and Society at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on development of volunteering as a key mechanism of youth empowerment in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. He tweets @mohsingulsher23 Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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