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Making room for a young Pakistan

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BY: Mosharraf Zaidi

On Wednesday this week, the UNDP will publish the Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR). This edition of the document focuses on young people, aged fifteen to twenty nine. The lead authors of the report are Dr Faisal Bari and Dr Adil Najam. Dr Bari teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, and is the director and senior fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives in Lahore. Dr Najam is currently Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University in the US.

Together they have produced a magnificent starting point for a serious exploration of the lives, aspirations and future of nearly half of all Pakistanis. Who are these young people? The easy and conventional answer is that they are our future, and they are very important, blah, blah, blah. But the youth is not a ‘future’ constituency, it is very much now. Putting off dealing with the opportunities and challenges posed by Pakistan’s youthfulness is no longer possible. The future has arrived. What does it look like?

People will interpret the survey data and projections in the Pakistan NHDR in different ways, because it offers both a large window of brilliant hope, and a deep pool of worrying reality. Perhaps the debate about what the data tells us is exciting and helps us argue, but to me the most valuable aspect of the report is the ‘what next’ moment that it prompts among those that will peruse the report upon its release on Wednesday.

Dr Najam, who has been part of the Pakistani discourse since his earliest days as a cricket reporter for The Muslim in the late 1980s, has suggested a three-pronged framework to examine responses to Pakistan’s youth opportunity: quality education, quality employment and quality engagement.

As of today, the vast majority of Pakistani youth have access to none of the above. A hollowed out public education system has rendered a government school education as a mediocre substitute for preparation to be an economically viable adult. An economy that is completely dominated by the elite, and that exists to serve that elite’s interests is not interested in generating employment – choosing instead to hollow out state capacity by awarding government jobs as political handouts. Perhaps most worryingly, in an era in which there is no shutting up the young and restless, the Pakistani elder seems to have developed a predilection for a controlled, muzzled, and neutered national discourse. He will not get it – but his efforts to extinguish quality engagement may be the most dangerous of the three big failures.

Young Pakistanis know they are being cheated of the future they could have. They can see videos of happy people frolicking on beaches. They can hear the joy of crowds that chant sports anthems at stadia across the world. They know what business class looks like, and what the happiness that comes with it feels like because the multinationals have no way of delivering their most attractive advertisements through intravenous injection to only those that can afford their products and experiences.

The expensive lawn billboards are meant to be seen only by the uncles and aunties with platinum cards, but they are consumed as much by the drivers and maids that accompany those uncles and aunties to the boutiques. The small car driving banker is the main target for the lifestyle product placements in our popular culture, but the pedestrian labourer sees those products with the same 20/20 vision as our banker friend. Unlike a generation ago, when Pakistanis could comfortably separate themselves from the economic class below them through exclusive consumption, there is no separation anymore. The consumption remains skewed, but the access to framing aspirations for that consumption is as egalitarian as it has ever been. We share our consumption day-dreams today with everyone, not just those that can afford them.

Faraway, so close. Pakistanis are divided by gender, ethnicity, sect, language, and religion. Most of all, we are divided by money. But we occupy the same ether of our stock of expectations of life. Our kids deserve the best Chen One future imaginable. Our wives deserve HSY Couture. When we are all together and happy, we deserve sumptuous tikkas to go with our Cokes and Pepsis. These brands are supposed to make us feel good – fulfilled, happy.

Some readers will find all this rather tedious. Others will find it within reach, but not quite there. And many cannot read this. Our divisions aren’t so hard to understand. In our cities, it might translate into PTI voter, MQM hanger-on, Sunni Tehreek activist and, on the fringe, an orphaned splattering of rights activists with no political umbrella.

But what does it look like in Mastung or Khuzdar in Balochistan. How does a young person in Balochistan process her aspirations with her realities? Her YouTube videos work just fine, but the tap and the stove don’t work at all. No water and no Sui gas. With Sui being closer there than it is to Lahore, or Islamabad, or Karachi. Oopsy daisy. What do dreams interrupted and futures disrupted look like in Waziristan or Bannu or even Charsadda? We aren’t allowed to say.

The youth isn’t just important from a perspective of those whom we know are being denied agency. Our bureaucracy’s latest entrants are from among the youth that the NHDR deals with. This is the first generation in which almost all high-quality talent is coming to government service after a lifetime of attending private schools. The newest and freshest BPS-17 officers have no stake in government schools for the first time ever. What will their decisions look like when they are in BPS-20? What will it all mean for government school teachers? And students?

Our brave soldiers and officers, especially the ones at the front lines and at the greatest risk, are almost exclusively from amongst this youth. Many were infants during the Musharraf era. Many have parents who have no active memory of the Zia era. How do they interpret and process the debate about federalism? Will a bunch of shrill pro-democracy chants be effective in convincing them that democracy is the best way forward?

Our youngest judicial officers and lawyers are also from among the youth. What kind of examples have they had as they have entered the prime of their lives? Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and Justice Saqib Nisar? Or Justice Tasadduq Jilani and Justice Rana Bhagwandas? What will this mean for the interpretative powers of high courts and the Supreme Court a decade from now? Two decades from now?

Pakistan’s future is not as bleak as our enemies would like to convince us of. But it is absolutely not guaranteed to be bright either. The country’s largest wager in the future is not on Pakistanis, but on President Xi Jinping’s global and regional vision. A close and deep relationship with China is fantastic for Pakistan and the region – but the youth challenge is not one Pakistan is facing alone. China has an aging population and will need injections of youthful innovation and energy within the next half century. Pakistani leaders in both political spheres and in the military have been great at convincing us of all the things that Pakistan can get from China. But how much have young Pakistanis been allowed to dream about what we could give to China?

Our questions about the future don’t need to be accompanied with dread and gloom. But a serious exploration of the kind of country we want to be has to include the breadth of vision that we will allow our young people to have. The inane political rhetoric we see this week between Imran Khan, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the various representative of other centres of power reflects the absence of serious thinking about our youth. Dr Najam and Dr Bari offer a great antidote in the National Human Development Report. One hopes all parties and institutions will read it with great interest.

Courtesy The News


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