Pakistan's security and economic woes are frequently discussed in policy circles in Washington, D.C. and Islamabad. Little attention, however, is given to the country's youth population which, at a staggering 50 million, comprises more than 25 percent of Pakistan's population (in the United States, youth account for only 13 percent).
When practitioners and pundits speak about Pakistani youth -- defined by the Ministry of Youth Affairs as the population within the age bracket of 15-29 years -- they often depict the demographic as a potential security threat or as a misguided group that is unable to move the country forward.
For instance, when talking about Pakistan's youth population to a global news agency, the United Nations Population Fund Country Representative warned that "If young people do not find their expectations met, their energies may be directed towards undesirable activities, like radicalization." This is a view held by most development practitioners and analysts. However, the declaration of the "International Year of Youth" in 2010-2011, and the October 2012 release of the U.S Agency for International Development's first Policy on Youth in Development reveal a growing international consensus on the importance of youth integration in development initiatives. As a result, the time to pivot the conversation from Pakistani youth as a security threat to them as viable partners is now.
To help prepare the youth in Pakistan to be better leaders, there must be a concentrated effort to create channels that go beyond simply providing a platform to voice concerns. Programs must enable youth leaders to shape and contribute to national development efforts. The United States AmeriCorps program, which offers youth of all backgrounds to serve communities through partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups, is one such example.
If analysts and practitioners continue to adhere to the ongoing negative narrative about youth, which assumes that young Pakistanis are prone to violence, radicalization, or simply disinterest, they block youth's access to positions in political parties, government institutions, and private and public decision-making bodies that build their capacity to effectively lead national development efforts.
This is unfortunate given that close to half of Pakistan's voters are considered youth by Pakistan's government standards. Local youth feel disengaged with the national and provincial policymaking process, as revealed by a recent roundtable on youth participation organized by the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. The roundtable further noted that when youth--particularly those from rural constituencies--do vote, it is largely along the lines of traditional allegiances and biradari (tribal) affiliations. This is a reality check for pundits who feel that youth as a demographic entity in and of itself will affect change. It will take well-defined policy measures and serious resource allocation to transform the country's youth into a demographic dividend.
One obvious step is greater investment in education and job training for Pakistan's youth. 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. This is corroborated by a recent report by the Population Reference Bureau, a data-focused international non-profit organization, which states that large numbers of young people can represent great economic potential, but only if families and governments invest in their health and education, and provide them with economic opportunities.
Macro-economic benefits aside, investment in education and job training provide both urban and rural youth with greater options, such as moving to another town, finding alternate and better sources of livelihood, and setting their own values and priorities, which will ultimately influence voting patterns.
A recent United States Institute of Peace paper, "Prospects of Youth Radicalization in Pakistan" highlighted how growing inequality in Pakistan has manifested itself in the high level of underemployment among youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the labor market has expanded, its growth is not commensurate with the size of the youth cohort. Therefore, a majority of non-elite young graduates can only find relatively blue-collar jobs. Graduates from a vast majority of Pakistan's public sector institutions are simply not considered competitive by Pakistan's private sector firms that seek English-speaking individuals with diverse exposure, a broad knowledge base, and robust analytical ability.
Sobia Nusrat, Manager of Academics and Admission at the Institute for Career and Personal Development, a new organization that specifically aims to equip middle-class university graduates with the skills needed to succeed professionally, states that one of the major challenges faced by the students she and her team work with is their inability to communicate in English, both written and verbal. "Their thinking and problem solving skills are quite weak due to Pakistan's academic institutions' focus on rote learning." She adds that in order to help address this challenge, in addition to greater investment in education and job training, "There is need for more collaboration between the industry and education providers in terms of not only increasing the skills of youth but also linking them to Pakistan's economic needs."
Some government agencies are making an effort to address this issue. The Punjab Government-through its Youth Affairs, Sports, Tourism and Archaeology Department-announced the establishment of the Job Bank-Online under its first-ever youth policy. The portal aims to conduct job market surveys, build a database to inform Punjab's youth about potential openings, and guide educational and vocational training institutes regarding industry trends. Under the new policy, 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.
Local-level initiatives like this are a welcome approach to a complex, widespread issue. That said, close monitoring and evaluation must be done to measure the Punjab Government's progress in meeting its goals. If effective, there is potential for scaling and replication elsewhere in Pakistan.
And while providing Pakistani youth with meaningful livelihood opportunities is important to national economic growth, parallel efforts must be pursued to develop their soft skills and competencies such as effective communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking, all which will make them more workplace ready and equip them to lead Pakistan's local and national institutions in the future.
Young Pakistani leaders have already launched a large number of promising local programs that work to create social and political awareness among youth, and encourage youth participation in development efforts. That said, many of these organizations are centered around a vague notion of ‘change' and general disillusionment with Pakistani politics, and are largely disconnected from Pakistan's mainstream political parties and government bodies. While the passions of dedicated citizens instill hope in the future of Pakistan, the isolation from policymaking and disconnect from implementing institutions impede their ability to expand and scale. They also hinder the youth leaders' abilities to sustainably build capacity later as policy professionals working within Pakistan's institutional system.
To that end, efforts such as the Youth Parliament Pakistan-established by the local non-profit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency to educate and train youth in the norms of politics and democracy in the country-are critical and deserve national government and international donor support. Haider A. H. Mullick, a former adjunct fellow at Spearhead Pakistan, a non-partisan think tank, has put forth a few thoughtful recommendations including expanding the voting rights of political parties' youth-wing members and introducing leadership and civic education courses on campuses.
With Pakistan's general election taking place this May, the time for the country's civil society organizations and political parties to begin constructively engaging youth in the campaigning and election process is now. One hopes that the Pakistani youth's professional and civic growth will not be held hostage by the adult populace's failure to recognize their value and role in Pakistan's development.
Maryam Jillani is a youth development specialist at an international non-profit organization in Washington D.C. She received her MPA from Cornell University, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images