COMMENT: Capitalising on the youth —Jamil Nasir - Saturday, March 19, 2011

Source :\03\19\story_19-3-2011_pg3_5

Deep-rooted inequities and the increasing perception that fair play is missing from the rules of the game in our society have every potential to trigger change that may not necessarily lead us in the right direction

The storm triggered by the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit seller, has taken over Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Libya. The young Mohammad, who set himself ablaze out of a sense of despair and helplessness arising out of a rotten system of justice and governance that favours the elite and crushes the weak, has become a symbol of change and uprising for the Arab youth. The personal empires built on fear and suppression are crumbling one after the other. It seems as if the process is irreversible and unstoppable.

Against these popular Arab uprisings, the print and electronic media of Pakistan has initiated a debate focusing on similarities and dissimilarities between the situation prevailing in Arab countries and that of Pakistan. The opinion is divided. One group argues that we are a functional democracy unlike Arab countries and have an independent judiciary that is asserting itself through judicial activism for ensuring rule of law and dispensation of justice. We have a free press and robust electronic media, and people can freely express their pent-up feelings. We have witnessed frequent changes of regimes and ousted mighty military rulers, so our situation is not like that of Tunisia and Egypt.

On the other hand, another group emphasises the similarities between Arab countries and Pakistan from economic and political perspectives. They argue that unemployment has increased in Pakistan. It was the army of unemployed youth that provided a catalyst for the Arab uprisings. Connectivity, especially through the internet, Facebook and Twitter has increased (in our case electronic media channels may compensate for the social media). Corruption is rife and governance is poor. Both societies are traditional societies where age and seniority are big variables in determining status. This sociological reality has disenfranchised the youth in the practical sense, so frustration among the youth has risen to boiling point. Economic inequities are high and deep-rooted like in Arab countries. Thus the situation is ripe for a revolutionary change. Any small incident can set into motion a chain of events that would lead to revolutionary changes as revolutions defy any prediction.

Each group has its arguments but one thing is clear: the uprisings in Arab countries are youth-led. The youth constitute about one third of the population of these countries, the same composition as ours. Actually, Arab countries as well as Pakistan have undergone a demographic transition in the past years. But they failed to capitalise on the demographic gift that resulted from this demographic transition as a demographic dividend is earned through creating a social, economic and political environment that enables the youth to constructively engage in activities contributing to the growth and economic development of the country.

If the proper environment and public policies for human resource development are not in place, the demographic gift may dissipate. For example, investment in human resource is considered one of the major causes for the stunning growth of some countries. But most other developing countries did not introduce favourable, complementary policies for the constructive engagement of the youth and failed to reap the dividend provided by this economically active population. One possible explanation for high crime rates and rent-seeking activities among the youth in such countries lies in the lack of pro-youth policies.

The record is not too impressive on this account in the case of Pakistan as well. We did not invest in the right kind of education and disenfranchised the youth politically as well as economically. According to a report by the Pakistan Education Task Force released recently, Pakistan spends all its resources on defence and state security. Spending on schooling is less than the subsidies doled out to state owned enterprises like PIA, PEPCO and Pakistan Steel. The report further says that 26 countries poorer than Pakistan send more of their children to school, meaning that the issue is not merely of finances but of will and priorities also.

Moreover, the relevance and quality of education are other issues that warrant serious rethinking as a misplaced educational curriculum has merely added to the army of unemployed in Pakistan because the youth churned out by our educational system do not possess marketable skills.

The entry of the youth into the labour market is also hindered by their limited access to financial resources. Further, the formal sector of Pakistan has limited capacity to provide gainful employment to the youth. The curriculum needs to be redefined in a way that it prepares the youth for entrepreneurial activities and gears them for self-employment. Besides introducing deep fundamental changes in the curriculum, it will require a strategy for enhancing the access of the youth to financial resources. The oft-trodden pathways for seeking employment in the public sector by seeking favours through a culture of patronage and nepotism must end now.

In addition to unemployment, a sense that society does not offer fair play to its citizenry is another big cause of frustration and hopelessness among the youth. Whether we want to ensure the equality of opportunity and meritocracy or want to maintain inequities, a culture of patronage, corruption and the power of the elite, is the important question that needs to be answered once and for all.

Deep-rooted inequities and the increasing perception that fair play is missing from the rules of the game in our society have every potential to trigger change that may not necessarily lead us in the right direction. Any youth-led uprising in our country is likely to be hijacked by the demagogues and right wing religious forces that have their own extremist agenda.

It is therefore imperative that we evolve a comprehensive and implementable strategy for the constructive engagement of our youth. Employment generation, zero-tolerance for corruption, meritocracy and fair play should be the main ingredients of such a strategy. It may be kept in view that what really matters is a sense of equity and fair play. If these are lacking, loss of hope is the only outcome. And it is this sense of hopelessness that triggers extreme responses. People can light them and fire them up to make their statements. This is what happened to Mohammad Bouazizi of Tunisia.

The writer is a graduate from the Columbia University in Economic Policy Management. He can be reached at

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