The youth narrative - Huma Yusuf - Monday, March 07, 2011

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A TRUE indication that Egypt had changed forever did not come with Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, but 36 hours later when generals from the ruling military council spoke with young protesters. That brief encounter overturned the ingrained regard for ageist hierarchy and concretised the gains of the uprising.

As The Economist recently pointed out, turmoil in the Middle East has been distinctly generational — a clash between paternalistic authoritarianism and youthful frustration. As young people from Cairo to Benghazi have mobilised, the balance of power has shifted from the old to the young.

Perhaps this trend will finally awaken our political leaders to the importance of appealing to the youth. They have, thus far, seemed largely oblivious to the fact that they represent the second-youngest population in the world, proportionally speaking. This government’s inability to craft a compelling narrative to reassure, motivate and stimulate Pakistan’s youth certainly counts amongst its gravest failures.

This oversight is shocking in light of the statistics: 59 per cent of all Pakistanis are below the age of 24, and the under-30 tally of the population is a whopping 67.1 per cent.

These millions of youngsters are thoroughly disillusioned with politics. In Youth and the Future, Moeed Yusuf summarises the findings of three national youth surveys conducted by the British Council, the Centre for Civic Education and the Herald in 2009. He points out that “nearly half the youth do not vote, about 40 per cent have no confidence in the utility of their vote, and a shocking 78 per cent are categorical in their rejection of active politics. Less than one per cent sees an active political role as desirable.”

While 60 per cent of surveyed youth expressed confidence in the military, less than 10 per cent supported government institutions. And those youth who remain democratically inclined appear more interested in holding the government accountable for its misdeeds, as demonstrated by the fact that the average age of Pakistani journalists has dropped from 47 to 23 between 2002 and the present.

These statistics highlight the government’s failure to craft policies that engage or serve the country’s most important demographic, but should come as no surprise. Systemic neglect of youth issues is most obvious in the context of education reform: despite early promises to increase education expenditure, 7.3 million Pakistanis remain out of school under this government. A new Unesco report re-emphasises that Pakistan spends seven times as much on the military as on primary schools.

Meanwhile, token pro-youth initiatives have repeatedly come to naught. One of the first steps the coalition government took in 2008 was to abolish the ban on student unions. The logic was to promote democracy from the ground up by giving students a chance to create and run elected bodies. Few universities, however, have fostered a culture of campus politics since then, both owing to a lack of resources and planning and the continued threat posed by the student wings of political parties.

Similarly, the prime minister’s announcement in February 2010 of ambitious plans to promote sports as part of a counter-terrorism strategy has not resulted in the proliferation of stadiums and pitches.

The ‘pro-people’ policies that the government does opt for — devolution as per the 18th Amendment; cash hand-outs; retention of subsidies on fuel; backtracking on the RGST and other difficult economic reforms — do not connect with the nation’s youth. Instead, they are meant to appease the established bureaucratic and industrial elite and competing factions within the political system. Rarely does one hear politicians acknowledge the urgent concerns of the young about joblessness, social mobility and inflation.

Even setting aside policymaking, it is appalling that politicians have yet to find the right rhetoric that resonates with the youth. Remember erstwhile adviser Sharmila Farooqui’s callous handling of the rape and torture of two women in Karachi last December? That’s just one example of how politicians remain disconnected and unsympathetic to the challenges faced by youngsters in present-day, urbanising and globalised Pakistan.It hardly helps that the third generation of Pakistani politicians — members of the youth demographic themselves — resemble their elders far too closely. The co-chairman of the largest political party in the country is a 22-year-old college graduate, but he remains as elusive (and exclusive) as his paranoid and disconnected father. Other young politicos — Abdul Qadir Gilani and Moonis Elahi, to name a few — are mired in corruption scandals much like the generation that came before. Their transgressions are missed opportunities to revitalise youth perceptions of politics.

To be fair, some politicians are beginning to realise the importance of communicating directly with young Pakistanis (too bad they picked up on this long after Zaid Hamid used Facebook, YouTube and university campus tours to embed his particular brand of jingoism and extremism deep within the experience and ideology of many youngsters).

Ambassador Hussain Haqqani tweets, as did the late governor Salman Taseer. Some political parties — notably the MQM and PTI — have an active online presence through blogs, chat forums and YouTube. Gen Musharraf has even made a Facebook fan page the basis on which to launch a political party. But the medium can amount to nothing until these leaders get their messaging right.

Significantly, a successful pro-youth narrative may be the best antidote to the government’s inability to create an effective counter-extremist narrative. The latter requires engaging with Islamic doctrine and thorny foreign policy issues. But a youth appeal need only focus on sound policies that portend a better future for Pakistan (it’s no accident that Barack Obama won an election by speaking of hope and change). Extremist organisations have already figured out how to inspire young Pakistanis; it’s high time our politicians made an effort to do the same.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

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