Op-Ed: Pakistani Millennials Need a Seat On The Table

Earlier this week I talked at the Young Leaders Conference (YLC) in Karachi. About 300 hundred energetic, ambitious young Pakistanis gathered from across the country – from villages to Pakistani students studying at U.S. colleges, all united in trying to understand their country.

I talked on a panel discussion on how young Pakistanis can work together towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and then mentored these young leaders to come up with innovative community projects they can implement once the week-long conference comes to an end.

There was something very exciting about interacting with so many young people. Even though I’m their age, I still found the energy to be contagious. An escape from the conferences at Islamabad’s Serena Hotel where retired bureaucrats gather ever so often to drink tea.

Throughout the conference, I was thinking why don’t they have a seat at the table? They have the passion and the energy, so why no unlock that?

We all know that about 60pc of Pakistanis are under the age of 30. In absolute terms, this means that there are about 120 million people fall into this age bracket. That is more than four times the entire population of Australia. If under 30 population of Pakistan decides to form a separate country it would be the 12th largest in the world, just a bit smaller than Japan.

Before speaking at the conference, I wanted to know the average age of a federal minister. I averaged out the age of 20 federal ministers (all of whom are men) and found that the average federal minister is aged 62, just four years shy of Pakistan’s average life expectancy. In fact, no federal minister is under the age of 40 (the youngest is 43, oldest is 88), that puts the gap between the age of an average Pakistani (which is 22) and the average age of a federal minister at 40 long years.

When I told this number to the audience, they gasped.

And rightly so, there is a very real consequence of this gap. Young people in Pakistan are systemically excluded from policy making, and policy makers are generally unaware of what young people want. This is ironic considering that it is the millennials have to live the longest with the consequences of today’s policy decisions.

Should it be a surprise that Pakistan ranks 154 among 183 countries in Global Youth Development Index and Report 2016?

The civic participation score of Pakistan has fallen by nearly 60% while the political participation of young Pakistanis is down by 69%.

This isn’t because that the young people don’t want to be engaged but it’s because they are not considered. If you talk to young people, they will tell you that they are disenchanted with mainstream politics and have low levels of confidence in public institutions. Something the Next Generation Voices Research shows.

The fact is that Pakistan doesn’t need to develop a new framework for engagement with its youth majority. It isn’t rocket science or even political science. Just make sure that the youth have a seat on the table, every matter of policy affects them. The young development fellowship program run by the Planning Ministry has been rather successful in engaging young Pakistanis in development policy through a structured year-long employment.

It’s a drop in the bucket, but every drop counts. Other ministries need to follow suit and set up programs like this. There are existing programs Pakistan can sign up to. The United Nations encourages member states to sign up to the UN Youth Delegate Programme which enables member countries to send youth delegates in a country’s official delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. Some 30 countries take part in the program. There is no reason why Pakistan shouldn’t take part.

Pakistan has a short demographic window to use its young population to build a fairer, prosperous society, by the second half of this century Pakistan’s population will start ageing rapidly. Pakistan can’t afford to be old and poor. This could very well spell a demographic disaster for Pakistan. It’s about time to give an opportunity to young Pakistanis to convert their energy into action, this can’t happen if they don’t have a seat at the table.

A version of this appeared in Daily Times on 26th July 2017

Published by Shahrukh Wani

Economist at International Growth Centre, University of Oxford.

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