Engagement is key

January 24, 2020

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

ONE of the key findings of the UNDP Pakistan’s National Human Development Report 2017 was that Pakistani youth are deeply concerned about their futures. Education opportunities, especially the ability to have second chances to complete their education, employment opportunities, avenues for career growth, and having the opportunity to make a good life for themselves and their families were key concerns.

But it was also clear (from both the surveys we did for the report and from the many focus group discussions we had with youth from across Pakistan) that they were not particularly hopeful that they would get the opportunities they needed and wanted. They did not think that state and society were geared to provide such opportunities to them. They did not have a high level of trust in most state institutions, and did not feel very connected to the institutions and society.

One of the major sections of the report was on youth ‘engagement’: how to think about youth involvement in the socioeconomic and political life of the country. It was clear, from the empirical data, that the bulk of the youth, across the country and across socioeconomic and political divides, was not ‘engaged’ with state and society and did not feel that they had the opportunities to be so engaged. In fact, many felt that attempts at creating engagement would be futile as state and society would not be open to such an intrusion.

There was apathy too. But the issue, on the whole, was not about apathy. It had more to do with the fact that the young people did not feel that state and society were creating enough opportunities for young people to get engaged; they were not welcoming youth engagement; and institutions, by and large, were simply not designed to allow for or encourage youth engagement.

If there are no opportunities for the youth of today, how can they become the leaders of tomorrow?

We saw striking examples of lack of opportunities for engagement. An overwhelming number of the youth surveyed had no social and/or other engagements beyond the family; very few of the youth were members of any groups, clubs and/or societies; most of them did not have access to any means of entertainment (cinemas, playing fields, music concerts, etc); and most did not have access to libraries.

At the same time, a part of our narrative for the future is built on how we expect the youth of today to take Pakistan to new heights: the ‘demographic dividend’. How do we square this circle? If the young people of today are not given opportunities for engagement with the institutions of state and society, how do we expect them to be the leaders of tomorrow?

Young people can drive, vote, marry and have children at 18, but if they happen to be in college and/or university, they cannot have unions of their own. They cannot have any political engagement while in university. But as soon as they come out of university, we expect them to be great critical thinkers who will easily take up the reins of administration, governance, politics and economy.

The case of unions and university students is quite important to explore further. Only five to seven per cent of all children enrolled in schools in Pakistan make it to university level. So, we are really talking only of a fairly select group of students — young people who will most likely go on to take over a lot of the more important administrative, political and economic positions in the country over the next couple of decades.

They are the next generation of our doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics and administrators. But we do not want them to be involved in governance and other issues while they are in universities. We do not think they can run their own clubs, manage their own debates and conversations, think on their own, and question what they are being taught and how they are being taught.

I have been teaching economics and education courses for a long time now. One of the struggles in every course I have taught over two decades has been to figure out ways in which to engage students. I have probably failed more often than I have succeeded, but that remains the main struggle.

Our school system teaches students to do well in examinations, but it does not teach them to engage with the material they read, understand it and grapple with its meaning in their lives. It does not ask students to internalise what they read so that they can then use it to make sense of the world we live in. This is the struggle. What is the point of reading economics or philosophy if it is not going to change the way an individual understands the world and/or engages with it? What is the point of education if it does not equip individuals with the ability to question the status quo — to make them own it if they understand and agree with it, or make them want to change it if they do not?

In higher education, we have an opportunity to allow students the time to learn things while they are still in protected institutional settings. But, as a society and polity, we are scared of allowing even this much space to young Pakistanis. It is hard to see how we are going to do so with youth in spaces other than the university.

Why are we so scared of the youth of the country? If they are to make good decisions for how the country is to move forward, they need to be given opportunities, early on, to be involved in thinking about the country’s future. They need to be ‘engaged’ in all decisions about the country in general and about them and their lives in particular.

But we do not give them these opportunities, and this denial is by design. We shut them out. The fear is so high that even in institutions designed to engage young people ie universities we ensure that they are not involved in any decision-making process. How are the youth expected to lead if we do not let them?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2020