THERE is one question that Pakistanis outside Pakistan dread being asked (and no, it's not, 'when does your visa expire?'). It's a query that evokes contradictory instincts and emotions — cynicism, truthfulness, restraint and an indefatigable, yet inexplicable, nationalism. 'Is there cause for optimism in Pakistan today?'

My knee-jerk response is to say 'yes, of course, why not?' I remind my questioner that sceptics have predicted the collapse of Pakistan for decades, but that we're still hanging in there. Honestly, though, this answer is a false positive. Just because Pakistan hasn't imploded doesn't mean we should be optimistic about the country's current state.

Optimism implies not only hope for the future, but also the confidence that the outcome will be successful — or, as the philosopher Gottfried Leibnez understood it, that 'good' (in its broadest sense) would prevail over 'evil'. In the face of soaring inflation, resource scarcity, intolerance, illiteracy and widespread violence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to bank on a better future for Pakistan. And yet, without optimism, what do we as a nation have?

At best, we have reasons for cautious optimism: people, trends and industries that have the potential to take our nation a step closer to that elusive 'successful outcome'. These cannot be mentioned without caveats, context and counterclaims, but at least it's something.

The following, then, are my clumsy responses to The Dreaded Question, and I mention them here in the hope that someone will reach out and reassure me that the glass really is half full.

Let's start with art: I recently heard about a team of international reporters who couldn't stop gushing about edgy and engaging musicians and painters they encountered in Lahore. To that list they should have added writers, filmmakers, dancers, and more. No doubt, when Pakistani creativity is allowed to flourish, amazing things happen. But this creativity is a fragile commodity that Pakistan has a long history of suppressing. It used to be poets in prison; now it's film festivals that fail to find funding, music departments that move off university campuses to evade the aggression of religious student groups, and actresses subjected to the media's moral policing.

If not the nation's artists, perhaps its youth can be a cause for optimism. Pakistan is, after all, a very young nation: its median age is 21 and two-thirds of Pakistanis are less than 30 years old. By educating these youngsters and absorbing them into the labour force, Pakistan could reap a demographic divided and enjoy years of rapid economic growth and social progress.

For this phenomenal human resource to pay off, however, the government will have to implement more stringently a population policy to lower fertility rates and invest heavily in education. It will also have to realise wide-ranging economic reform. According to Pakistan's Planning Commission, GDP growth of nine per cent is needed to employ the 80 to 90 million Pakistanis who are under the age of 20. Unfortunately, growth stands at about two per cent, and youth employment prospects for the coming decades are dismal.

Although Pakistan could have 175 million workers by 2030, only one million jobs are created each year. Without aggressive government policies to accommodate this demographic time bomb, youthful optimism will quickly translate into fears about chronic unemployment, food insecurity and water scarcity.

Hope may therefore lie with industries that attract young workers. Enter the media. In the past eight years, the average age of a journalist has dropped from 47 to 23, and the number of people employed by the media industry has rocketed from 2,000 to 17,000. An expanded independent media could emerge as a force to mobilise civil society and pressurise Pakistan's political institutions into implementing reforms. It could also give rise to a culture of transparency and accountability, and thus better governance.

Unfortunately, the nascent industry has in recent years been a cause of concern rather than optimism. Reporting and news analysis are frequently inaccurate, biased and inflammatory. Catering to populist views, the private media has become a force for polarising society and breeding paranoia. If the industry does not self-regulate by generating a consensual code of conduct or establishing a complaints council, the media could become nothing more than a forum for heightening the sense of political instability and perpetual crisis.

Where else can we turn to seek brighter prospects for Pakistan? The nation's women are resilient, responsible and resourceful, but have few opportunities to make a difference. Female literacy has stagnated at 44 per cent (dropping as low as 35 per cent in parts) and female labour participation is less than 20 per cent. Violence against women remains on the rise — according to the helpline Madadgar, 1,195 women were murdered, 321 raped, and 1,091 tortured last year. The only headlines about women this week described a 20-year-old being electrocuted on the orders of a panchayat in Bahawalpur for marrying a man of her choice.

Does it all, then, come down to the judiciary, recently independent and still feeling out the parameters of the role it will play in stabilising Pakistan? Or are we to seek sole solace in the fact that Pakistanis are great philanthropists, ready to donate in cash or kind whenever epic humanitarian disasters strike? More importantly, are any of these on their own sufficient to inspire hope?

Ultimately, what stands in the way of unbridled optimism is a lack of political will, leadership and vision at the highest levels of the Pakistani establishment. The vested interests of the few have crushed the capacity of the many. We are often described as a country at the crossroads, but it's more accurate to portray us as a nation at a bottleneck — ever ready to pour forth our potential, if only given the chance.

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

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

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