Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2020.

Empowered youth can not only achieve great heights for themselves but also positively impact society but unfortunately, with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges have increased for Pakistan’s youth. 

Investing in young people can be the nation’s most strategic investment. If provided with necessary opportunities such as quality education, gainful employment, meaningful engagement, good mental and physical health, and marketable skills, youth can gain the ability and authority to make well-informed decisions to improve their and their family’s well-being. Empowered youth can not only achieve great heights for themselves but can also positively impact society at large.

Fortunately, Pakistan is young and will continue to remain young for at least another decade. With more than 68% of its population below the age of 30 years, investment in youth empowerment ought to be a top priority in Pakistan. Unless this demographic dividend is transformed and leveraged into a positive one, Pakistan will be at risk of leaving more young people further behind and not able to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Agenda.

But the current human development indicators for Pakistan’s youth do not present a very promising picture. Nearly 30% of youth are illiterate and nearly 77% quit education and began working for financial reasons. The national education budget remains at 2.3% of GDP. Adding to this is the youth unemployment rate at 5.79%. Youth make up 36.9% of Pakistan’s total labour force: currently, there are more people in the working age (15 to 64) than there are those who are older (above 65), or children (under 15). Almost four million youth attain working age every year, compared to the one million jobs added per annum. Finally, the share of Pakistani youth not in education, employment or training (NEET) stands at 30.96% (per cent of the youth population). Ninety per cent youth have no access to recreational facilities (libraries, cinemas, parks, etc.). In terms of access to media, information and communication technologies, 48% own a mobile, 15% have access to the Internet, 8% have access to radio, and 68% have access to television.

Therefore, there are already several challenges the country faces with regards to youth. Unfortunately, with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges have increased. Aside from adverse economic and political effect in Pakistan and worldwide, the pandemic has led to an unprecedented impact on education systems all over the world, translating into massive social consequences on youth. As of April 2020, as many as 191 countries including Pakistan had to call for a nationwide or localised school closure to prevent the spread of the virus. This means that almost 91% of the total enrolled students in the world or 1.5 billion people had to face disruptions to their education of uncertain duration. In Pakistan, 42 million school-going youth are facing discontinuation of education due to Covid-19.

As young people form the biggest segment of the society in Pakistan, their contribution can be immense in reducing the spread and fighting Covid-19. They can act as agents of change through being educated about the virus and then acting as instruments of dissemination. Creating awareness is a key role they can play, given they can optimally utilise digital media, especially in the current circumstances. The Government of Pakistan has created a Covid-19 Tiger Force to benefit from the youth dividend and engage them for Covid-19 response. This awareness-raising can be extended to the macro level through youth being engaged with different groups and organisations that have the ability to reach out to the masses. The youth can also actively participate as workers, managers and entrepreneurs to support the economic recovery, by innovating and finding solutions to the problems arising from the ongoing crisis, through the creation of new products and services using technology and other platforms.

The federal and provincial governments have taken several steps for youth participation and empowerment over the years. These have included introducing youth-friendly policies and initiatives, such as loan and laptop awarding schemes, internship programmes, financial funds, entrepreneurship initiatives, vocational training programmes, several skills and leadership trainings.

The most notable is the Kamyab Jawan — National Youth Development Program (2019-2023), launched by the federal government, with support from several UN agencies. The programme addresses six thematic areas for federal-provincial collaboration including, 1) Mainstreaming of Marginalised Youth; 2) Economic Empowerment; 3) Civic Engagement; 4) Social Protection; 5) Health and Wellbeing, and 6) Youth-focused Institutional Reforms.

Such investments in the youth are crucial to ensure their skills are adequately utilised and the dividends reaped. With the current pandemic shifting the mode of work from physical to digital, it has become even more important than the youth are equipped to transition to a digital economy so Pakistan can compete with the world for service provision and technical expertise.

In Pakistan’s socio-economic context and youth demography, the government’s youth empowerment and development initiatives will need to be flexible and capable of keeping up with a high-wired youth that is fast, sharp and politically opinionated. This will also direct future youth programming in the country that will not only implement pre-determined agendas but will also be smart and flexible enough to effectively respond to emerging realities as well as global crises, that have not been factored in.

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