Over the years it has been my tiresome privilege to write one article after another pointing out all that the government in power in Pakistan is doing wrong. Having done this for four successive governments now, I am increasingly being asked one question: what is that you want? What will make you happy? What do you want to see?
It is time to answer this question and do so in a simple and straightforward way without burdening you, dear reader, with too many numbers and data. Anybody is free to look up the data to decide whether I am right or not in what I am about to describe.
Start with this. Pakistan is a country that has the macroeconomic fundamentals of a middle-income country (even if barely so) and the social indicators of a least developed country. Pakistan’s gross domestic product, for example, is large in absolute terms but not large enough to provide gainful employment to its growing army of youth that is increasing every year.
But beyond jobs, consider that almost one-third of the youth (those aged between 15 years and 29 years as per one definition) are illiterate and only 6% of them have more than 12 years of education. In a survey done by the United Nations Development Programme a few years ago, they found that only 39 out of every 100 was actively working while 57 out of every 100 were not, nor seeking jobs. Do not even ask how the figures went for access to a library or to a sports facility (more than 90% had access to neither).
I will stop with the data here, but dear reader, do look up how many children in Pakistan will either die or suffer from chronic malnutrition so severe that by age five their cognitive abilities are permanently stunted, and then compare these numbers with those of our neighbouring countries in the region.
It is not a pretty picture. While you are at it, compare the number of out-of-school children in Pakistan, look at how this number is growing, and the number that lack access to clean water. In terms of GDP per capita, Pakistan ranks as a lower-middle-income country, but its infant mortality rate compares with countries like Chad, Mozambique, Niger and so on, countries whose per capita income is less than half it.
Now consider that this country pours more money into subsidising its exports than it does into the budget of its Higher Education Commission. Over here exporters and property developers congratulate the government while school teachers have to protest on the streets for their wages.
When you get a chance, visit any of the railway stations in Karachi, Lahore or Rawalpindi and compare their condition to the airports in the same cities. For comparison take a look at the number of people who make the train journey from Karachi to Multan or Lahore and compare it with the number who make the same journey by air. Who is the state really serving? What are its priorities?
Over the years, one thing has become increasingly clear to me. Never allow any government to celebrate success on the macroeconomic front until it has demonstrated a clear will to tackle the problems on the social side. Never mind the fiscal or current account deficits.
That is their job to control anyway and nobody should be congratulated for simply doing their job. Watch instead the deficits faced by the young and the youth – the deficits of school teachers and access to quality higher education, to nutrition and clear water, to security of life and livelihood and if these have not changed then nothing has changed.
There is no sense in raising your exports on the one hand while you are busy raising an army of illiterate and undernourished youth on the other. And do not let anyone tell you that you cannot cater to the youth without the dollars that the exporters bring. Those dollars never find their way to serving the people.
An army of youth who have never known the thrill of winning in a competitive sport or the satisfaction that success in achieving life’s goals through hard and focused work brings will never be an agent of change or innovation.
For too long we have been writing and reporting and analysing the same story over and over again. This is the second time I have seen a government go from celebrating macroeconomic indicators like GDP growth and exports in one year reduced to invoking motorcycle sales as a metric of its success a year or two later. I do not want to see this idiotic story unfold one more time, but I know that I will.
Today, more than 60% of the country is aged below 30 years and 40 lakh youths are entering the working age every year. The face of the country is changing rapidly and this trend does not peak until 2050, so every year the country is getting younger and younger.
Yet how many of Pakistan’s mainstream political forces are even aware of this and trying to connect with this growing youthful population? To some extent, Imran Khan does connect with them, but for no purpose other than fanning their passions and telling them who to hate and who to blame.
His government has done nothing, despite their assertions to the contrary, to try and increase the state’s investment into building a better future for them. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Peoples Party barely connect with themselves, let alone the new force that is increasingly taking over the country.
The only parties connecting with the youth today are either the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, and the efforts of a very committed group of youngsters from the left who still have a long way to go before their struggle bears any electoral fruit.
Left to their own devices this youth will be armed with nothing but their passions. No skills, no education, no dreams, no jobs, no future. Just a hungry desperate mob fed on hype and fury. Do not let any government get away with this.
This article first appeared in Dawn.