Youth Bulge, Public Policy, and Peace in PakistanOctober 26, 2012 By Payal Chandiramani
While Pakistan’s demographic challenges are perhaps well known – two-thirds of the population of 180 million is under 30 years old – increasing security concerns have prompted discussions about exactly how much the country’s youthfulness is affecting its prospects for peace. On October 10, the U.S. Institute of Peace and George Mason University’s School of Public Policy hosted a day-long conference on “Youth Bulge, Public Policy, and Peace in Pakistan” to tackle this question.
“Pakistan stands on the verge of great opportunity or great crisis,” said George Mason University professor Jack Goldstone. Without more economic investment or skills development for the current generation of young people, there is likely to be a “reservoir of discontent” that will hinder any prospects for peace.
Thirteen percent of the population is under the age of 5 (higher than places like Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia), and 23 percent are between 5 and 14 years old, said Mehtab Karim, distinguished senior fellow and affiliated professor at George Mason University. This is a phenomenon that every country experiences, he said, and one that Pakistan will eventually get through if the correct policies are implemented. But that is the problem, as there are currently no national policies on youth.
Eric D. Manes, senior economist for South Asia at the World Bank, said that Pakistan’s economy would need to grow at a sustained rate of seven to eight percent annually in order to employ all of its working age young people. Currently, the growth rate is approximately three percent per year.
Countries with age structures like Pakistan’s are at a crucial juncture – do they take steps to channel their youth as a productive resource or ignore it and risk destabilization and conflict? South Korea, for example, was in a similar position in the 1960s and responded by encouraging voluntary family planning and population stabilization as well as youth-focused economic policies. The resulting decline in fertility rates and dependency ratios created the conditions for rapid economic growth, a phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend.”
Youth and Radicalization
Long-term discussions on something other than terrorism or military security don’t happen enough in Washington, said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the Institute of Peace. Too often, “2014 is the end of the world.”
Many studies have linked youth bulges to a greater propensity for violence, particularly when this segment of the population is jobless. Countries with very young age structures – roughly 60 percent of the population being under 30 – were four times more likely to experience civil conflict than countries with non-youthful populations between 1970 and 1999. Between 2000 and 2006, six out of nine new outbreaks of civil conflict happened in these same countries.
Nasim Zehra, director of current affairs at Dunya TV in Pakistan, believes the youth may be able to lead the country in social consciousness, but they lack the structures to carry positive messages forward in the long term. She pointed to the contrast of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old who spoke out against the Taliban for education (and later was shot for it), and others her age who have become suicide bombers.
With regards to education, Yusuf warned that the shift from alienation – resulting from the inability to fulfill aspirations of attending school or getting a job – to radicalization happens mostly in societies that are prone to relative deprivation rather than absolute deprivation. This theory can also be applied on a global scale. It’s not just the failure to integrate rapidly growing segments of the population that pushes them towards radicalization, but the fact that some people are doing well while others are not.
It’s the Economy, Stupid – Or Is It?
Nearly all the speakers pointed to the economy as the key to maintaining security and peace in Pakistan, particularly as it relates to providing employment. Energy was emphasized by Mohsin Khan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, as a short-term constraint for economic growth, as evidenced by factories running at only 60 to 70 percent of their full capacity because of energy shortages. Political will and corruption were also cited as obstacles to meaningful economic growth.
Asad Majeed Khan, deputy chief of mission from the Embassy of Pakistan, said he is confident that the creativity displayed by the country’s young people – in film, art, music, fashion, and social media – can transform its demographic challenge into a boon. Radicalization, he said, will be countered by increasing economic opportunities and widespread literacy. “People are the real wealth of a nation,” he said, quoting Mahbub ul Haq.
However, while improving the economy (and all the challenges that entails) is one ingredient to turning a youth bulge into a demographic dividend, it’s not the only. Another – which was largely left out of the discussion – is improving reproductive health access and services.
Apart from Goldstone’s reference to the importance of women and declining fertility rates that can blunt the “demographic tidal wave,” there was scarce mention of health objectives or how to deal with Pakistan’s future population growth, which presents even more dramatic challenges than today.
As Elizabeth Leahy Madsen points out in ECSP Report 14, 25 percent of married women in Pakistan have an unmet need for contraception, and overall, 24 percent of births occur earlier than women would like or were not wanted at all. This is a considerable shortfall of health services. If fertility rates remain constant, the UN projects Pakistan’s population will swell to over 379 million by 2050. The UN’s medium variant projection, which assumes some reduction in fertility rates, is 275 million. In short, all of the demographic challenges faced today will be even larger in coming decades.
Health services and women’s equality issues should be part of this discussion. A large working-age population can generate economic rewards as it enhances the productivity of the work force, but Pakistan’s current age structure is far from this point. Others, including India, have demonstrated the benefits of reaping such a demographic dividend. However, if youth policies continue to be amorphous and young people’s needs are left unaddressed – especially young women’s – Pakistan’s demographics will continue to be another source of instability in what is already one of the most volatile parts of the world.
Sources: Al Jazeera, Asia Society, BBC News, Cincotta (2008), IMF, Leahy (2006), Leahy (2008), UN Development Program, UN Population Division, U.S. Institute of Peace.
Photo credit: “Anatomy of a Pakistani protest: 7/20 future of the nation,” courtesy of flickr user UJMi.