Pakistan’s Youth: Source of Growth or Radicalization?

Last May 11, about 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in Pakistan’s national elections, a figure far exceeding the 44 percent who turned out for the country’s previous election in 2008.

Yet one of the most defining features of the voting population was its youth. About a fifth of Pakistan’s 85 million registered voters were aged between 18 and 25, with another 15 percent between the ages of 26 and 30.

Pakistan’s youth bulge must be understood in the context of overall demographic growth. The nation’s population growth rate is 2 percent annually, in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world, where demographic growth is occurring at far slower rates and especially East Asia, where birth rates in most countries except for the Philippines are running below replacement levels. Even within South Asia – one of the few regions where populations continue to expand rapidly – Pakistan has the highest population growth, birth, and fertility rates.

This growth rate is most likely to result in fast depletion of already-dwindling supplies of natural resources and basic services, as also the overall health of the economy. The availability of water already is less than 1,500 cubic meters per capita, close to the 1,000-cubic-meter scarcity threshold; about 230 people occupy every square kilometer; and nearly three acres of agricultural land are lost every 20 minutes. There are serious multiple public health crises, from waterborne diseases to polio – and yet there is only one doctor for every 18,000 people.

Youth is by far Pakistan’s biggest demographic group. These figures are as much striking as alarming in the context of Pakistan’s precarious socio-political situation. Two thirds of the country’s approximately 180 million people are not yet 30 years old, and the median age is 21. As a percentage of the population, only Yemen has more people under 24. Little wonder youth were courted so aggressively on the campaign trail. Projections suggest that Pakistan’s youth bulge will remain in place for decades. The 15-to-24 age bracket is expected to rise by 20 percent in the 2020s, and the under-24 population will still be in the majority come 2030. Even by 2050, the median age is expected to be just 33.

These figures show that the young, if provided with opportunities and a secure environment, could be turned into a very healthy workforce. However, the flip side is that although they are politically important, they don’t happen to be on the government’s priority list, In Pakistan every third person under the age of 24 is illiterate, 9.5 percent are unemployed and only 6 percent have technical skills. Moreover, the 32 percent of uneducated youth, with no vocational and life skills, and with females forming the majority, are vulnerable to unemployment, and more critically to radical ideologies and to adopting violent and extremist methods of expressing frustration and anger.

Demographers and economic experts speak of the potential benefits of having such a young population. The argument goes that the youth, if properly incorporated into the national work force, especially in the burgeoning field of information technology, and given an “enabling” environment, can pay dividendsand help Pakistan’s dwindling economy take off—and perhaps, in time, even replicate the economic progress of regional countries such as India and Bangladesh.

But there are serious impediments. Pakistan’s government – thanks in great part to the country’s powerful military and huge external debts, which consume large portions of the national budget – has never invested in mass education, nor is it the priority of the incumbent government. The 2013 budgetary allocations place only 2.3 percent of the budget, on education. According to the UNDP Human Development Report 2013, only seven developing countries in the world spend less per capita on education than Pakistan, placing the country 113th among 120 countries on the education development index. Pakistan spends seven-fold more on its military than on primary education and has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world. More than 40 million of Pakistan’s 70 million 5-to-19-year olds are not in school. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Planning Commission (a government advisory body) has estimated that employing the country’s nearly 100-million-strong under-20 population will require 9 percent GDP growth – a highly ambitious goal given that growth is expected to top out at only 3.6 percent for the current fiscal year, and that interminable power outages are undermining growth. These power outages are likely to reduce the growth down to 2 percent according to a report by the Asian Development Bank.

As such, Pakistan exhibits symptoms which point to the high prospects of youth radicalization. Problems which the youth are facing are not confined to any particular province. Rather it is a national problem. With the 18th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, passed in 2010, a number of responsibilities have been transferred to the provinces.

The functions of many federal ministries (including youth, health, and agriculture) have effectively been turned over to already overburdened provincial authorities, who often lack the capacity to take them on. As a result, Pakistan’s youth policies are in flux. Consequently, the country could soon face a new generation of uneducated and unemployed youth – a threat to stability in the notoriously volatile nation.

Analysts point to a combination of factors that could produce widespread youth radicalization in Pakistan. These include push factors such as socioeconomic inequality and hard-line ideological narratives, particularly those peddled by the extremist groups, and pull factors such as the country’s sharp demand for extremists. This strong market for militants can be attributed in part to the Pakistan’s internal socio-political and security situation.

Additionally, brewing frustration among the educated youth as a result of lack of employment opportunities may induce them to resort to adopt ‘non-electoral’ and ‘non-political’ means of changing the political system and regime, taking inspiration from what happened in Egypt and then in Syria.

There is a crucial similarity between the youth of Pakistan and the youth of these states, i.e., political aloofness. The youth factor gained importance only around the elections time, and since then nothing practical has been done, except announcing different scholarship and educational programs to create conditions which would enable the young to not only get educations but also find employment without having to pay bribe or use other means of securing a job.

Failure to find employment results directly in resort to violence. As such, according to a number of reports, the youth violence is already on the rise in many areas of Pakistan. In Peshawar, for example, 62 percent of violent acts are committed by those aged 20 to 29 years; in Karachi, the level of youth-violence is even higher, reaching almost 74 percent. Importantly, these youth were trained by extremist groups and used against the security forces.

According to other reports, tendencies towards collective and group violence are also increasing because of sectarian, ethnic, religious and political segregation of Pakistani society. It must be added that the spread of terrorist outfits in FATA and Swat valley, and resultant internal displacement of people to urban centers has also precipitated violence because the displaced youth could neither be rehabilitated nor employed.

The only way out of this rapidly deteriorating condition and increasing youth-violence is to pay for the creation of enough economic and employment opportunities. But this seems to be too ambitious a dream to be realized at least in the foreseeable future. However, the seriousness of the issue demands priority attention, and the problem of integration into the national workforce must be tackled urgently as a part of counter-terrorism strategy; for employing the young would not only help the economy but also cripple the extremists’ ability to turn the youth-bulge into a terrorist surplus.