Pakistan: drive to engage the next generation

Active Citizens takes a leading role in tackling Pakistan’s education emergency. 

Four years ago, prospects looked bleak for Shabana. Growing up in Matiari, a district in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, the then 14-year-old had little hope of getting an education in a region where poverty, and traditional reluctance to send daughters to school, mean that girls like her are more likely to be picking cotton than gathering knowledge in a classroom.

Things might have stayed this way had another local teenager, Fiza Faiz, not been recruited to the British Council’s Active Citizens programme. Armed with the advocacy skills she learnt during her ‘Learning Journey’, Fiza set to work persuading her community to educate its daughters. She set up a tuition centre teaching around 110 boys and girls six days a week and went from house to house sharing her message about empowering women through study.

Shabana, now an educated 18-year-old, describes the transformation in her village. ‘Females are now leaving home to get educated,’ she says. ‘Fiza’s tuition centre provides a safe, clean and healthy environment. And most importantly, the people of our village are at peace in sending their children there’. 

From small seeds… 

Fiza’s social action project is just one of many happening around the country as a result of the Active Citizens programme. ILMPOSSIBLE is one such project which grew from Active Citizens Pakistan, and has gone on to spawn a further 100 smaller projects across the country. 

Started by 30 Pakistanis who went through Active Citizens training, ILMPOSSIBLE was launched in response to the government’s declaration of an ‘education emergency’, when it became clear that Pakistan would fail to meet its 2015 Millennium Development Goals. 

“The British Council has got an excellent reputation in Pakistan. I wanted to be involved in the report because of the credibility of the institution” - Rukhsana Rashid, member of the Next Generation Taskforce

The programme aims to raise awareness around the government’s constitutional obligation to provide free education for 5 to 16-year-olds, as well as promote enrolment, with a target of getting 100,000 extra children in school by the end of 2014. From tackling corporal punishment and lobbying for funding for teachers and equipment, to reopening schools, the projects designed so far by ILMPOSSIBLE’s 1,500 active volunteers have already brought significant benefits. 

One teacher, Muhammad Bahadur Zafar harnessed his Active Citizens training to open two schools that bring together the religious teachings of the madrassahs and modern education.

‘There was a lack of understanding between modern and religious education. The concept of how madrassah education spreads terrorist activities and hatred against the West has to be subtly eradicated. Opening these schools is a very small step to changing the way people think’, said Muhammad. 

Paving the way for the next generation 

Before Active Citizens launches in a new country, national priorities have to be set.

But what started life as an exercise to inform the design of Active Citizens, quickly gained profile and significance as British Council Pakistan initiated an unprecedented exploration of the views of young people (18 to 29-year-olds). Beginning with the Next Generation Report in 2009 and continuing with The Next Generation Goes To The Ballot Box in 2013, the two reports garnered the views and opinions of more than 6000 people across the country. 

The results of the surveys make for challenging reading. While a quarter of those who responded to the first survey were illiterate, half of those asked believed they did not have the skills for the modern labour market and only 33 per cent had faith in democracy as the best system of governance. This fell to 29 per cent in the 2013 report, with 94 per cent of respondents saying they felt their country was headed in the wrong direction. 

‘This should be a wake-up call for Pakistan’s policy makers and decision makers,’ she says. ‘One report cannot be a game-changer but it can contribute to a process that is already underway. The report does a great service in alerting our leadership to pay more attention to youth.’ 

However, as Next Generation Team Leader, Faiza Inayat points out, for many this pessimism went hand in hand with a strong desire to see a better future for Pakistan. ‘Young people display a lot of patriotism [in the survey],’ she says. ‘They still have hope and think they can bring about change if their voices are heard.’ 

The relatively high turnout at the May 2013 elections seems to back this up. With more than 55 per cent of the population participating, the elections attracted many first-time voters, a fact which former ambassador, Maleeha Lodhi, says makes the findings of the report all the more crucial.

Getting the nation’s next generation heard is high on the agenda for British Council Pakistan, which plans to use the findings of the surveys to fuel a series of televised debates between young people and policy makers. It has also disseminated the findings widely, gaining extensive coverage across many media outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Nation. 

Further reports are in the pipeline, with surveys of young people affected by violence and of young Pakistani women next on the agenda and will continue to inform the British Council’s work. Faiza Inayat feels the British Council is uniquely placed because of the links it has built over 64 years working in the country.

'The British Council is seen as neutral and pro-education because we work through a network of local partners.' Maleeha Lodhi, member of the Next Generation Taskforce

‘We’re seen as very neutral and pro-education because we work with such a large number of young people and deliver our work through a network of local partners,’ she says. ‘We have very strong partnerships’. 

Back in the conflict-riven region of Baluchistan, school teacher Muhammad Bahadur Zafar agrees. ‘The British Council is one of the only organisations that has come here, conducted training and developed the skills of young people,’ he says. ‘I have faith that I will be able to take this initiative ahead and continue to make a difference.’

'The Next Generation Report does a great service in alerting our leadership to pay more attention to youth.' Maleeha Lodhi, member of the Next Generation Taskforce

Challenges facing Pakistan

  • The population is set to rise by 85 million in the next 20 years
  • Two-thirds of Pakistanis are aged under 30
  • Two thirds of children in the country are undernourished
  • One in 10 of the world’s primary school-age children who are not in education live in Pakistan

ILMPOSSIBLE statistics

  • 1,500 volunteers advocating for the right to education
  • 100 social action projects on education are underway
  • Projects in more than 50 districts of Pakistan
  • More than 200,000 followers on the Social Media Advocacy page

Key findings from the Next Generation reports

  • 94% of 18 to 29-year-olds think Pakistan is headed in the wrong direction
  • Only 29% of young people favour democracy as the best form of governance
  • 50% of young people believe they do not have the skills for the modern labour market
  • Only one in ten young people are in stable employment
  • One third of women aged 18 to 29 claim to have had no education at all