I did not know much about Pakistan as a country, and even less about its political situation or its civil society. I have spent far more time in Europe and West and North Africa in my life. When I visited Pakistan, it was my first trip to anywhere in Asia. My perpective on Pakistan after my experiences on this trip showed how different the country’s situation is from what I had expected as a visitor from Germany.
I am currently studying Political Science at the University of Muenster (a city in the West of Germany). My studies so far have focused on migration and integration, human rights and democracy and the relationship between politics and religion. Every year, students at my university organize an international United Nations simulation conference. Students from universities all over the world, including some from Punjab University, participate in this conference. This is how I got to know people from Lahore and got involved with BARGAD – an organization for youth development. I worked with BARGAD in January of 2013 because I wanted to learn about the reality of life in Pakistan.
Working with an NGO gave me the opportunity to see the difference between what exists on the ground in Pakistan and the way the country is portrayed in the German media. News mainly covers political instability, assassinations, religious fundamentalism, terrorism and poverty. While these things are certainly part of Pakistan’s reality, interacting with Pakistani students showed me that social activism is alive and growing within the country. Though my initial perspective on Pakistan was largely negative, my experience with the NGO and these students inspired me to get involved and contact Pakistani activists to develop my own view.
Through BARGAD I have been working in the field of Pakistani Youth Policy. After the passage of the 18th constitutional amendment, youth policy oversight has shifted from the national to the provincial level. BARGAD and UNFPA have been cooperating with the provincial governments to formulate youth policies for the individual provinces. I found the approach that these NGOs pursued to be fascinating. In Punjab, BARGAD and UNFPA worked with the local government to organzie large-scale meetings to consult youth from a variety of social backgrounds, along with civil society organizations, to formulate recommendations for the youth policy draft. These recommendations later formed the policy that was passed by the Provincial Assembly of Punjab. Currently, other Pakistani provinces are formulating their youth policies in a similar manner to Punjab.
As with any consultative process, there are many challenges. Governments decide how many of the actual recommendations by youth are incorporated into the final draft and how and when the measures will be implemented. These policies currently only serve an advisory function, but they are still an important step, as it gets concerned youth involved and active in the community.
I am often asked about the similarities and differences between German and Pakistani youth policies. It is difficult for me to compare the two given that just 25% of the German population is 25 and under, while over 50% of Pakistan’s population is in this age group. The different population demographics mean that youth policies are pursued differently in Germany than in Pakistan. However, there has been an increasing focus on youth even in Germany.
At the end of 2012, the German Federal Ministry for Family, Elderly People, Women and Youth launched an initiative to develop a national German Youth Policy. They called for organizations, institutions and other stakeholders invovled with youth issues to contribute to the process. Nothing comparable to the consultative meetings been held in Pakistan will take place, but this is an important initiative. The aims of the German Ministry stated in the first basic points document issued on the subject are not so different than the aims stated in the Punjab Youth Policy document. They both aim to create better and more equal educational and economic opportunities for youth. They intend to help them develop their potential and motivate them to get invovled in the political process. Still, there is much to be done between policies and results.
Scholars often refer to the “youth bulge“ in Pakistan. For somebody from Germany – a country that struggles for qualified employees since there are less and less youth – this sounds like a country with great potential. However, there will be consequences if these young people are not given the opportunity to develop to their full potential. What alternatives will they turn to? This question may not be new even in Pakistan, but it is an important one. NGOs such as BARGAD and Khudi are working to create these opportunities, and I was fascinated to see the work that they are doing in Pakistan.
Five weeks was just enough time for me to rush into the chaos of Lahore, catch a bit of the atmosphere, meet welcoming Pakistanis, and have new experiences in Gujranwala, but I would have loved to stay longer. I already miss the music, the chaos (well, just a bit), the food, the fog, all the friends I made, and the revelry of Lahore at night. While I will not miss the power outages and the patchy cell phone service, I am so thankful for the experience. I loved how much people enjoyed taking pictures and I just wish I had more of them to remember my experience with.
During my time in Pakistan, people did all they could to help me feel at home. I was so surprised when I was invited to a New Year’s Party! I enjoyed the discussions I had with people while I was there. It was interesting to see the Pakistani perspective on Germany, although I was a bit disappointed when people knew more about Hitler than the Westphalian Peace Treaty that had been signed in Germany.
Sometimes, I could hardly believe the way people viewed others because of different attitudes. I was shocked when I heard about the blasts in Quetta in mid-January and I watched in astonishment when those trucks full of people left Lahore for the long march to Islamabad. However, overall I enjoyed these experiences. I adored the debating societies at universities and schools, as through them I got to hear so many awesome speakers. I honestly admired the people I have been working with and the effort they put into their projects.
I don’t want to sound naive, but neither do I want to say that the situation in Pakistan is sad and hopeless for its population. I have heard people talk this way several times, but this view is based on the simplified image that is created by the international media. During my stay in Pakistan, I saw that it can be very challenging for those who want to bring about change in the country, and it would be a shame if their voices are not heard by people around the world.