Pakistan faces a “demographic disaster” if its leaders fail to invest in a youth population that is disturbingly cynical about democracy, has greatest faith in the military and is resentful of western interference, according to a study published tomorrow.
The report, commissioned by the British Council, says the nuclear-armed country is at a critical point, with its population forecast to swell by 85 million, from its current 180 million, over the next two decades.
“Pakistan is at a crossroads,” said David Steven, an academic who helped write the report. “It can harness the energy of that generation, and collect a demographic dividend. But if they fail to get jobs and are poorly educated, it faces a demographic disaster.”
Pakistan has never had such a high proportion of young adults: half of its population are aged under 20, with two-thirds still to reach their 30th birthday. But they are deeply divided about how the country should be run.
Only a third believe democracy is the best system of governance, one third support sharia law, while 7% think dictatorship is a good idea. Fasi Zaka, a radio DJ and commentator who helped launch the report, called it a snapshot of a “lost generation”.
“They don’t believe in anything firmly. Maybe they want sharia law, maybe they want democracy. It’s all over the place. But despite this there’s a lot of patriotism. So it’s not a lost cause.” Summing up the contradictions, he said young Pakistanis “don’t like this country, but they love it”.
The report makes sobering reading for the country’s civilian leaders. Of the 1,200 young people surveyed for the report’s opinion poll, 60% said they had faith in the military as an institution while only one in 10 voted for President Asif Ali Zardari’s beleaguered government.
Several respondents complained of endemic corruption, an issue that has dogged Zardari. “Democracy or dictatorship, it doesn’t affect me. I get paid regardless of who is in power,” said Mian Muhammad Bilal, a 26-year-old civil servant.
Zardari is under heavy pressure with plunging ratings, a hostile media and persistent rumours of an impending “soft” military coup to displace him from the presidency.
A media adviser, Farahnaz Ispahani, said the cynicism about democracy was a product of Pakistan’s history of dictatorship. “Only if a civilian government is allowed to finish its term will the youth trust in democracy,” she said.
Steven, a research fellow at New York University, warned that Pakistan risked creating a giant underclass more prone to extremism and violence. “The country is going through a massive transformation in a global economy where resources are more scarce. It’s a big challenge.”
The findings were a “wake-up” call for western donors who only see Pakistan through the prism of terrorism, he said. “The US spent $12.3bn (£7.4bn) in Pakistan between 2002 and 2008 of which 70% went to the military. But it has not generated any security,” he said.
Many young Pakistanis are “passionate believers” in education, the report notes, but are let down by terrible facilities. Pakistan’s state education system is riddled with “ghost schools” – essentially institutions which exist only on paper due to rampant corruption – crumbling infrastructure and under-motivated teachers. A quarter of the survey respondents were illiterate.
“We can’t move forward without education,” said Habiba Younis, an 18-year-old student in her final year of secondary studies at Rawalpindi. “That’s the reason for misconceptions like fundamentalism. It’s something very tragic for our nation.”
The report reflects a wider pessimism driven largely by Taliban violence. The number of Pakistanis who believe their country is headed in the “wrong direction” rose from under half in 2006 to about 80% today, according to another survey by the International Republican Institute.
The British report, Pakistan – the Next Generation, uncovers deep-rooted hostility towards western policies. Today a suspected US drone strike killed eight people in North Waziristan as the CIA director, Leon Panetta, visited leaders in Islamabad.
“The war on terror … has gone a long way to isolate Pakistani youth from the rest of the world,” said one of those surveyed. “Stop treating us like an uncivilised bunch of hooligans who don’t know anything,” wrote another.
At core, the report speaks to an unresolved ideological struggle about what sort of country Pakistan should be.
“Sixty-two years back there was a nation in search of a land,” one young person told researchers. “At present there is a piece of land in search of a nation.”