Dark night

BR Research December 10, 2018

What are the origins of societal change? In a world of over 7 billion people, a billion theories abound. It is, however, widely accepted that the fate of a society does not change unless its members make consistent efforts, big and small, to change within and without. Is this realisation lost on Pakistanis? A host of scholars cited in Dr. Ishrat Husain’s recent book ‘Governing the ungovernable’ appear to think so.

The summary lesson from Ishrat’s chapter on Pakistan’s society is that we are a people awaiting a messiah – “a redeemer”, “a father figure”. Could this be because of the narrative of heroism we tell our children? Think about it: most popular conceptions of heroes in Pakistan wield a gun or a sword. The book doesn’t shed light on this subject. But it is time to widen our public imagination of heroes to civilian heroes, especially the unsung ones. Movie makers and story tellers take note!

Ishrat in fact suggests that Pakistani society is part of the problem rather than part of a solution. The “in-built tension between the appropriate social behaviour required of an individual as a member of the society and organisational rules imposed as a part of professional responsibilities inhibits the practice of good governance. Nepotism and favouritism are the expected outcomes of demand placed by social and cultural norms, while merit and impartiality are expected to reign supreme under the formal organisational rules of business.”

The noted economist is not famous as a cultural critic. But he indeed flags a much under-appreciated problem. A problem that is near impossible to quantify in savvy economic models and regression equations that most economists are comfortable with. A problem that noted historian Ayesha Jalal describes best when she writes that a “vast majority of Pakistan’s literate citizens have opted for the comforts of ignorance, habits of scepticism, and most troubling of all, in a contagion of belief in conspiracy theories.” Contrast this with examples from elsewhere in the world, where the youth have successfully brought noticeable social and political change. Writing for National Endowment for Democracy USA, its youth fellow and project coordinator at a leading Latin American civil society organisation, Margarita Maira, recently put three case studies in the spotlight from Chile, Nigeria, and the Balkans.

In 2011, Chilean students from north to south united against the government to demand free, high-quality public education for everyone, up to higher levels of education. By 2012, thousands of Chileans marched on the streets, consolidating the initiative as a broad social movement. By 2014 after a change of government, a 4-year educational reform process eventually materialized many of their demands.

In Nigeria, led by a youth-led civil society organization, the country’s young campaigned under slogan “NotTooYoungToRun” to lower the minimum age requirement for candidacy of public offices. In 2016, after gaining countrywide support, the campaign finally set out to amend the constitution, finding allies in formal politics. Finally, after a long-drawn battle, a bill to reduce the age limit to 35 years was passed in May 2018.

The story of Balkans is a little different, but the underlying lesson is the same. In 2014, the governments in question institutionalised a Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) for collaboration among the young. The purpose was to build public consensus for EU membership for non-member states by increasing interaction among regional youth. While this was a government led effort, it would not have been possible without a demand created by pre-existing, and independent well-functioning youth-led civil society organisations working towards youth exchange between the two sides.

Will Pakistan ever witness a youth-led change? Not top down politicisation of the needs and wants of the youth. But the grass root rising of the youth for social and political causes. Ishrat believes that genuine change will not come about “from the residents of villages, however resentful they may be, but from the articulate well-informed urban classes” – urbanisation being the catalyst for change.

His view is difficult to argue with. For many people, it is a luxury to even think about social, political problems, let alone make an attempt to solve it. An educated single mother trying to raise her three children while working 9 to 5 at a bank cannot afford to toil for social causes. Labourers and daily wage earners have a far more pressing agenda on their table: food. Many young educated men have little time and energy left after working two jobs to provide for the medical needs of their aging parents.

In the three case studies brought to fore earlier, youth movements were led and championed by the elite – young urban professionals who came from upper classes and went to the top universities in their home countries or abroad, says Maira.

It is difficult to imagine Pakistan’s youth from elite circles rising up to the occasion. Pakistani elite comprises of those who already hold dual nationalities as an insurance against any crises in Pakistan, or who can buy nationalities almost overnight. Those who are interested miraculously know the solutions before they even understand the problem. Perhaps this comes from one size fits all policy approach taught at many universities at home and abroad. The burden of change therefore also lies on the urban professional class rather than the urban lords.

Working professionals cannot be expected to lead Chile and Nigeria like movements. At best, they can be a part of such movements in small portions since most are hard pressed to provide for basic needs of their families. But they can and should also focus on narrow local level social problems. Say, if hundred people in a neighbourhood can dedicate just four hours a week towards a micro level social change, great many things could happen over time. Efforts towards social change mustn’t always take the shape of street protests in front of local or provincial government departments; it may well be gaining strength in numbers to change certain codes of conduct in your professional body or business association.

At homes and at public moots, urban working professionals spend too much time talking about what has gone wrong while moaning that they are a silent majority. Well, history is no doubt important, but it is also “hard to move forward when so much time is spent on the past”. New ideas are paramount, for today and tomorrow! As for the silent majority, let it be known that silence has no majority or minority; it is just silence as if a long harrowing dark night.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018

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