Civil So­ci­ety, Youth and Po­lit­i­cal Par­ties: Miss­ing Link in Pak­istan

The Diplomatic Insight - - Opinion - *Anna Mooney

Wash­ing­ton DC has a new Pak­istani Am­bas­sador. A vet­eran hu­man-rights cam­paigner who main­tains a good re­la­tion­ship with the mil­i­tary, Sherry Rehman could not be more dif­fer­ent from Hus­sein Haqqani, the con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure who has presided over re­la­tions with the­White House in the tur­bu­lent years since 9/11. He was re­cently re­lieved of his post in a dra­matic diplo­matic in­ci­dent. The reshuf­fle of such a key po­si­tion has led many to hope that change may be un­der­way in Pak­istan, de­spite re­peated of­fi­cial de­nials of a forth­com­ing elec­tion, prompted by the sud­den de­par­ture of Pres­i­dent Zar­dari to Dubai in De­cem­ber 2011. How­ever, those seek­ing gen­uine po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment will face chal­lenges from all sides. In re­cent months, the gov­ern­ment has moved to­wards an in­creas­ingly iso­la­tion­ist stance, vent­ing its anger at Wash­ing­ton over the killing of 24 of its sol­diers by NATO forces by boy­cotting a vi­tal re­gional sum­mit on the fu­ture of Afghanistan, held in Bonn in De­cem­ber 2011. In a coun­try where faith in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is at an all-time low, an­tiAmer­i­can sen­ti­ment has also been vented in a dif­fer­ent way. Ef­fec­tive civil so­ci­ety en­gage­ment in pol­i­tics has been lost be­tween a re­sort to vi­o­lence at one end of the spec­trum and cor­rup­tion and apathy of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers at the other. The lack of civil so­ci­ety en­gage­ment is a sad indictment on a coun­try where not only is a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion are un­der the age of thirty. How­ever, un­like the ex­hil­a­rat­ing scenes wit­nessed across the Arab world in 2011, where tens of thou­sands took to the streets, 70% of that youth­ful per­cent­age ad­mit­ted to be­ing po­lit­i­cally dis­en­gaged. Why should 70% of young peo­ple feel they have no po­lit­i­cal voice when 84% say they want to have more of a say in how the coun­try is run? The two pri­mary rea­sons given, by an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity, were lack of re­sources and a sense of fu­til­ity - the sense that their ef­forts will do lit­tle to af­fect the sit­u­a­tion even if they had the re­sources to at­tempt it. This man­i­fests it­self in prac­ti­cal terms through a long stand­ing and sur­pris­ingly well-sup­ported ban on po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism on univer­sity cam­puses and more broadly a lack of faith in the mori­bund and un­der­funded 'youth-wings' of the es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal par­ties. With the lack of a for­mal plat­form to pro­mote and fa­cil­i­tate youth en­gage­ment and cru­cially, an ap­par­ent lack of will to set one up there is an op­por­tu­nity for grass­roots or­gan­i­sa­tions to step into the vac­uum. Diplo­matic con­sul­tancy group Grass­root Diplo­mat, is the only in­de­pen­dent diplo­matic or­gan­i­sa­tion to con­sider this widen­ing gap be­tween civil so­ci­ety and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. Founded by Ta­lyn Rah­man-Figueroa, a young Bri­tish woman from a Bangladeshi back­ground - Grass­root Diplo­mat as­sists with the re­search, de­vel­op­ment and net­work­ing of pol­icy-re­lated projects across the world, which im­prove civil­ian en­gage­ment with na­tional and mul­ti­lat­eral lead­ers. They are uniquely placed to ad­dress the chal­lenge to po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment from above, by fa­cil­i­tat­ing bet­ter ac­cess to pol­icy mak­ers and from be­low by work­ing at a grass­roots level to pro­mote and sus­tain the civil so­ci­ety en­gage­ment that the Arab Spring has shown to be vi­tal. Taken to­gether, the net result is a more in­formed po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue. Fa­cil­i­tat­ing mean­ing­ful po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment at a grass­roots level is widely ac­knowl­edged to be an ef­fec­tive strat­egy in the strug­gle against vi­o­lent Is­lamist ex­trem­ism which con­tin­ues to threaten the sta­bil­ity and dam­age the rep­u­ta­tion of Pak­istan. Un­der the guid­ance of Grass­root Diplo­mat, twenty-one year old Suhel Mashok of The Pak­istani Youth Net­work un­der­stood this link and, tired of the per­va­sive me­dia por­trayal of his coun­try as a haven for al-Qaeda took the ini­tia­tive to set up what was to be­come an ef­fec­tive lob­by­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion. The Pak­istani Youth Net­work's dual aims of cor­rect­ing neg­a­tive me­dia per­cep­tions of Pak­istan and pro­vid­ing an ef­fec­tive chan­nel for young peo­ple to air their views are mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing. What started as a two per­son team has now grown into an or­gan­i­sa­tion of over a hun­dred mem­bers which con­tin­ues to tackle the neg­a­tive me­dia im­age of Pak­istan and its per­ceived close links with Is­lamic ex­trem­ism. The two main rea­sons for lack of po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion were found in the Cen­tre for Civic Ed­u­ca­tion's Study to be in­ad­e­quate re­sources and a sense of de­featism. Grass­root Diplo­mat was able to pro­vide The Pak­istaniYouth Net­work with strate­gic insight to the de­vel­op­ment and growth of the or­gan­i­sa­tion and as­sisted the young team with vi­tal net­work­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties with the most pow­er­ful me­dia bod­ies like the BBC World Ser­vice, Pak­istan Link and MTV Pak­istan for its pro­ject. Men­tor­ing Mashok gave him the con­fi­dence to suc­ceed in Pak­istan's tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere and his ef­fort has paid off. In tap­ping into the rich seam of young peo­ple who ad­mit to be­ing po­lit­i­cally dis­en­gaged but wanted to be more in­volve­ment, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has grown from a mere two per­son out­fit to over a hun­dred mem­bers scat­tered across Pak­istan and neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. In the con­text of the in­creas­ingly iso­la­tion­ist stance be­ing taken by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment, th­ese grass­roots or­gan­i­sa­tions op­er­at­ing re­motely and on the ground have be­come ever more im­por­tant. The BBC World Ser­vice, who were in­volved in strength­en­ing this pro­ject, have re­cently been banned from broad­cast­ing in the coun­try. Mashok's group, how­ever, now have the crit­i­cal mass to con­tinue their work without the help of th­ese out­side spon­sors and are now one of many who have been set up to pro­vide a chan­nel for young peo­ple to air their views. Al­though Pak­istan has not seen a mass protest move­ment for po­lit­i­cal re­form like that sweep­ing the Mid­dle East, the small scale growth of grass­roots or­gan­i­sa­tions has pro­vided Pak­istan with a sus­tain­able, if not im­me­di­ate, path to po­lit­i­cal re­form and sta­bil­ity.


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