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

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 the White House in the turbulent years since 9/11. He was recently relieved of his post in a dramatic diplomatic incident which saw him allegedly offer to mitigate ISI influence in Afghanistan in return for US diplomatic support against his own domestic political rivals. 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, anti-American sentiment has also been vented in a different way. The Pakistani Taliban recently claimed responsibility for the devastating bombing of Kabul’s Ashura celebrations in which hundreds lost their lives. The group finds a haven in the turbulent border area between the two countries where low levels of political engagement and high levels of poverty have pulled many in to Islamic extremism. 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, but 84% of that youthful population, according to recent survey by Islamabad’s Centre for Civic Education believe that the youth can be a positive catalyst for change. 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 Pakistani Youth 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. 

Grassroot Diplomat continues to mentor The Pakistani Youth Network and provides assistance to many other grassroots organisations to reach out to political decision-makers through diplomatic tactics and connections. More information on this organisation can be found at