Published in The Weekend Independent on 18 June 2010

Pahela Boishakh 1417 - New Year's Eve 2010, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The first nationwide survey of Bangladeshi youth was published last Saturday by the British Council.  Towards the end of the launching ceremony, a young member of the audience raised her hand to ask a question to members of the panel.

She said, “How can we compare the findings of this survey with young people in the rest of the world?”

Her question was a good one.  “Bangladesh: the Next Generation” focuses on the perceptions and aspirations of Bangladeshi youth and it contains many useful statistics and percentage point indicators.  It makes for very interesting reading and it is, as British High Commissioner Stephen Evans said during the launch, “rich food for thought.”  However the findings are ultimately most illuminating whenever comparisons can be made, particularly as this survey does not contain any qualitative data.  As an American professor Aaron Levenstein once famously said, “Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”  Regardless of the faith—or suspicion—one has in statistics, it is also important to place this survey in its full context.

Pahela Boishakh 1417 - New Year's Eve 2010, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Though it is the biggest survey of youth ever conducted in Bangladesh and the 2,167 respondents were drawn from each of the seven administrative districts, it is worth highlighting (as the survey itself does) that there are 55 million people between the ages of 15 and 30 in Bangladesh – each with a potentially unique view of the world.  For example, whilst it is fascinating to learn that 88 percent of young people in Bangladesh are either happy or very happy and only 1.6 percent described themselves as “very unhappy,” notions of happiness are extremely subjective and arguably justify deeper examination.

Fortunately, the British Council has also undertaken a Next Generation survey in Pakistan and the report was published in November 2009.  Plans are also underway to carry out the survey in Nigeria.  Although the two existing surveys are far from identical in terms of questions and content, many themes of youth are shared.  Without wishing to draw crude or superficial comparisons, I will attempt to present the most significant.

One of the major findings of both surveys was the disengagement of youth from national politics.  In Bangladesh, 76 percent of the young people interviewed believe they have little or no influence over government decisions or were unsure of their capacity to influence.  Likewise, 76 percent of young people reported having no interest in politics.  Speaking at the launch, Chief Guest Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said that she attributes the low levels of political engagement to a lack of awareness about how to get involved.

She said, “I don’t believe that youth have no capacity to influence decision-making.  It was their decision to elect this government after all.”

Pahela Boishakh 1417 - New Year's Eve 2010, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Currently, only one percent of the Bangladeshis interviewed belong to a political party.  In Pakistan, that number is doubled… to a mere two percent.  Pakistan’s Next Generation report states, “The disillusionment with democracy is pronounced.”  Only 10 percent of Pakistani respondents said that they have a great deal of confidence in national or local government, and half are not on the voters’ list.

The majority of young people in Pakistan believe that the government is failing on all levels.  One Pakistani respondent said, “Government should provide windows for the engagement of youth in the decision-making process.  No decision about us, without us.”  In Pakistan, the most trusted public institution is the military.

Both groups of youths also appear wary of student politics.  In Bangladesh, 36 percent of respondents said that student politics have a detrimental effect on educational institutions and more than 30 percent believe that they should definitely not become involved.  In Pakistan, several focus group participants reported problems at universities, where student groups, “were taken over and corrupted by political parties and are often more interested in violent feuds than student affairs.”  Anecdotally, I have heard many similar sentiments expressed by young Bangladeshis.

My friend Shumo

In terms of attending school classes, the situation for both nations has improved but remains grave.  In Bangladesh, 71 percent of young men and 73 percent of women are literate.  In Pakistan, 64 percent of women between 18 – 29 years are literate as are 80% of men, but only half of Pakistan’s children attend primary school and just five percent obtain a degree in higher education.

Unsurprisingly, 92% of Pakistani youth believe that improving the education system is an important issue.  In Bangladesh, more than 20 percent of respondents expressed their desire to study more or to seek higher education and 41 percent wish to live abroad.  The three main reasons for this latter position were: to earn more money, to study and due to the scarcity of jobs in Bangladesh.

When it comes to self-identity, young Bangladeshi women said that the two most important defining factors are family and nationality.  Young men listed their nationality and occupation as being the single most important factors.  Interestingly, in Pakistan, three quarters of respondents identified themselves as Muslims, and 14 percent define themselves primarily as citizens of Pakistan.

Youth in both countries are gravely aware of the threat of corruption.  Only four percent of respondents believe that corruption in Pakistan is low, whilst in Bangladesh, 60 percent fear that corruption will worsen over the next five years, and over a third believe that corruption damage’s Bangladesh’s image abroad.  In Pakistan, youth are more concerned that violent attacks harm their nation’s image most.

First day of Spring, Fine Arts Institute, Dhaka, 2010

The British Council hopes that by presenting the information to the public, a debate will be sparked about the role of youth in societies across the world.  Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, country director of Hunger Project eloquently expresses why it is so important to harness the potential of a nation’s youth in his opening commentary of the Bangladesh report.  He writes, “Our youth have not yet become ‘prisoners’ of what we call ‘reality.’  They have not boxed in their thinking, dreaming or exploring by the walls of cynicism.  They have not become stuck to a reality or resigned themselves to the status quo.  They have the courage of their convictions along with the mental and physical capacity to pursue them – and thus they dare to break out of perceived reality… They have the ability to create a ‘new’ reality that is shaped not by what is easy but by what is right.”

Studies such as these ought to be welcomed – and moreover, widely disseminated and discussed.  Both nations have around 55 million people aged between 15 and 30 and forecasters predict an ever greater burgeoning of the population in the years ahead.  As Charles Nuttall OBE, director of the British Council, writes in the commentary of the Bangladesh report, “We can view each successive generation as a problem – or as a unique opportunity: how we use this “youth dividend” will be critical to our future development.”  The Next Generation surveys are a call to action – when the stakes are this high, one hopes the response will be swift.