|Volume 6 Issue 02| February 2012|
Fountain of Youth:
SHAHANA SIDDIQUI turns to the spirit of the young to bring in change.
Youth is wasted on the young…
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ronan Farrow, the Special Adviser on Global Youth Issues to the American Secretary of State, while he was on an official visit to Bangladesh. It wasn't the fact that he is the legendary Hollywood director Woody Allen and actress Mia Farrow's son that amazed me. Nor that he is a living Doogie Howser, a child genius or that he has travelled the world for his journalistic pursuits. What awed me about him, and the Obama administration more generally, is that a YOUNG man of mid-20s was chosen to represent his age demographic -- the youth, a practice that we are yet to see in Bangladesh -- the young representing the youth!
Instead we are trapped in a reverse ageist society where the young are never allowed to speak freely, think openly, let alone plunge forward blindly. They say youth is wasted on the young, but more and more we have a society in Bangladesh where the old is wasted and wasting the youth and their chance to be young.
The curious case of Bangladesh civil society and service
According to the BBS, age group of 15-24 account for almost 18% of the total population while 25-34 age group makes up about 15.5%1 percent. UNFPA states that the youth population of Bangladesh is the largest segment. It is therefore no surprise that youth is a major case for concern. How to educate, employ, accommodate this young population in resource constrained and limited opportunity reality? How do we tap into their potential to boost economic growth and raise social awareness? Especially with the rise in militancy and world economic and political unrest, how do we tackle the rise of unemployment, ensuring that both human resources and mind do not stay idle for too long?
These are critical questions and I am truly glad to see these are now in the forefront of our development agenda in both the non-profit and private sectors. But why are 50-60+ age group personalities with distant memories of what youth once was giving the speeches, the lectures, the trainings? Where are the young (defined generously to be less than 45 please!) entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, engineers, academics, musicians, artists speaking to their peers/immediate juniors on challenges faced and obstacles overcome? Why is it always the usual suspects and their standard sermons that are heard at every congregation?
Almost 40 years of NGO presence in Bangladesh and there is no new blood leading the institutions. It's the same handful of 30-40 well-known figures who are each other's relatives, friends, NGO board members, confidant, and even competition. It is this very incestuous group who will be at every talk show and opening ceremony.
The army of young NGO officials working relentlessly for the great “Apa” or “Bhai” will never be highlighted, appreciated or even thanked. In this feudalistic, classist society when you are one of the millions born to an unknown family in the mofosshol area, it is a privilege in and of itself to be working with the great “Apa” or “Bhai”, so why ever ask for anything more? And yet, these are the same wise/ethicalones who will stand up in public and tell the youth that “you are the pulse of the nation”, or preach to government and political parties to reform.
This is true for not only the civil society but the government machinery as well. While the last of the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSPs) were the glorified officers serving Bangladesh, having the education and the pedigree, they also held on to their positions of powers through contractual extensions for years. This resulted in serious bottlenecks in the Bangladesh Civil Service cadres' promotions and career opportunities. Because the old vanguards held on to these positions, some of the potential young stars in the BCS either left the service or just lost motivation because of the lack of career building in the service. A current Deputy Secretary to the Government stated that there was massive brain drain in the 1980s and 1990s among his peers, directly or indirectly related to the lack of public service career path and the decline of the overall bureaucracy. A vicious cycle of “left overs”, “corrupt” and “politically backed up” candidates stayed on with the service, creating a culture of corruption and inefficiency which remains unshakable.
Before I am bombarded with criticism of not knowing the service's history of systematic breakdown due to political pressures and national crises (which I am a little too familiar with, thank you very much!), I ask the surviving CSPs, how many BCSes did you train, guide, help be a better service provider than you? CSPs will always claim how incredible their times were, of the trainings they received and the efficiency with which they worked with but in turn, I have always asked how many of their BCS colleagues did they mentor to create a new cadre of equally if not better cohort of government officers who will administer the state apparatus?
This is not to say the BCS are without fault or falter, but the administration only had full secretaries from the BCS cadre from around the mid-1990s. Before that, what were the all Pakistan greats doing? Truth be told, very few CSPs were real inspirations to their juniors. Very few stood their grounds and served the people and not their own interests. Now we find them as private university professors, or development sector high paid consultants, or political party members or “Special Advisers”. (I always joke with my friends -- our careers will finally take off when we “retire”).
Very few have in fact brought out a peer reviewed journal article or a well-researched foreign published academic book to be holding the academic or professional positions. Every conversation will start with the likes of “when I was the ADC in Mymensingh in 1967…” and other stories of the glorified past. It's a lot of “I said this to him” and “I advised that to her” but where are these stories in writing? Most of them see me as their niece and I truly do love a good story when I hear one -- but at your house over a lovely cup of tea please, not at a seminar/official interview. I truly wish the “uncles” and the “aunties” will stop attending every seminar they are invited to and hire a young researcher/writer to help them to write their biographies. In this way, there is a space for the young generation to get some visibility and for the memories to be recorded for the generations to come.
Academia, consultancy and intellectual prostitution
Everyone is now in the fashion of starting their own research institution. Everyone over the age of 60 seems to be an academic of some sort. The patronage system is far more prevalent in the academic circle where junior academics are literally at the mercy of their seniors to gain authorship and formal recognition to apply for PhD programs and fellowships.
Most of the private university professors and senior researchers are public university tenure tracks. It is almost as if the point of ensuring a tenure position at a public university is to enter the world of consultancy and private university teaching. Irrespective of theoretical or ethical stance, university professors are willing to be consultants for any reputed organisation if the price is right. I have watched leftists give out long anti-Western, anti-colonial, anti-everything statements against Bretton Woods institutions and then the next day signing up as high level national consultant -- because everyone loves the UN-logo car and the World Bank salaries.
If not individual consultancies, their respective research institutions turn into affordable consultancy houses for donors. It is far more cost effective to outsource to local organisations than to hire individual consultants. Young field researchers from public universities are sent to collect the “authentic” and “culturally sound” data/information because they know Bangla very well while the recently returned foreign degree holder will draft the research paper in perfect English to please the contractors/donors. Members of this team will be paid one-third of the salary quoted in the original budget while the “lead researcher/ coordinator” with minimum input will bag the lakhs.
But at least at these institutions, researchers are formally recognised for their work. At various departments in both public and private universities, professors stealing students' projects/papers for a nice consultancy fee is a standard practice. No one files complaints because of the letter of recommendation dangled in front of the students. As a colleague rightfully said, Bangladesh's academia is bullied by a group of “intellectual gundas”! Of all their self-proclaimed glory, other than a handful, how many Bangladeshi academics have come up with new theories or ground breaking research? More importantly, how many have transformed their students' lives, inspired them, guided them to excellence?
Politics of the past
My cousin carried out a research sometime back on nationalism and how people perceive it for his senior dissertation.2 He categorized three generations/age categories -- the '71 generation, immediate post-'71 and the new age, the youth of current times and interviewed 10-15 people from each group. He interviewed students and recent graduates from both public and private universities. Just about none of the younger generation knew what Yahya Khan or Zulfikar Ali Bhutto looked like (pictures were shown to identify different iconic figures of the Pakistan era). My guess is -- ask the same question to anyone off the street, you will get the same response as the Dhaka University and North South graduates my cousin interviewed.
While there is a never ending rhetoric about 1971, the above example clearly shows that very little fact ever reaches the young generation. This generation is openly criticised for not knowing history. Yet whenever there is an attempt to get to know history, we are told -- that it is pro-AL/pro-Indian hegemony version or pro-BNP/anti-liberation revisions. Instead of giving a value judgment, why not give us the books, the materials, the enthusiasm to find out for ourselves the whens, whats, whos and hows?
I wonder how many people (even within the Awami League) really know Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's political ideology? There has been a systematic expulsion of not just Ziaur Rahman from the larger history, but also A.K. Fazlul Huq, Husyen Shaheed Suhrawardy, Maulana Bhashani and Tajuddin Ahmad. Why?
An entire generation of Bangladeshis has been raised with rhetoric of past politics and the dirtiness of the present ones. Meanwhile, Sarmila Bose goes around the world with high flying book signing events and lectures at world's renowned universities by writing what her peers are calling an academically lousy and sloppy book about Bangladesh's 1971 history. She can do this not only because of her strong networks and well-funded book deal, but because in 40 years, we have not produced even a handful of methodologically sound, internationally recognized Bangladeshi historians who can write in impeccable English or translate the plethora of the Bangla history into English for wider consumption. Bose and the likes of her will keep reckoning because we have killed our academic integrity and commitment.
Arab Springs and Bengali/Dhaka Autumns
“Bhodroloker chhele meyera politics'e nameyna” so says my wise mother whenever I get ideas in my head! I understand where those sentiments are coming from: it comes from witnessing student politicians of the yesteryears turning into gang leaders, war heroes becoming dubious politicians and political parties nurturing political thugs. After 1971, the only other time bhodroloker chhele-meyera took to the streets was to overthrow Hussain Mohammed Ershad in 1990.
But what the recent Arab uprisings showed the disgruntled youth of the Third World is that given the circumstances, bhodroloker chheleye-meye across the class divide will take to the streets. Jyoti Rahman and I wrote an earlier piece on how the Arab Spring will not happen in Bangladesh,3 at least not in the same manner. But there is a certain unrest and restlessness among the youth in every sector that also cannot be denied. We the young generation feel it because we are living in it. Government senses it and is highly paranoid about it (e.g. recent sentencing of a lecturer over a Facebook status update). What many at the upper echelon (in politics, civil society, business) tend to forget that in the past 40 years, a new multiple-identities generation has emerged with a degree of separation from the '71 past but having grown up in draconian, corrupt, inefficient, open market, social media driven, society that benefited only a very small class of people. So if we are to have a Dhaka Autumn, it will be battled by the frustrated young, along class lines. And if we have learnt anything from past revolutions, there is nothing Jasmine-like about class struggles.
Wine, not people, gets better with age
Yes, the past generation gave us an independent country and we will be forever grateful to them for it but I no longer feel inspired by them, especially when it comes to moving forward. I see no tangible changes being made to accommodate the youth and channel their energy. If anything, the younger folks who are turning heads in entrepreneurial pursuits, music, arts, education, science, social movements/changes, are doing everything despite the barriers, the obstacles of the past generation. I am always in awe of that.
For inspiration, I look towards my peers -- the younger brother whose voice moves us deep within, or my best friend's incredible designs and creations, or our very own female mountaineer climbing the seven summits, or my young colleague who keeps me on track or the friends who left their high-flying jobs to do something for their country. They are my everyday heroes, my reason to still believe in this country and society.
Many will read this article with anger and annoyance. I will be labelled as a “beyadob-bettamiz”, a Miss Know-It-All. But if you look deep within, we get angry or annoyed at something when it has some truth to it. While I love my culture of respecting and taking care of our elders, this does not mean that the elders can exploit and treat their juniors with disregard. Real respect comes not with how many titles one has or how many seminars one speaks at as Special Guest, but through humility and respect for those younger.
At the end of last year, I entered my 30s, an age/stage Arundhuti Roy writes in her novel, A God of Small Things, as a “viable, dieable age”. We are not old neither are we young -- we are somewhere, nowhere, yet everywhere. Since we do have a few grey hair to gain some authority in this ageist society but remain at the peripheries for being born during post-Marxist, post-1971 era, all I can personally commit to is that I will risk being the beyadob and do the bettamizi if that will clear the way for the new generation, bursting with energy and talent to take up the stage, to make their dreams come true. Question is -- will the young be brave enough to stand behind it all?
1) http://www.bbs.gov.bd/WebTestApplication/ userfiles/Image/SY2010/Chapter-02.pdf
Shahana Siddiqui is a development practitioner and is a member of the Drishtipat Writers Collective. If you want to tell her how beyadob and bettamiz she is, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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