98 and 74. If I am asked, I would say these are the two figures that sum up the mood of Bangladesh's youth. A staggering 98% of them believe that they should be involved in social work. On the other side of the coin, 74% of them are not interested in politics.
Throughout the report "Bangladesh: The Next Generation," there are figures that highlight this dichotomy in thoughts and deeds of today's youth. At one end there is the optimism and the desire to do good, but on the other the apathy and belief that they don't count. This in a nation whose history has mostly been molded by its younger citizens.
Be it the Language Movement of 1952 or the political movements of 1969, '71, or '90, youth led and the nation followed. The government should acknowledge the fact that in the last general election the first time voters (almost 35% of the electorate) by and far put their stamp next to the candidates of the ruling party. This went against conventional wisdom of the day. But the young had spoken.
It may not be over-simplification to say that "Digital Bangladesh," the desire to see the war criminals tried, and a rejection of the previous government's notorious greed, had lead the youth to jump on the Obamaesque dinbodol bandwagon of the Awami League. But since getting absolute majority in the Jatiya Sangsad and forming a government, have they done much to reward this massive potential vote bank?
Initial suggestions of a close bond were there. Young ministers like Dipu Moni, Sohel Taj, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury and Barrister Taposh seemed to be AL's new face. A new generation of leaders to whom the reins were being passed on. Digital Bangladesh too was being fleshed out to be more than just a slogan on a manifesto.
Then things went wrong. Taj left in a huff, claiming that his authority was being undermined. AL's youth wing, Chattra League (BCL), started showing that they cared more about financial gain than addressing issues of the youth. Digital Bangladesh started to become the butt of jokes as on-again-off-again policies and power shortages kept people guessing what that term actually meant.
Overall, the AL government, like those of the past, has failed to consistently connect with the youth. Issues of education, employment and empowerment have been left un-addressed. The "Next Generation Report" picks up on this. While 87% of the youth are enrolled in education programs, they don't believe that the education they are getting will get them jobs. Or will play a significant part in getting jobs at any rate. They think bribery, nepotism and connections are needed for a decent job. This makes 41% of them want to take the first plane out of the country in search of better education, jobs, and opportunities.
Digital Bangladesh too has failed to deliver so far. True that it is a decade-long journey and not an overnight miracle, but the government has failed to articulate what it actually means for the youth. 73% of the younger population has mobile phones, but only 15% uses the internet. This is a shame because Digital Bangladesh, over anything else, can deliver us to the promised land. But only if we absorb the youth into the movement.
Youth need education. Education that will give them the skill sets to succeed in today's economy. That means knowledge of English and Math. And that of creativity, logic and research. Quite unlike the prevalent learning by rote. It means young migrant workers becoming plumbers, mechanics, welders, cooks and drivers, and not merely low-paid manual labourers.
Youth need jobs. Not low-value-adding agriculture jobs. But jobs in factories and offices where they can put to use their intellect and industry. Today, we hold the agriculture sector as sacred cow. But it is time for us to take a knife to that. Given our ever-growing population and the pressure it brings to land usage, we cannot expect to solve our employment needs through this sector. Instead of an acre of land that can productively employ say 20 people, we need an acre of factory floor that can employ 20,000.
Using technology, one can leapfrog the stumbling block of education content and delivery; we can create knowledge jobs in ITES (IT enabled services -- i.e., graphic design outsourcing) and other techie industries like pharmaceuticals; we can activate millions of points of entrepreneurism through e-commerce and exports.
How do we do it? Quite easy. While we wait for the larger more grandiose plans to pan out, we could do two things. Firstly, empower e-commerce, not through a few monopolistic chosen ones, but by allowing anyone to make and enable transactions. Remember there was a Bangladeshi in the team that made PayPal. And secondly, make bandwidth cost free (or at least extremely cheap) for end users. The combination of the two will generate massive innovations, which, in-turn, will facilitate commerce to boom.
Youth need engagement and empowerment. It is not good enough any longer to just pay lip service to them. Be mindful, they constitute a good 70+% of the electorate. A figure that, for the next few elections, will only increase. Today, one in five youth says they have no national role-model. The question for any leader should be, how do I find a place in their minds? That is through engagement.
BCL's my-tender-is-bigger-than-your-tender ways may have led AL to disown them, but it shouldn't be an excuse to disengage from the youth altogether. In fact, the exact opposite should be done. Connect at every opportunity. Bring in youth leadership into the party grassroots. Use the desire the youth have for social work to activate them there. Encourage and promote young leaders to rise to the top. The absolute top.
Induct more of them into the cabinet and party presidium. India's Congress Party with the eye to the future, has transformed the Youth Congress as the heart and soul of the party. Anyone who is interested in succeeding as our next leader needs to earn his spurs. And that can be done by changing the minds of 76% of the youth who think that they have little or no influence over government decisions, or are unsure of their capacity to influence.
The youth of Bangladesh have spoken yet again. But are we listening?
Nazim Farhan Choudhury is Deputy Managing Director, Adcomm Limited.