“Youth inclusion does not happen by saying it is important; it happens when you actually bring young people into the room to come up with collective solutions to problems,” says Muhammd Shoaib, a young social activist from Karachi. Shoaib is absolutely right, which is why we recently brought him to Islamabad as part of the Accountability Lab Pakistan and UNDP Pakistan SDG16 Innovation Challenge in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms. The primary goal of the innovation challenge was to encourage new thinking and creative ideas to solve challenges related to SDG 16 around peace, justice, and strong institutions; and to identify and support the best ideas through incentives and prizes. By Fayyaz Yaseen.

Kicking off the challenge in April 2019, we launched both online and offline application processes and hosted orientation sessions in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi, reaching more than 2,000 young Pakistanis. We received hundreds of applications from across the country, and through a careful selection process, chose the top 20. In early August, this group came to Islamabad for a three-day innovation and mentorship camp. The camp was designed to support the participants to develop their ideas, build their knowledge around the issues, share lessons with their peers and develop critical skills related to leadership, technology and work-planning.

All of this yielded some useful lessons around how to engage young people in a process of this kind; about the thinking, aspirations and expectations of Pakistani youth; and about social innovation more broadly. Here are our top 5 take-aways for organizations supporting innovation within development in Pakistan:

  1. Young people feel excluded and that the government is not willing to listen to them. This isn’t a question of having a voice as many of them are active on social media and in youth groups of various kinds. It is an issue of the government’s ability and desire to listen to them. During our orientation sessions we heard loud and clear from many attendees that they didn’t think the government would respond to their ideas. This is an important sentiment for the new government in Islamabad to recognize and address.
  2. There is some amazing creativity despite the challenges. We were reminded through this process, once again, that Pakistan’s younger generations are some of the most innovative in the world. We received hundreds of ideas, from a plan to introduce social credits for honest public officials in Punjab to making use of ‘Hujra’ – the informal community spaces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – to inform and meaningfully include the less educated in governance and conflict resolution processes. All the ideas we received were problem-driven, well thought out and highly contextualized. The applicants also showed an impressive understanding of the SDGs and SDG16 in particular with a recognition that the rule of law and strong institutions form the basis of all the other goals.
  3. The challenge is engaging them at a scale that is large enough around these issues. Over half a million Pakistanis are graduating from universities every year, with about 1.3 million people entering the job market annually. This has serious implications for peace and the rule of law, as idle young people- without a sense of upward social mobility can be recruited into criminal or extremist networks. There have been endless promises from the government to include young people but in practice this is very difficult and progress has been limited. Participants in this challenge gave us some sense of how it might be done. For instance, Shumile Fatima has developed an idea to extend essential training and freelance work opportunities to hundreds of women in Gilgit Baltistan. But there is much more to do and there is scope to host thousands of these kinds of initiatives across the country.
  4. Translating good ideas into changed realities – While young Pakistanis have important insights into the changes they want and fantastic ideas for transforming lives, it was clear from the discussions that we as a community that supports positive social change in Pakistan need to focus even further on implementation. We built discussions into the three-day event, as we do during our Accountability Incubator, around core management processes such as budgeting, work-planning and monitoring and evaluation. This was because we’ve seen how essential these are to the implementation of good ideas. It is often a lack of process that prevents these ideas from moving from paper to practice in a sustainable way. Ultimately, innovation has to be matched with organization. As a next step, the UNDP and the Accountability Lab have offered seven of the Innovation Challenge participants the opportunity to work with us over the next year and to think through how they can scale-up their ideas.
  5. Finally, gender is central to everything because without the strong voices of women, achieving SDG16 will be impossible. Half of the participants in this challenge were young women and they developed some fascinating ideas that have real potential for transformative change. For example, Mareeha Kamran from Lahore wants to make sure women from poor and marginalized groups are able to register the birth of their children through digital technology rather than with the existing manual system which is vulnerable to exploitation from officials seeking bribes. There’s also Mishel Ijaz from Punjab who developed a participatory urban planning method that can be used to ensure shared, collectively managed public spaces. Throughout the three-day workshop it became clear once again that young Pakistani women are an incredible force for change.

We are now looking forward to working further with the winners, but we all win when thousands of young people turn out to hear about opportunities like this, and hundreds put the time and effort into submitting creative ideas around peace, justice and strong institutions. It fills us with hope for the future of Pakistan.

Fayyaz Yaseen is the Country Director of Accountability Lab Pakistan.