The Pulse

Afghan Youth: Separating Fact from Fiction

The large Afghan youth population tends to be excluded from the political process. That is a mistake.

Youth (men and women) make up two-thirds of the Afghan citizenry – 68% of the Afghan population is below 25 years of age. Yet, throughout the post-Taliban era, Afghan youth have been consistently stereotyped by the international community and marginalized by the Afghan Government from the statebuilding and political processes. There are more than a few reasons why dominant actors stereotype and marginalize, and why the youth deserve to be recognized as a dynamic and increasingly-assertive group.

In 2006, seven UN agencies and eight Afghan government ministries established what came to be known as the National Joint Youth Programme (2007-2010) which was mandated to ensure that Afghan youth participate effectively in socio-political process, with an emphasis on national and local governance, democracy, reconstruction and peacebuilding and that they have access to, and participate in, the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan. Towards achieving this dual-objective, the program envisioned strengthening the capacity of the government to respond to the needs of the youth, promoting non-formal education, increasing awareness and developing skills in young people, engaging youth in governance, democracy and advocacy, promoting volunteerism for peace and development, and finally, establishing a youth volunteer corps. Seven years on and the international community and Afghan Government have little to show for success, with observers often reducing the youth and their aspirations to middle-class curiosities.

First, there is a pervading sense among Western observers that the young, modernized and professional constituencies are not a microcosm of Afghan society and merely reflect the values and principles of the urban elite. These analysts harbor esoteric ideas of the rural-urban divide, for instance. Since 2001, the context has dramatically evolved. Perhaps indicating the achievement of the peacebuilding project, today’s urban professionals maintain deep ties with members of their immediate and extended families, and broader communities. Most young professionals identify their ancestral homes with villages in rural Afghanistan and are thus aware of their roots. They are very well positioned to harness these ties and build social and political consensus (and capacity) on behalf of the center. To view these professionals as urbanites who are insensitive to the concerns of community misrepresents the current reality.

Observers have also pointed out that returning exiles – aid workers, professionals or entrepreneurs – from the west, Iran and Pakistan represent a small and urban minority of highly skilled and technically-capable reformers. More often than not, these returnees are used as puppets by actors both from within and outside the state. Yet, this “imported elite” aren’t the only modernists Afghanistan can and should rely on. Since 2001, a young, educated and increasingly vocal/visible mass of homegrown, modernist leaders is emerging – perhaps best exemplified by civil-society organizations such as Afghanistan 1400 and Afghan Analysis and Awareness (A3). Tawanmandi, an organization funded and operated (in the interim) by the British Council showcases an impressive list of projects and programs in various stages of implementation.

Within the state-system, homegrown professionals are already indispensable to the establishment and functioning of state institutions and agencies. Outside of the state-system, young leaders are not only helping shape the debate overseas – young Afghan men and women represent their organizations and agencies in international conferences/workshops and other intellectual projects – but are also taking important strides in building local consensus, particularly in the sectors of human rights,  press freedom, freedom of speech, education and business. Afghans are often accused of being ignorant of the ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ that constitute the idea of “citizenship” – at the very least that the concept of social responsibility remains weak; these young professionals bear testament that the caricature is archaic.

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Second, the political architecture of the Afghan system – based around patronage and clientelist networks that do not permit inclusive politics – is not conducive to encouraging youth development and participation. The present hybrid system of governance (the mix of formal and informal institutions) dismisses the modern and increasingly educated youth as a caricatured entity not yet capable of contributing meaningfully to state and society. Proponents of the hybrid system assume the majority of the youth population to be disenfranchised, lacking in educational and employment opportunities, and divorced from participating in decision-making at community, provincial and national levels. This dominant view is grossly erroneous and misleading.

Today’s Afghan youth are fast becoming metropolitan: demographic analyses show shifts from rural towns/villages to larger cities (largely driven by the services and construction sectors). Today, a significant proportion (one quarter by UNDP estimates) of the Afghan population reside, trade and earn livelihoods in cities and crave and adhere to the rule of law. Afghanistan is also increasingly urbanized: radio and even television have spread at high speed, and according to the 2012 Asia Foundation survey, 83 percent of rural respondents had access in their households to a radio, 63 percent to a mobile phone, and 40 percent to a television. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology claims that Internet penetration grew from 0.25 percent in 2005 to 10 percent in 2009 while the usage of mobile phones grew from three to 16 percent over the same period. Then there is the Internet and the potential of the tour de force that is social media: estimates suggest approximately 1.2 million Afghans are connected to the internet and 300,000 Afghan youth take to Facebook/Twitter to regularly appraise Afghan politics, and even protest. Citizens  who are networked to this extent cannot be ignored.

It is within this context that privileging the informal institutions and mechanisms of the old guard dismisses these shifts in trends and in particular, silences the voice of the youth and its potential to contribute. Continuing to argue for increased local ownership by incorporating powerful and dominant actors means that the modernized youth and their efforts are marginalized in favor of a hybrid approach – the patronage power networks between governor and governed, client and agent – that looks for an easy and immediate way out of the political and social quagmire in Afghanistan. Hybridism is crucial, but limits needs to be recognized and certainly not at the expense of Afghan youth participation. If local ownership is to complement the statebuilding and political projects, then both the Afghan Government and international community need to acknowledge and focus on the significant contributions – particularly in consensus-building – and potential of Afghanistan’s dynamic youth.

Srinjoy Bose is a Prime Minister’s Endeavour Scholar at the Australian National University.