“It’s like introducing sushi to Bahawalpur.” I was having lunch at my friend’s house when her dad and I started talking about work, politics and the civics program I’m working to introduce to Pakistani schools. A mere three months in development were enough to explain his wariness of implementing a foreign idea here in Pakistan. “You have to be careful. Many programs don’t consider the context they’re working in, and often end up doing the equivalent of introducing sushi to places like Bahawalpur where people want chicken or beef, and they then wonder why it doesn’t catch on.”
My friend’s dad wasn’t suggesting that democracy was as foreign to Pakistani youth as sushi would be to a small city in Pakistan. It isn’t foreign to us at all. We had witnessed our first-ever successful transition of democratic power earlier this year. And not too long before that, the 18th Amendment passed and devolved the power from federal to provincial levels to legislate on 47 policy areas, including education.
Politics permeates our discussions in dining rooms and Facebook profiles, newspapers, blogs and talk shows. Perhaps most tellingly, voter turnout in general elections this year was at a historical high of 55%. These are signs of a country seeking an alternative to military rule to relieve them of the poverty, unemployment, inflation, corruption, planned electricity cuts, and so on, that have plagued it for decades.
As I learned teaching a group of high school students in Islamabad last summer, it’s not easy to apply an action civics model, even one as effective as Generation Citizen’s, to an evolving political system that makes official routes to affecting change less clear-cut than in the U.S. For example, local elections, which aim to provide representation to citizens at grassroots levels, aren’t even due to begin until the end of this year, complicating questions of who we might go to solve a problem in our community. Even after the elections are held, a lot of information won’t be easily accessible.
Even so, it’s hard to be discouraged. While there’s a lot that doesn’t translate so easily, the idea of taking action to solve a problem proves to be empowering for students wherever they may be. Similar to my experience with students in the Bronx, the learning process here in Islamabad resulted in important civic skills, knowledge and dispositions which I have no doubt my students will carry forward: learning about and engaging with their community, identifying root causes of problems, debating the best approach to solving the problem and engaging decision makers–and perhaps most importantly, realizing that they can and should engage those decision makers. They tend to emerge from the experience feeling empowered and motivated, ready to continue to act as democratic citizens despite the set- backs that are inevitable to the process.
My colleague Nyma Khan and I will carry these observations forward as we plan how to best teach active citizenship in a political system where the rules are subject to frequent change. As my friend’s dad suggested, it will probably have to look a little different from the model Generation Citizen has developed to address the local context effectively (we’re particularly looking at ways to address information gaps and discuss democracy in the context of other regime types Pakistan has experimented with), but the core idea remains the same: to empower students to become engaged and effective citizens.
Sameea Butt was a GC Democracy Coach in the Bronx from 2011-2012 and Columbia University Chapter Director from 2012-13. She is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and currently works for Global Children’s Network Pakistan.