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Enhancing Cooperation between Youth and Local Policy-Makers in Pakistan: Youth Policy Roundtables in Lahore and Karachi

— 15 minutes reading time

On 20 April 2024, the Strong Cities Network held Policy Roundtables in two of Pakistan’s urban centres, Lahore and Karachi. The roundtables convened 35 participants, including youth peacebuilders, provincial- and municipal government representatives and local civil society leaders to promote dialogue between young people and local policy makers. The roundtables, led by Strong Cities’ South Asia Regional Hub and organised in partnership with HIVE Pakistan, aimed to establish a mutual understanding of youth priorities and explore shared solutions for supporting youth-leadership in fostering social cohesion

The roundtables were a crucial component of Strong Cities’ two-year Youth Leadership Fellowship in Pakistan, which has supported six teams of young peacebuilders (Youth Fellows) as they work within their communities to engage their peers in promoting peace and social cohesion. To ensure the Fellowship makes a sustainable contribution to peacebuilding in Lahore and Karachi, Strong Cities has worked closely with local leaders and community-based organisations to root these young people’s initiatives in the rich tapestry of locally-led efforts. Local government plays a critical role in this and the Fellowship’s work to build bridges between policy-makers and young activists; an important contribution towards a whole-of-society approach in Pakistan that is mindful of and addressing young people’s needs and priorities. The Fellowship builds on five years of work supporting youth engagement in Pakistan through Strong Cities’ youth pillar, Young Cities.

The roundtables began with presentations by the Youth Fellows to introduce policy-makers to the innovative projects they have developed to address drivers of religious and ethnic discrimination, mis/disinformation, political exclusion, a lack of digital literacy and youth civic engagement opportunities. This was followed by a discussion on the key policy challenges identified in each city and avenues for addressing these issues collaboratively with local representatives, civil society leaders and youth peacebuilders. The meetings concluded with a commitment ceremony and the signing of a Joint Declaration in each city by all participants to encourage collaborative and sustainable youth-government efforts and the advancement of youth inclusion in policy-making processes – central components of a whole of society approach to enhancing social cohesion and mitigating the challenges of hate, extremism and polarisation in cities.

The Policy Roundtables addressed three key themes:

There is an urgent need to empower local governments (despite complexities posed by jurisdictional limitations), clarify their roles and responsibilities in relation to provincial and federal actors, and equip them with effective funding mechanisms.Such efforts at the local level have the potential to build a foundation for more robust civic education and awareness in communities, and avenues for young people to better engage in local political processes through student union representation and other forums. Cross-sectoral and societal consultations by government agencies and departments were also endorsed as key to inclusive policy-making processes.

Several opportunities are available to strengthen implementation mechanisms for key public services to ensure they are accessible and provide high-quality support across different social groups. Specific focus was given to improving education, healthcare and public recreational spaces that contribute to local ownership, well-being and resilience within cities. Notably, reviewing budget allocations, supporting multistakeholder approaches, exploring public-private partnerships and employing data-driven policy-making practices were identified as potential solutions. There was also recognition of the need to revisit and strengthen existing mechanisms and tools developed by government agencies.

Providing targeted support to groups experiencing discrimination and exclusion requires strengthening coordination, implementation processes and amendments to key legislation, including the Domestic Violence Act and the Sindh Child Marriage Act. Concerted efforts are also needed to empower and protect women and other gender minorities. The District Women Protection Committee in Karachi can be explored as a good institutional practice in this regard.

Threats & Key Challenges

In preparation for the policy roundtables, the Youth Fellows from each city worked with the Strong Cities South Asia Regional Hub to identify key challenges impacting their communities and opportunities for fostering collaborative solutions with government stakeholders in their cities. A summary of these policy priorities and recommendations were shared with government and civil society stakeholders in Lahore and Karachi ahead of the roundtables to help inform and guide the facilitated discussions.

In Lahore, there was particular focus on the need for greater inclusivity in political processes and civic engagement. Opportunities identified included ensuring more diverse representation and participation within policy processes, encouraging youth leadership and using technology to promote social inclusion. Emphasis was also placed on the need to consider and incorporate gender equality across policy issues to ensure social equity and inclusive growth in communities. Targeted initiatives to empower marginalised gender groups are also needed, as their exclusion directly contributes to weakened social structures, stigmatisation and misinformation in cities.

There was also broad base consensus across the cities on the need to improve educational, vocational and healthcare initiatives to overcome challenges directly impacting communities’ well-being and their ability to contribute to social cohesion efforts. In both cities, several challenges related to education were put on the agenda, including enhancing: access to quality education, particularly among minority groups; curriculum reforms that include timely global challenges such as climate change; tailored mentorship opportunities for vulnerable young people; and evaluation processes for educational institutions. There was also a particular focus on improving access to quality healthcare and reliable information across social groups and building public awareness around mental health and sexual and reproductive health initiatives to support positive relationships across genders and generations.

Notably, in Karachi, there was also an emphasis on addressing community safety, crime prevention and trust across community and government stakeholders. This included supporting laws that protect democratic institutions, government transparency and anti-corruption, as well as investing in efforts to increase coordination between government agencies and community initiatives focused on the root causes of violence. Protecting vulnerable groups, such as religious minorities, human rights defenders, the transgender community and women, was also highlighted, given the city’s highly diverse landscape and history. Finally, young people highlighted the need to foster a greater sense of local ownership and community well-being in Karachi through investing in public recreational spaces and addressing climate change and sustainability challenges at the community level.

Key Themes

The roundtables in each city revealed that improving local governance systems, public awareness of civic processes and inclusive approaches to political participation is a shared priority. Notably, exchanges between youth and government stakeholders highlighted that cities are navigating complex challenges around jurisdiction and specific policy reforms are needed to empower local governments.

For example, Youth Fellow Anzal Abbas,Team Lead, Bagh-e-Sakina, posed an important question: “Whenever we talk about making any developments in Karachi, we are often told to talk to the relevant person or relevant department. However, when we find the relevant person, we are often met with ‘my authority ends right after this street’. How can we fix the issue of administrative division and how can a common Karachiite learn who is responsible for different tasks?” Ali Khursheedi, Opposition Leader, Sindh Assembly, responded by highlighting that Karachi’s mayor does not have jurisdiction over 67% of the city that is governed by 13 other local agencies. While efforts have been made by previous national government administrations to promote decentralisation and provincial autonomy, “there has not been any robust legislation to empower the local bodies”, clarify their local jurisdictions or fund their operations.

To this end, participants discussed the need for constitutional amendments to outline the authority and responsibilities of local government representatives, specify processes for transferring allotted local government funds at the provincial level to municipal bodies, and empower the mayor to oversee and manage the city’s financial authority.

On the topic of funding, participants discussed opportunities to leverage public-private partnerships that allocate support for social initiatives. Mushoud Ali, Roundtable Facilitator, added that local governments could generate funds independently. This approach was supported by some government stakeholders, while others noted that divisions influenced by party politics could undermine such efforts.

In Lahore, Youth Fellow Noshaba Sattar, Team Lead, Diverse Democracy Initiative, highlighted the need to empower young people in decision-making processes, adding that political inclusivity can be strengthened by supporting young peoples’ representation through student unions. Policy-makers agreed that supporting student unions is a starting point, but it is crucial to assess the structure, mandate and values of these institutions for them to be effective. A partnership between academics and student unions was discussed as a potential way forward to build support for and revitalise these platforms.    

Policy-makers in Lahore also called for the active involvement of youth-led organisations in policy-making processes to enhance advocacy and awareness in communities. It was acknowledged that effective policy-making requires cross-sectoral input and consultations, and a three-pillar approach – that includes government, civil society organisations and community actors – is needed for effective policy advocacy and implementation. Participants discussed one such example, the development of a citizen’s portal to gather policy recommendations from the public, which representatives from across different government departments can monitor for relevant and useful input.

As a citizen and experienced expert in this field, I would recommend lifting the ban on student unions. If a student can vote outside the university, then why can they not be part of student union or active in politics?  

Iqbal Butt, Program Advisor, Bargad Organization for Youth Development

The Youth Fellows in both cities emphasised the need to strengthen the quality of and access to essential public service provisions, including education, healthcare and community recreational spaces. The roundtable discussions highlighted that any solution in this area would require addressing policy implementation challenges in cities. This was a core topic of discussion in both Lahore and Karachi, given these services directly impact communities’ ability to contribute to social cohesion efforts.

In Lahore, Youth Fellow Shoaib Raza, Team Lead, Naeemian Squad, who studied in the madrassa system and organises community initiatives to foster tolerance and digital literacy among madrassa students, outlined that greater awareness is needed among the Higher Education Commission’s offices and recruiters to recognise educational degrees from all institutions. This includes madrassas, which often attract lower-income, religiously conservative and marginalised students. Participants discussed opportunities for granting access to Muslim scholars who serve in parliament and within advisory and steering committees to various decision-making platforms that can support this.

Necessary educational reforms were also discussed, including the need for increased budget allocation to improve educational infrastructure, greater vocational training opportunities, teacher upskilling and curriculum reforms that incorporate core subjects such as climate change and gender equality. Policy-makers in Lahore acknowledged the need for updating curricula but highlighted inter-departmental coordination challenges. It was agreed that a comprehensive approach was needed to address challenges such as education on climate change, including policies such as demarcating structural and housing limits and distributing responsibilities among civil society, government and community actors to bolster public awareness efforts.

Policy-makers also underscored the government’s role in investing in necessary tools and financial structures to support educational policy implementation. For example, Salma Butt, Member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly, noted that “research can be a task for academia or students, but we as government should invest in it [too]. How can we implement any project if we do not have data for it? For this reason, the new Punjab government is going to open a Department of Data Collection, which will develop a real-time database to improve our policies and implementation.” 

Muhammad Yousuf, Director of the Human Rights & Minority Affairs Department, Punjab Government, added the need to increase the education budget, which currently sits at 15.8% of the provincial budget, and advocated for the preparation of a concept note with research on educational reforms to be shared with relevant government departments.

Additionally, participants in both cities discussed the need to prioritise inclusive healthcare initiatives and improved public recreational spaces, particularly for marginalised communities facing higher levels of poverty, crime and unemployment. In Lahore, policy-makers acknowledged the need for rural healthcare incentives and reproductive health education. They noted that while efforts were made in the past to develop helplines for mental health support, these resources need improved functionality and better mitigation strategies to address misuse by small segments of the community.

Regarding public spaces, Youth Fellow Naila Naz, Mehrdar Art & Production, raised challenges faced in Lyari, one of Karachi’s district’s known for high levels of political violence and crime. She noted that “Lyari lacks community spaces. How can we create community spaces that can be utilised by the general public who wish to organise dialogues or community events?” Muhammad Mohib Raees, Chairman, Lyari Town, Union Council 12, acknowledged that many community groups are facing pressure to vacate shared public spaces, however, some positive steps are being taken, particularly through public-private partnerships – an avenue alsosupported by Muhammad Yousuf in Lahore. For example, last year, Lyari’s Kakri ground was renovated by the World Bank and Sindh government, and there are other ongoing efforts to construct vocational centres that can host youth programmes. Raees also underscored that greater collaboration is needed among the multitude of non-governmental organisations in Lyari to avoid the duplication of or competition between efforts – a good practice that could benefit both cities’ diverse civil society sectors.

The new draft of the Youth Policy is in progress and this discussion, and the recommendations provided, are very helpful for us. I want to assure you that we will be inviting those present here to a conference where the draft policy will be discussed this year, so that a healthy discussion could be had.

Nadeem Anjum, Director, Department of Youth Affairs and Sports, Punjab Government

Promoting community safety and providing targeted support to groups experiencing discrimination and exclusion was another key theme. These challenges were highlighted by the Youth Fellows in both cities who, through their community efforts, are exploring how different structural challenges contribute to divisions and mistrust between social groups and between government actors and communities.

In Karachi, a significant portion of the discussion focused on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, with Youth Fellow Muhammad Usman, Speak Karachi, noting that while “the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act was enacted in 2013 in Sindh, the first information report (FIR) for domestic violence was only logged in 2020. How can we increase awareness among communities about this Act?” Iqbal Detho, Chairperson, Human Rights Commission, shared challenges in the documentation process of this system and advocated for amendments to laws such as the 1961 Muslim Family Law to better support victims. He also stressed the importance of awareness, coordination and effective Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for women’s protection at the district level. 

Participants also explored opportunities for improving protections for vulnerable groups, such as through the enforcement of the Sindh Child Marriage Act and discussed insights on its hierarchical structure and compliance mechanisms with domestic laws. Participants discussed other tools for fostering community safety as well, including using community centres as safe and accessible spaces for mediation and conflict resolution.

In Lahore, the Youth Fellows emphasised the need to empower marginalised gender groups, as their exclusion and targeting directly contributes to community divisions in the city. During the Karachi roundtable, the establishment of the District Women Protection Committee was identified as a good practice on this issue. This forum demonstrates the government’s commitment to addressing socio-economic disparities and ensuring women’s participation in decision-making processes, as it institutionalises a committee with a dedicated Chairperson and nine members focused on championing women’s causes and promoting gender equality at the local level.Institutional mechanisms were noted as key to advancing women’s empowerment, safety and well-being.

Prioritising women’s safety demands acknowledging systemic factors and requires collaborative efforts between government agencies, civil society and community leaders. By challenging the status quo, we can work towards creating a safer city for all.

Aiman Nouman, Youth Fellow, Bagh e Sakina

The roundtables in Lahore and Karachi were the first policy-focused, youth-government exchanges hosted by Strong Cities in Pakistan. They mark a pivotal step for Strong Cities’ engagement in the country and broader region, paving the way for greater youth-city engagement facilitated by its South Asia Regional Hub and opportunities for cities to benefit from Young Cities’ nine years of youth engagement expertise globally.

During the roundtables, participants all signed a Joint Declaration endorsing a commitment to advancing greater youth inclusion in government efforts and engaging in collaborative community initiatives. Stakeholders in both cities have been encouraged to share actions they take to implement this declaration with Strong Cities to build on good practice in this area.

There have already been promising developments following the events, with a representative from the Sindh Assembly connecting with the Youth Fellows in Karachi to discuss future collaborations. Strong Cities will continue to support and facilitate such connections to deepen meaningful youth-government engagement that fosters resilient communities.

Strong Cities will continue to support 29 Youth Fellows across Karachi and Lahore through the Youth Leadership Fellowship. Since 2022, the Fellowship has provided training, funding and support to the Youth Fellows to deliver six youth-led social action initiatives in their communities to address hate, extremism and polarisation, and establish connections with community leaders, including local policy makers, to ensure their efforts support the wider ecosystem present in their cities and across Pakistan. Strong Cities will continue to work with the Youth Fellows’ to increase understanding of policy-making and community engagement through a Future Ambassadors Training and Youth-Policy City Exchange and Showcase between 30 June – 1 July 2024. Both events will be convened in Islamabad, Pakistan, bringing together Youth Fellows from both cities with select local and national representatives, civil society leaders and international stakeholders. This will be a key opportunity to build local sustainability and for a range of stakeholders to meet with active young people and explore youth priorities, approaches and activities.

For more information on this event and the Strong Cities’ Young Cities programme, please contact Kelsey Bjornsgaard (Director of Practice, Strong Cities Network) at [email protected].