It was exactly four years ago, on April 11, 2018, when a young Bangladeshi man posted on Facebook asking a simple question: is it possible to create a small group of young men and women to discuss political issues concerning the Bangladesh?
This young man was Abir Hasan, then in his twenties. Born and raised in Gazipur, Abir received an academic education at top universities in Bangladesh before heading to Oxford to pursue a master’s degree in public policy. At Oxford’s renowned Blavatnik School of Government, he was educated by top-notch teachers and nurtured by other students from around the world, some of whom already had experience in political work.
He came to appreciate the importance of public policy, how a single act of government policy can change the lives of millions. Change can be hugely positive if policies are well designed and properly implemented.
As he discovered the power of politics in the City of Dreaming Spiers, the name Victorian poet Matthew Arnold had affectionately given to Oxford, Abir had dreams of his own. He wanted young Bangladeshis to appreciate the importance of public policy and understand the intricacies of policy-making.
Fast forward four years. This message catalyzed the formation of the Youth Policy Forum (YPF), a network of young Bangladeshis (and some non-Bangladeshis too) interested in learning more about politics and how to leverage policy tools to shape the future of Bangladesh.
With around 12,000 members and over 31,000 Facebook followers, YPF has grown into an incredibly vibrant group of young people scattered across Bangladesh (and some overseas) energized by its motto “People, Policy, Progress”. Politics should be for the people and for their progress.
While most YPF members are young, the Forum has also attracted people from other generations. I got involved about three years ago and have watched with awe how the network has grown since then.
But I’m not the only one. Honorary members of YPF include Prof. Nurul Islam, Dean of Bangladeshi Economists and First Deputy Chairman of the Bangladesh Planning Commission, Dr. Hameeda Hossain, Human Rights Activist and Founder of Ain o Salish Kendra, Dr Mashiur Rahman, economic advisor to the Prime Minister, and Dr Mohammad Tareque, former finance secretary.
A nine-member Advisory Board, of which I am a member, guides its work, while a large group of Network Advisors, Senior Fellows and Fellows serve as mentors for the various thematic networks that the YPF has set up.
These thematic networks are the heart and soul of YPF. Young men and women interested in political work can join one or more of these networks. If you are interested in climate change or environmental protection, you can join the Environment Network.
If your mind is exercised by the big geopolitical issues of the day, the Foreign Policy Network may be of interest to you. There are networks where YPF members debate and discuss issues related to education, healthcare, infrastructure and energy, economic growth and jobs.
If you are interested in gender and inclusion, you may consider contributing to the network dedicated to these issues. If your concern is to bring politics to the grassroots, the Grassroots Network can stimulate you.
The most visible part of YPF’s activities are the spontaneous discussions and debates on its Facebook platforms that anyone can participate in, and the more structured discussions on various topics, most of which are streamed live with the recordings available for viewing. future.
YPF’s interest is not limited to discussions and debates. Its members are interested in action, and some of its most exciting and potentially ambitious work is action-oriented.
One of YPF’s most notable projects is the Local Development Institutions where groups of YPF members work at the grassroots. The groups travel to the villages, where they talk to ordinary people about their concerns and aspirations, and what could be done to solve the problems and realize their aspirations. They are guided in this work by mentors experienced in fieldwork, group discussions and local development issues. The teams then discuss their findings and come up with concrete ideas on what can be done.
These ideas have a good chance of being implemented. The first such exercise was catalyzed by an MP who wanted honest feedback on the issues facing his constituents. This pioneering initiative by one MP had a demonstration effect as more MPs applied for similar local development initiatives in their respective constituencies.
YPF’s ties to politicians and policy makers don’t end there. Through a governance learning programme, YPF members carry out research relevant to MPs and, in doing so, contribute not only to making the work of parliamentarians more evidence-based, but also to learn first-hand about the work of parliament.
The Minister of Planning asked YPF to make summaries of the voluminous documents of the Five-Year Plan and Vision 2041 in order to make them easily assimilated by parliamentarians. YPF is also actively working with a number of parliamentarians on pressing climate change issues. Additionally, by engaging with opposition politicians and providing them with policy research support, YPF successfully cultivates bipartisan involvement in policy-making – which is considered rare in Bangladesh.
YPF understands that public servants are essential to good policy design and effective policy implementation. As such, the Forum has established a network of civil servants through which it will expose civil servants to cutting-edge thinking while creating an opportunity for Bangladesh’s political youth to learn directly from practitioners.
YPF is ambitious and in the short period of its existence, the Forum has made significant progress on all these fronts and has attracted the attention of important organizations wishing to partner with it. This includes UNDP supporting YPF local development institutions, and the British High Commission supporting Commonwealth work.
Recognizing the importance of the media to political work, YPF has forged partnerships with the media, which regularly report on its events. A particularly encouraging development is the series of well-written and factual opinion pieces published in Bangladeshi newspapers by YPF’s young writers.
The very rapid expansion of the network must have come as a surprise to Abir and the intrepid little group of friends who answered his first call four years ago. It surprised me too. But, on second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be. YPF’s remarkable growth has demonstrated what we should all recognize, which is that ultimately, a country’s most valuable asset is its youth. Young men and women are creative, dedicated, passionate and know how to take advantage of technology. When they organize themselves, armed with these talents, they can, in the blink of an eye, transform small groups into vast networks, bold ideas into concrete actions and dreams into realities.
The genius of the YPF management is to have created a decentralized organization, while respecting certain common principles. He provided the flexibility and autonomy to groups within YPF to identify topics of interest and track them while maintaining organizational discipline and consistency.
I mentioned earlier the work of YPF on identifying reform priorities derived from foundational documents such as the five-year plan and Vision 2041 documents. But the work does not stop with identifying reform priorities and corresponding implementation progress indicators. YPF is results-oriented. Thus, in the future, YPF will put in place mechanisms to monitor these indicators and report on the results of this monitoring.
It is often said that young people are the future of the country. But YPF went beyond that. While it started with the intention of preparing young people in Bangladesh to become future leaders, YPF has now become a force for change in the present too!
Abir Hasan, who has now returned to the Dreaming Spire City to do his PhD, must be amazed at the transformative power of a short Facebook post from four years ago!
Syed Akhtar Mahmoud is an economist who previously worked for an international development organization.
Warning: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.