It was exactly four years ago, on 11 April 2018, when a young Bangladeshi posted on Facebook asking a simple question: is it possible to set up a small group of young men and women to discuss policy issues relevant to Bangladesh?
That young man was Abir Hasan, then in his late twenties. Born and raised in Gazipur, Abir had received university education at top universities in Bangladesh before proceeding to Oxford to do a Master's in Public Policy. At Oxford's famed Blavatnik School of Government, he was taught by top notch professors, and stimulated by fellow students from across the globe, some of whom were already experienced in policy work.
He came to appreciate the importance of public policy, how a single act of government policy can change the lives of millions of people. The change can be enormously positive if policies are well conceived and properly implemented.
As he learned about the power of policy in the city of the dreaming spires, the name that the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold had fondly given to Oxford, Abir had dreams of his own. He wanted young Bangladeshis to appreciate the importance of public policy and to understand the intricacies of policymaking.
Fast forward four years. That message catalysed the formation of the Youth Policy Forum (YPF), a network of young Bangladeshis (and some non-Bangladeshis too) interested in learning about policy and how to leverage policy tools to shape Bangladesh's future.
With around 12,000 members and more than 31,000 followers on Facebook, YPF has emerged as an astoundingly vibrant group of young people scattered all over Bangladesh (and some abroad) energised by its motto "People, Policy, Progress". Policy should be for the people, and for their progress.
While most members of YPF are young, the Forum has attracted people of other generations too. I got involved about three years ago and have watched with admiration how the network has expanded since then.
But I am not the only one. YPF's Honorary Fellows include Professor Nurul Islam, the doyen of Bangladeshi economists and the first Deputy Chairman of Bangladesh's Planning Commission, Dr Hameeda Hossain, human rights activist and founder of Ain o Salish Kendra, Dr Mashiur Rahman, Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister, and Dr Mohammad Tareque, former Finance Secretary.
A nine-member advisory panel, of which I am a member, guides its work, while a large group of network advisers, senior fellows and fellows serve as mentors for the different thematic networks that the YPF has set up.
These thematic networks are the heart and soul of YPF. Young men and women interested in policy work may join one or more of these networks. If you are interested in climate change or environmental protection, you may join the Environment Network.
If your mind is exercised by the big geopolitical questions of the day, the Foreign Policy Network may interest you. There are networks where YPF members are debating and discussing issues related to education, health care, infrastructure and energy, economic growth and jobs.
If your interest is in gender and inclusion, you may think about contributing to the network devoted to these issues. If your concern is about bringing policy to the grassroots, the Grassroots Network may stimulate you.
The most visible part of YPF's activities are the spontaneous discussions and debates on its Facebook platforms which anyone can participate in, and the more structured discussions on various topics, most of which are broadcasted live with the recordings available for future viewing.
YPF's interest is not confined to discussions and debates only. Its members are interested in action and some of its most exciting, and potentially far-reaching, works are action oriented.
One of the most noteworthy projects of YPF is the Local Development Institutions where groups of YPF members are working at the grassroots. The groups go to villages, where they talk to the common people about their concerns and aspirations, and what could be done to address the issues and fulfil the aspirations. They are guided in this work by mentors experienced in fieldworks, focus 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 stand a good chance of being implemented. The first such exercise was catalysed by a member of parliament who wanted to get honest feedback on the issues his constituents were facing. This pioneering initiative by an MP has had a demonstration effect as more MPs have come up with requests for similar local development initiatives in their respective constituencies.
YPF's links with politicians and policy makers do not end there. Through a Governance Apprenticeship program, YPF members are doing relevant research for MPs, and in the process, not only helping to make the parliamentarians' work more evidence-based but also learning first-hand about the work of the parliament.
The Minister of Planning has requested YPF to make summaries of the voluminous Five-Year Plan and 2041 Vision documents to make these easily digestible for parliamentarians. YPF is also actively working with a number of parliamentarians on pressing matters related to climate change. In addition, by engaging with opposition politicians and providing them with policy research support, YPF is successfully cultivating bipartisan involvement in policy making – something considered rare in Bangladesh.
YPF understands that civil servants are key to good policy design and effective policy implementation. As such, the Forum has set up a network of civil servants through which it will expose civil servants to cutting-edge thinking while also creating an opportunity for the policy-minded youth of Bangladesh to learn directly from the practitioners.
YPF is ambitious and in the short period of its existence, the Forum has made important strides in all these fronts and has attracted the attention of important organisations eager to partner with it. This includes the UNDP which is supporting YPF's Local Development Institutions, and the British High Commission which is supporting the work on the Commonwealth.
Recognising the importance of media to policy work, YPF has forged partnerships with the media, which regularly reports on its events. A particularly encouraging development is the series of well-written and fact-based opinion pieces published in Bangladeshi newspapers by the young writers of YPF.
The very fast expansion of the network must have come as a surprise to Abir, and the small group of intrepid friends who responded to his initial call four years ago. It surprised me too. But, on reflection, perhaps I should not be so. The remarkable growth of YPF has demonstrated what we should all recognize, i.e., at the end of the day, the most valuable asset of a country is its youth. Young men and women are creative, dedicated, passionate and know how to leverage technology. When they organise, armed with these talents, they can, at the blink of an eye, turn small groups into huge networks, bold ideas into concrete actions, and dreams into realities.
The genius of the YPF leadership is that it has created an organisation that is decentralised, while adhering to certain common principles. It has provided the flexibility and autonomy to groups within YPF to identify topics of interest and run with them while maintaining some organisational discipline and coherence.
I mentioned earlier YPF's work 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 related implementation progress indicators. YPF is focused on results. Thus, going forward, YPF will set up mechanisms to monitor these indicators and report the results of such monitoring.
We often say the youth are the future of the country. But YPF has gone beyond that. While it started off with the intention of preparing the youth of 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 city of the dreaming spires to do his doctorate, must be marvelling at the transformative power of a short Facebook post from four years ago!
Syed Akhtar Mahmood is an economist who previously worked for an international development organisation.
Disclaimer: 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.