Education is often considered the yardstick of a country’s progress and is one of several indicators used to gauge a developing country’s measure of progress. However, for Pakistan, a key regional player, this is unfortunately not the case. Where industry, GDP and per capita income are often cited as indicators of growth, education is given the cold shoulder. This is an issue that Pakistan, and the international community at large, can not afford to ignore as Pakistan is at the forefront of the War on Terror and shares one of the most volatile borders in the region. It’s premature scholastic demise is bound to tear at its fragile system and slowly bring it to its knees. Continually ostracizing education from the national agenda in this manner will only aggravate these under lying issues that Pakistan is attempting to address with its active role against its home grown militants and the war on terror. The spill over effect of this unwillingness to address a fundamental problem is bound to spread beyond just Pakistan’s borders and is poised to affect the socioeconomic peace and stability of many regional stake holders. A fact check should help bring the magnitude of the issue at hand into focus.

Pakistan is currently embroiled in the War on Terror on its home front and faces increasing unrest in many key regions of the country where militancy has slowly started to take root. While militia outfits were previously limited to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the western Balochistan regions, they have now started to spread their influence to other parts of the country as well, namely southern Punjab, interior Sindh, central Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and parts of Gilgit-Baltisitan. The common denominator that all these disparate regions share is that, collectively, they are some of Pakistan’s most under developed areas, lacking even the most basic infrastructure facilities – including basic health care and effective primary education. As of December 26th, 2010 alone saw 53 suicide bombings; while most of these can be traced back to one of these regions, 37 of these attacks took place in the highly volatile Pashtun belt of FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – originating, again, from the under developed FATA region. The most alarming fact, at this point, is that not only is this number comparable to that of Iraq and Afghanistan, the effective strike rate and magnitude of these bombings are also similar to those of these war torn countries.
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A few more fact checks will help put things in perspective. As of 2010, Pakistan allocates approximately 2.9% of its annual GDP towards the education sector, putting it at the 153rd rank internationally from among 186 countries with published statistics – well below most developed and developing nations and above a few under developed countries. For comparison’s sake, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tonga and Swaziland all rank higher than Pakistan. However, this figure can really only be appreciated once we realize that education spending is concentrated in the secondary and post secondary education sectors in medium to large cities with considerable financial and social activity taking place – regions where literacy rates already hover between ~70-75%. This means that agrarian villages and the more remote areas with little to no infrastructure development beyond the basic water and electricity facilities – regions which actually require primary education facilities for societal progress – are relegated to the bottom rung of the priority list.

A better interpretation of the above information can be gleaned if we take note of the fact that Pakistan’s self reported literacy rate is 50% with a 36% female literacy rate and a 63% literacy rate among males – the second lowest after Afghanistan in the region. Another self reported statistic states that the average school life expectancy for Pakistani students, from primary to tertiary education, is 7 years: 8 years for males and 6 years for females, ignoring the individual literacy rates that is. The qualifying statistic of these values reports that while 60% of females and 72% of males are enrolled in primary education, only 60% of these students graduate. So, whereas 60% of the enrolled primary level students graduate, only 28% of these females and 37% of the males go on to continue secondary level education. Unfortunately, these are still not the most alarming statistics as the sample universe of these surveys is only children of school going age; the most alarming statistics actually state that out of a population of 176 million people, only 5% continue to pursue a tertiary level education. It should be noted here that despite such a small effective work force, shockingly, Pakistan still suffers from an unemployment rate of 14% as of 2009.

What is even more unfortunate is that the full impact of these statistics cannot be realized unless their effect on Pakistan’s societal and economic progress is not understood. Literacy, in these surveys, is defined as the ability to read and write for people 15 and over. It must be noted here that the yard stick for the ability to read and write is often relegated to being able to construct and comprehend simple written expressions in Urdu and bear no meaning, whatsoever, on the level of skills or the quality of education being imparted. An accurate idea of these can be had from the fact that a large majority of these schools, especially primary and secondary schools, lack the basic education facilities of books, stationary, classrooms, black boards and furniture so much so that the reported student to teacher ratio of the entire education system, including chartered universities, is 41. Here, it can be deduced, to a certain degree of accuracy, that while a sizable percentage of the school going population receives at least primary education, the quality of this education is poor and few, if any, vocational skills are developed as a result. Consequently, only the small 5% reported enrolled University students and a very small percentage of the population with up to a secondary level of education continue to become a productive and a progressive part of the work force that can further assist the Pakistani economy to make the shift from an agrarian to a manufacturing and, eventually, services based industry.

It must be noted here that a driving motive behind Pakistan’s war against extremism is to root out the regressive societal values that are taking hold in the rural and under developed regions of the country. However, the underlying cause behind this increasingly disturbing social behavior – i.e. the lack of basic education – is constantly being ignored. Unless the masses are encouraged to actively pursue at least a primary level of education, this cannot change. The war might root out the fundamentalist core, but the change in ideology that needs to be brought out to prevent such activism from surfacing again cannot be accomplished unless a gainful education is not provided to the masses. This, at the moment, is the biggest challenge that Pakistan, as a nation, faces. If the bare minimum of Primary education is provided to the lower echelons of the Pakistani population, 24% of a total of which are below the poverty line with a large borderline percentage, these people can gain access to information that they would otherwise be kept from – their reliance on central figures of authority for directional information, the major reason for the continually regressive social values, can be broken. It is pivotal to break this link as continued reliance on this phenomenon, not very dissimilar from the system that has been in place in Afghanistan and many key conflict regions in Africa like Sudan, if Pakistan is to break out of the alternating cycle of social and economic rebuilding and disintegration.

At this point, it is important to realize that whereas countries with similar economic and social histories like China and India are successfully making the shift from agriculture based economies to manufacturing and services based industries, Pakistan’s continued failure to do so has resulted in considerable social and economic deterioration. The main reason behind this, besides failure to formulate key economic and industrial policies, has been Pakistan’s inability to produce both an effective work force and a conducive environment with viable opportunities for said work force, resulting in educational deteriorating standards and an unfortunate brain drain. The fact that the standard of public education, the only form of education accessible to the masses, has continued to deteriorate over the years has only strengthened the perception among these target audience that the years spent within the education system do not contribute towards a gainful employment. As a result, instead of educating at least two or three out of the 7 or 8 members of a house hold, all members contribute to the active income of the family from the earliest age, the minimum 6 years that Primary education requires is seen as lost potential income. This mind set needs to be changed if the literacy rate is to be raised and a productive work force is to be formed; unless this is done, Pakistan can not move beyond the stagnant agrarian economy which it has become synonymous with. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Pakistan is considered a developing country and is a key global player, it shares these features economic and social features with the under developed, struggling and conflict ridden economies of the world, including some of the least developed African nations.

Changing this bleak outlook is going to require a considerable investment on the Government’s part as social, educational and infrastructure reforms will need to be brought about and a significant reallocation of the fiscal budget will need to be directed towards this cause. Regrettably, Pakistan cannot adopt a foreign model for this restructuring as its social and economic condition is unique to itself and the colonial model that has been a leftover from the British rule is not only inefficient but is also highly unsuitable to today’s unique conditions. It is imperative that the proper infrastructure and the conducive environment required to realize such progress is provided before any tangible gains can be seen. To this end, short and long term policies need to be formulated from the ground up to address these grass root level short comings while maintaining a realistic perspective on the current sociopolitical set up. The challenge at this point in time is not only formulating a social framework for developing the requisite infrastructure but also its implementation under the prevalent hostile conditions.

Consequently, the route that the Government needs to adopt towards achieving these goals is one with a two pronged strategy where it simultaneously addresses the trust issues that have developed in the lower strata of the society and successfully lays the infrastructure necessary to provide a quality Primary and Secondary education. The first step towards achieving these goals is to emphasize the necessity of a basic education to the masses. Since this is the biggest existing trust deficit among the less privileged with respect to education, it needs to be tackled on a priority basis, especially in the less developed regions of the country. Whereas in southern Punjab the emphasis needs to be that a basic education can provide a better means, in the form of providing technical and vocational skills, to a gainful employment, in the FATA region the emphasis needs to be on the fact that even a primary level of education brings about a substantial improvement in the quality of life in the form of better accessibility to information, ease of integration into other regional social set ups and increased independence of thought. To ensure that Primary and Secondary education is viewed in a favorable light in these socially and economically remote regions, the Government needs to step beyond just this mere rhetoric and convince these people by effective utilization of resources to help these people realize a real world scenario where even such a basic level of education helps them to progress vertically in society.

Unfortunately, this can only be done with a concerted effort on the Government’s part with a significantly higher allocation of the fiscal budget towards education to successfully mobilize the necessary resources to realize such ambitious goals. It is important, for instance, that Primary educational facilities that provide technical and vocational skills alongside a basic education course should be set up in regions adjacent to cities like Bahawalpur, Sukkur and D.G Khan. It is also very important that appropriate job opportunities are created alongside these educational facilities to underscore the significance of the technical and educational skills being imparted at such institutes. Similarly, it is very important that in addition to setting up effective Primary and Secondary educational facilities in the region, FATA is also integrated into the rest of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province on an equal opportunity basis. Unless this is done, the people of FATA will not be able to realize any tangible gains from a Primary, and then later a Secondary, education as the current tribal system, under which the region is run does not benefit from education; however, the KP province, where employment opportunities and social standing have a direct statistical correlation with the level of education received, highlights its importance manifold.

The implementation of such aggressive proposals require that extensive infrastructure be laid down before any measurable progress can be recorded. This infrastructure requirement goes beyond just the conventional, yet still lacking, facilities of furniture, stationary, books and appropriate buildings. It calls for

  • extensive teacher training programs
  • detailed course revisions
  • salary revisions for such schools to provide due incentive for external participation
  • sustained awareness programs under a continued community involvement policy
  • the setting up of small cottage industries in these regions with significant direct market access
  • a transparent and efficient system to carry all of this out.

Unfortunately, for Pakistan – a struggling economy- this means extensive capital and labor investment in these currently economically non-contributive regions, especially in the education and services sectors – long considered Pakistan’s traditional weak points. Fortunately, for Pakistan, this ensures development in key social sectors traditionally considered the weak links towards its path to progress. This means that where implementing these ambitious measures will require a significant financial and social contribution from the Government and the community, it will result in significant long term progress for the region and the country. Consequently, sincerely pursuing a twenty year plan towards the social and economic uplift of these regions will not only result in an improved literacy rate, it will also result in a more productive and active work force. This process will create gainful employment opportunities and encourage the growth of SMEs and new industries in these under developed regions – providing the required economic stimulus to such economically stagnant areas to turn them into socially and economically independent units that contribute towards the country’s economy.

Therefore, whereas the initial goal of such an aggressive and ambitious strategy would be education outreach to regions where it has low accessibility, the means to the end ensure that, regardless of the route taken to address the problem, significant benefits can be had from just attempting to formulate and implement such policies. A strong statistical correlation between the education and poverty levels has already been established above, increased education and the implementation of aggressive education policies should, at the very least, lower the poverty levels in the country whilst creating both greater employment opportunities and a more able work force. Consequently, with lesser people below the poverty line and reduced unemployment, accessibility to Secondary and Higher education should automatically rise as per capita income rises and reliance on all members of the household to earn gradually falls. This should have a slow but pronounced effect on the social set up in these regions where education is currently viewed as an extravagance instead of a necessity as, with time, education will come to be viewed as a useful tool towards social progress. In such regions, like central Balochistan and Interior Sindh, this is a prerequisite if social reform is to be brought about as a majority of the households in this region comprise of low income families. Once these communities are put on an equal social and economic footing with the rest of the country, the change in mind set that is required to help these communities integrate into the rest of the social fabric will automatically follow. It is important to realize that a notable reason behind the civil and social unrest, resulting in the socially regressive values that are taking hold in these under developed areas, is the discriminating lack of social and economic attention that these areas have received over the past few decades. The infrastructure required for education outreach to take place in these areas is a key factor in their social and economic uplift; it is the missing catalyst that can mobilize these communities to actively pursue both education and economic and social progress.

While the above stated analyses also applies to FATA, it is important to note that FATA’s case, as the region at the crux of Pakistan’s war against terrorism, is different from that of the other under developed areas in the country; its conditions are unique only to itself. Due to this, the policies devised for the social and economic uplift of the other key under developed regions will need to be altered and adapted to FATA’s conditions; the purpose behind this is to not only bring FATA at par with the rest of the country but to free it of the extremist strain and the fundamental mind set that have taken hold over it. Whereas this is only a budding seed in interior Sindh and Southern Punjab, it is a mature threat in the FATA. Consequently, special care needs to be taken to implement a socioeconomic policy that does not produce arresting results but instead, has subtle but significant effects on the social setup of the area. For this purpose, the Government should ensure that social and economic opportunities, like employment and scholarships, are provided to FATA’s candidates on a priority basis; it also needs to encourage increased social and economic interaction between FATA and its adjacent areas. Unless FATA is integrated into it’s surrounding communities, its role and identity as an indigenous body will continue to prevent any education outreach to take place, and consequently, prevent any social or economic uplift to take place as well.

It is important to realize that whereas education is vital to the social and economic growth of any key under developed region, Pakistan’s conditions do not allow for easy accessibility to this commodity uniformly across the country. While a concerted and sincere effort towards education outreach is bound to solve these problems, the infrastructure that needs to be laid down before any such mediums are utilized are also equally important. Pakistan’s case is unique only in that its problems have fast escalated beyond easily manageable levels due to prolonged apathy to the issues faced by these regions. On the world’s stage, Pakistan is a key player and with its uneducated masses left at the mercy of the religious factions, a potential time bomb ticking away until the time is ripe.

Unless pronounced efforts are made at this stage, Pakistan’s downward social and economic spiral is bound to catch up to it’s 7-9 economic and cultural capitals which have managed to stay a step ahead of these issues. Once this happens, the relative calm that these cities have been able to project will slowly give way to the real under lying issues infecting the social and economic setup of the country – only, by then it will have been too late to address them anymore.

As published on Future Challenges.