Pakistan Observer

Education emergency in Pakistan

Aliya Anjum

Thursday, April 07, 2011 - Pakistan has misplaced priorities when it comes to sacred cows. The blasphemy law is a sacred cow but the national educational policy is subject to whims and fancies of each ruling government. The 18th amendment received presidential assent on 18th April 2010 and now education is officially a fundamental right of all citizens below the age of 16. Pakistan’s Education task force a partnership between government officials and civil society has declared an education emergency and launched a social media campaign.

As of this writing 117,444 people had joined their Facebook page and the 200,000 petitions being aimed for, in their own website have more than 170,000 petitioners. Twitter uses SMS to relay messages and given Pakistan’s tele-density it is an effective community engagement tool. However, the service is only available for Mobilink users in Pakistan. Additionally, the messages of the Education Emergency initiatives are in English so the SMS impact too is likely to be minimal. Interestingly this major campaign only asks people to sign a petition or call a representative and join a march. The social media momentum gained during the first few days through Facebook slowly waned as there was no tangible cause to rally around. The website engages the community by asking them to run their own awareness event on educational emergency. That is about it. There seems to be no clearly defined mission or goals of this hyped up campaign. Community engagement through facebook and twitter alone is hardly more than a feel-good experience for a few. The globalised Pakistani youth of today is energetic and charged for change. However, all initiatives are hollow and there is no path defined to channel national youth energy. Primary education is already in dire straits when 25 million children are not attending school.

To add to it the current government has struck a blow to higher education. The Higher Education (HEC) under Dr Atta-ur-Rehman’s had made impressive contributions to develop professional talent in Pakistan. His moves mirrored those of Nehru in India circa 1951, whose wave India has ridden high ever since 1990’s. In Pakistan we were five decades late and even then we have no unity of vision as the current government undid the initiatives of previous government-unmindful of long term economic impact. The HEC is now under threat of being dismantled and its agenda handed over to provincial governments.

This would perhaps be a blow to our socio-economic growth at par with the devastation wreaked during the Zia’s regime. When higher education suffers we would see the impact in a decade manifested in poor quality doctors, engineers, professors and managerial professionals who make the backbone of the country. This move is however being fought and hopefully would be thwarted. There are reports submitted by the Education Emergency website. Gleaning these reports they refer to the IMF induced dilemma of social sectors reform which essentially mean lower government spending, the Washington Consensus which promotes corporate interests at the expense of the world’s poorest, the political economy which boils down to nepotism coupled with greed and finally budgetary constraints which arise when public funds are channeled to private accounts of politicians, beauraucrats and generals. These reports full of technical terms are prepared by experts and somehow experts excel as economic scribes but never as economic doctors. Such reports in a nutshell relate that the problems are just too many and too complex to be solved. As Pakistanis live suffering from the elephant in the room syndrome, a former mountaineer named Greg Mortenson from the United States is single handedly achieving miracles.

He got lost in the formidable mountain range of the Karakoram in 1993 during an unsuccessful bid to climb the K-2. His life was saved by destitute village dwellers of Korphe. Having no funds, no special skills he made a promise to a little girl that he would build them a school. Upon his return to US to keep his promise to a poor little girl he asked a Pakistani origin shopkeeper to teach him computer usage. Then he typed endless letters from an old type writer to corporations asking for funds. In the end his persistence bore fruit when an old ailing wealthy mountaineer offered funds for the first school establishing the Central Asia Institute (CAI) which has in 17 years come a long way to build 145 schools and has educated 64,000 children in Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan where the terrain bordersTajikistan and China-in the heart of the world’s most volatile militant territory. Mortenson’s CAI raises 91% funds from individuals in United States so he is not beholden to corporate agendas.

Greg did not share our language or culture or religion. He did not achieve a top university education imbibing terms such as social responsibility, community engagement, stakeholders, spillover effects, quantifiable goodwill, sustainability, geo-politics and glocalisation. Mortenson’s learning curve worked automatically. He is now teaching us how to create, manage and operate an enterprise that deserves the most prestigious award known in management parlance as the “Quality Award.” Mortenson was awarded a Sitara Pakistan announced by Musharraf but conferred by Zardari yet his work remains little known in Pakistan. He has been iconoclastic in a region where our Muslim leaders despair of archaic tribal custom and militancy in the face of new players of the old great game. He has won the hearts and minds in the most militant and rigid tribal codes and created an educational miracle that extends to public health involving the most oppressed members of society namely women.

If the Pakistan Education Task Force was serious about change it would have studied the work of Greg Mortenson’s CAI and Pakistan’s own indigenous The Citizens Foundation and then set benchmarks and outlined best practices to chalk out a plan. A social media campaign would have then focused on mass appeal through a local version of Twitter that enlisted all telecom providers. The energized youth would have whole heartedly devoted time and resources to a noble cause. Remote access learning programs are already been effectively employed in many countries and even the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and other development organizations strongly advocate their usage. Even within the current dismal 2.1% of GDP devoted to education, directing more money to ICT based education programs can significantly address the education emergency. Pakistan Education Task Force has failed to plan and is thus planning to fail.
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