Education as strategic imperative - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Thursday, March 17, 2011

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The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Pakistan is at a crossroads. Battered by a set of interlocked crises the country faces unprecedented challenges of governance, security, the economy and meeting the basic needs of an exploding population. In one direction lies prosperity and stability. In the other, a fate too frightening to contemplate.

No single issue, I believe, is more important for charting a path to a secure future for Pakistan than a transformation in the quality and coverage of the education we offer our children. Conversely, today’s education deficit – which is vast and, in comparison with our economic competitors, growing exponentially – is one of the key factors driving us towards an exceedingly bleak future.

It was not always this way, and it doesn’t have to be. In 1947, the All-Pakistan Education Conference warned that education would be critical to Pakistan’s viability as a state. Since then, none of our successive governments have chosen to make this a priority issue of utmost urgency. No leader had the vision to pursue a comprehensive set of reforms that would have given every Pakistani child the right to an education. The blame has to be shared among all – elected and military governments, and among parties that paid lip service to achieving literacy, but lacked the political commitment and failed to provide the financial resources to translate this slogan into reality.

Education should be at the heart of any government’s agenda. Human capital is the critical investment in a country’s future – a transformational resource that can change the destiny of our nation. An education system that delivered basic skills to young people – the ability to read and write – would be the lasting and most meaningful and enduring contribution of any leader to the country’s progress and well being. More than any other change, it would alter the future course of the country.

But the short-termism that has characterised almost every government’s approach has hobbled our country’s progress. This attitude afflicts almost all aspects of national life, but it has exacted its heaviest price in the education sector.

For much too long national security has been construed in narrow terms and almost entirely in its military dimensions. Our view of security shouldn’t just be confined to the physical protection of borders and to state security but extend to the lives of people inside and across the borders – to human security.

‘Soft’ threats to security may imperil human life and welfare as much as ‘hard’ security threats. The security of people and their ‘freedom from want and deprivation’ must be assured in addition to steps that ensure ‘freedom from fear.’

National security rests on factors beyond just military ones. Human security is not just about addressing dangers but also removing risks and vulnerabilities. With 25 million children (6 to 16 years of age) out of school in Pakistan today if this does not make for vulnerability what does? Unless the sources of future disadvantage and deprivation are resolved now they hold untold danger for the future stability and security of the country.

Education lies at the heart of almost all the challenges the country confronts. That is why it has to be treated as a strategic imperative, and not just a desirable social goal. It is the key that will unlock almost every problem – economic development, international competitiveness, social progress, countering extremism, promoting tolerance, and above all delivering on the social contract to the people.

Education must therefore be deemed as the foundation on which our country’s security rests. And the transformation of Pakistan’s education system has to be taken seriously by everyone – as an immediate goal, not a can to be kicked down the road.

On one level, the importance of education to economic competitiveness is obvious. It is acknowledged across the world even by countries which can afford to provide quality education to their young. “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow” said President Barack Obama recently.

But beyond the imperative to compete in the global economy Pakistan needs to achieve universal literacy for more compelling reasons.

Pakistan has a large and fast growing youthful population – a large youth bulge. A 2009 report called The Next Generation set out the demographic challenges we face. By 2030, Pakistan will have around 85 million additional citizens – a number greater than the entire population of Germany. These young people should be a vital resource. They should be an opportunity. Already they are pouring onto the job market at awesome speed. 36 million more jobs need to be created by the economy in the next ten years alone.

Find these young people work and Pakistan will be poised for an economic boom, but, as the 2009 report argues, this demographic dividend does not come for free. It has to be earned. “A country needs to educate its children and make sure they are healthy; find them jobs as they get older and give them chances to save; and offer them ways of expressing their desire for social and political change”.

The reverse side of a boom could be a doomsday scenario. Young populations if they face a jobless future can become a source of serious social instability. Youth bulges can often be volatile as the ongoing protests in the Middle East amply testify. Countries that have a high proportion of young people in the population are more than twice as likely to suffer civil conflict than those with older populations, while a high level of urbanisation, and competition for scarce resources such as land and water, further heightens the risk.

That the past twenty years have been ones of growing conflict and violence within Pakistan cannot of course be put down solely to demographic drivers. Many other factors have intervened. But the fact that we have an ill educated ‘lost generation’ should be a cause for serious concern and a spur for action. Without educating our children – all children – there is little chance of reversing the decline. The March for Education campaign is a good start, but we need to walk much further.

We need to understand and accept that education is a political, not a technical issue. Unless Pakistan’s leaders own up to their responsibility, nothing will change. Given that this is really a matter of national security, that is an unacceptable outcome.

A longer paper on the role of education in national security will be available at

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