Time for hard choices - Fasi Zaka - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=36349&Cat=9

Education isn’t discussed much in Pakistan, despite the human and economic cost of a crisis that blights the lives of tens of millions of our citizens and leaves the country performing far below its potential.

The media in Pakistan devote, optimistically speaking, a little over one percent of their time to covering education. Most of that coverage goes to Matric results, transfers, and corruption cases. Very little to substantive debate on the issues that matter. The education emergency is wreaking terrible damage on Pakistan, but it has seldom been newsworthy.

This month, the Pakistan Education Task Force has been changing that, ringing the alarm through its March for Education campaign. (Full disclosure: I am on secondment to the Task Force’s secretariat).

The campaign has been largely successful because of the goodwill of the media. The latter have shown a renewed willingness to identify solutions to Pakistan’s chronic problems.

So finally we have a debate. Across the media, we are discussing how to push education to the top of Pakistan’s crowded to-do list. But talk is not enough, especially when the conversation is started by a Task Force that draws more than half its members from the federal and provincial governments. Action needs to follow on from words.

Where do we go from here? First, we need all political parties to plot a way forward in education. This work has already been started. Back on February 5, 2008, 17 parties signed a Joint Declaration on Education for All, proclaiming their commitment to increase funding for education to four percent of the GDP.

They need to dust off that declaration and meet to work out how they can turn into reality the solemn promises they made that day. Each party should appoint one of its number to act as an education champion, and ask them to serve on a core political group dedicated to developing a cross-party response to the education emergency.

Second, it is time to hear directly from our most senior leaders. The president addresses a joint session of parliament next week. Much of his speech is likely to be taken up with the latest round of crises to hit Pakistan. But it is essential that he speaks forcefully about education, calling on political opponents to use the issue to surmount their partisan divisions.

Third, the federal government must stop seeing the18th Amendment as an excuse to drop the ball on education. The amendment wasn’t just about devolution. It also inserted Article 25a into the Constitution, guaranteeing the right to schooling for all up to the age of 16. This is a national responsibility, and its delivery is the responsibility of the federation, embodying all levels of government. The 18th Amendment Committee should therefore turn its attention to this subject.

I would also beseech the prime minister to start putting flesh on the bones of his plan, announced in December, to make 2011 a Year of Education. He should begin to develop a Compact for Education with other political parties. Its signing would be the centrepiece of the education year.

Fourth, and most importantly, I would invite chief ministers to share their plans for education reform in each province. We know that each province faces imposing challenges, but in the wake of the 18th Amendment, all are developing new plans for education reform. These should now be explained to the nation.

The Council of Common Interests would, of course, be the most appropriate venue for the sharing of provincial reform strategies, and for the federal government to help ensure that, in aggregate, they are up to the challenge that lies ahead. That is why I would like the prime minister to call for a CCI on education to meet as soon as is feasible. It would be a powerful signal if every chief minister endorsed this call.

Fifth, it is time to hear from Pakistan’s international partners, who have been complicit in decades of failure to translate development assistance into better education for our children. If donors have a strategy for education, it is a well-kept secret. Their efforts are fragmented, uncoordinated, and much less than the sum of their parts. We need to know what donors are doing in education, and how they plan to mobilise to help end the education emergency in Pakistan.

Finally, I would make a plea for some of the cynics to step aside and leave space for a new political initiative on education. Everyone in Pakistan’s elite bears some measure of responsibility for our failings in this area. That includes military and civilian governments (who have each ruled the country for around half the time since Independence), all political parties, the business community, and even media and civil society, which have done a poor job of making education a frontline issue.

Maybe, this attempt to end the education emergency will end in failure. But it has begun to bring some powerful forces together and there is now the potential for a lot to happen. That is how change happens – nothing shifts for a long time, but then, suddenly, a breakthrough occurs. After that, the pieces can fall into place very fast.

I beg you all to join us in the March for Education and to think hard about what influence you personally, whatever position you hold, can exert in helping deliver change. We need you. We’re fighting against long odds.

The writer is a columnist. www.educationemergency.com.pk

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