VIEW: A state of emergency —Ali Moeen Nawazish - Thursday, March 10, 2011

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Pakistan, if it were to spend an additional Rs 100 billion, could see results in as little as two years. Pakistanis, according to the 18th Amendment, have a right to education and can now take the government to court for not providing it

You do not understand longing until you are away from the place you love. You do not understand distance until you feel far away from home. Sitting in a fancy lecture hall in Cambridge, taking notes on my laptop, being so far away from Pakistan. Yet, sometimes things hit you and you cannot help think about the students back home, their heads bent over their books, scribbling excitedly on their new copies when they first start. You see their desire to learn, their enthusiasm when they raise their hands. However, you cannot help but feel that somehow you have failed them, and continue to fail them.

The fact that education in Pakistan needs a ‘revamp’ is not a concept new to any of us. No one would ever argue that our education system is perfect. However, the reason I use the word ‘fail’ is because we perhaps do not understand the true gravity of the situation. The Pakistan Education Task Force recently released a report titled, Education Emergency Pakistan, and it helps ground us in the same reality. The report argues that the economic cost of not educating Pakistan is the same as one flood every year! The only difference being that we do nothing. One in 10 of the world’s out-of-school children comes from Pakistan – equivalent to the entire population of Lahore. There is a zero percent chance that the government will reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 on education. On the other hand, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are all on their way to achieving the same goals. India’s improvement rate is 10 times that of Pakistan, Bangladesh’s is twice that of Pakistan.

If we were to continue at our current rate of progress, we would not see universal education in Pakistan during our lifetimes; Balochistan would not see universal education until 2100 or later. There are 26 countries poorer than Pakistan that send more of their children to school. Pakistan’s spending on education has reduced by 40 percent from 2.5 percent of its budget in 2005-2006 to only 1.5 percent now. This is less than the subsidies being given to PIA, PEPCO and the Pakistan Steel Mills. Our schools are also proving to be ineffective. Only 35 percent of our children aged 6-16 can read a story if we compare that with 24 percent of the out-of-school children who can read a story. To make matters worse, 50 percent of the children are unable to read a complete sentence. There are 30,000 school buildings in Pakistan, which are a danger to the students who study in them. There are 21,000 schools, which have no building.

“Donors are not the solution,” the report reads. It is and always has been up to the government to develop our education system. Pakistan, if it were to spend an additional Rs 100 billion, could see results in as little as two years. Pakistanis, according to the 18th Amendment, have a right to education and can now take the government to court for not providing it. Our public school teachers are paid two-thirds more than their counterparts in private schools that have mushroomed in every street corner over the years. Yet there is absenteeism; a student would not have a teacher for one day every week. The common myth is that it is the parents who do not want to spend on their child’s education, but the truth is that an average rural family will spend 13 percent of its income on public education or 20 percent on private education.

An old friend of mine always remarks, if the children in a household are not doing well in school or not going to school, then there is an uneasy feeling throughout the house. Parents are often willing to cut back on a lot of things to send their children to school, and everything else becomes secondary. Why is it that this phenomenon does not translate onto the national level, and why is it that nationally the exact opposite principle holds true? Why is it that every other issue takes precedence over education in our policy? It is not just the government; it is also the media and civil society. After dozens of talk shows on everyday politics, we finally see one on education, and that too fails in bringing anything significantly fresh or a change to the discourse.

It is time we realise that we are in a state of emergency, a state of education emergency in Pakistan. If we fail to act now, we will undergo the effects of a flood every year, we will keep becoming poorer and we will be ever closer to becoming a truly failed state. The truth, as the report states, is that education in Pakistan can be transformed in a decade. However, this will only happen if we and, more importantly, our elected representatives realise this. I hope we do. I hope they do too, and soon.

The writer is a recipient of the Pride of Performance Award, and is currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge

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