Over the next couple of months, I will be writing a series of blog posts on the challenges facing Pakistan in relation to development and education, and the prospects and limits of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a way of understanding and addressing these challenges.
In this first blog, I introduce Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state; this is important for understanding and contextualising ongoing challenges to development and education in the country. I then discuss the SDGs’ agenda and its relevance to the discourse of development and especially to education in Pakistan.
The subsequent blog will focus on the role of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and more specifically the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) in contributing to development and education in some of the remote, isolated, and marginalised regions of Pakistan such as the two districts of Chitral – Upper Chitral and Lower Chitral – in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
I write these blogs drawing on my Ph.D. research project entitled Educational Leadership and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Postcolonial Pakistan. This project explores opportunities and challenges for educational leaders in delivering on the promise of quality and inclusive education in the Aga Khan Schools in Chitral, Pakistan.
Postcolonial Pakistan: challenges for development at the start of the 21st century
Pakistan became a separate Islamic nation-state as a result of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent at the end of the British colonial rule in India in 1947. It is a country of more than 214 million people. There are four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan – and two self-governing territories under Pakistan’s control -Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan in present Pakistan (see map below). The population consists of diverse ethnic groups, mainly Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Saraikis, Muhajirs, Baloch along with many other smaller groups. Majority of the population, around 96.03%, is Muslim and the rest comprises of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Sikhs, Parsis, Kalash, Buddhists, and Jains.
As a postcolonial state, Pakistan has confronted numerous challenges since its inception. Poverty, overpopulation, corruption, poor governance, political instability, illiteracy, terrorism, tensions with India, and within-state religious and sectarian tensions, and a string of natural disasters (earthquakes and floods) are the core challenges for the country.
The initial challenge of dealing with the cross-border mass migration was caused due to the hasty formation of separate Muslim and Hindu states Pakistan and India, that left many thousands of people living on the ‘wrong’ side of the border. This challenge was rooted in Britain’s colonial policy of divide and rule in handling the subcontinent’s Hindu and Muslim subjects. When people struggled to get into the nation of their religious majority, violence broke out and thousands of people suffered from brutal killings and looting on both sides of the border. Between fourteen to sixteen million people were forced to leave amidst killings of around one million and some commentators have argued provocatively, that this was the first large-scale incidence of ethnic cleansing in the world (see Reid and Burky). The proportion of the Muslim population in the newly established country increased from 75% to 95% as a result of mass migration. Since partition, Pakistan and India have fought wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 and tensions continue to exist on the borders.
The state assumed that Islam as a common religion would provide a shared identity to the diverse ethnic groups leading to national cohesion and harmony. However, despite this effort, various ethnic, linguistic and sectarian tensions continued to plague the country. The ethnic and linguistic differences led to the split of the country and the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1971.
Situated in a hostile neighborhood, the perceived threats emanating from a hostile India and an unfriendly Afghanistan, have fuelled military spending in Pakistan. This has diverted huge resources to defense at the cost of the development of the people. Such a defense-centric policy has strengthened the military institution at the cost of other political and bureaucratic institutions by giving the defense forces a central place in access to resources, decision-making as well as privileges. The military has directly ruled the country for 35 years through frequent coups at different points in time. None of the elected Prime Ministers, except once, has been able to complete the tenure of office, and political governments remain keen to enlist the military’s goodwill. The prevailing corruption in politics and the bureaucracy, and the politicians’ attempts to bolster their own power by inviting the military to take over the reign of power are major factors in preventing democracy from flourishing in the country.
Population growth is a major challenge for development. There are serious concerns about the validity of the official figures pertaining to the current population and the actual population is said to be much higher. World Population Review 2020 reports a population of more than 222 million, a doubling from 1990 to 2019. As a result Pakistan’s ranking moved from 8th to 5th largest in the world. The unprecedented population growth contributes to slow economic growth, unemployment, and consequently to poverty in the country. With the current rate of growth, the population of the country is expected to reach 403 million by 2050.
It can be argued that some of Pakistan’s problems have their roots in the colonial past and that these create legacies in policies and practices in the present time. As a postcolonial state, Pakistan inherited the existing colonial structures and systems in fields including civil service, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, and education. The colonial structure and systems continue to exist and influence until the present time at the expense of a truly participatory, self-conceived, and self-directed development model for the country. As a result, the country presents a picture of a complex postcolonial nation-state, posing severe challenges for development and education.
The SDGs, education, and development in Pakistan
In light of the key challenges confronting the country, the SDGs are relevant to the discourse of development and especially to education in Pakistan. The SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets, constituting a global framework for sustainable development through addressing extreme poverty, inequalities, and protecting the environment. The promise for
education is articulated in the form of SDG 4 that seeks to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Pakistan demonstrated its commitment to the agenda in October 2015 by becoming the first country in the world to adopt the SDGs as its national development agenda and having endorsed by the parliament. In this context, the SDGs shape the development discourse in Pakistan in relation to the challenges confronting the country.
The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees education as a fundamental right of all citizens. The Article 25A of the Constitution states that: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” The public sector caters to the educational needs of 57% of the students as compared to 43% in the private sector. However, the performance of public sector education has been poor. Pakistan has been persistently performing poorly on all major education indicators; access to education, enrolment, literacy and numeracy, retention and completion, financial and human resource, learning environment, and governance of the school.
The adult literacy rate is 62.3% comprising 72.5% males and 51.8% females, with substantial disparities on criteria such as geography, the rural-urban divide, socio-economic status, and disability. The total number of school-aged children (5 – 16 years) is 51.53 million, and of these 28.68 million are attending school, while 22.84 million children do not attend school. This makes Pakistan the world’s second-highest in terms of out-of-school children, 44% of the cohort population being in this category.
Apart from access to education, the quality of education children receive is worrisome. Many of the children attending school suffer from a ‘learning crisis’ or ‘ learning poverty’ which means students in schools are not learning basic literacy and numeracy. This problem is more severe in Pakistan when compared to other low-or middle-income countries. For instance, 75% of children attending schools in Pakistan cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10, as compared to the overall average of 58% for South Asia.
Addressing the problem of access and quality is critical to progress towards the broader agenda of an inclusive, quality for all agenda as envisioned in SDG 4. It is encouraging to note that the current National Education Framework attempts to contextualise the agenda for education at the national, provincial, and district level for effective implementation. This framework sets out four strategic priorities for immediate action
- addressing the issue of out-of-school-children;
- bringing uniformity in education standards;
- improving the quality of education; and
- enhancing access to and relevance of skills training.
Many schools, particularly in the rural context, suffer from lack of basic infrastructure and resources. Public investment in education is minimal and has remained around 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) against a notional commitment of 4 % and the recommendation of 4 to 6% of GDP or 15 to 20% of the total public expenditure in the Incheon Declaration. A large portion of the allocated budget for education (92%) is spent on salaries, and even the remaining funds dedicated to development such as school facilities, training, monitoring and supervision, and curriculum development, is not spent efficiently due to poor decision-making, failure to empower educational leaders working in school and district education offices as well as poor management and governance. Historically, educational governance and management have been poor in the country. Due to the low performance of public sector education, parents preferred private sector schools. However, during the past few years, there have been some improvements in the public education sector in terms of upgrading facilities, ensuring teachers’ presence through the biometric system, and induction of teachers based on merit. These improvements have meant increased enrolments in the public education sector and a decrease in the private education sector (see ASER-Pakistan report). The increased number of students in public schools indicates the confidence of parents in the school public sector education.
Given these challenges for Pakistani education, the SDGs provide an opportunity for collective action and reflection on the local needs and priorities in the global context. Pakistan has shown enthusiasm to adopt the SDGs at its own development goals based on national and international commitments. However, the state’s policies historically fall short in the implementation phase. Pakistan has not been able to meet its commitments in any of the previous national education policies. Likewise, international commitments have not been met. For instance, Pakistan failed to achieve the goal for the Education For All (EFA) and lies at the bottom in the region (South Asia) on the EFA Development Index. The targets not achieved in EFA are now part of the SDGs’ agenda. In the implementation phase, progress has been very slow even though it has been five years since the SDGs were adopted. The 2020 Sustainable Development Report, shows that Pakistan stands at 134th out of 166 countries in the SDG Index Score with 56.2 scores against the regional score of 67.2 for East and South Asia. This progress is based on data collected before the outbreak of the pandemic. When the impact of the COVID-19 is accounted for, the situation maybe even worse than shown in the report. For achieving the SDGs agenda the government must focus on the implementation of the plan at the national, provincial, and district levels.
My next blog (Part 2) will focus on the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – its history, development approach, and contribution to development and education in Pakistan and particularly to some of the remote and underserved regions such as Chitral in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.