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Education emergency

Updated July 12, 2013

PAKISTAN faces several developmental challenges that have been left unaddressed for far too long. Among the most debilitating — from the perspective of the economy’s performance over the long run — are: unchecked population growth, growing water scarcity, the inability to raise domestic fiscal resources, and the failure to provide quality education to a large swath of the country’s populace.

The development challenges listed above are, unsurprisingly, interconnected to a large degree. The growing water scarcity is a function of a number of adverse factors, including the paucity of domestic fiscal resources to build storage reservoirs — but an untenably high rate of population increase, leading to rapid urbanisation, is arguably amongst the most important reasons. Among other factors, a low level of literacy is an important impediment to lowering the fertility rate, which is necessary to decelerate the population growth rate. A more educated society would be expected to lead to a better tax culture and higher domestic resource mobilisation.

Whichever way one looks at it, education plays an important part in shaping a society and in determining its development trajectory. Unfortunately, as the numbers show, this is an area of colossal failure for Pakistan. Consider the following facts:

• Nearly half of Pakistan’s population cannot read or write. The ratio for females is abysmally lower, especially for certain parts of Pakistan such as in rural Sindh and Balochistan, where the ratio for female literacy is 23pc and 16pc respectively.

There are only 13 countries in the world with a lower adult literacy rate than Pakistan, according to data compiled by the United Nations. These countries include Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Mali — collectively some of the poorest countries in the world.

• Depending on source used, the number of children out of school in Pakistan amounts to anywhere from seven million to nearly 25 million. The average number of years of schooling completed is 4.9 years in the case of Pakistan, slightly ahead of Angola and Bangladesh.

• In terms of public spending, the combined budget allocation for education by all tiers of government in Pakistan is the equivalent of around 2pc of GDP. It has stagnated around this level for the past several years, and remains so despite the passage of Article 25-A of the Constitution that guarantees the right to free education for every child in Pakistan.

• At this level, Pakistan ranks 177th globally in terms of public spending on Education, according to the Human Development Report 2013 issued by UNDP.

• Only seven developing countries in the world have lower public spending on education. These include Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Lebanon, Sri Lanka(!) and Zambia.

However, as experts and commentators have pointed out time and again, the amount allocated for education in public budgets is just one element of the issue.

How much of the budgeted allocation is actually spent, and where and how the money is utilised, are critical determinants of the outcomes on this front. (Sri Lanka is a case in point. Despite having a lower public spending level on education than Pakistan, it has a far superior literacy rate).

Hence, of the total combined (federal plus provinces) budgeted allocation for education, 82pc is earmarked for current expenditures (mainly salaries), while 18pc is earmarked for development expenditure (building new facilities, upgradation of existing infrastructure etc).

However, actual development spending in the education sector has fallen woefully short of budgeted amounts. In 2012-13, actual development expenditure in education by the provinces (Rs 31.3 billion) was less than 50pc of the budgeted allocation (Rs70.3bn).

Sindh is a case in point in illustrating the stark mismatch between amounts allocated and spent in the education sector, and results on the ground in terms of educational outcomes. While Sindh has earmarked reasonably large sums for education in its budget each year for several years — its allocation in the current year’s budget is Rs134bn — educational outcomes in the province rank amongst the lowest in Pakistan, barring Balochistan.

In a recent all-Pakistan district-wise ranking of the quality of education and the quality of infrastructure available in schools, Sindh fares poorly. Not one of its districts ranks in the top 50 across Pakistan, with its highest ranking received by parts of Karachi — at number 56 nationwide. The survey and district rankings were commissioned by Alif Ailaan, a public advocacy campaign aiming to improve the quality of public sector education in Pakistan, specifically the promotion of greater access to primary education for children.

• Interestingly, since 2010-11, the first year of the flow of larger resources to provinces under the seventh NFC Award, provincial spending on education has increased 37pc. Adjusted for inflation over this period, however, real spending on education by the provinces has risen only 4.3pc.

• In terms of spending priorities of the government, where education stacks up amongst the other expenditure heads becomes clear from the fact that since 2010, while budgetary allocations for the sector have increased 44pc, employee-related expenditure of the federal government alone (including salaries, allowances and pensions) has increased 247pc (i.e. nearly 3.5 times).

Clearly, the government needs to not only increase the allocation for the education sector in line with the new constitutional mandate of providing education to every child in the country, but it also needs to spend more prudently and efficiently, for more improved outcomes.

In the words of Alif Ailaan, the advocacy campaign which is aiming to raise awareness about the plight of the education sector in Pakistan, “It’s time to end Pakistan’s education emergency”.

The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.