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Basic schooling: A distant dream

Pakistan is nowhere near meeting its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the target of reaching an Education for All (EFA) 100 per cent literacy goal by 2015 is already a distant dream.

The statistics, according to another recent report by no less than a Pakistani Government Commission, are appalling—25 million children in Pakistan do not get an education and six million will never see the inside of a classroom.

Furthermore, the commission found that: “Thirty thousand school buildings are so neglected that they are dangerous ... 21,000 schools do not have a school building at all ... only 65 per cent of schools have drinking water, 62 per cent have latrines, 61 per cent a boundary wall and 39 per cent have electricity ... only half of all women in Pakistan can read, in rural areas the figure drops to one-third ... there are 26 countries poorer than Pakistan who still manage to send more of their children to school.”

However, Pakistan in the past decade has faced violent conflict on its north-western borders, Swat, Afghanistan’s war zone’s spill over and the resultant terrorism targeting innocent civilians and deliberately blowing up schools in the conflict-ridden zones. In the same time period, Pakistan faced two natural disasters in the form of an earthquake and floods.

This is exactly the kind of situation that UNESCO’s commissioned publication, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2011—The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education addresses and finds problematic for countries facing conflicts such as Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. The international community-backed report finds development to be stunted in areas experiencing conflict which becomes a source of poverty, inequality and economic stagnation.

The most to suffer are the children and their education as they are in the frontline of violent conflict. Thus, the damaging consequences of conflict to the EFA goals are tremendous and must be addressed by bringing education to the frontline of humanitarian aid to such conflict-ridden countries. At present, only two per cent of humanitarian aid for such countries is used for education.

Education Emergency in Pakistan is not just the state of low-quality education but now a full-fledged emergency where Pakistan’s government is besieged by a conflict which is both internal and external. Pakistan is a collaborator in the War on Terror and is facing its own crises with a backlash of suicide bombing of innocent civilians and a vital school sector in its north-west province. Consequently, the Global Monitoring Report 2011 is an important tool for Pakistan as it sets out the damaging consequences of conflict for the EFA goals and its already fragile education system.

The report’s emphasis is on protecting the “right to education” during violent times. Statistically, over 40 per cent of out-of-school children live in conflict-affected countries such as the Congo, Palestine, Malawi and Chad. These same countries have some of the lowest literacy rates and largest gender inequality levels in the world. Thus, humanitarian aid to such countries must target education as a core area to be strengthened and rebuilt for future social cohesion and peace.

The Global Monitoring Report 2011 clearly spells out the effect on countries facing conflicts such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Attacks on the education infrastructure have been a feature of armed conflict in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Terrorist groups have repeatedly attacked the educational infrastructure in general, and girls’ schools in particular.

In the Helmund province of Afghanistan, nearly 70 per cent of schools have been closed down due to security fears. Many schools in the Balochistan province of Pakistan are facing the same situation. Attacks on schools have been severe in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP) province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), particularly Swat, where 172 schools were destroyed between 2007 and 2009.

Moreover, Pakistan has already faced the problem of refugees and internally displaced persons who then face major barriers to education. Apart from the physical damage to school infrastructure and the human costs, armed conflict undermines economic growth and development leading to and reinforcing poverty. It also manages to divert resources and money from investment in education to servicing the military sector.

Among the 21 world’s poorest developing countries that spend more on military budgets than primary education which the report identifies, Pakistan spends seven times as much on its military budget than on primary schools. Bangladesh has managed a successful increase in its education budget to service its population through education and is making an economic comeback. The report also points out that if countries which spent more on its military budget than primary education could cut the former by just 10 per cent, they could put a total of 9.5 million additional children in school—equivalent to a 40 per cent reduction in their combined out-of-school population.

According to the 2011 Report’s follow up on the Dakar Framework for Action to target EFA goals by the year 2015, Pakistan by all counts fails to even implement a policy to get most children into school. The primary reason is the low priority of its government to take on education seriously for economic growth and equalising opportunities for its huge under-15 populations.

Education can combat recruitment of the vulnerable young for an ongoing conflict within and without its borders. The “hidden crisis” engenders the motivation for the Pakistan government to rebuild and totally overhaul its entire educational structure—the survival instinct lies in tackling education on an emergency basis before it is too late.

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore