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Correspondence: Pakistan's worst emergency is access to education
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Correspondence: Pakistan's worst emergency is access to education

Last week saw the launch of a report by Pakistan’s March for Education campaign group. The publication follows the setting up of an Education Task Force by the government. Nosheen Abbas from Islamabad reports.

They’re all types of emergencies in practically every part of Pakistan.

No, really, we’ve got it all – ranging from floods, political strife, international image problems, internal political fragmentation… the list can go on and on.

But the establishment’s neglect of social reform has caused the majority population to dive headlong into poverty, illiteracy and arguably religious extremism.

According to UNFPA, the Pakistani youth population is the biggest chunk of Pakistan’s populace and the biggest cohort of youth currently in the world. So what have we been ignoring for decades? The education emergency.

“This is Pakistan’s most urgent emergency” said March for Education spokesperson Fasi Zaka at the launch of a graphic black and white report on 9 March. It sets out the harsh facts of Pakistan’s failure to educate it’s next generation.

According to the report, the economic cost of not educating Pakistan is the equivalent of one flood every year. “The only difference is that this is a self-inflicted disaster,” it states. One in ten of the world’s out of school children is a Pakistani.

To understand the gravity of the situation the report simply states: “That is the equivalent of the entire population of Lahore”.

This is perhaps the most shocking fact: Pakistan spent 2.5% of its budget on schooling in 2005/2006. It now spends just 1.5% in the areas that need it most. That is less than the subsidies given to PIA, PEPCO and Pakistan Steel. Provinces are allocated funds for education but fail to spend the money.

Some 30,000 school buildings are in a dangerous condition, posting a threat to the well being of children, whereas 21,000 schools have no building whatsoever. But the problem isn’t demand. According to a 2009 report by the British Council, 80% of youths believe in the need for quality education.

At the launch, the representatives of the government’s Education Task Force briefed leading educationists, technocrats, government officials, civil society organisations and media, saying sincerely that it aims to ensure that education and investment in education is made the number one priority in Pakistani political discourse.

The task force was launched with the approval of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani and is a non partisan body that draws representatives from federal and provincial governments as well as non governmental experts. It is co-chaired by Shahnaz Wazir Ali and Sir Michael Barber, an international expert on the reform ofeducation systems, who was also Tony Blair’s former education adviser.

The March for Education campaign, which is supported by the British government, will run until the end of the month and will comprise a series of activities that raise the profile of the education emergency by getting the media, civil society and other segments of the population to create popular demand for action.

Interestingly, this demand appeals to the government to increase the budget for education. A few rabid people from the audience stood up and attempted to put Shahnaz Wazir Ali on the spot by hurling accusations of ‘having power doing nothing’ and (rightfully) questioning her decision of cutting back on education funding during the time she was acting chair of Higher Education Commission’ of Pakistan.

She responded: “You have the right to question me. I had actually opposed the cut… but I hope you realise there is not sufficient strength to my voice alone.” Her response illustrated how powerless a supposedly powerful person can be even when couched among the most powerful people of the country.

The briefing ended on an emotionally high note as the panellists zipped out for a meeting with Prime Minister Gillani about the Emergency Education Report. As the panellists hurried off, I overheard a leading educationist smile and say: “ We have so many emergencies declared in Pakistan, it’s about time an education emergency was declared.”

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Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. All articles are published in a spirit of improving dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

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