July 27 - Aug 02, 2009

Bringing radical reforms in the basic education system is the monstrous challenge being faced by Pakistan. Fortunately, the country has a number of viable options for moving away from the current dysfunctional to a nation building system. Pakistan's progress in education is the most critical determinant of whether the country becomes a moderate, progressive nation joining the world community or it falls further into poverty trap, isolation, and instability.

One of the positive points is that many international organizations are prepared to assist Pakistan in improving the public education. However, the problem is that often the country does not meet the conditions to qualify for this assistance. For example, the World Bank lately named Pakistan and 22 other developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to spearhead a campaign to educate all children by 2015. Unfortunately, Pakistan, together with India, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria, failed in meeting the Bank's minimum criteria for receiving financial assistance.

The Bank has set two requirements for countries seeking financing: they must have a fully developed poverty reduction strategy and they must be effectively implementing an education plan that donor nations have agreed to. Fortunately, Pakistan has a poverty reduction strategy in place and contribution from many countries and donors can help the Pakistani government develop a comprehensive educational plan that could draw financing not just from the World Bank but also from other international agencies and NGOs.

In the recent past, the US government had expressed willingness to provide assistance for completely revamping the prevailing Madrassah system and transform it into the providers of contemporary education along with the religious education. The program envisaged:

1. Developing a public Madrassah system as an alternative to the current private Madrassahs

2. Developing a secular public education system that provides Pakistani families with a superior alternative to the Madrassahs

3. Developing alternatives and supplements outside the formal educational system

4. Obtaining educational aid from a variety of international sources

Under the prevailing conditions option one appears to be an attractive short-term solution. Publicly managed Madrassahs exist throughout the Middle East, not only teaching the tenets of Islam, but also providing a more modern curriculum. While the move may help in attracting funding, the primary concern is that these institutions are likely to loose their credence. However, if the assistance is provided for revamping curriculum and ensuring availability of quality teaching staff, the level of confidence of masses in such a system can be improved.

Option 2 would definitely entail considerable aid and assistance. However, rough cost calculations indicate that this might be a promising option. Estimates are that the donors could build a school for several hundred children and also undertake to provide the operating cost but do not interfere in management. This would appear to be an extremely cost effective alternative.

A final alternative could largely involve extended sponsorship of technical schools and other centers of learning within Pakistan. This could be a popular alternative for many students. As the government's economic reforms begin to bear fruit the demand for trained and skilled graduates will grow rapidly. More importantly, without a steady stream of qualified graduates, the country would face hard time achieving GDP growth rate of above 5%, the least country must achieve over the next five years.

No doubt changing the basic education system is need of the hour, but the plan seems a little over ambitious. To begin with, the plan may face resistance from the Madrassahs. It is feared that change will not come soon to the Madrassahs. Many religious groups may vehemently oppose any government interference. The only fallout is that in case Madrassahs do not become part of the proposed system they may not get the funds from the government. The incentive hardly has any attraction because most of the Madrassahs receive little or no government funds.

The government is actively persuading the Madrassahs to teach science, mathematics, English and Urdu. This would provide students with the option, now usually lacking, of eventually enrolling in professional schools. The government has gone to the extent of suggesting that Madrassahs would receive government aid only if they begin providing contemporary and modern education.

At present most of the Madrassahs are funded both by private donations from Middle Eastern countries and the Zakat collected by the Pakistan government from the bank accounts once a year. Millions of dollars are being directed to the Madrassahs every year. Foreign donations mostly come from rich individuals and Islamic charities originating from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

A major reason for the popularity of the Madrassahs in Pakistan is that the country's public school system is in shambles, and many families cannot afford the small fees that are charged. As against this, Madrassahs are attractive alternative because they offer free education, free meals, free schoolbooks and even in some cases a stipend. While the exact numbers are unobtainable, estimates are that over 1.5 million students study at more than 10,000 of these schools.

Restoring economic growth is the ultimate key for the stability of Pakistan. One may wonder what needs to be done to bring sustained economic betterment to the masses. Historically this has not occurred in Pakistan because the government has, despite extensive international assistance, failed to design a coherent approach to poverty reduction. More generally, the country has suffered from: 1) political instability and lack of continuity in economic reforms and policies; 2) low levels of domestic savings and investment; 3) unstable macroeconomic conditions; 4) high level of protection to domestic industries and discrimination against primary production and exports; and 5) low level of public investment in human capital (health and education).

This economic growth cannot be achieved without educating masses. Pakistan has a population of about 200 million, which could disintegrate into a nightmare of ethnic conflict, sectarian violence, and humanitarian disaster in the absence of basic education, which develops nationalistic approach, tolerance and above all respect for all irrespective cast, creed and faction.