Pakistan’s Schools

For many, Pakistan is the most worrisome critically weak or failed state. It has a huge population (about 180 million people) with a relatively limited base of natural resources and arable land. The country has persisting deep ethno-regional divisions, despite a common Islamic heritage. Since its independence in 1947, the central government has not proven capable of administering peripheral regions of the state. And, not least, Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors have long been characterized by tensions and open conflict. And, we could go on ….

An under-emphasized aspect of Pakistan’s fragility is its public education system. Here it is no exaggeration to declare a national crisis of huge proportions. A 2010 film by FRONTLINE/World, Pakistan: The Lost Generation, documented key dimensions of the crisis. In terms of the big picture, less than 45 percent of the country’s school age children are enrolled in a school of any kind, private or public. The public education system that serves the majority of these children is hardly deserving of the label “system.” As the film so vividly shows, many of Pakistan’s “schools” are really just meeting points. Here is a quote from the film’s synopsis:

There are some 20,000 “shelterless” schools throughout Pakistan. And even when there are buildings, 60 percent have no electricity, and 40 percent have no drinking water. Because the schools are so bad, Pakistan has the lowest enrollment rate in all of South Asia.

To be clear, millions of Pakistani kids attend classes in makeshift outdoor spaces. For those with buildings, they are rarely minimally equipped for instruction and learning. Though the film clearly emphasizes the worst of Pakistan’s schools, this portrait provides significant insight into the whole system.

Leaving other issues aside, such as teacher recruitment and retention, curriculum, and ideology, Pakistan’s educational deficit provides stark evidence of state weakness. In terms of educational outcomes, there is truly a vast “lost generation” of illiterate and uneducated in Pakistan. That legacy will hinder future political and economic development for decades to come. Beyond this, however, is the contemporary reality of governance. The physical status of the country’s schools is not just a reflection of the country’s poverty. Though Pakistan is a low-income society, incompetence and corruption have led to terrible delivery of services. Construction contractors are paid for work that was never completed in part or whole. Civil servants are not held accountable for their malfeasance. At the same time, elites send their children to private schools, the main preserve of quality education.

Going forward, it is not clear that outsiders can do much to reform Pakistan’s schools. After all, reforming the educational system will require better governance, not just technocratic fixes.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.