Educating the Pakistani adult

The total number of adult illiterates in the country adds up to 100 million people


Shahid Javed Burki November 01, 2015
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

It has been long recognised that Pakistan is not investing what is required to educate its large and growing population. At two per cent of GDP, the public sector expenditure is amongst the lowest in the world. In 2000, former president General (retd) Musharraf had committed Pakistan to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Eight MDGs were adopted by the heads of nations who met in New York under the auspices of the United Nations. They were: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, to achieve universal primary education, to promote gender equality, to reduce child mortality, to improve maternal health, to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, to ensure environmental sustainability, and to develop global partnership.

Each of the eight goals had specific dates and targets for achieving it. In June 2005, the G8 finance ministers agreed to provide additional funds to the World Bank, the IMF and the African Development Bank. The ministers also agreed that some $40-55 billion in debt owed by the heavily indebted countries would be forgiven if the saved amounts were invested in achieving the MDGs.

Two of the agreed goals related to improving women’s welfare and an additional two to education. Looking back over 15 years, it is difficult to argue that the MDGs had mush impact on the making of public policy. Over time, both academics and development experts came up with improved measures for evaluating the performance of the goals. It appears that Pakistan was among some of the countries that failed to meet them. It certainly did not realise the goals pertaining to education and women’s welfare.

The MDG focus was on primary education and female literacy. These two had been recognised by development experts to be critically important for economic growth and social development. That said, there is one other area that was left out and still remains unattended by most governments, including the government of Pakistan. This is adult education, which seldom figures in the government’s priorities but it should. Let us look at some statistics in order to press this point.

Given the poor performance of the education sector in the past, millions of people are now adults with practically no literacy skills. According to the World Bank, Pakistan is the worst performing country in South Asia in terms of adult literacy. It was estimated at 69 per cent for India in 2011, 65 per cent for Bangladesh in 2012, and only 55 per cent for Pakistan. Most worrying is the fact that there has been no improvement in Pakistan for several years.

There is another way of looking at this problem. These numbers suggest that there are a bit more than 50 million adult illiterates. Improvements in health mean a continuing increase in life expectancy. It would not be unreasonable assume that these adults will live for another 35 to 40 years. To make matters worse, a very large number of youth — perhaps, as many as another 40-50 million — are entering the workforce poorly educated and poorly trained. The total number of adult illiterates thus adds up to 100 million people. This large mass of people will weigh heavily on the economy and society. Giving them some education and some skills will not only improve their ability to improve their income base. It will also add to the national product.

Judging by the manifestoes issued by various political parties in preparation for the electoral contest of 2013 and also by the hundreds of statements made by politicians since the elections, it would be fair to conclude that adult literacy is not on the political radar screen. Even in the Vision 2025 statement issued by the Planning Commission in 2014, this important matter did not figure prominently. The country cannot afford to neglect this aspect of human resource development. It is surprising that adult literacy has not been given importance by the administration headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

I say ‘surprising’ because of a long conversation I had with Mahbubul Haq a few weeks before he passed way. We met at a resort in Maryland in January 1998. Haq was organising a group to work on the regional integration of the countries in South Asia. After the meeting, he told me that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then into the first year of his second term, had asked him to develop a special programme for improving adult literacy. Haq had begun to work on that and one of the ideas he was developing was to create an adult literacy corps whose members would implement various programmes aimed at reaching adults who were poorly educated. One idea he was working on was especially intriguing. He wanted to induct retired military men into the corps. Even though the people the military recruits are at a lower level, it has programmes for education and training to get them to acquire basic education and skills. They don’t stay in uniform for very long; they are retired in early adulthood. They could, therefore, be employed to put to use the education and the skills they picked up while in military service.

This was an interesting line of thinking that could be expected of Mahbubul Haq. Perhaps, it could form the basis of a concentrated effort at promoting adult literacy. 

Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2015.

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COMMENTS (7)

Frank Mossman | 5 years ago | Reply The education problems of Pakistan can be summarised thus: there is a small corrupt elite in control of the country. This elite keeps the masses deliberately dumbed down so as to better exploit them. And, as it has no competition, the elite's own educational standards get progressively lower over time. It is unnecessary to maintain or increase these standards and so they fall. The brighter Pakistanis, emigrate overseas permanently. And so it goes on. Year by year, the situation gets worse. The fact that a leader who was rejected twice before, has again gotten hold of the reins, is proof of the low intellectual capacity of the Pakistani electorate. As Einstein once said: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." That the educational situation in the rest of South Asia is better than Pakistan is well known. But compared to its western neighbour, the Pakistan is in a terrible situation
Rex Minor | 5 years ago | Reply He wanted to induct retired military men into the corps. Even though the people the military recruits are at a lower level, it has programmes for education and training to get them to acquire basic education and skills. They don’t stay in uniform for very long; they are retired in early adulthood. They could, therefore, be employed to put to use the education and the skills they picked up while in military service. Perhaps, it could form the basis of a concentrated effort at promoting adult literacy. First one trains a soldier the skill to kill, and after his retirement the education to work as a civilian? Those adults who cherish such ideas genuinely require a basic education, call it if one will the "adult education". Rex Minor
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