Securing Education for All

Education is often seen as a cost, but it is a cost with very high individual and social returns.

The government is taking measures to improve the education situation in Pakistan, which has been termed an ‘Education Emergency’, and last week, it was announced that a large education fund for out-of-school children will be set up, and the PM also said that he by 2029 wants at least four percent of GDP to be allocated to education infrastructure and quality education. That figure has long been recommended as a minimum by the UN education agency, UNESCO, for any country, knowing, too, that most low and medium-income countries, and certainly wealthy countries, spend much more on education. We should celebrate the new Pakistan government’s important efforts – at high time, true, but now we all have a duty to support it.

About twenty years ago, I was on a contract with UNESCO in Pakistan, mainly dealing with education for Afghan refugees in collaboration with UNHCR and the government. The committed education minister at that time was Zubaida Jalal, with Haroona Jatoi as a key adviser. Ingeborg Breines was director of UNESCO. They said all the right things about increasing the education budget, especially at the primary level. Alas, the brave women did not succeed since most of the new money went to higher education, where Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman ruled the ground as chairman of the Higher Education Commission. It was probably good what was done, at least for the universities, but the lower levels should have been lifted at the same time.

In Pakistan, private schools have in recent decades expanded and in many ways done very well in the provision of quality education. But it has been done it at the expense of government education, which has received less attention by experts, parents, NGOs, and even politicians. No country can rely on private schools for universal primary education; it is always the government that must be in the driver’s seat, certainly as for regulations and usually also in implementation. 

One of the reasons why the West has done so well in economic development, nation-building, and establishing democracy and good workers’ conditions, is that there has been compulsory primary education in most countries for centuries. That foundation has been essential for progress. Education is often seen as a cost, but it is a cost with very high individual and social returns. In our time, though, we must be careful not to overspend on expensive and unnecessary education – as all countries seem to be doing today.

In my article last week about the ‘Education Emergency’ in Pakistan, I discussed a few basic aspects of the role of education and schooling. I stressed that schools must be pleasant places to be for all children regardless of their academic and other giftedness. It is more important that the school helps develop confident and considerate children, who are happy with themselves and the people around them, rather than that they learn things that may not be all that important and soon outdated – and we can all look up things on the Internet. Yet, the school should teach all students certain basic skills, knowledge, and work methods; literacy and the 3Rs are essential, as well as critical thinking, and certainly the learning of good values and moral considerations. Students must always be encouraged to search for knowledge and also experiment and enjoy when finding out things. And today, we realize more than before the importance of all students being taught how to look after themselves, their friends, and family, as children, youth, adults, and old people. Good and well that the health services are there when needed, but we must also become better at looking after our own health.

It is certainly important that some 26 million out-of-school children in Pakistan are included in basic education, and there should also be second chance education for all those youth and adults who did not get basic education in the past. Yet, it is unrealistic to believe that we can implement full, ordinary education for such a large number in the near future; some can be done, as the government now intends to do with major increases in education budgets and attention to the sector. 

Importantly, I believe we should embark on an alternative, massive education campaign in Pakistan, using distance education and mass media, getting the many existing and new NGOs, CBOs, private and government companies, and other partners, onboard. When Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, with very few educated people, could in the 1970s implement massive literacy and enlightenment campaigns for youth and adults, with donor support, there is no excuse for Pakistan not to do it today. There are scores of well-educated people in the land, many unemployed or underemployed, and they can indeed contribute in such education campaigns. Many well-educated women are at home and can be important teachers and coordinators. Everyone should be engaged, as well as leaders and staff in companies.

Let us mobilize the whole country to take part in such massive campaigns to solve the ‘Education Emergency’. The top leaders have begun addressing it in speeches and planning, showing deep concern and worry about the situation. The foreign donors must not be let off the hook; let us invite them to turn their talk into action; it is indeed high time they do that. A country like Norway, one of the world’s richest, used to talk about education as ‘Job Number One’ in development aid. Now it is time to prove that they really mean it.

If the local politicians, the foreign donors, and the people together address the ‘Education Emergency’ in Pakistan, they will be winners on the local and international scene. It is no rocket science, it is a matter of deciding and doing – and it is important that enthusiasm for education is created. That was a major reason why Tanzania succeeded, with its first president after independence Julius K. Nyerere, who was given the honorary nickname Mwalimu, meaning teacher in Swahili, too, a word with Arabic roots; he was speaking about the book being a tool for development the same way as the hoe is for the farmer – and that everyone had a duty to seek and share knowledge. 

In my article last week, I also criticized the content, curriculum, and organization of schools of today, in Pakistan and the whole world. The going education concept is too costly and talking too much time for children; some of them like the school, but many don’t, and many of those who succeed in life often do it in spite of the school they have gone through rather than because of it. I believe that if children and youth went to school half days or other types of shifts, or every other day, we could give schooling to all children without much additional money. Well, it would cost something since many of the outof- school children belong to very poor families, or families in and after conflicts, and such children and families would need extra support and even direct monetary and medical help.

Finally, today, let me underline that if Pakistan shall succeed in reaching all, or most of the out-of-school children and youth with basic education, we need to be willing to look at alternative ways of providing it. I have mentioned some key issues, but more issues should be discussed, which I would like to do in some future articles. I encourage you to send me suggestions, and more importantly, engage yourself in all kinds of ways in support of the government’s ‘Education Emergency’ efforts. Everybody’s help is needed to succeed.

Atle Hetland 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. He can be reached at atlehetland@

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

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