Pakistan sits at the lowest rung of the international literacy ladder. Most of the 55 million illiterates are adults and two thirds are women. They cannot read a letter, a sign board in Urdu or even the number of a bus.

Illiteracy is dependence. For reading a letter of a dear one, you have to beg others to read it for you. Your privacy is compromised. Imagine illiterate Pakistanis travelling abroad and running into difficulties just because they cannot read and write.

Illiteracy is indignity. You remain less than a citizen if you are illiterate.

No country can make real progress if half of its adult population lacks the basic human skills of reading and writing. Because of this serious deficiency, the society cannot move on with time. Without educated manpower, you cannot run the sophisticated machines and instruments. Illiterates - millions of them are a drag on the economy. Illiteracy has also implications for the growth of political processes and institutions.

Thanks to brave Malala, there has been a lot of stirring of still waters. More than in Pakistan, there has been a spiralling of interest in promoting the cause of girls education in the world at large. The attack on Malala almost coincided with the release of the Global Education For All Monitoring Report, which reveals that “62 percent of girls in Pakistan, between the ages of seven and 15, have never seen the inside of a school.” This makes Pakistan acquiring the dubious distinction of having the second largest number of out of school girls in the world.

Both school-wise and adult literacy-wise, Pakistan will be one of the few countries in the world that will not achieve even a single one of the Dakar Education For All (EFA) goals.

Because of the tremendous and almost dramatic international response to promote girls education, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, visited Pakistan and held meetings with the President and other concerned officials to boost the campaign for education in the country. He pledged financial and technical assistance. The government was quick enough to launch a Waseela-e-Taleem programme under which three million children would be enrolled in schools and to attract them, Rs 200 per month will be provided to each of them out of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

As it (BISP) is seen as a politically-oriented initiative, it remains to be realised as to how far this welcome undertaking succeeds. One may, however, remember that implementation in Pakistan has its own limitations. The central government also hurriedly came up with a law (passed by the National Assembly) to enforce the right to free and compulsory education as required by Article 25(A) of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution. This law will, however, be only for the federal territories. None of the provinces has as yet promulgated such legislation. Without it the constitutional obligation will remain a pious wish. This law is meant for the provision of education to the age-bracket 5 to 16 years. What about the millions of adult illiterates?

The EFA goals mentioned above - to which all the governments in Pakistan have pledged themselves - are to be achieved by the year 2015. Pakistan to meet this commitment, inter alia, is to attain 86 percent literacy by the year 2015. The present rate of literacy in the country is claimed to be around 57 percent. (There are many rural areas where literarcy is 10-plus percent, is as low as 22 percent in Sindh and much less in Balochistan where it is below even 20 percent).

Not that we do not have a good plan to achieve the Dakar targets. Pakistan was one of the first countries, which prepared the post-Dakar National Literacy Plan. It was comprehensive and included estimates of the number of learning centres and funds required. Over the years, it has remained a pipedream.

Earlier, we have had the National Education Policy (1998-2010). Its aims included the doubling of literacy rate by complementing the formal primary school system with a strong non-formal basic education programme on a war footing. About 82,000 non-formal basic education schools were to be established. And hundreds of thousands of adult literacy centres.

The Unesco chipped in by starting a programme named Literacy Initiative For Empowerment (LIFE). A national core group of stakeholders was set up. Some funds were provided by Unesco. At the Prime Minister’s initiative in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were declared “national literacy years”. A revised national plan of action was prepared in 2010. Its objectives were aimed at accelerating the efforts to achieve the Dakar goals as early as possible by opening adequate number of schools for out of school children and adult illiterates.

What has been the result of all these high-sounding pronouncements. To cut short a long story, the present position is as follows.

After the faulty decisions to abolish the Federal Ministry of Education, there is no entity for national planning, international fund raising, standard setting and monitoring of literacy programmes in the country. A recently renamed Education Ministry is only for federal territories. The National Commission for Human Development programmes have been drastically cut down and financial allocations to it severely reduced.

Punjab: It has established a literacy and Non-Formal Basic Education Department and started plans for the spread of literacy. The adult literacy programmes have remained woefully short of the required centres. With the abolition of the posts of EDOs literacy, inadequate financial allocations and a limited literacy programme, the targets will remain a distant dream.

NWFP: It has established the Elementary Education Foundation and for the first time started an impressive province-wide programme. It has achieved good results thanks to the efforts of its first dynamic Director. The programme has come to a halt and little is being done to accelerate the setting up of centres.

Sindh: A very active Education Minister has been holding advocacy meetings for the spread of literacy. As for the setting up of adult literacy centres, the results remain poor and disappointing.

Balochistan: There has been a tussle between the Education and Social Welfare Departments about the ownership of literacy programmes. Social welfare is presently responsible for it. The number of centres in the whole province has not exceeded a few hundred.

A few NGOs have worked hard for the promotion of literacy in Pakistan. They have in particular made pioneering contributions in terms of methodology and community’s involvement, but (unlike their Bangladesh peers) their share of the required efforts has remained small.

This is, indeed, a tale of myopia and neglect of adult literacy. Pakistan has failed to provide the basic human skills of reading and writing to men and women of the country. Hopefully, the media and the superior judiciary will take notice of this national obligation and goad the central and provincial governments to take up the task of effectively implementing the approved National Literacy Plan to meet the internationally committed MDGs and EFA goals.

The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and political and international relations analyst. Email: