Education scene in South Asia
Wednesday, 16 July 2008

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui

THE tradition of human development reports is not very old in South Asia. The UNDP report that was launched in 1990 explored some new aspects of development, i.e. education, health and, after the Beijing conference on women, gender empowerment.

This was followed by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre (MHHDC) report in 1997. In both these pioneer reports, Dr Mahbub ul Haq's contribution was pivotal.
Since then the centre has published reports on different aspects of human development. Such reports by independent organisations are different from the dull and sometimes misleading documents published by the government, in three important ways: first, they provide independent data without the compulsion of underscoring the rosy side of the picture; second, they give a comparative view of the data in South Asian contexts; and third, these reports present data in a way that facilitates readers in interpreting it in a meaningful way.
The latest MHHDC report, Human Development in South Asia 2007, is a 10- year review (1997-2007) of human development in South Asia. Here I'll focus on just one aspect of human development: education. In the last 10 years the governments of South Asia engaged in political rhetoric about improvement in education but in reality the priorities were quite the opposite. In 2004, defence spending as a percentage of education and health expenditure was 55 per cent in India, 38 per cent in Bangladesh, 40 per cent in Sri Lanka and 178 per cent in Pakistan. The figure for Pakistan is alarmingly high and shows how the education and health sectors are being ignored as resources are directed to one side alone.
In 2005, South Asia's average literacy rate was 58 per cent, net primary enrolment stood at 87 per cent and 13 million children were out of school. If we compare these figures with those for 1995 we see some improvement. But this improvement falls far short of what is required. If we compare Pakistan's performance with the average in South Asia, we realise that we are still below the average literacy rate of South Asia which in 2005 was 58 per cent. In Pakistan we could not mobilise our resources to provide a large number of students with access to schools. The result is that 6.5 million children are out of school. Not a single country in the world has more out-of-school children. This fact becomes more painful when we consider the high ratio of youth in our population. This youth, with proper education, could have been converted into useful human capital that could play an important role in national development.
The MHHDC's 10-year review suggests some improvement in some indicators of education in South Asian countries but efforts and resources seemed be insufficient. The 1997 report had lamented that "South Asia is the poorest, most illiterate and least gender-sensitive region in the world." This should have been a wake-up call for South Asian governments to speed up initiatives for improved systems of education to combat the challenges of access, quality and dropout rates. We see a large number of projects funded by multinational companies together with some expensive consultants. But despite tall claims of progress the ultimate result is that the region "continues to be the most illiterate region in the world containing around 379 million illiterate adults — the highest absolute number amongst all regions in the world" (MHHDC report, 2007).
Another problem that plagues the so-called progress in education in South Asian countries is that the outcomes of increased literacy numbers were not distributed equally among the masses. Inequality in terms of ethnicity, gender, geographical position, social class and economic resources prevails in most South Asian countries, including India where relatively more effective educational reforms were initiated. The recurring inequality and disparity suggests that something is lacking in our educational systems.
Why didn't reforms in South Asia bring the desired results in the last 10 years? Why couldn't enhanced literacy rates lead to equal distribution of opportunities and benefits? The experts have tried to look for the reason in low allocations for education. The average allocation for education in South Asia is less than three per cent which is on the low side. Low utilisation is another aspect of the problem, as is inappropriate spending. A few experts consider the governance of education as the root cause of the problem. All these analyses are based on certain truths and are quite convincing. The only problem though is that we try to analyse the issue in isolation. We must understand that education is not a neutral and passive phenomenon whose dissection can be carried out on a sterilised table in a lab environment. On the contrary it is a highly political phenomenon that needs to be studied in relation to society.
While we try to find the answer to the problem, we need to take into consideration the socio-political systems of South Asian societies. With a few exceptions, most South Asian countries are directly or indirectly ruled by military governments. In some countries, civilian autocratic governments are in power. Most of these governments have a limited and confined view of development that hinges on the physical side of development — dams, roads, shopping plazas, etc. In this kind of development the human aspect, for example education, health and gender parity are either ignored or underestimated. Most of these countries have a political system that discriminates against the poor and marginalised groups. It is this unfair socio-political system that acts as a resisting force and hampers educational reforms.
Bringing a change in the outer orbit of the socio-political system is not that easy but at the same time it is not impossible. For that we need to work on the quality of our education which means that instead of targeting an increase in functional literacy, we need to go beyond and encourage critical literacy. Instead of going for the inflated numbers, which is a political need of every government, we need to work for qualitative improvement. For this the role of civil society becomes central to creating awareness among the masses. In this campaign, private organisations can play a very important part by producing research-oriented reports like the one presented by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre.
The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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