There’s always something happening in Pakistan: how education is becoming a real stepping stone for the country

– There’s always something happening in Pakistan.

My colleague reaches for the naan bread and shrugs.

– I mean, have you ever read an article or heard CNN say “Today in the news, nothing on Pakistan”?

In the three months that I had been in Lahore, it’s true that things had not been dull to say the least. A massive fuel crisis at the end of January and power shortages from time to time. Bombings in Christian neighborhoods in March and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, beneficiary of the first democratic transition in the country’s history in 2013, constantly suffering attacks from the opposition. And more recently, talks of going to war in Yemen to protect the Saudi holy land. All of this in the aftermath of the murder of 132 children of militaries in a school in Peshawar in late December.

Despite my best efforts, it was hard not to join the chorus of cynics and find the future bleak for the country I was just learning to discover. Although Western media’s somber views about Pakistan are as much a reflection of reality as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon accurately describes a woman’s face, the country still has huge challenges to deal with, making it difficult for some observers to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Some say the key to all problems lies with education. An educated population is according to them, the only viable way to fight terrorism and spur economic growth. But even in this area, pessimism has trickled down to various levels of society. In an opinion column published in the New York Times in October 2014[1], one of the leaders of a public campaign, which in its own words, “seeks to put education at the front and centre of public discourse in Pakistan”, drew a somewhat inaccurate and depressing picture of the state of education in the country. According to him “Pakistani leaders are all too happy to celebrate young Ms. (Malala) Yousafzai’s accomplishment, and they all recognize that the country faces an education crisis, but they don’t plan on doing anything about it.”

Reading his words, I found it surprising that someone so involved in improving the state of education in Pakistan would cast such an irrevocable verdict on the topic. What was even more surprising was that these words were being uttered at the exact moment where reasons to hope were reemerging. In the country’s largest province, Punjab, education has been at the forefront of discussions since 2010. Despite the region’s huge scale (more than 10 million children of school age and more than 50,000 schools at the time) significant progress has been made since then. The provincial government has focused on bringing transparency on the state of the system, and holding districts accountable for solving the main issues such as low teacher presence and student attendance, or unavailability of basic facilities like drinkable water or toilets. The results are unequivocal. Since 2010, 1.1 million more children attend school on any given day, 40,000 additional teachers are present in classrooms, and 53,000 schools have benefited from infrastructure investments. On March 30th, the government of Punjab launched the “Parho Punjab, Barho Punjab” programme (“Study Punjab, Grow Punjab”) as a second step of the reform focused more on increasing the quality of teaching. Enhanced textbooks, more frequent teacher trainings, better trained district officials. These are just a fraction of what the government promised to do by 2018 to help its students. Strengthened by four years of progress backed by facts, Punjab has reasons to be optimistic, even though a lot still needs to be done. In twenty years, we could be looking at a literate population of tens of million, with the other provinces of Pakistan following the same path. Not a bad vision for one of the world’s most strategic region.

– There’s always something happening in Pakistan, my colleague would say.

This time, the cynics might want to pay closer attention.

For more details about the reform, visit

https://www.facebook.com/ParhoPunjabBarhoPunjab

[1] “How Pakistan Fails Its Children”, New York Times, OCT. 14, 2014

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