Sunday, March 30, 2014

Daily Times Editorial March 31, 2014

Education emergency Former British prime minister Gordon Brown since leaving office has taken up education as a mission. Currently the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Education, Mr Brown is well known for having gone out of his way to support Malala Yousafzai as part of his efforts for girls’ education worldwide. In a press conference in Islamabad on Saturday, Gordon Brown spelt out the world community’s plan to support education in Pakistan through finance of $ 1 billion over the next 3-4 years. A number of international organizations and countries have pledged the money, including the Global Partnership for Education ($ 100 million), USAID ($ 140 million), European community ($ 100 million), besides support from Saudi Arabia (a pleasant change from funding madrassas), the UAE, UN and other countries. Brown also wants Pakistan to abolish child marriages (keep in mind the recent Council of Islamic Ideology controversy), child labour (a necessary prerequisite for universal school enrolment) and gender discrimination. He reflected the Pakistan government’s desire to double education expenditure to four percent of GDP to achieve the goal of universal education. He revealed that there are seven million children out of schools and 55 million people over the age of 10 who are illiterate in Pakistan. The promised $ 1 billion will be used to build schools, purchase equipment and train teachers. Brown said he was pleasantly surprised to see the change in Pakistan in the last two years, with people now recognizing that the future of the Pakistani economy depends on education. It has of course been an increasingly accepted view the world over that the future requires a knowledge-based society. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s revelation of his plan to launch a countrywide literacy movement to ensure universal enrolment of children in schools through a package of incentives coincided with Gordon Brown’s announcements. The prime minister said at an international conference in Islamabad titled ‘Unfinished Agenda in Education: the Way Forward’ that the government’s effort was to achieve the targets set by the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals within three years. The focus would be on science, technology, modern skills, prioritization of female education, participation of women in the decision-making process and the protection of women’s respect and dignity. Declaring the situation had become a national emergency, Nawaz Sharif argued for reaping the demographic dividend of over 50 percent of our people being below 25 years of age through proper education and training, otherwise this dividend could convert into a burden. The prime minister also highlighted the private sector’s contribution to education, pointing to the fact that 4.8 million (34 percent) of the 14.4 million primary stage enrolments are in the private sector, whose share is much higher at the lower, middle and secondary levels. There is no disputing the fact that Pakistan, with a youth bulge, is far behind many developing countries in education, literacy and a modern, enlightened society. The prime minister’s formulation that we face an education emergency can only be endorsed, with emphasis on working on a war footing, especially with Gordon Brown’s good news about finance being available for a crash education and literacy programme. Scarce resources, with defence, national security and debt taking the lion’s share, have made increasing the education budgets an uphill task. It goes without saying that the benefits of concentration on education on an emergency basis are diverse, multi-layered, and probably the best investment in a different, better future than our floundering present. Not only will the economy in a globalised world require a pool of educated human resource, investment in education and literacy with their collateral goal of enlightenment, is the exact antithesis of terrorism, extremism and all their attendant ills that afflict state and society currently. Whatever the outcome of the government’s present course of talking to the Taliban in the immediate or distant future, the underlying problem of crafting a national narrative that can counter the backward looking Taliban outlook requires the foundation of an educated, literate society. As part of the effort to promote these goals as soon as possible, the education emergency programme should consider double shifts in schools, providing milk and healthy food to school going children, and craft a parallel adult literacy drive to push Pakistan into the 21st century.

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