Poor schooling slows anti-terrorism effort in Pakistan

By: Griff Witte

Western officials tend to blame Islamic schools, known as madrassas, for their role as feeders to militant groups, but Pakistani education experts say the root of the problem is the public schools in a nation in which half of adults cannot sign their own name. The United States is hoping an infusion of cash — part of a $7.5 billion civilian aid package — will begin to change that, and in the process alter the widespread perception that Washington’s only interest in Pakistan is in bolstering its military.

But according to education reform advocates here, any effort to improve the system faces the reality of intense institutional pressure to keep the schools exactly the way they are. They say that for different reasons, the most powerful forces in Pakistan, including the army, the religious establishment and the feudal landlords who dominate civilian politics, have worked against improving an education system that for decades has been in marked decline.

“If the people get education, the elite would be threatened,” said Khadim Hussain, coordinator of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy and a professor at Islamabad’s Bahria University. “If they make education available, the security establishment’s ideology may be at risk.”

That ideology, Hussain said, involves the belief that non-Muslim nations are out to destroy Pakistan and that the army is the only protection Pakistanis have from certain annihilation. Those notions are emphasized at every level in the schools, with students focused on memorizing the names of Pakistan’s military heroes and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, but not learning the basics of algebra or biology, he said.

The nature of the education system is reflected in popular attitudes toward the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups that in recent months have carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Pakistan, many of them targeting civilians.

Although the groups in many cases have publicly asserted responsibility for the attacks, a large percentage of the population here refuses to believe that Muslims could be responsible for such horrific crimes, choosing to believe that IndiaIsrael or the United States is behind the violence. When Hussain challenges graduate-level students for proof, they accuse him of being part of the plot, he said.

“Telling students they need to use evidence and logic means that you are definitely an agent of India, Israel and the CIA,” he said. “They don’t understand what evidence is.”

The madrassas have multiplied in Pakistan as public education has deteriorated. But madrassas still educate only about 1.5 million students a year, compared with more than 20 million in public schools. If Pakistan is to improve its dismal literacy rate and provide marketable skills to more of the estimated 90 million Pakistanis under the age of 18, it will have to start in the public schools.

The United States plans to spend $200 million here this year on education, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s largest education program worldwide. The money comes from the Kerry-Lugar aid bill, which was passed in late 2009 and promises Pakistan $7.5 billion in civilian assistance over the next five years.

The funds are intended to signal a substantial shift from earlier years, when U.S. assistance to Pakistan was overwhelmingly focused on helping the military, which is battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the nation’s northwest.

U.S. officials say the money will be spent on a combination of programs, including infrastructure improvements, teacher training and updates to the curriculum. Unlike in past years, the money will not be filtered through non-governmental organizations and contractors but will be given directly to Pakistan’s government, officials say.

The idea is to improve the capacity of the nation’s fledgling civilian-led administration, and to promote trust between the two nations.

But there is also the risk that without adequate monitoring, much of the money will go to waste.

Pakistan’s current spending on education — less than 3 percent of its budget — is anemic, and far lower on a relative basis than in India or even Bangladesh. Much of it never reaches students.

Pakistan’s public education system includes thousands of “ghost schools,” which exist on paper and receive state funding. But in reality, the schools do not function: A local landlord gets the money, and either pockets it or dispenses it to individuals who are on the books as teachers, but in fact are associates or relatives who do nothing to earn their salaries. School buildings are often used for housing farmworkers or livestock, not for education.

Those buildings that do operate lack basic facilities — a 2006 government study found that more than half do not have electricity and 40 percent have no bathrooms. About a third of students drop out by the fifth grade. Teachers, meanwhile, earn as little as $50 a month, less in many cases than that of a domestic servant. The low pay mirrors teachers’ perceived value in Pakistani society.

“The social status of teachers is low, compared with other professions,” said Rehana Masrur, dean of the education department at Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad. “If someone is doing nothing and has no future, people say, ‘Why doesn’t he become a teacher?’ ”

Top government officials have little incentive to change that, experts here say. Although the vast majority of Pakistanis must choose between the public schools or madrassas for their children, Pakistan’s well-to-do can send their kids to private schools, many of which are considered world-class.

Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former Pakistani education minister, said the United States has not helped by frittering away much of its assistance budget on poorly defined programs, such as conflict-resolution training, which he said leave no enduring impact. What Pakistan really needs, he said, is a network of vocational training institutes that can prepare students for the workplace.

“What would help is something that is lasting,” he said. “The U.S. is spending more money, but spending it in a way that it does not leave any impact.”

But Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted nuclear physicist at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University and a longtime proponent of education reform, said Pakistan needs something more fundamental.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of money. The more you throw at the system, the faster it leaks out,” he said. “There has to be a desire to improve. The U.S. can’t create that desire. When Pakistanis feel they need a different kind of education system, that’s when it will improve.”

6 responses to “Poor schooling slows anti-terrorism effort in Pakistan

  1. Pingback: Poor schooling slows anti-terrorism effort in Pakistan « Agha … | Thinkers Bank

  2. Syed Nayyar Uddin Ahmad

    H’able Mr. Ban Ki-moon,

    Secretary – General,

    United Nations Organisation,

    New York,


    Dear Sir,

    Your statement ( at the Major Economies Forum. L’ Aquila, Italy, on 9 July 2009. ) that we stand at a historical crossroads. Business as usual is no longer viable, has motivated me for this writing. I am convinced that the secret of future world peace, lies to a very large extent, in the total re-building of Pakistan, on the same model on which Japan was re-built after WW II.

    However, this help of Pakistan will require a very well planned & concerted long term commitment of the entire world, including all the neighboring countries.

    One thing is for sure; Pakistan will never improve, develop & change with the current world policy of helping it through loans & aid plans. Mainly, because this model of help is riddled with corruption, inefficiency & the vested interests of the donor countries/agencies, wherein, up to 90% of the loan amount is wasted & the poor people are forced to pay back the loans with added interest, without getting any benefit. This breeds abject poverty to the extent that increasingly people here are committing suicides on daily basis, (although suicide is strictly prohibited in ISLAM) to get relief from their economic woes. This poverty phenomenon is being easily & increasingly exploited by the terrorist organizations.

    We can easily understand how gradually & steadily this area is being pushed towards extremism by the poverty, which to a large extent, is the result of the current aid/development model through loans.

    Under the circumstances UNO under your dynamic leadership, is the most competent & relevant organization to develop a ten year re-building model for Pakistan, which must broadly include the following strategy.

    Immediate writing off of the entire foreign & domestic loan of Pakistan.

    Allowing 100% duty free imports of Pakistani goods in all the countries.

    Revamping of entire Pakistani educational system on modern lines.

    Providing of world class health care system.

    Development of world class transportation infrastructure.

    Focus for development on small & medium size industry.

    Development of agriculture, livestock & dairy sectors on world standards.

    Settlement of Kashmir, water, Siachin & all other issues between Pakistan & India.

    Building of Maximum possible dams on the river system.

    Development & exploration (as per world standards) of natural resources.

    Development of wind energy to the maximum potential of the country.

    Development of a modern Social Welfare set up.

    It is hoped that the UNO will truly live up to the message of your above quoted statement & lead the world in attacking the menace of terrorism, directly at its roots i.e. abject poverty. Moreover, the above plan may not even cost more than two years war expenditure of NATO in Afghanistan.

    Best Regards,

    Syed Nayyar Uddin Ahmad


    +92+42-5300870 & 5313747

    447/F-2, Phase-1, M. A. Johar Town,

    Lahore – Pakistan

  3. Syed Nayyar Uddin Ahmad

    H’able Hillary Clinton Esqr.


    Perhaps, it may be a surprise to you, but the fact is that you are the most popular American dignitary in Pakistan. And, in any vote count, you can easily win an election in Pakistan. We still fondly remember your visit to a village named BURKI, near Lahore, during your last trip to the country.

    We in Pakistan were quite worried to hear about your recent injury & hope that by the grace of GOD AL-MIGHTY, you must have fully recovered by now.

    Your recent statement about the West’s leaving Pakistan alone after the Afghan war, was very well taken by most of our country men. In fact, this statement truly reflected the CHANGE, President Barak Obama promised in his presidential speech. I personally feel that American people & government still don’t have the idea how much, we Muslims particularly, and the down trodden population of the world generally, expect from & trust, Barak Obama to deliver on his promises. Virtually, Barak Obama is seen as President of the Globe.

    Hence, America must not miss this opportunity, because although, you cannot conquer the world yet, you have already won the hearts of the dwellers of this world.

    In this regard, no one else knows more than you, the importance of Pakistan in defeating the menace of terrorism & building a peaceful world. It is Pakistan where this world has to win the war for peace. Let there be no mistake, that it is a war against terror for Pakistan & within Pakistan. Never-the-less, we also assure you that we can crush this menace with our own muscles. The only thing we need is, the commitment of the free world, not to let Pakistan down (again) this time, for which America will have to take a lead.(For the re-building of Pakistan thru projects ownership, instead of loans & aid model.)

    Now, in order to see what role the free world must play, I have already written in detail to Mr. David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to the President of USA & Mr. Richard Douglas, Ex. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for counter Narcotics.(Copies also mailed at info@messages.whitehouse.gov & webmasterisb@state.gov)

    The said communications may be perused below, for your favour of consideration.

    Thanking & wishing you all the success in your quest for true world peace.

    Syed Nayyar Uddin Ahmad.
    Lahore – Pakistan

    Richard J Douglas,
    Ex. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counter Narcotics,


    I am immensely touched by your article titled ‘ The Pakistani Soldier ‘ published in the daily ” THE NEWS ” dated June 20, 2009. The reason being that, it is a genuine tribute to the many hundreds of thousands of Pakistani armed forces personnel, who are sacrificing their today for a better tomorrow, not only of Pakistan, but of the entire peace loving humanity of the world.

    In fact, right from day one of the inception of Pakistan, its soldiers have relentlessly served the cause of peace in & outside Pakistan. One example must be still fresh in the minds of the freedom loving Americans. I am referring to the daring act of rescue of US soldiers in Somalia, by the brave Pakistani troops, who defied dangers to their own lives, to serve the cause of the humanity.

    Now, what about the beautiful & capable Pakistan, of THE PAKISTANI SOLDIER. If you really want to serve the cause of peace & make this world a tranquil place, don’t treat Pakistani people as pariah of this world. If you have any doubts just go to the US airports and see how (legal Pakistani entrants ) are treated at your entry points ( my email, attached below, addressed to David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to the President of the USA, on the subject remains non replied till date). If no other nation of the free world, at least America owes we Pakistani people, a debt it can never repay (which I need not mention here, because we didn’t take on the USSR as a favour to USA. We stood for the cause of liberty & freedom only).

    Today, Pakistan is paying a very heavy price for taking on the cause of liberty & freedom. In fact, the country is profusely bleeding from its wounds of terrorism.

    As many Americans admit the mistake of leaving Pakistan in the lurch, after the Afghanistan war. Now it is high time to rebuild Pakistan. The world must come forward to make another Japan of Pakistan. And this objective can’t be achieved through loans & aid. No nation can be build with loans & aid. Rebuilding of Pakistan needs a 10 year Marshall plan (it may not cost more than one or two years defense expenditure of war in Afghanistan), which must broadly include the following strategy.

    Ø Writing off the entire Debt of country.
    Ø Allowing 100% duty free imports of Pakistani goods in all the countries.
    Ø Revamping of entire Pakistani educational system on modern lines.
    Ø Providing of world class health care system.
    Ø Development of world class transportation infrastructure.
    Ø Focus for development on small & medium size industry.
    Ø Development of agriculture, livestock & dairy sectors on world standards.
    Ø Settlement of Kashmir, water, Siachin & all other issues between Pakistan & India.
    Ø Building of Maximum possible dams on the river system.
    Ø Development & exploration (as per world standards) of natural resources.
    Ø Development of wind energy to the maximum potential of the country.

    I am very optimistic that under the visionary leadership of Mr. Obama & his dynamic team, the above proposals for helping Pakistani nation to stand on its feet, for the larger cause of the peace & freedom of this world, may not be a farfetched idea.

    With best wishes & kind regards,

    Syed Nayyar Uddin Ahmad.

    Dear Mr. David Axelrod.
    Senior Advisor to the President of USA.

    Please convey our full appreciation to President Barak Husain Obama not only for his
    wonderful speech but for the genuine efforts he & his administration is making in bridging the gap between the Muslims & the west.

    David, without going into the details of who is actually responsible for the turmoil created by the current wave of terrorism in the world, I would like to assure you that no religion is more peaceful than Islam. GOD says in the Quran that saving one life is equal to the saving of the life’s of the entire Humanity. And killing one innocent person is as bad as killing the entire Humanity. But then we Muslims are also not taught to offer the other Cheek, if slapped on one cheek.

    I am also convinced that in order to achieve the desired results, good intentions reflected in speeches, must follow with actions. And as a first step & in order to win the heart & minds of the Proud Pakistani Nation, the President of the USA must order that humiliation of all legal Pakistani entrants at American airports should stop immediately. Pakistani visitors should not be discriminated at the airports. This is one step, will not cost a Dollar. But shall generate tremendous goodwill in our hearts, for the great people of the USA, right at your entry points.

    With best wishes & kind regards,

    Syed Nayyar Uddin Ahmad

  4. Thats where it all starts. Too bad the politicians are more worried about building a palace for themselves.

    -Jawad Muqeet

  5. I’ve been saying this for years, but ain’t no one trying to listen to my Urdu medium.

    We can bomb peeps for years, but until we educate them, there is no use.

    -Ghazanfar Halim

  6. Interesting article. Do you think all that money will go the government without being touched by someone.

    -Hassaan Bukhari

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