THE SOCIAL SECTOR
In 1999 I was on the horns of a dilemma, made worse by limited financial resources and by an economy in extreme distress: should our strategy be to allocate maximum resources to education and health, or to development projects that would boost the economy? I decided on the latter because we needed a revived economy in order to increase funds for the social sector. This strategy worked well, and in two to three years we had reached such a healthy position that we could greatly increase funds for health and education, especially the latter.
We took a holistic look at the education sector, which had decayed pathetically. We decided to address every level of it. At the bottom of the education ladder, we decided to improve literacy, which was at a shameful 48 percent. We decided to universalize education, especially for girls, and also focus on adult literacy.
The second rung of the education ladder is primary and secondary education. To improve these we decided to modify the curriculum, introduce a better examination system, and emphasize the training of teachers. I created a public-private partnership organization that I called the National Commission on Human Development to assist in health, education, and building capacity at the grassroots level. This commission, with a plan to access all 110 districts of Pakistan by December 2006, is delivering on its mandate. It has opened “feeder” schools with the assistance of local villagers (no brick and mortar involved), employing local girls and boys as teachers, and 20,800 adult literacy centers. I give all credit for this to Dr. Nasim Ashraf, a dynamic expatriate
Pakistani-American medical doctor who gave me this idea and is now spearheading the effort.
Augmenting these efforts are the provincial governments. In Punjab, for example, all state schools have been made free, as have textbooks. A computer program has tagged every school, identified what each lacks, and plugged the holes. In eighteen districts of southern Punjab, where the dropout rate for girls was highest between classes five and eight, 200 rupees a month are given to any girl whose attendance rate is 80 percent or more. Not surprisingly, the dropout rate has decreased dramatically.
The top rung of the education ladder, which we tackled separately, is higher education. We completely dismantled the decayed University Grants Commission and from its remains created a new Higher Education Commission (HEC) headed by a most able and dynamic scientist and educationist, Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman. Besides formulating a new University Ordinance, HEC introduced revolutionary changes in the universities and improved their quality. Funds for higher education were increased from a paltry $10 million to $350 million per annum, an unprecedented increase of 3,500 percent. An ambitious program has been launched to produce 1,500 PhDs annually in engineering and science by 2010. In the past, only a dozen or two dozen PhDs were awarded annually. By 2008 six new engineering universities meeting international standards will have been opened. The HEC has initiated a distance learning program linking fifty-nine existing universities all over Pakistan and has also brought in 16,000 expensive science journals on the Internet, making them available to students all over the country. These measures are having a salutary effect on higher education.
In the past, we have grossly ignored technical education. There-fore, certain technicians, and skilled manpower in general, have been in short supply. We have now created a National Vocational and Technical Education Commission (NAVTEC) to develop technical schools and vocational centers around the country in an organized manner. Thus technical education has now been taken away from the Ministry of Education, where it was languishing. The overall idea is to create link-ages between our universities producing engineers, the technical schools producing skilled technicians, and the requirements of our present and future industry. This will not only enhance our technical expertise but also create jobs.
The last thorny issue that we are tackling is madrassa education. We have approximately 14,000 madrassas in Pakistan with about 1 million poor students. Eighty percent of these madrassas fall under five Wafaq ul Madaris (“trusts for madrassas”). Their strength lies in the fact that they generally provide free board and lodging to their students. In that sense they are very strong providers of human welfare. Their weakness, however, is that they generally impart religious education only, and a few of them get involved in terrorism and extremism. In general, most are characterized by religious rigidity and intolerance of other sects. Such a system generates thousands of young men annually who can become only clerics in a mosque. We need to change this situation through a dialogue with the Wafaq ul Madaris. We have been trying to mainstream madrassas into our normal education system.
First, we now require madrassas to register with the government and to teach all the normal subjects specified by the board of education and administer the related exams, instead of restricting themselves to merely a religious curriculum. The government has decided to fund only those madrassas that comply with these requirements. All five Wafaqs are generally accepting this. While they accept the teaching of subjects in accordance with a syllabus provided by us, however, they have opposed joining the system of our board of education.” We are making progress toward a compromise, despite a lack of trust on both sides. I am sure we will reach an agreement soon, and that it will go a long way toward harmonizing relations between Pakistan and its madrassas.
Of the 20 percent or so madrassas that are not part of the Wafaq ul Madaris, only a small and decreasing number are in the hands of extremists. It bears repeating that among Pakistan’s 150 million Muslims, only a small fraction are extremists. The problem, here as else-where in the world, is that extremists are so vocal and do such drastic things that they receive a disproportionate share of attention, whereas the peace-loving, moderate majority is so silent and meek that it gives the impression of being a minority. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis are firmly on the side of enlightened moderation. It bears repeating that Islam in India was spread by the Sufis, not by the sword. This is why the majority of our Muslims are tolerant and peace-loving.
Eventually, as a result of board examinations and standardized curricula, madrassa students will be eligible to apply to colleges or universities on merit. There are many countries around the world that intertwine religious and public schools successfully, and there is no reason why Pakistan cannot do the same.