Pakistan’s education challenge comes down to a numbers game. Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute (CAI), Pakistan’s TCF, where I worked in the summer of 2009, and the Pakistani-American DIL have established about 1,000 schools in total, educating nearly 170,000 students. But estimates of the country’s out-of-school children run as high as 42 million, with the country’s current 220,000 schools inadequately educating about 28 million kids. The scale of school-building efforts falls disturbingly short of the scale of Pakistan’s education disaster.
Ultimately, NGOs can never displace the role of the government. The public sector must ‘work.’
Surprisingly, a handful of development leaders in Karachi (recently dubbed “the worst educated megacity on the planet”) are ideologically committed to working with the government – to make it work. They believe that the government cannot be let off the hook, because it is dangerous when people do not expect anything from their government.
Their responses to the failure of public education are diverse. The most interesting model is school “adoption,” whereby NGOs and corporations are improving government schools — either through total takeover or lesser forms of assistance. One well-run public school I visited in rural Sindh was adopted by a Pakistani company, rebuilt by the World Bank, and receives teacher training from an NGO. CARE Foundation in Lahore has been adopting government schools since the 1990s.
And while Pakistanis sometimes lament their own state of national apathy, social work can come from surprising places. A Pakistani pop star has partnered with an educationist to impressively reform a once-decrepit public school, calling it a “paradigm” for what a Pakistani public school should look like. In the process, they discovered several policy problems in how government schools are managed and are lobbying for reform.
Formal public-private partnerships have also been devised, as a compromise between exclusive dependence on the government and trying to displace it with NGOs. Provincial education foundations, such as the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF), are actively matching public sector resources and foreign aid with private sector effectiveness to reopen public schools, improve the quality of education, and subsidize private schools. PEF boasts 800,000 beneficiaries.
Public-private partnerships may actually be the fastest way to making public resources work more effectively, in areas beyond education. While “ghost” public schools have gained notoriety, judging by the health clinics I saw and heard about in rural Sindh last summer– which are full of new equipment but padlocked and devoid of patients — the problem of ghost public infrastructure extends beyond schools. Public-private partnerships may be the best hope for Pakistan’s social sector woes. They are already being leveraged in poverty alleviation (through microfinance) and rural support.
The largest non-governmental impact by far, however, comes from an area that is often overlooked in discussions about development: the private sector. The role of private schools is actually a rich area of analysis, led by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Asim Khwaja. According to Khwaja’s fascinating LEAPS project, there were 47,000 private schools in Pakistan by the end of 2005 and the numbers have been growing rapidly, already enrolling one in every three primary school children.
These private schools are unlike the ones imagined in the West. Instead, the schools that LEAPS focuses on are, generally, small, one-room private schools that families open in their homes in rural areas, to earn a modest income, charging less than $1 per month in fees.
But Pakistan’s final educational fix will be a political one. And those who want to increase government spending on education should give more attention to improving how the existing budget is being used.
Ninety-five percent of Pakistan’s education budget is spent on teacher salaries. But, each day, 25 percent of teachers are absent from work. According to analyst Mosharraf Zaidi, teaching jobs are doled out by the government as a form of political patronage, and teachers are not compelled to show up to work. Pakistan’s problem is not one of poorly-trained or poorly-compensated teachers — they are better qualified and earn five times more than their private sector counterparts — but missing ones. And these missing teachers are not only holding down the country’s educational future, but effectively stealing taxpayer rupees, offering at least one reason for why some Pakistanis are not paying into the system.
Even a minister of education cannot fire these public school teachers. I spoke to a former minister who once threatened to publish the names of absent teachers in the newspaper, announcing that they would be fired, but the move was blocked. The decision to deliver real public education in Pakistan will have to come from the highest levels of party leadership, as high as the presidency. But the political system is unlikely to change until leaders perceive a greater benefit from serving the public’s interest in education, over the personal interests of its cronies.
Nadia Naviwala is a recent graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and a former national security aide in the U.S. Senate. She taught girls’ English summer camp in a school built by The Citizens Foundation in Minhala, a village on the India-Pakistan border, during the summer of 2009. Her research on U.S. development aid and local NGOs in Pakistan can be found here.