Dr Shahid SiddiquiPublished in SOUTHASIA
Vol 15, No 5, May 11
Education being a significant factor in human development is a part of national and international agenda in the contemporary world. In a World Bank report, Knowledge for Development (1998-99) it was suggested that knowledge gaps between the developed and developing countries lead to economic gaps between them. This is in line with the increasing awareness in the contemporary about the significance of knowledge economy. The countries that are leaders in the development largely rely on their human capital, enriched and empowered through education which is contemporary in nature and relevant in purpose. The literate, skillful, and healthy human capital of a country paves the way for its progress and development.
Realizing the significance of education in the process of socioeconomic development Asian Development Bank (ADB), established in 1966, offered partnership to the South Asian countries to fund them achieving the educational goals. This was in line with the professed mission of the Bank, i.e., “prosperity and poverty reduction.” In Strategy 2020, an ADB document, it is claimed that “Change is at the heart of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) experience.” To realize the dream of change it is crucial to enhance the life chances of the people living in this area by enhancing the educational opportunities and ensuring maximum access of the masses. To obtain this goal ADB has lent sizeable funds to the South Asian countries in the areas of technical education, teacher education, distance education, and management, etc. According to Loxley, “Educational lending since 1991 amounted to about US$3.8 billion or about 6 percent of total ADB lending…in 2001, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Papua New Guinea borrowed about half of the total ADB lending.”
The biggest challenge we face in South Asia is acute poverty. A large portion of population is forced to live below the poverty line. This is linked with the low rate of literary in the region. In 2005, South Asia’s average literacy rate was 58 per cent, net primary enrolment stood at 87 per cent and 13 million children were out of school. If we compare these figures with those for 1995 we see some improvement. But this improvement falls far short of what is required. The MHHDC’s 10-year review suggests improvement in some indicators of education in South Asian countries but efforts and resources seemed to be insufficient. The 1997 report had lamented that “South Asia is the poorest, most illiterate and least gender-sensitive region in the world.” This should have been a wake-up call for South Asian governments to speed up initiatives for improved systems of education to combat the challenges of access, quality and dropout rates. Unfortunately South Asia “continues to be the most illiterate region in the world containing around 379 million illiterate adults — the highest absolute number amongst all regions in the world” (MHHDC report, 2007).
The lack of access to schools is just one challenge South Asia is facing. A more serious problem relates to the quality of education that students receive in schools. Teachers’ absenteeism, outdated curriculum, transmission based pedagogy and memory oriented assessment system are some hard facts we come across in the mainstream schools of South Asian countries. ADB seems to be aware of this problem. In South Asia Economic Report (2007), produced by ABD, the foreword highlights the need for a competitive and contemporary education. According to the report, “The region’s education system must be transformed for the countries to be able to adapt to the new realities. Quality education is needed at all levels, and technical, vocational, and higher education should be aligned with emerging global market demands.”
Why didn’t reforms in South Asia bring the desired results in the last 10 years? Why couldn’t enhanced literacy rates lead to equal distribution of opportunities and benefits? The experts have tried to look for the reason in low allocations for education. The average allocation for education in South Asia is less than three per cent which is on the low side. Low utilisation is another aspect of the problem, as is inappropriate spending. A few experts consider the governance of education as the root cause of the problem. Another reason could be lack of stakeholders’ involvement and ownership of proposed changes. A number of research projects couldn’t deliver in the absence of effective monitoring and accountability systems. Some educational reforms were confined to the cosmetic changes at surface levels and could not focus the deeper sustainable part of change. Another reason of not having visible change in educational sector is lack of coordination among different educational initiatives in the region.
All these analyses are based on certain truths and are quite convincing. The only problem though is that we usually try to analyse the educational issues in isolation. We must understand that education is not a neutral and passive phenomenon whose dissection can be carried out on a sterilized table in a lab environment. On the contrary it is a highly political phenomenon that needs to be studied in relation to society. While we try to find the answer to the problem, we need to take into consideration the socio-political systems of South Asian societies. With a few exceptions, most of the South Asian countries are directly or indirectly ruled by military governments. In some countries, civilian autocratic governments are in power. Most of these governments have a limited and confined view of development that hinges on the physical side of development — dams, roads, shopping plazas, etc. In this kind of development the human aspect, for example education, health and gender parity are either ignored or underestimated. Most of these countries have a political system that discriminates against the poor and marginalised groups. It is this unfair socio-political system that acts as a resisting force and hampers educational reforms.
To make the educational reforms more productive it is important that the desire of change and nature of reform should emanate from indigenous context or the local partners should own the proposed change and process to reach desired change. The change sought by the reforms should not be superficial but deeper in nature so that it is a sustainable change. An effective mechanism of monitoring, governance and, accountability should be built in to make sure that spending is appropriate, the governance is focused and the desired goals are targeted. In some projects a large chunk of money was spent on building the self image of the then political rulers. This leads us to the most important factor in the success of reforms, i.e., political will of the state. This requires a political government that is democratic in nature and is committed to build a welfare society based on the aspiration of masses. ADB’s funding and interest in development of South Asia can have much better impact if the above mentioned factors are in place.
The writer is Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org