The book under review is topical in that discussions on education are both neverending and never seem to go out of fashion. For example, one only needs to recall that the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) just launched its 2006 ‘Global Report on Education for All (EFA) by the year 2015’, in which it stated that overall steady progress had been made since 1998 towards the attainment of goals of universal primary education and that primary school enrolment had gone up sharply in several world regions (South Asia included, of course) that had been lagging behind till then.
This academic book aims at providing a status report on education in the five politico-administrative units of Pakistan. It also explores the ways and means by which the public sector can ensure a more efficient and effective achievement of primary school objectives in the rural areas of that country.
This analysis is the product of relatively small sample surveys carried out in the four provinces and a federal administered territory of Pakistan, namely Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, North West Frontier Province and the northern areas. Composed of six chapters, the book is divided into two distinctive parts. While the first three chapters are for general readers, the three others, relying on statistical analysis, are directed at a more expert readership.
The most valuable input of this book is probably contained in its second chapter which provides a qualitative and comparative analysis of government schools, private schools and NGO schools. This is the central theme of the book. From the finding of the surveys it appears that there has been over the last decade a massive exodus from government to non-government schools, that is, from an inadequate government school system to an ever expanding private and NGO school network.
In the following chapter, the author looks into another major aspect of the reforms in the education sector, namely, participatory development programmes, incidentally part of the social action plan implemented in two phases in the 1990’s. In this context, the question that obviously begs to be asked is how parents, despite illiteracy and low education levels, can play a monitoring role in their children’s schooling. As in India—and elsewhere in the world for that matter—policy makers in Pakistan are convinced that parental and community participation was a missing ingredient in making rural public schooling a success. However, in this regard, no concrete results seem to have been achieved beyond the formation of government commissions. That may sound familiar to those who know the Indian scenario.
The author also demonstrates through this comparative study how the concentration of economic and political power (in a country the society of which has remained extremely conservative, if not feudal, in its rural areas) has fed inequalities. He successfully brings out the correlation between land-based power and schooling. Big landlords have—not surprisingly—had an adverse impact on village educational achievements, either because of the subversion of school infrastructures or simply by maintaining peasant children in the status of labourers. This is no new discovery but the figures of the surveys definitively confirm this social status quo.
The book is informative also for those whose knowledge of the subject is poor. There are nuggets here for everyone. Examples abound and the differences with India are worth noting. It is significant, for example, that in view of the lack of public sector basic education, the recent Pakistan administrations have actually welcomed the rapid growth of NGO schooling. Also that, according to the government of Pakistan Education Sector Reform Strategic Plan (2001-2004), the private sector was to be subsidized.
The book also notes that there is a flip side. For obviously, this shows that the state is abdicating its constitutional responsibility of providing quality public education particularly for the poor. What appears to be a pragmatic approach to the problem of inadequate provision and poor quality of schooling can have a long lasting negative impact on the country’s educational system. One can but agree with the author when he suggests that subsidies should rather be used to ensure quality public sector education since it represents the benchmark for the non-government sector. Trick-mirror reflections of the Indian situation abound. For instance, in April 2006, General Pervez Musharraf has addressed the issue expressing his serious concerns over what has been termed the poor performance of social sectors despite considerable expenditure in these areas. He has in this context asked for the revival of the cabinet committee on social sectors to look into specific issues of which basic education stands out as a priority.
However, in its journey towards the goal of universal and free basic education, the individual performance of Pakistan certainly appears, in the light of development studies expert Shahrukh Rafi Khan’s analysis, far poorer than that of its Indian neighbour (also struggling to achieve the same goal as part of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs)).
Figures can sometimes speak for themselves. The situation of primary education in Pakistan is abysmal. Pakistan’s net primary enrolment amounts to 66% and is therefore lower than both the average level of 79% for the whole of South Asia and of 74% for low income countries. Flaws in the education system are numerous. They are in particular reflected by persistent gender gaps (an observation that clubs Pakistan together with Bangladesh and Afghanistan). Expenditure in education has also been gradually declining from 2.6% of the GDP in 1990 to 1.8% in 1999-01 and 1.7% in 2002-2003. The rather grim situation pictured in Shah Rukh Rafi Khan’s study does lead us to the conclusion that the allocation of resources alone does not provide the remedies. The greater challenge, as always, is to effectively implement policy.
In this context, we may recall that recent initiatives such as the government’s devolution programme have been welcomed by most donors. This could lead to an improvement of provincial public resources management capacity and establishing decentralized financing but this again may not suffice to rectify the imbalances. All in all, the solution would appear to depend on a change of mindsets as much as on a change of planning or improved management. This core issue is unfortunately not dealt with deeply enough in the book under review.
There are obviously strong cultural disparities between the regions covered in the study (the Northern Areas have their specificities which explain acute gender gaps) and these would have made interesting terrains of enquiry. This book is therefore a welcome opening to further investigation.
Anne Vaugier Chatterjee is currently adviser-political affairs in the European Commission Delegation to India. She was previously coordinator of the Department of Political Science at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. She has authored several articles on Indian social and political affairs, a book on Punjab and edited the collective book Education and Democracy in India (2004).