Education / 10.12.2008

After Mumbai, the raw emotions underlying relations between India and Pakistan are on public display. It is not a pretty picture. What can one make of it? India-Pakistan relations can be analyzed at two levels: the political and the psychological. At the political level, the argument is simple and familiar. It is argued that governing groups in the two countries have vested interests, to differing degrees, in maintaining the status quo and therefore a breakthrough is unlikely unless some dramatic change occurs in either the external environment or the cost-benefit calculus of the key players. Just the boldness of one leader or the sincerity of another is not sufficient to overcome the deep-rooted vested interests. Kargil goes a long way to support this argument. However, can a political position exist in a vacuum? Can it be completely out of tune with the underlying psychology of the people?...

Education / 19.10.2008

Four men top the list of India’s least favorite British colonialists: Robert Clive, for the decisive victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) that established Company Rule in India; Thomas Macaulay, for the infamous Minute on Indian Education (1835) that aimed to create a class of Indians in the image of the English; Reginald Dyer, for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar (1919) that killed hundreds of unarmed Indians; and Louis Mountbatten for the shameful flight (1947) that hurried India into a horrible carnage. Of these, only Dyer and Mountbatten are guilty as charged. Clive did well by his side and Macaulay, it can be argued, is badly misunderstood. It is particularly important to explore Macaulay with more care and ask whether our verdict is colored by stray bits of evidence without looking at the details of the case. Two selective quotes from the Minute are known to...

Education / 11.10.2008

I met a person the other day; he had educated his servant’s daughter who was now a physician in Los Angeles. “If everyone did that,” he said, “we could take care of the problems of illiteracy and poverty in our country.” Right or wrong? Let us see how we can do a very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the proposition is realistic. Suppose the population of our South Asian country is 100. (Readers can multiply this by a scale factor to transform the hypothetical example into one that applies to their country. For example, if the population of Bangladesh is 150 million, the scale factor is 1.5 million. Relevant numbers in the example can be multiplied by this factor for the analysis to apply to Bangladesh.) On average, we know that in South Asia about 25 percent of the population is very poor (below the official poverty line)...

Education / 10.10.2008

Half the illiterate adults in the world, about 400 million, live in South Asia; over 40 million children do not go to school; and half the children who do enroll in Grade 1 drop out before completing five years of primary education. Is this a problem and, if so, how is to be addressed? This is not a post about the state of education. It is about the importance of numbers and their relevance to the arguments we make and the solutions we propose. Some people say that governments have failed in their duty to provide education to citizens and therefore non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step in to fill the vacuum. Most of the time such discussions are carried out without any reference to either the scale of the problem or the scale of the proposed solution. They are what are termed ‘hand-waving’ arguments. As soon as one looks at...

Education, Pakistan / 06.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID. Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem. This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one...

Education / 06.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID. Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem. This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one...

Education / 26.09.2008

By Anjum Altaf Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) remind me of Iqbal’s poem PahaaR aur Gulehrii (Mountain and Squirrel) in Baang-e-Dara. In terms of the scale of the problem they are insignificant just as the size of the squirrel is insignificant relative to the size of the mountain. In terms of the ability to think, the roles are reversed – the brain of the squirrel is vastly superior to the non-existent brain of the mountain. So, clearly NGOs can be irrelevant or relevant depending on whether one looks at their brawn or their brain. Take education in Pakistan as an example. The public school system in the country is the mountain; the NGOs are the squirrel. It is quite clear to anyone who has looked at the numbers that the public school system has broken down. Leave aside the quality of education being imparted in the schools (it should best...

Education / 06.09.2008

In a previous post we had discussed whether illiteracy was the cause of poverty. A number of readers have enquired whether poverty can be the cause of illiteracy. We explore the argument in this post. At one level the proposition can come across as valid. The poor would not have the income to afford education for their children and would, by necessity, keep the latter out of school. The very poor would need to supplement the household income with the earnings of children giving rise to the prevalence of child labor. The very, very poor would not even have enough to afford the upkeep of their children and be forced to give them up to madrassas providing free care. This line of thinking would lead one to conclude that countries with widespread poverty would have widespread illiteracy. How then would one account for the very wide variation in...

Education / 26.08.2008

It would be obvious to readers that in this series of posts we have been challenging the validity of single-cause explanations of the relative lack of economic and social development in South Asia. Thus, while we agree that overpopulation, illiteracy, and corruption can have negative implications, we have tried to convince readers with evidence that neither of them can be considered the root cause of all our problems. In this post we address another such single-cause explanation that one comes across fairly often in Pakistan – that loss of religious faith (or deviation from the true path) is the primary reason for the continued problems in the country. Let us examine this proposition and test it against the arguments of reason and the weight of empirical evidence. There are two components to the proposition: faith and development. Taken separately, they are relatively unproblematic. Most people consider development...

Education, Religion / 22.08.2008

Unacceptable levels of poverty continue to prevail in South Asia. In order to understand the nature of this poverty we have to first challenge the popularly held beliefs about its causes. Just as there are people who believe that illiteracy or overpopulation are the major causes of poverty, there are others who attribute it to corruption and argue that nothing can be done till corruption is eliminated. There is no doubt that corruption is a pervasive and aggravating phenomenon but even a cursory look at hard data and a comparative analysis should make one skeptical of the assertion that it is a major cause of underdevelopment in South Asia. China provides one contrary example. The issue of corruption is very high on the political agenda of the Chinese government and people holding very high offices have been executed for related crimes. But despite the corruption the economy has...