South Asia / 25.10.2009

Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations. The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income. The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power.
Education / 31.03.2009

By Anjum Altaf This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries. The Big Questions 1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate? The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression. 2. Can NGOs fill the gap? The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The...

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 / 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...

Democracy/Governance, Education, Governance, South Asia / 18.08.2008

It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions? Let us start with a couple of concrete examples: Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy. India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years.  The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy. This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one...