Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

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 school at a time. I will argue that this will send us off on the wrong track.

Think of it this way. If you go to a physician with fever and rashes, the physician does not treat you for fever and rashes. The fever and rashes are not the disease; they are just the symptoms of a disease. And the disease is unidentified till there is a diagnosis which is the real job of the physician. Only when the underlying cause is identified can the appropriate treatment be prescribed. And this prescription will be very different depending on whether the fever and rashes are due to malaria as opposed to chicken pox.

The social scientist is the physician of the social system and his/her real task in this case is to identify the underlying cause whose symptom is 50 percent illiteracy in Pakistan. Before we begin to address that question we should also clarify that just as illiteracy is not the problem, the 50 percent of the citizens who are illiterate are not the problem. They are not the ones holding back the development and prosperity of the country. Blaming them would be akin to blaming the patients and the victims.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is a grossly mismanaged country. And the ones who have been in charge of mismanaging the country are its literate, not its illiterate, citizens. Let us grant for the moment that it is part of this mismanagement that is manifested in the illiteracy of half the population. So the question we have to ask is why the literate managers have failed to impart literacy to the still illiterate citizens?

The two explanations that one hears all the time are lack of political will and lack of money. But these are not convincing explanations. Why is political will needed to spread literacy? Who in the country is opposing the spread of literacy? Why does political capital need to be expended for this cause? There is no satisfactory answer.

And why is there a lack of money for education? There seems to be a lot of money for everything else from the making of nuclear bombs to buying F-16 planes to building the highest water fountain in the world. Why is it education that is starved for money? Once again there is no satisfactory answer.

The only plausible conclusion seems to be that spreading literacy amongst the illiterate has a very low priority for the literate managers of the country. And so we push back the question further to ask why that priority is so low?

Let me try to present a hypothesis with a few examples. Take the tribal sardars in Balochistan. The population of Balochistan is only 10 million and only half of those are ethnic Baloch. We know that a number of Baloch sardars have earned millions of dollars for the use of natural resources on their lands. So why have the sardars not used this revenue to educate their tribesmen?

When you pose that question almost everyone in Pakistan is quick to inform you that the sardars do not wish to educate or otherwise develop their tribesmen because they want them to remain dependent.

Leaving aside the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan, we can conclude from this that there is at least one type of political-economic system in which the rulers are positively not interested in educating their constituents.

Have I picked an outlier, the only such system of this type in the world ruled by backward tribal sardars? Think again. Recall that in the American South before the Civil War many states had passed laws making it a crime for slaves to learn to read and write and for others to instruct them. The punishments included flogging for slaves and heavy fines for the teachers.

Why was this necessary? Because if the slaves had been able to read the Constitution they would have noted that it began with the statement that all men were born equal and, one presumes, they would have been curious to know why the equality did not apply to them.

So we can begin to believe that there are indeed political-economic systems, especially those based on oppression, where the rulers do not wish the ruled to develop the ability to think and question because that questioning would lead to a questioning of the legitimacy of the systems themselves.

Do you believe that such things just happen by themselves without conscious thought? Once more you will have to think again. Most people in the subcontinent are familiar with the name of Lord Macaulay made famous by his 1837 ‘Minute on Education’. Here is what he said in a remarkable speech in the British Parliament on the Government of India Bill in 1833:

“Are we to keep the people of India ignorant in order that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition? Or do we mean to awaken ambition and provide it with no legitimate vent?”

What happened in India later is a fascinating digression but I will not get into that here. The point to take away is that the decision to educate or not to educate the subjects is a political decision, that education policy is an element in the political calculus, and that there are some political-economic systems, of which I have provided three examples, where the decision of the rulers is not to educate the ruled beyond the minimum that is necessary for the functioning of the system.

Of course, not all systems are like that. Here in the Silicon Valley you have a sub-system that puts a great premium on learning and that even pays you to acquire more knowledge. Why? Because this system is part of a globally competitive environment in which it would die if it didn’t remain ahead of its competition. So, one can conclude that it is the needs of a political-economic system, not good will, that determine its attitudes towards education.

Note that one cannot even generalize from the Silicon Valley sub-system to the US as a whole. You might agree that the US does not really want its citizens to learn more than it feels necessary about the Iraq war, for example. And it does not strongly enough wish the same kind of thinking to be taught in inner city schools as it does in the schools of Palo Alto. Do you attribute that in the richest country of the world to lack of political will or lack of money?

So, here is the first major conclusion: Education is a political issue; political-economic systems are in general inimical to enabling their citizens to think; they enable only as much thinking as is necessary for the survival of the system; and systems differ in how much thinking-power they need to survive.

You can even apply this perspective to attitudes towards the education of women within families if you think of a family as a political-economic system. When we see the issue in this perspective we can understand better why education has such a low priority in Pakistan for the managers of the system. They sense a very low need for innovative thinking that is satisfied by a handful of elite institutions whose teaching methods have never trickled down to the vast majority of schools and colleges. On balance, the dangers posed by critical thinking far outweigh its benefits to the status quo.

Now, of course, there are occasions when populations rebel against this kind of oppression. We can think of the warlords in China, the Tsars in Russia, and the capitalists in Cuba as the equivalents of our Baloch sardars. Their populations under Mao, Lenin, and Castro rebelled against the oppression and were able to win universal literacy for themselves.

But does this stop education from remaining an instrument of politics? No, the politics just moves up to the next level – that of the content that comprises education and literacy. So, the Chinese were made literate with the Little Red Book, the Russians with Marxism-Leninism, and the Cubans with the Socialist Man. The object was to concede the hard-won right of citizens to learn but to ensure that they thought in a particular, state-sanctioned, way. Many would call that indoctrination, not education.

The second major conclusion is that literacy is important but the content of that literacy is even more important. Let me give you an example from closer to home. Ashis Nandy, the leading political psychologist in India, recently got into a lot of trouble for writing an article in which he laid the blame for the ethnic cleansing in Gujarat on its educated middle class. Remember that this ethnic cleansing is alleged to have been incited and encouraged by Narendra Modi, the very literate Chief Minister of the state.

Related to this, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading scholar of ethnic conflict working in Mumbai, asked a very profound question: Why is that the educated middle class is more bigoted than the illiterate masses? And he had a very simple answer: because it is educated.

Think about this. If you take the mind of a child as an empty vessel and make the child literate while filling his or her mind with hate and lies what will you get? You will get a literate young person who is infinitely more dangerous than an illiterate one.

So, if you teach numeric literacy in a school by asking how many kar-sevaks it would take to demolish 7 mosques in 3 days if one kar-sevak can demolish one mosque in two days, you will certainly achieve literacy, but at a very heavy cost to society.

Of course, this political use of education is not confined to India. The curriculum wing of the ministry of education in Pakistan retains very tight control over what is to be taught in public schools in Pakistan. An analysis of the content is available on the web in a report prepared by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. When you see it you will be convinced that this is indeed not education but indoctrination. And, of course, you are quite well aware how some others are being made literate in the well-funded madrassas.

So this is what we mean by the term “beyond literacy”. Education is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves. And thus we have a twin struggle: first to ensure that our citizens obtain their basic human right of education; and second that the education they get enables them to think for themselves.

Once we have diagnosed the problem and placed it in its political context only then can we begin to think how we can get from where we are to where we want to be. The first part is obviously a political struggle. We have to mobilize the citizens to demand their right to a good education – no one is going to give it to them as charity. But this also requires us to see the role of NGOs in a realistic perspective – the arithmetic does not support the conclusion that NGOs on their own can fill the gap left by the omissions of the state.

NGOs are doing a commendable job in changing the life chances of the proportionately very few people they are able to touch. But all the statistics confirm that the overall gap in Pakistan is widening despite the heroic commitment of the NGOs. NGOs need at the same time to act as awareness-raising groups to mobilize citizens around their rights and as pressure groups to force the state to discharge its responsibility to its citizens.

Second, we must contest the struggle over the content of education and the pedagogy of critical thinking, aspects we have ignored to our detriment by allowing ideologues to capture and enfeeble the educational arena since the time of Zia ul Haq. Here again, NGOs have a vital role in the evolution of new content and learning methods that they can experiment with in their institutions. But here we must realize that the conventional approach to improving the quality of education is no longer possible. Quite apart from the opposition of the state and of those who control educational institutions today, there is no way we can get the thousands of trained teachers we need in the schools and colleges spread over the rural areas, the small towns and the secondary cities of Pakistan. We have to think of a way to leapfrog this limitation.

Here we have an opportunity provided by the emergence of technologies that did not exist even a few decades ago. Recall that Ayotallah Khomeini toppled the Shah by using cassette tapes to educate Iranians about the oppression in the country. We may disagree with the political content of this education but here we only want to note the leverage provided by new technology and the weakening of state controls because of it.

Since that time digital technology has made remarkable inroads. The cell phone has now penetrated into the remotest villages and reached amongst the poorest of the citizens. And if you in Silicon Valley continue what you are doing the digital content that would be available on cell phones tomorrow cannot even be imagined today.

It is this democratization of access to information not subject to state control (recall the attempts to ban dish-antennas a few years back) that holds out the biggest hope for the future. It would be technological forces supported by civic action that would be the driving force of this transformation. Our job would be to find the content that would take advantage of these technological opportunities. So the ball is very much in our court.

On our part, we have started a modest initiative to provide content in a thought-provoking format for college students in South Asia. It is still in an experimental stage seeking to find the right mix of content, format and complexity. We hope to turn this into a major e-learning platform grounded in specific nodes in South Asia with the content transferred to local language blogs. I invite you to take a look at this initiative, to provide your inputs, and to participate in the experiment to see if we can really make a difference in the sense that I have outlined in this presentation.

I think we can and I am excited by the challenge. If we pool our strengths – mastery of technology, familiarity with content, and motivation for civic action – we can make our presence felt and make a decisive contribution to the cause of education and liberation in Pakistan.

Back to Main Page

See endnote 25 in Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India by Vani K. Barooah and Sriya Iyer, 2004. See also, The Constitutional Mandate and Education, 2005.

  • Gautam Sen
    Posted at 20:55h, 08 December Reply

    Anjum, I am a teacher from India teaching in an elite high school in Turkey. I couldn’t agree with you more when you (with Asghar Ali Engineer) say that the educated are the problem.

    In Turkey, as in South Asia, there is a huge prejudice against the “uneducated” people (meaning the socially marginalized, and religiously observant) especially among the so-called secular middle classes, which becomes apparent when you discuss social or political issues with students. But it seems to be more of a class prejudice than a religious or social one.

    The solution for all social problems, according to my students, is education, but when asked why increasing education over the eighty years of the Turkish Republic has not been able to solve the problems that beset this country, there is no reply, or a confused one. And Turkey has had an education system that has been micromanaged by the state right from the foundation of the Republic in 1923.

    The children of the elite in this country are for the most part unable to think of education as more than SAT and TOEFL exams for getting into US universities, or preparing for the horrendous university entrance exams that students require to rank in the first 200,000 in order to get into Turkish universities.

    Back in South Asia, things are less homogenous, but the problem is much more serious. We too have class and caste and communal prejudices, but in addition, the high incidence of chronic malnutrition ensures that the children of the poor (which includes a high percentage of dalits and adivasis) do not have sufficiently developed neurological capacity for normal learning. Mothers are giving birth to babies who have suffered from intra-uterine malnutrition, because the mothers’ BMI is as low as 13 (compared to a healthy minimum of 18.5). We are allowing an alarming proportion of an entire generation to die without batting an eyelid. This is a much more serious problem than in Turkey.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 20:37h, 15 December Reply

    Gautam, All three of your observations are critical to improving our understanding of this issue.

    Most people continue to mention education as the solution to societal problems without reflecting why increased education over decades has failed to move us in the right direction. Part of the problem, of course, is in the content and nature of education. Education is a misnomer for acquiring information and skills; its function to promote crtical thinking is being lost. The bizarre outcome is that it is actually the educated who have become part of the problem.

    Your point about malnutrition and its impacts on learning ability is still not well recognized. I wonder how India can become a global power while carrying such a huge burden. In this regard, catching up with China would be impossible and it is even more ironic that this is the outcome of democratic governance in which people are supposed to have a voice.

    There are so many ironies buried here. I am very pleased that a teacher has joined this discussion with first-hand experiences.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 09:26h, 29 January Reply

    I wonder if there is a demand-side issue as well.
    India’s literacy rate FOR ENGLISH I believe demonstrates that if the individual is convinced that educating her child will lead to guaranteed benefit, the family will make what sacrifice is needed (forgoing the child’s labour, perhaps paying fees) to get the child educated.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:58h, 29 January Reply

    Aakar, The demand side definitely has a place in the explanation. A 1993 paper (Poverty in Karachi: Incidence, Location, Characteristics, and Upward Mobility, Pakistan Development Review, Vol 32, No 2) had looked at investment in education by the poor across generations and reported “If corroborated by other evidence, this could be a significant finding, indicating that less educated parents could be less inclined to consider the education of their children as a way out of poverty in the future.”

    And you are quite right, very significant private expenditures on education (e.g., on tuition, test preparation) confirm that when expected returns are high parents sacrifice to educate their children,

    It does seem though that a lot of people have given up on education which could be due to a mix of compulsion (cannot afford) and rationality (consider it of no value in increasing incomes).

    As an update one can add the Taliban who are forcing people to abandon education at least of girls.

  • Sharad Mistry
    Posted at 14:50h, 28 February Reply

    We are all in the so-called advanced 21st century and still debating on the lack of collective focus and efforts to educate the masses, esp those without sufficient means to have two square meals a day!

    Political as it is, the issue of keeping the masses uneducated has been handed down from the once-ruling elites called the English Rulers that preferred to keep the masses (in various colonies under their rule) under their supposedly educated thumb. Sixty year after independence, the educated, ruling elite, politicians and bureaucrats with their colonial mindset intact have all mastered this art in India, Pakistan, and other countries in the South Asia.

    As SouthAsian suggests, collective efforts need to be undertaken by all the like-minded peoples in the south asian region interested in raising the education levels among the masses through the use of technology, such that the education is more man-making and not making him / her a slave to the developed world and its consumersit culture. such activities should not be allowed to be undertaken by those engaged in conversion activities – a practice that thrives in India even when the government has banned conversionary practices.

    And I congratulate SouthAsian for his/her/their modest and yet excellent e-learning initiative thru the Weblog for the college students. Pl make this weblog popular among students and adults like Orkut, Facebook, Yahoo etc … so as to unify the culture of southasia which could then become the basis for a resurgent and strong India and Asia as well.

  • Bemisal Iqbal
    Posted at 22:42h, 01 March Reply

    I’m a Social Sciences student in Karachi and I was doing my research for a paper when I came across this article.
    I have been interning as a teacher in various NGO schools in Karachi and I’m also a full time teacher at a private primary school. As a part of the education system, I feel that at least in Pakistan there is a huge education gap between the rich and the poor or rather between those who attend government schools and those who attend private schools.
    The difference of education is again, as you mentioned, the result of the content that is being taught in the two types of systems. It worries me as a student as to where our country is going if this polarization of educational standards and stratification among our population continues. I feel that it our government’s responsibility to eradicate these differences. The NGO’s, as you mentioned, are doing an excellent job but they can’t possibly educate the entire population.
    What our nation requires is commitment from the elite who are already educated and have the resources to make a difference to the society and a proper channelization of resources and time in order to educate masses with the appropriate content with an appropriate methodology.
    How and when this will happen leaves a big question mark in my head.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 23:57h, 01 March Reply

    BI, You are quite right to worry about the future. This is one on the most serious problems facing Pakistan. NGOs have also recognized that more is needed than just adding to the number of schools. Recently an International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan has been established to address the issue in a more comprehensive manner. You are welcome to join the coalition and contribute your ideas.

    The limitations of NGOs are discussed in two other posts on this blog. Please feel free to comment on the perspective presented in these posts:

    Are NGOs Relevant?

    Ghalib – 10: On NGOs

  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:44h, 16 March Reply

    This was an excellent article. It would also be good for you to read this paper on elite dominance in politics and its effect on education in UP,


    I think the situation in India is dire, especially as Gautam points malnourishment prevents children from fully developing their cognitive abilities. This is evident if one goes beyond mere enrollment and ‘literacy’ numbers, and actually tests how much the children have actually learnt. And in India, rate of learning is very low indeed at this point. Please see,


    It is interesting to put the article in the context of recent political developments in India. After independence, for many reasons the Southern states did make substantially more progress than the northern ones in all fronts including education. This led to a low social status of North Indians, migrants esp. in Southern and Western India. It seems that Bihar (the state targeted the most) has made some decent strides in education recently, and I am wondering if that is because of the humiliation felt by the elites or the result of a genuine ‘democratic upsurge’.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:25h, 17 March Reply

    Vikram, Many thanks for the two links. They are invaluable in understanding the issue under discussion. I would like to follow up on the hypothesis regarding Bihar. Inputs from readers would be welcome.

    The incidence of malnutrition should be a major concern about the future burden that South Asia will have to carry. The recent report in the New York Times is devastating:


  • Pingback:Is Mayawati bringing the change India’s Dalits need ? « An academic view of India
    Posted at 04:51h, 12 April Reply

    […] consonance with Dr. Anjum Altaf’s excellent essay on why South Asia fares poorly on literacy levels, the author’s note […]

  • Raza Rumi
    Posted at 20:25h, 02 September Reply

    Many thanks for alerting me to this excellent piece. It was refreshing to read this paper as it makes a departure from the typical mode and framework of analysis. Since this was a keynote address, I also found it to be very accessible.

  • Raza Rumi
    Posted at 14:08h, 03 September Reply

    Thanks..I just read that and will comment later.
    Brilliant stuff here. R

  • Sarmad Abbasi
    Posted at 18:07h, 03 September Reply

    I am deeply distressed by the following example that is given by the author that is reinforcing the same biases that exists in our society: people are illiterate cause of the local leaders. This is not the case at all. There are other variables. The most defining one is Islamabad. In places, where the sardars or the local leaders have shown inclinations towards education, Islamabad has discouraged it.

    There are several regions where education had a tradition and it was valued. This was systematically destroyed. The best way to keep the elite ahead it to claim “the rest cannot compete” and this is not the point that Baluchistan has ever made. Baluchistan has been arguing for more funds precisely because it wants to tackle the acute problems of poverty and illiteracy.

    Musharaf regime did not hire tens of thousands of school teachers in sindh for many years. Was it because of the influence of the local leaders??? the local leaders would love to get jobs for their constituency. They would manipulate the jobs to get personal gains just like people do in Islamabad. So, what is so is different. People in Islamabad have a right a God-given right to be selfish and self serving (oh they live in ISLAM-abad) and others don’t. The rest of the country should become saints before they would ever improve???
    Because the local leaders should not get any say lets deny 1 million people in Sindh primary education is the thinking of Islamabad. Not to work with them. Not to make education something that is seen as a win win game for everyone.

    Why is it that the responsibility of educating the tribal people in Baluchistan is on the local leaders when they do not get the resources and control over what is theirs… why is it not the responsibility of those who run the state and usurp power?

    Education was delinked from any kind of economic gain, unless off course, you crossed a threshold of being an A leveler or speaking with an accent “Check out DAWN TV.”

    This kind of manipulation of reality is very SAD 🙁

    The author writes:

    We know that a number of Baloch sardars have earned millions of dollars for the use of natural resources on their lands. So why have the sardars not used this revenue to educate their tribesmen?

    When you pose that question almost everyone in Pakistan is quick to inform you that the sardars do not wish to educate or otherwise develop their tribesmen because they want them to remain dependent.

    Leaving aside the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan, we can conclude from this that there is at least one type of political-economic system in which the rulers are positively not interested in educating their constituents.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:07h, 03 September

      Sarmad: What is local depends upon the level of analysis. In this article the point being made was that the rulers in Islamabad do not wish to have the citizens of Pakistan educated or at least educated in a way that inculcates open and critical thinking. Within the argument there was the example of an even more local level – that of Baloch sardars. If you feel the example is wrong, that Baloch sardars were always very keen to educate the people of their tribes and were only prevented from doing so by Islamabad, let us discuss the issue. We would be happy to correct the error if it can be substantiated.

  • Web Development Pakistan
    Posted at 06:21h, 13 October Reply

    This article is very effective for education … nice to read about the literacy-education and technology ……

  • Bharat
    Posted at 06:42h, 14 July Reply

    An important point was made in the article that distinguishes skill acquisition from actual education. Literacy itself is nothing more than a skill (albeit an important one); and it would be useful to recognize that in traditional Hindu Indian society learning was transmitted orally, through memorization, and it was quite possible (and common) to have educated, cultured individuals who were nevertheless illiterate. So, the equating of literacy with intellectual backwardness is something of a (I suspect mindless) import, not consonant with the history and culture of the land.

    I separated out Hindu culture because I don’t have a similar feel for the place of the written word in Muslim culture–I imagine that, because the Quran was transcribed early in its history, the written word would carry quite a bit of weight with Muslims, contrasted with Hindus whose oldest grammar describes spoken language, and the authentic renditions of the Veda are not written but spoken (or more precisely, sung).

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:03h, 25 October Reply

    Useful article on textbooks:

    Few, if any, instruments shape national culture more powerfully than the materials used in schools. Textbooks are not only among the first books most people encounter; in many places they are, along with religious texts, almost the only books they encounter….

    The degree to which a government keeps control of the textbooks used in classrooms is a good, if imprecise, guide to its commitment to ideological control. Where that yearning is strong, governments are likely to produce the texts themselves or define minutely what goes into them. But even when governments are less directly involved, ideology can count—either the ideology of the groups that control textbook-writing, or of those that seek, through school boards and the like, to constrain them. Such manoeuvres can short-circuit the healthy debate that societies should encourage over how the world is taught to children, screening out views that offend or challenge those who wield the blue pencils of power.


  • Syed Aun Muhammad
    Posted at 02:00h, 03 June Reply

    This is a very well formulated analysis of the illiteracy problem in Pakistan. The illiteracy rate is currently about 40%. If the illiteracy rate is reduced to about 10% then Pakistan will shape up big time in a period of 20 years after this change.

    I have three questions to those reading this comment:

    1) Is there any way to push the Government to make it compulsory to gain an education in regions where education is possible?

    2) Do you think it would be possible to spread the existence of schools into regions where there are no schools? How?

    3) Should the Government make it compulsory first or should the existence of schools be spread first?

    Surely if 1 and 2 are possible then the literacy rate would shoot up immensely.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:55h, 04 June

      Syed Aun: I have the following responses to your questions:

      1. Yes, there is a way to push the government. One model is the Right to Education Act in India. It is true that this is not a magic wand but only sustained pressure from citizens can move governments in that direction.

      2. Yes. Again, through political pressure by citizens.

      3. Once the Right to Education is conceded, the next step would be the spread of schools. Charitable organizations can spread schools in the absence of a RTE, but these efforts cannot scale because of the magnitude of the needs. A government funded initiative is necessary.

      But note that simply reducing illiteracy is not the goal. It is the content of education that is critical in determining the path that would be charted by society in the future. And content leads to a consideration of the quality of teachers who would staff all these additional schools. Citizens need to be involved at every stage of the spread of education to prevent it being used for political or ideological ends.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 01:31h, 12 December Reply

    Here is an example of the state of education in Pakistan. And, no one cares. Why not?


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:46h, 16 June Reply

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