Corruption? Nepotism? Lack of meritocracy? Low GDP growth? Yes, all of these and more. But in the final analysis two factors are more responsible for the widening gap between the rich and poor than anything else.
These two factors are Pakistan’s unjust education system and the respective manners in which poor and rich kids are brought up in their families. Below, let’s see how these two factors play an important role in keeping poor as poor and rich as rich.
Pakistan’s education has been woefully underfunded by the state for decades and very little has been done to change that. Our national budgets generally focus resources on higher education while having little to show for the basic education. Higher Education is very important but how building a pyramid top down makes sense? What this approach ensures is providing opportunities to the higher and middle class kids living in the cities. What about the millions of non-school going kids in rural areas and millions of illiterate adults in rural areas and urban slums? These millions will remain prone to contributing to the country’s major problems such as population growth, terrorism, crimes, drugs, and healthcare. The only way Pakistan can find its way out of the hole it is in is through climbing the ladder of democracy and education. While focus on Higher Education and distributing laptops is productive, what is needed even more is to provide immediate Basic K-5 Child Education and Adult Literacy combined with Skills Training. The idea must be to inculcate desire and provide opportunities at mass level.
Walk through the labyrinth of alleys, concrete structures, and corrugated shacks in the sprawling Karachi slum of Orangi Town, and you get a sense of the power of education. In a settlement of 1.5 million people there are hardly any government schools in sight. Deprived of their right to a free public education, some of the world’s poorest people have to pay for the privilege of sending their kids to private schools that lack qualified teachers, books, pencils, clean water, and toilets. Bilqis Khatoon, a widow with four children who lost her husband to the continuous violence in the city, has no doubt that the sacrifice is worthwhile. By doing two jobs she can just about keep two of the children in school. The elder of the two, Hadi, is fully committed to the value of education. “If I can make it through school, my future will be brighter. Maybe I can go on to become a doctor because then I will be big enough to work and finance my education.” But the truth is that Hadi is already working. He helps his mother pay the school fees by working for six hours a day at a shop in the nearby market. His biggest fear is that he will have to drop out of school, like his elder brother who, at 15, is already a fulltime worker in a garment factory. Every day, across the country, parents like Bilqis make huge sacrifices for their children’s education as, like other poor countries, in Pakistan appallingly poor parents are struggling to get their kids an education that will help them escape poverty. They know learning offers a route to higher income and expanded opportunity.
Having pledged, as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to achieve universal primary education by 2015, Pakistan is trying to keep pace with the international community. However, I do not understand how Pakistan is going to achieve that goal if the country’s resources are not veered towards its achievement. To make matters worse, there is a gathering body of evidence highlighting the shocking quality of education endured by millions of children. What is being offered to children is often mock education. This schooling does nothing to assist the growth of children as rational human beings and as productive members of society. One study in rural Pakistan found that, after five years of schooling, half of the children were unable to write a sentence including the word “school”. Also, education will be worthless if it does not give children the tools to defeat the culture of violence and intolerance. The foundations of such education have obviously to be laid at primary-school level. The curricula in our public schools have to emphasize equality of human beings instead of blessing divisions based on religion and gender. The qualitative improvements are just as important as the quantitative ones. In most areas there are basic educational resources, as the schools are there. However, many villages and urban areas suffer from other factors that inhibit education, like malnutrition or resource scarcity. As an instrument of hope, education is also most threatening to the Taliban, an organisation who can only thrive on despair. The efforts of the Taliban to damage existing institutions and structures in the areas where they have some control appear even more infuriating when one sees the comparative data that shows progress of the countries and regions with no systems or existing resources.
With the date for the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) less than three years away, it seems ever more likely that Pakistan will not make its targets. Especially, in progress towards goal number two to achieve universal primary education. Despite the appearance that the government is making headway with enrolments, many girls are still being left behind. Reviving progress towards the MDG targets will require a far stronger commitment to equity on the part of the new government. Progress, over the past decade, by countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Bangladesh show that poverty does not have to be a barrier to education. But political leaders must demonstrate a commitment to reaching those who have been left behind. So must donors. Over the past few years, the record of the aid community for Pakistan has gone from bad to lamentable. While the country receives billions of dollars, apart from the disaster-relief, most of the aid is provided either to the Pakistan Military (the US) or to the religious establishments (Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries). The educational development assistance has been dismal in country with large swathes or territory where young girls are more likely to die in childbirth than make it through primary school.
In a country like Pakistan, where there is a clearly established link between educational disadvantage and poverty, today’s inequalities in education are clearly perpetuated to guard tomorrow’s disparities in opportunities. Breaking down those inequalities would act as a catalyst for growth and poverty reduction. Getting all of Pakistan’s girls into secondary school would prevent an estimated 200,000 deaths annually. Achieving universal basic education means breaking down the deprivation that forces over 7 million children out of school and into labour markets. It means confronting the public attitudes to gender that result in more than 1 million more girls being out of school than boys. And it means designing policies that extend opportunities to hard-to-reach children, such as those living in poor rural areas and slums like Orangi Town. The current demographic pressures in Pakistan, namely an increased population and an overrepresentation of youth, are placing unreasonable demands on the country’s infrastructure. With about 40% of Pakistan’s population aged under 15, and the country’s fertility rate of around 4, providing free primary education is having a negative impact on educational standards. Thus increased enrolment has placed enormous stress on the country’s education system with overcrowding, increased student-to-teacher ratios and inadequate resources.
What Pakistan needs is to declare universal education its foremost national priority backed by a fund for education like those that have delivered such striking results in the health sector in some other countries. This will create a platform to bring together the country’s government, donor governments, NGOs, and the private sector and can thus spur international action and deliver results.
Improved governance is also essential. It is a fact that the public schools teachers can generally earn much more than qualified private school teachers and 4 times the average per capita income of Pakistan. However, a lack of meritocracy in recruitment and the absence of effective performance controls have meant that public education’s higher salaries at the basic levels have not translated into a higher level of commitment among teachers.
Also, while we endeavour to alleviate inequalities in access to education we pay no heed to another type of inequality: namely, inequality in learning. Despite increased enrolment and attendance, inequalities between the rich and poor still persist and the move towards universal primary education has resulted in more parents sending their children to private schools as reports of low educational standards within government schools emerge. There are real fears that the quality of education within government schools is diminishing in order to cater for more students. Several years after the passage of Article 25A to the constitution, under the 18th Amendment, the provincial governments seem to be struggling to establish implementation mechanisms.
It is therefore imperative to continually conduct reality checks on the state of education in Pakistan to remind ourselves that while making real steps towards the goal of universal primary education, it is important that the education system as a whole does not suffer. This is a tall order and a long-term challenge. Spending a mere 2-3% of the budget on education and half-hearted planning will not get us anywhere.
Unless we address these issues on war footing, our education system will continue to perpetuate income inequalities instead of being an effective tool to overcome disparities by providing less-advantaged kids with access to the enrichment opportunities they’re increasingly not getting. If you argue that in other countries too richer kids are more likely to do better at the school than you have got it wrong. The issue here is that in our country the poor kids can’t even dream of getting the same education, even at most basic level, which the wealthier kids do.
The skill that allows you to talk your way up the ladder in the corporate or civil service world or sound convincing enough in an interview to land the job is best learned at home. This is even truer in a below par educational environment like ours, as we have seen above, and a society that has no or little public recreational and educational facilities for children. This is what the psychologist Robert Sternberg calls ‘practical intelligence.’ It’s not knowledge for its own sake. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. The place where we are most likely to get these kinds of attitudes and skills is from our families.
In Pakistan the parenting philosophies of upper middle class and the poor are, in general, entirely different. The wealthier parents are deeply engaged in their children’s free time, escorting them from one activity to the next, asking them about their school, sports, teachers, and friends. This kind of involvement and intensive scheduling is entirely absent from the lives of poor children. Play for them isn’t a scheduled activity, it’s an activity with their siblings and friends in the muddy streets of the neighbourhood. In poor households what a child does is considered something totally disconnected from the adult world and of little consequence. Poor parents don’t have the luxury to look into their children’ interests to help them develop that interest into a formal talent. Instead they frame their children’ interests as character traits as a way for the children to get attention. I am not at all trying to say that any of the two styles is better than the other. All I want to show how one is better suited to inculcate social savvy and practical intelligence which are sets of skills to be learned rather than an innate ability like the IQ.
The upper middle class parents talk things through with their children, helping them to reason. This is an attempt to actively assess and foster a child’s talents, opinions, and skills. They expect their children to talk back to them, to discuss, and to question. If their children are not doing well at the school these parents are not reluctant to challenge their teachers. All this inculcates in the children an ability to question authority. They learn to shift the balance of power away from adults and towards themselves. When confronted with authority outside home they behave as they do with their parents – reasoning, negotiating, and joking with equal ease. By contrast poor parents let their children accomplish their natural growth. For them their responsibility resides in caring for their children and they let them grow and develop on their own.
As a result of the above the poorer children are often better behaved, less complaining, more creative in making use of their time and resources, and more independent. However, overall, wealthier children’s upbringing entails more valuable advantages. The heavily scheduled upper middle-class child is exposed to a constantly changing set of experiences. They learn teamwork and how to cope in highly structured environment. They are taught how to interact comfortably with adults and to speak up when warranted. Hence, they grow up with a sense of entitlement. The feel they have a right to follow their own individual preferences and to interact in institutional settings. They are open to share information and ask for attention. They are at ease in shifting interactions to suit their preferences. In Karachi Grammar School, for instance, you will find even fifth graders acting in their own behalf to gain advantages. They know the rules and are at ease in making requests of teachers to adjust procedures to accommodate their desires.
At the same time the poorer children are growing up with an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint. They are not skilled at getting their way or adapting to differing environments for their best purposes. They are not taught how to speak up for themselves or how to reason and negotiate with those in positions of authority. They don’t learn entitlement, they learn constraint. It is a crippling handicap in navigating the world beyond their own little surroundings.
So, it is not only about going to better schools. The ‘practical intelligence’ and the sense of entitlement the richer kids have been taught by their families is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern competitive world. It is therefore no wonder that these children handle the challenges of their life brilliantly. A child who has seen his father make his way up in business or politics learns first-hand to negotiate his way out of a tight spot. This shows how, in general, wealthier kids in Pakistan enter adulthood more disposed to succeed in practical life than their poorer counterparts. Of course, the significant ‘help’ many of them are likely to receive along the way further lengthens the odds.