Maria Khwaja examines the rhetoric of educational reform during the general election and obstacles on the ground in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi
In December, I hurriedly snapped a photo of five men at Qasim-ul-Uloom School in Karachi. Located in the ethnically volatile Orangi-town area, Qasim-ul-Uloom educates a diverse group of children: Pathan, Sindhi, Balochi, and Mohajir. Representatives from the ANP and MQM parties, both of whom control communities in Qasim-ul-Uloom’s catchment area, had been invited for the school’s award ceremony.
Statements and Reality
As an educationalist, my frequent visits to Karachi focused on providing what might help increase earnings potential for the poor: a solid education. Pakistan’s education statistics are, at best, dismal. Fortunately, this year’s crop of political candidates all promised reform. The PML-N party, Nawaz Sharif’s surprise comeback vehicle, unveiled a manifesto earlier in 2013 which would increase GDP spending on education to 2% from 4%, increase the literacy rate overall to 80%, and provide education for every child by 2020 “in line with international standards.” Imran Khan’s PTI, with arguably the most cohesive “Education Emergency Plan,” insisted they would increase spending on education to 5% with a provision for Urdu at the primary levels and standardized curricula. Even the MQM, a formidable player predominantly in Karachi, state in their manifesto that they would increase GDP spending on education to 5% and bring Urdu institutions up to par with English ones. Everyone seems to agree that education should be a “fundamental right of every citizen” and that it is the route to economic success for Pakistanis.
The problem seems to lie in the disjuncture between policy statements for greater Pakistan and the grassroots reality. While groups like the Citizens Foundation have successfully worked to provide education, it is a chicken and egg battle until the political Sharif-Bhutto-Hussein juggernauts resign and a Peace and Reconciliation Commission patches up three generations of wounds. Although Khan’s PTI leads the charge towards a less ethnically-driven Pakistan and poses itself as a force for hope and change — presumably channeling Obama’s 2008 campaign — it is still questionable whether the former cricket captain possesses the political acumen necessary for running the state.
Arguably, it is impossible to unravel the Gordian Knot of poverty in Karachi without considering the divisive nature of Pakistan’s ethnicity-based politics. Attempting to disentangle even the solitary issue of education leads to a nest of other slippery issues, almost all of them entwined with ethnicity: corruption, bribery, language hierarchies, and prestigious private schools with a select student population. In the election manifestos this year, there is an acute disengagement with the real issues surrounding educational access and economic development for Pakistan’s poorest citizens, especially those in Karachi.
According to the latest estimate, the literacy rate in Karachi stands at 65.5%. In the last decade, the PPP-run Sindh Education Board, responsible for Karachi’s government schools, has been criticized for the deteriorating standards of government schools, the increase in a low-fee private school industry, and the strange phenomenon of “ghost schools” — institutions which exist only on paper. In fact, Qasim-ul-Uloom was a ghost school before an NGO took over; hundreds of children now fill the auditorium where I stood last December, camera in hand, snapping photos of the school assembly.
I only remember that moment clearly because, five months later, two of the five men in my photo are dead. The one I knew personally, Rashid, was an ANP party member and the principal of The Nation School, also in Orangi. He died on March 30 in a hand grenade and gun attack on his school where several students were also injured. The Tehrik-i-Taliban party (TTP), a recent player on the political scene in Pakistan, claimed responsibility because of Rashid’s secular politics.
TTP may be a newcomer in Karachi politics, but such target killings have become the norm in Karachi; a story so redundant that newspapers now group target killings into one column. The turf war, steadily escalating since Zardari’s election, manifests itself in the flags and graffiti coloring the city’s ethnic ghettos and in the obscenely large political portraits decorating the streets. When the MQM’s Mustafa Kamal controlled the city as the mayor, his “I Own Karachi” initiative claimed to have opened 451 school buildings with vocational and technical arms. Since Kamal’s departure, very little data exists on the development of schools and vocational institutions in Karachi to provide job opportunities for its citizens.
A Never-Ending Cycle of Poverty
Just as Karachi is a mini-Pakistan, Orangi is a microcosm of Karachi: a patchwork of distinctly colored ethnic neighborhoods trapped in distinct poverty cycles. For example, a case study on school disaffection in 2009 concluded that the primary reason mohajir teenage boys leave school is a perceived lack of opportunity. Not because there are no schools available — Orangi has an entire cottage school industry — or even because of perceived inferiority of schooling, but because they view their own ethnic identities as completely detrimental for securing a job. At age six or seven, boys begin working, spending hours a day stitching intricate embroidery for ladies’ suits. Earning less than $4 a week, they attempt to pay family wedding debt, medical bills, and other accrued expenses. The catch-22: there are no jobs available in Orangi and the boys lack ethnic connections to secure them a job in outside areas. Even the simplest cost-benefit formula would determine that schooling is irrelevant because job hunting is a factor of who you know or who you can bribe.
This means a never-ending cycle of poverty for hundreds of young boys, perpetuated by lack of access and educational gate-keeping by the ethnic and political elite. On the other hand, divorcing politics from ethnic ties seems impossible when so many of the parties align with ethnic loyalties: the MQM is for the mohajirs, the ANP the Pathans, the BNP the Baluchis, and so on. There exists ethnicity-linked capability deprivation for many Pakistanis who speak the wrong language or come from the wrong region because their political affiliate is not in power.
It also means, statistically, that there are critical masses of uneducated young men ripe for recruitment into the more violent arms of all the political parties — arms that reach out particularly to those looking for validation and identity while trapped in poverty. Thus, the chicken and egg question: how can education stop violence when violence prevents education? While doing field work, I hid while dozens of young men, upon receiving text messages about the assassination of a party leader, jumped on motorcycles with loaded Kalashnikovs and sped off to murder over one hundred people. In the past five years, Karachi’s instability has escalated to an alarming degree, often resulting in the suspension or inability to complete any research or trainings. Qasim-ul-Uloom school is currently closed, as are most schools in Karachi, because of the extreme upsurge in violence surrounding election day.
Shoot or Read?
Benjamin Franklin once said democracy cannot exist without an educated populace. Franklin’s heart might swell with joy at children trudging to school every morning in Karachi, uniforms dusty and packs swinging. Their little steps are a constant, except on the days when schools are shuttered, teachers are dead, or tires are burning in the streets. Even subtracting the issue of school quality, it is impossible not to cringe at the lip service paid to "education for all" goals in Karachi (and larger Pakistan), while ignoring the difficulties inherent in educating a populace living in what is now a conflict zone.
Even if one subtracts further, eliminating the issue of ethnic violence, there is still the issue of providing education when a certain percentage of the population is disenfranchised. If value is constantly taken away from education, despite it being hailed as the panacea for democracy and for conflict, it leaves nothing but irrelevant schools for a disaffected population of children.
Without transparency and accountability in Islamabad, and real investment in the education system, the unfortunate truth is that the ethnic war’s casualties will continue to hinder opportunities for employment and schooling. Children grow in a city with politics so brutally divisive and corrupt that young boys decide, at the age of six, that their prospects are hopeless. Clearly, parents in Karachi’s poorest areas still strive to educate their children — this is apparent in the rise of low-fee private schooling. But when children internalize the impossibility of their situation, schooling becomes a utopian ideal rather than a tool for practical development. Promises of political candidates mean little without definitive and purposeful intervention in both the political and economic arenas affected by ethnicity.
It is not surprising that young men choose to shoot at each other rather than go to school. What is surprising is the resilience and hope of the Pakistani people who came out to vote despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation and even despite the gun-slinging TTP.
A Safer World for Children
If I look closely at the photo I took in December 2012, Rashid is looking into the camera with exhaustion in his eyes. Colleagues on the ground tell me he had received dozens of threats to his life. His death is another number on the news but a massive loss for the Pathan community he served. A progressive man by nature, Rashid advocated for his female teachers, convincing fathers from the émigré Pathan communities to allow daughters to work and bringing his female staff to receive training in English. Whether his affiliation was predominantly to the Pathans or to Pakistanis never seemed to matter; he just helped when and where it was possible.
It is Karachi’s shame that men like Rashid die there every day, murdered by others who see more value in destruction than in growth. It is Pakistan’s shame that its political parties discuss the importance of education, even while high-level politicians such as London-based Altaf Hussein continue to encourage the divisions between groups. While we can fete 2013 as the year Pakistan transitions successfully from one democratic government to another, the human cost of democracy should be a cause for humility, not celebration.
Continuing the legacy of men like Rashid means working across party lines, despite tension and fear, to protect the children and youth of Pakistan from the forces of conflict around them. It is as simple as understanding that peace and reconciliation is necessary for the ethnic-cum-political parties and that the layers of ethnic influence on Pakistan’s political scene need to be addressed openly. Providing valid prospects for the young men and women living in abject poverty hinges on addressing these causal issues, and not on simply listing an increase in GDP investment or building more school buildings.
The question that now arises is how the new government will handle reforms in Karachi and greater Pakistan, and whether they will continue to ignore the prerequisites for a coherent system. It is impossible to dismiss the hope after watching triumphant voters, that educational investment, cross-party reconciliations, and an accountability system can still build a solid infrastructure for Pakistan to regain its spiritual and economic energy. It is impossible not to implement these changes and ignore the hunger of Pakistani parents, regardless of ethnic background, for a safer world for their children.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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