The South Asia Channel

Pakistan needs more than three cups of tea

Three Cups of Tea popularized the notion that Americans can build schools in Pakistan to counter extremism and reduce poverty. Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans have been building schools with equal enthusiasm, through organizations such as The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and Developments in Literacy (DIL). But while these organizations do meaningful work for the students they enroll, ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Three Cups of Tea popularized the notion that Americans can build schools in Pakistan to counter extremism and reduce poverty. Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans have been building schools with equal enthusiasm, through organizations such as The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and Developments in Literacy (DIL). But while these organizations do meaningful work for the students they enroll, it is easy to overestimate their impact: NGO-built schools are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the challenge of making quality education a national reality for Pakistan.

Mitigating Pakistan’s education crisis requires looking beyond what NGOs can do alone, to seeing what they can do in partnership with the government, appreciating the role of the private sector, and finally insisting that the public sector must work. Fortunately, Pakistanis have developed exactly those responses, though they often go unheard. 

Pakistan’s education challenge comes down to a numbers game. Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute (CAI), Pakistan’s TCF, where I worked in the summer of 2009, and the Pakistani-American DIL have established about 1,000 schools in total, educating nearly 170,000 students. But estimates of the country’s out-of-school children run as high as 42 million, with the country’s current 220,000 schools inadequately educating about 28 million kids. The scale of school-building efforts falls disturbingly short of the scale of Pakistan’s education disaster.

Ultimately, NGOs can never displace the role of the government. The public sector must ‘work.’

Surprisingly, a handful of development leaders in Karachi (recently dubbed "the worst educated megacity on the planet") are ideologically committed to working with the government – to make it work. They believe that the government cannot be let off the hook, because it is dangerous when people do not expect anything from their government.

Their responses to the failure of public education are diverse. The most interesting model is school "adoption," whereby NGOs and corporations are improving government schools — either through total takeover or lesser forms of assistance. One well-run public school I visited in rural Sindh was adopted by a Pakistani company, rebuilt by the World Bank, and receives teacher training from an NGO. CARE Foundation in Lahore has been adopting government schools since the 1990s.  

And while Pakistanis sometimes lament their own state of national apathy, social work can come from surprising places. A Pakistani pop star has partnered with an educationist to impressively reform a once-decrepit public school, calling it a "paradigm" for what a Pakistani public school should look like. In the process, they discovered several policy problems in how government schools are managed and are lobbying for reform.

Formal public-private partnerships have also been devised, as a compromise between exclusive dependence on the government and trying to displace it with NGOs. Provincial education foundations, such as the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF), are actively matching public sector resources and foreign aid with private sector effectiveness to reopen public schools, improve the quality of education, and subsidize private schools. PEF boasts 800,000 beneficiaries.

Public-private partnerships may actually be the fastest way to making public resources work more effectively, in areas beyond education. While "ghost" public schools have gained notoriety, judging by the health clinics I saw and heard about in rural Sindh last summer– which are full of new equipment but padlocked and devoid of patients — the problem of ghost public infrastructure extends beyond schools. Public-private partnerships may be the best hope for Pakistan’s social sector woes. They are already being leveraged in poverty alleviation (through microfinance) and rural support.

The largest non-governmental impact by far, however, comes from an area that is often overlooked in discussions about development: the private sector. The role of private schools is actually a rich area of analysis, led by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Asim Khwaja. According to Khwaja’s fascinating LEAPS project, there were 47,000 private schools in Pakistan by the end of 2005 and the numbers have been growing rapidly, already enrolling one in every three primary school children.

These private schools are unlike the ones imagined in the West. Instead, the schools that LEAPS focuses on are, generally, small, one-room private schools that families open in their homes in rural areas, to earn a modest income, charging less than $1 per month in fees.

LEAPS crystallizes another point that is too often ignored: being in school is not enough, if the quality of education is abysmal. It turns out that even in-school children in Pakistan are learning very little: by the end of Class 3, when 40 percent of boys and 50 percent of girls drop out, children are functionally illiterate and innumerate, with only 31 percent able to write a sentence in Urdu using the word ‘school.’ But even within these depressing figures, private schools significantly outperform government schools and spend half as much in the process.

But Pakistan’s final educational fix will be a political one. And those who want to increase government spending on education should give more attention to improving how the existing budget is being used.

Ninety-five percent of Pakistan’s education budget is spent on teacher salaries. But, each day, 25 percent of teachers are absent from work. According to analyst Mosharraf Zaidi, teaching jobs are doled out by the government as a form of political patronage, and teachers are not compelled to show up to work. Pakistan’s problem is not one of poorly-trained or poorly-compensated teachers — they are better qualified and earn five times more than their private sector counterparts — but missing ones. And these missing teachers are not only holding down the country’s educational future, but effectively stealing taxpayer rupees, offering at least one reason for why some Pakistanis are not paying into the system.

Even a minister of education cannot fire these public school teachers. I spoke to a former minister who once threatened to publish the names of absent teachers in the newspaper, announcing that they would be fired, but the move was blocked. The decision to deliver real public education in Pakistan will have to come from the highest levels of party leadership, as high as the presidency. But the political system is unlikely to change until leaders perceive a greater benefit from serving the public’s interest in education, over the personal interests of its cronies.

A public advocacy campaign that makes Pakistanis aware of their rights and encourages them to demand more from their system, as has been proposed by Pakistan’s Education Task Force, may help. Collaboration between Pakistan’s major educational actors — NGOs, PPPs, and the private sector — may also help force the system to improve. 

One such idea comes from The Citizens Foundation (TCF), Pakistan’s likely-largest schools-building NGO that has received endorsements from the Congressional Commission on WMD and Terrorism Prevention, 9/11 Commission Chair Lee Hamilton, and members of the U.S. Congress. TCF’s Vice President, Dr. Ahson Rabbani, has suggested allowing private actors and NGOs to take over the management of low-performing government schools, including the authority to transfer absent teachers and appoint their own. In the style of a PPP, the government would subsidize school operation based on performance measured by a third party. The model is based on a similar scheme run by the Punjab Education Foundation for private schools, but expands it to government schools and invites broader NGO and private sector engagement.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. Three Cups of Tea-style efforts put kids in school now, which is important, but it is far, far away from being a national strategy. Instead, some tough decisions are in order, on all sides.

International donors should diversify their education portfolios in Pakistan, with more emphasis on local initiatives, recognizing that the most important changes will come through local pressure and innovation. And as LEAPS demonstrates, a ground survey exposes solutions in areas analysts might not have imagined in the West.

Meanwhile, NGOs may not be achieving scale, but their value is in the innovative, working models they have developed, and the potential to expand them through partnerships with the government. But to achieve this, NGOs must accept the government as a necessary partner in development. The government, in turn, needs to create more entry points for NGOs to partner with it, in the form of public-private partnerships.

Finally, for public education to work in Pakistan, teachers must show up and teach. The single biggest advantage that private schools have over public schools in Pakistan is their ability to correct for absent or unmotivated teachers, by removing them. Unless the government can, similarly, devise a way to deal with its large cadre of non-performing teachers, Pakistanis will continue to be born into a system that does not serve them.

Nadia Naviwala is a recent graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and a former national security aide in the U.S. Senate. She taught girls’ English summer camp in a school built by The Citizens Foundation in Minhala, a village on the India-Pakistan border, during the summer of 2009. Her research on U.S. development aid and local NGOs in Pakistan can be found here.

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