In a letter personally delivered by the Chinese ambassador in Pakistan Mr. Sun Diewong to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Xi Jinping while thanking Pakistan for the hospitality extended to him during his visit, reaffirmed his commitment to the all-weather, strategic relationship between the two countries, characterizing the two countries as “iron brothers”. In particular, he stressed the need for ensuring the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The Prime Minister Nawaz, in response, has set up a PM’s Delivery Unit to closely monitor the progress of the CPEC (implementation of the LNG project too would be reviewed).

According to an official statement issued by the PM’s office, performance of all ministries engaged in executing 50 projects under CPEC will be assessed. This delivery unit, it is claimed, would bring about “a paradigm shift in the standard of governance ensuring timely completion of the key development projects”. The DU team is led by Dr Musaddiq Malik. The unit comprises top professionals from the private sector. The Prime Minister will be reviewing the progress on a weekly basis.

While appreciating the move to set up a high level monitoring unit, considering the overwhelming importance of the large projects in question, one wonders if there is a realization at the top that all commitments and projects need to be implemented speedily and properly. Sadly, this realization is lacking with the result that long delays and grievous defaults keep occurring across the board.

In view of my deep interest in, and concern for basic education, let me focus on it.

On Tuesday last, an inter-provincial education ministers’ conference was held in Quetta. After the conference, the central state minister for education and professional training, Mr. Muhammad Baligh-ur-Rehman spoke to the press and said that a standardized national curriculum of Islamic studies, Pakistan studies and other important subjects would be introduced in all educational institutions in the country. He added that the curriculum would be prepared in consultation with the four provinces, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Balochistan. While finalizing this new curriculum, “all stake holders, including scholars of all religious schools of thought and education experts would be consulted”.

I, for one, would like to believe in what the Minister says, but the Ministry’s record warns me not to be that gullible. More than a year and a half ago, the same state minister declared, that in view of the poor state of affairs with respect to education in the country, an Education Emergency would soon be declared. No such step has been taken to date.

After the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, education has been devolved to the provinces. It is now essentially for the provinces to make education policies and programmes. Belatedly the central government has been seeking to retrieve some of the powers in the field of education. In the name of standardization and professional development, it has set up a Ministry of Education. The question is: After the 18th Amendment, will the provincial governments accept the directives or advice given to them by the centre?

A few months ago, the Sindh government took the decision to include Quaid-e-Azam’s August 11, 1947 speech in the school textbooks. How will Mr. Baligh-ur-Rehman reconcile the ideas contained in this address with the rest of the curriculum if a particular province raised an objection?

The fact of the matter is that except for the Punjab where some marked headway has been made, education remains a neglected subject, in Pakistan. The Global Education For All Monitoring Report released by UNESCO early last month sharply brings out the failure on the part of Pakistan to achieve even one of the six EFA goals. Pakistan has the dubious record of having the largest number of out-of-school children. The literacy rate remains below 60% (with sixty million illiterates) and the primary school enrolment less than 70%, as against the required 100%.

Pakistan was one of the first countries to prepare the EFA National Plan of Action aimed at achieving the set targets by the year 2015. No government during all these fifteen years took the required steps to implement the plan. Sporadic and limited steps were taken by the National Commission for Human Development and the Punjab government. These, however, have not been sustained mostly because of lack of funds. Little was done in other provinces. The result is that EFA-wise, Pakistan today, lags behind even the developing South Asian countries.

Will there ever be a PM’s Delivery Unit for EFA or education at large? The answer is a big ‘No’. A country that actually spends less than 2% of its GDP on education (perhaps lowest in the world) just cannot catch up the rest of the world. The world average literacy rate is around 86%. We claim to be about 58%.

I have earlier written about Gordon Brown’s mission to Pakistan and how UN Secretary General special envoy declared in Islamabad in the presence of the Prime Minister that UN would provide all necessary funds to enable Pakistan to bring into schools all children between the age of 5 and 16.  This generous offer remains un-availed. While we hear of special campaigns for enrolment particularly in the Punjab, the world reports continue to provide a pathetic picture. Our own official Statistics Bureau has confirmed the international assessments.

If the “quantity” leaves much to be desired, how about “quality”? According to the national assessments of primary education students learning achievements, most of the 5th class students cannot properly read the books prescribed for class III or do simple calculations.

So Mr. Prime Minister, for once, be serious about education. Why not, for a change, setup a PM’s DU (PM’s Delivery Unit) for education as well? A state minister can at best make high-sounding statements. Will he, really be able to formulate a National Curriculum with the approval of all the provincial governments and other important stakeholders? No sir, this will not happen during this government’s tenure. Mr. Prime Minister, you have to intervene and personally review progress if your rhetoric about education is to have any meaning.