The Global EFA Monitoring Report released in January 2013-14 placed Pakistan in the list of countries which will not achieve even one of the goals set in 2000 by the World Education Forum at Dakar.

Two new reports released last week by UNESCO bring out the unwelcome facts that (a) Pakistan has the unfortunate distinction of being second in the list of countries with the largest population of out-of-school children and (b) that Pakistan has suffered the second largest cut in aid for education of any country in the world in the last two years.

The recently appointed new director of the Global Monitoring Report, Aaron Benavot, has taken marked notice of Pakistan’s poor progress with regard to primary education and of inadequate funding for education. In an article contributed by him called “Education Road Map,” Mr. Benavot finds that Pakistan is one of the three countries outside Sub-Saharan Africa that spend less than $150 per primary pupil on education. He refers to an announcement made by the government of Pakistan that the allocation to education will be raised to 4% of GDP by the year 2018. This promise was made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while chairing the meeting last March in Islamabad to review the Education For All and Millennium Development Goals. The meeting was also addressed by Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Envoy on Education. Mr. Brown had come to Pakistan to exhort the government of Pakistan to speed up efforts to achieve EFA targets. He threw a challenge to the government to make up for lost time and in particular focus on the enrolment of out-of-school children. For this, he pledged considerable financial support.

One is forced to admit that Pakistan has lacked the political will to seriously work for the cause of education. There has been a lot of rhetoric but little follow-up. Commissions and national education policies galore but implementation has been most inadequate. Of course, there have been spurts of attention to education off and on; on higher education for instance, and the campaign for enrolment in the Punjab. (While talking of tens of billions of rupees spent on higher education, one must note that earlier sub-standard school education makes an impact on the quality of students universities churn out.) Pakistan’s allocation to education has been virtually the lowest in South Asian countries and has seldom been more than 2% of GDP. (The minimum recommended by UNESCO is 4%.)

A few years ago, the Prime Minister committed his government to increase the amount for education to 7% of GDP within 7 years. This was just hot air. What is most worrisome is that a little more than half of the allocations are actually spent. And there is no accountability for such unpardonable lapses.

Mr. Benavot has drawn attention to some of the recommendations made in the recently released UNESCO paper to reduce out-of-school numbers and improve school education. These include social cash transfers to offset the costs of schooling, teaching in local languages, better infrastructure and overcoming conflict. He has also laid emphasis on improving the quality of learning as according to GMR, fewer than half of children are learning even the very basics in Pakistani schools.

It needs to be noted that the GMR director has said nothing about Goal 4 of the EFA i.e. adult literacy. While schools and higher education do attract the attention of the central and provincial governments and of the media, adult literacy is seldom talked about.

Imagine a country in the 21st century where almost half of the adult population is utterly illiterate. Can Pakistan really make progress if 60 million of its inhabitants cannot read and write? This EFA goal requires the country to attain 86% literacy by the year 2015. When literacy departments were set up in the provinces, much was expected. Provincial literacy plans were prepared to implement the programmes contained in the National Plan of Action. EDOs literacy were appointed in the Punjab, but even there, where a separate minister and an administrative literacy secretary were put in place, there has been a marked reduction in numbers over the years. The state of affairs in the other provinces is dismal. Some good work is being done by the National Commission for Human Development which has managed to keeping working after the 18th Amendment.

Much hope was raised when a new Article viz 25-A, was added to the Constitution of Pakistan which makes the provision of education to children of age 5 to 16 binding on the government, making it a fundamental right. While the legislation has been promulgated in Islamabad and in Sindh, the other three provinces have yet to frame the law. It is however, one thing to have a law and quite another to see it implemented.

I for one, had expected that PTI would have moved fast to promote literacy in KPK. PTI, one may recall, had issued a special report as a part of its manifesto to accelerate the spread of literacy in the country. It is unfortunate that the KPK government has done little to meet the commitment made in its manifesto. I also expected Imran Khan to raise the issue of literacy on the floor of the National Assembly and forcefully plead the cause of education for all. He hasn’t done so, busy as he has been in other party and political matters.

Tens of millions of illiterate Pakistanis, more or less, remain unrepresented and voiceless. Alas, our national leadership has not risen to meet the challenge, and it is outsiders; UNESCO, UN Secretary General, UNICEF, Global Education Partnership, the World Bank and the GMR, to name a few, which continue to identify the gaps and deficiencies in our education policy and provide assistance on reform. Hopefully, the government will finally heed the wake-up call given by the new director of the Global Monitoring Report.

    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.