This column is about the 60 million Pakistanis who cannot read the number of a bus or a calendar. The country is a signatory to numerous international commitments to guarantee everyone’s right to education. The very first national education conference in Pakistan in 1947 resolved to accord the highest priority to the promotion of education with Quaid-e-Azam telling the participants that for the newly founded country, education was “a matter of life and death.” A number of commissions and committees followed to reiterate and reinforce the message. The 1973 Constitution laid down that illiteracy was to be eradicated within the minimum possible time.

In 1990, the world held the largest ever conference on education at Jomtien, Thailand, where along with others, Pakistan committed itself to substantially lowering its illiteracy rate. Very little however, was actually done, with the result that the literacy rate remained one of the lowest in the world.

In the year 2000, education ministers from all over the world (including our federal minister and four education ministers from the provinces) met at Dakar, Senegal, and solemnly pledged to achieve six Education For All Goals by the year 2015. These goals included the achievement of hundred per cent primary education and 86% of overall literacy in Pakistan.

Today we claim to have reached 67% or so net enrolment at the primary level and 58% adult literacy though these figures are disputed. Education-wise, two new developments of recent years need to be noted. These are (a) devolution of education to the provinces with the abolition of the concurrent list and (b) the insertion of a new Article in the Constitution i.e. 25-A which states that the “state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” Such enabling laws have been promulgated by the Federal government in the Islamabad Capital Territory and the government of Sindh. The other 3 provinces have yet to enact such legislation. This new constitutional provision has made the Right to Education a human right which the state is duly bound to honour and enforce. So far as EFA and educated-related Millennium Development Goals are concerned, progress made so far by Pakistan has remained most disappointing.

According to the 2013-14 Global Monitoring Report, Pakistan belongs to the category of countries which will remain “far away” from achieving any of the EFA goals.  Most of the education-related MDG targets will also fail to be realised. But why this dismal failure?

The answer lies in a lack of practical will, poor allocation of funds, faulty organization and the absence of professional expertise.

A few years back, Punjab broke new ground and stepped up efforts to improve primary education; enrolment drives, recruitment of quality teachers, provision of facilities etc. While enrolments increased considerably and thousands of new teachers were recruited, little improvement is visible in the quality of teaching and learning. The 2014 ASER report testifies that students from class 5 could not solve math questions suitable for class 3 and were unable to correctly read english books.

As for adult literacy, for the first time, a full-fledged department of literacy and non-formal basic education in the Punjab was established with a separate minister and secretary as also EDOs for literacy in the districts. At present there is no separate minister for literacy and the post of EDO literacy has been abolished. Although a number of useful projects have been initiated, there is no focus on the promotion of adult literacy. There is news of a large programme for the upscaling of literacy centres. It has yet to find the light of day with the result that close to 35 million adults (age 15+) in the Punjab remain utterly illiterate. Conditions in the remaining 3 provinces are worse. There is no separate full-fledged department of literacy and non-formal education. The education secretaries are much too busy coping with the education department programmes and problems. Steeped as they are in formal education structures and approaches, they have little understanding of the requisites and nuances of non-formal education. Part of the challenge of literacy has been met by the National Commission for Human Development but the task is much too big for an inadequately funded central agency. After the 18th amendment, the commission almost ceased to exist and was saved by the skin of its teeth by the Supreme Court.

With a view to helping laggard countries, from time to time UNESCO devised imaginative strategies and programmes including the E-9 ministerial meetings and the Literacy Initiative For Empowerment (LIFE). Not much was achieved with these programmes’ constitutions in Pakistan because of government apathy. Realizing the urgency for prodding and activating lethargic states like Pakistan, UNESCO convened a high-level meeting of ministers, heads of country delegations, reps of UN agencies, donors and civil security organizations on September 2012 and issued a Communiqué on up-scaling literacy. The communiqué recognizes that literacy is a basic right; it is an instrument for achieving equitable and inclusive societies. It urged all lagging governments to “develop and implement time-bound… and cost-effective national literacy action plans for scaling up literacy programmes towards 2015 and beyond.”

Two months ago, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Pakistan as a UN special envoy to push Pakistan to speed up efforts to meet the EFA goals by 2015 and in the Islamabad meeting promised hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of the UN and other international donors in support of Pakistan’s programmes.

The meeting was also addressed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. While he waxed eloquence on the importance of education and referred to a proposal to launch a literacy movement in the country, all that he committed to do was increase the total provision for education to 4 percent by the year 2018. This means Pakistan will take four and a half years to raise the allocation for education to the minimum recommended by UNESCO.

Two more months have slipped by. Will the Prime Minister, who promised at the Islamabad meeting to launch a literacy movement, please stand up and tell us what he has done in these two months and what he plans to do in the remaining 19? The least he can do is raise the allocation for education/literacy to 3.5% of GDP which is less than the minimum recommended by UNESCO.

Do we realize just how much these tens of millions of illiterate men and women drag down the economy and society?

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