Posts Tagged ‘NGOs’

Trump, USAID and Funding for Pakistan

January 26, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The election of Donald Trump has generated much uncertainty. In Pakistan, among other things, concern has been expressed that USAID funding might be affected by the transition. The concern stems from a delay by the incoming administration in meeting the aid agency to discuss the continuity of future disbursements.

The reason for the concern is that USAID disburses millions of dollars in Pakistan every year through NGOs and any disruption of the pipeline would affect their sustainability, the livelihood of thousands of their employees, and the welfare of the intended beneficiaries.

This much is easy to grasp. At the same time, however, analysts have highlighted other, conflicting, dimensions of the assistance. These question the objectives and the consequences of the funding. They suggest that the primary purpose of the aid is to promote US influence in recipient countries, that aid-based development is not sustainable, and that national pride is dented by continued dependence – references to the begging-bowl syndrome abound.

There is thus an obvious dilemma to consider: Which aspect is more important and ought to influence national policy regarding bilateral assistance in general and USAID in particular, the latter because the US has the most obvious security interests in the region? In theory, most analysts prefer development that is financed from local resources with a concomitant winding down of external assistance. In practice, however, they resign themselves to continuation of the status quo. They claim there is no alternative because Pakistan’s population does not wish to pay taxes and believes in getting something for nothing.

Is this claim fair to the population of Pakistan and does it provide a plausible explanation of the present predicament? Start with the fact that the distribution of income and wealth is highly skewed in Pakistan – it can’t be very different from India where the 57 richest individuals are reported to hold as much wealth as the poorest 70 percent of the population. Clearly, any move to tighten the tax net would also impact those at the top of the wealth pyramid many of whom are networked in the ruling establishment. Is it realistic to expect the wealthiest to voluntarily tax themselves? Would they move the country to a model of self-reliance in which they would have to contribute their share or would they rather continue the dependence on external money from which they have something to gain by way of rents and nothing to lose?

At the same time, is it correct to say that the population does not pay taxes when it is burdened with all kinds of indirect withholdings? Taxes are withheld from everyone who uses a mobile phone, has a bank account, or owns a motorcycle including those whose incomes are below the minimum taxable limit. The injustice is compounded because many of them do not even know how to reclaim the withholdings. Equitable and progressive taxation from above is avoided while oppressive and regressive extortion from below is promoted much as what one would expect from an abuse of power.

The bottom line is that the existing arrangement of development assistance persists because it is in the interest of all the key players – the donor country that uses aid to buy influence, the establishment that does not want to tax itself, the foreign consultants and contractors who feed off inflated charges, and the NGOs that flourish on easy money for which the donors do not demand accountability – the circle thereby completing itself. Each one of these players is happy with the outcome and least bothered by the begging-bowl syndrome that gnaws away at the pride of analysts.

Such is the eagerness to make the good times last that a blind eye is turned to easily available evidence pertaining to the result of billions of dollars of assistance received over the past decades. Major recipients like public health and education are in a state of shambles and people continue to die from lack of access to clean water and sanitation. What is there to show for the thousands of teachers and health workers that have been trained again and again, each training costing millions of dollars?

Why in the face of such clear evidence are the decisionmakers not clamoring for change in the model of development? Is it because all the key parties involved are benefiting while those who will have to pay the future liabilities have no say in the matter?

The only way this gravy train can come to a halt is if President Trump does one of the bizarre things people expect of him. It might well happen in Africa but it is more likely he will be convinced to appreciate what the money is buying in return in a high-stake zone like Pakistan. At most, he will demand a higher price from the establishment which the latter would accept as the new reality.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 25, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The writer’s evaluation of foreign assistance can be accessed at https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Foreign

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Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

October 19, 2010

By Anjum Altaf and Samia Altaf

This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on October 18, 2010. It is being reproduced here with permission of the authors in order to provide a forum for feedback, comments, and discussion. Parallels with other countries in South Asia would be particularly welcome.

Pakistan’s public education system is sick and getting sicker. But what exactly is the malady? We employ this medical perspective to highlight the issues and to propose for consideration a radical yet feasible path to recovery.

The health care perspective comprises three essential steps: a description of the problem; a diagnosis of the cause; and a prescription of the remedy. In the case of public education in Pakistan there has been no diagnosis, only descriptions and prescriptions (more…)

Pakistan: An Idiosyncratic Road to Better Governance

August 11, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

One has to sympathize with Pakistan at this time beset as it is with problems from all sides. The focus ought to be on ensuring survival. But surely there must be some thought that extends beyond the sympathy, beyond the jaded expressions of shock and sorrow. Will Pakistan continue to lurch from crisis to crisis? Will this cycle of pray and beg, beg and pray, ever come to an end?

It will, but perhaps not in the way we would like. There is no such thing as equilibrium; it exists only as an idealized state in textbooks of economics. In the real world, things either get better or they get worse. And who will now dispute that, in general, things have been trending down in Pakistan mostly as the result of self-inflicted wounds. (more…)

Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

March 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries.

The Big Questions

1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?

The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression.

2. Can NGOs fill the gap?

The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only effective solution is reform of the public education system.

3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?

All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance or the callousness of the literate.

4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?

The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person. There is a difference between education and indoctrination.

5. What is the problem with the content?

In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.

6. What is the problem with pedagogy?

The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking. This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution, or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.

7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?

NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.

8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?

NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy, incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models for reform of the public education system.

9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?

The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By 2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.

10. What is the bottom line?

Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance, capacity constraints and income limitations.

Resources

  1. International Coalition for Educational Reform in Pakistan.
  2. Elite Dominance and Under-investment in Mass Education (Indian States).
  3. Annual Status of Education Report 2008 (Rural India).
  4. Are NGOs Relevant?
  5. On Philanthropy.
  6. The Subtle Subversion: the State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.
  7. Producing Thinking Minds.
  8. The Problem with the Educated Middle Class.
  9. Technology and Education: Internet; Mobile Phone.
  10. The South Asian Idea.

Dr. Anjum Altaf is a member of the advisory council of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan and a contributor to The South Asian Idea, an experimental e-learning resource for college students in South Asia. Contact: thesouthasianidea@gmail.com

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Why Numbers are Important?

October 10, 2008

Half the illiterate adults in the world, about 400 million, live in South Asia; over 40 million children do not go to school; and half the children who do enroll in Grade 1 drop out before completing five years of primary education.

Is this a problem and, if so, how is to be addressed?

This is not a post about the state of education. It is about the importance of numbers and their relevance to the arguments we make and the solutions we propose.

Some people say that governments have failed in their duty to provide education to citizens and therefore non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step in to fill the vacuum.

Most of the time such discussions are carried out without any reference to either the scale of the problem or the scale of the proposed solution. They are what are termed ‘hand-waving’ arguments.

As soon as one looks at a few relevant numbers, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

Take Pakistan, for example. The total number of schools operated by NGOs today is less than 5,000 and the total number of students enrolled in such schools less than 500,000. On the other hand, just the number of children dropping out of the primary school system every year is about 500,000.

So, can the NGO strategy be physically scaled up to take care of the education problem? Forget the stock of existing children out of school; can NGOs put in place 5,000 more schools every year just to take care of the new dropouts.

It is unlikely, but suppose someone answers this question in the affirmative. Then the argument would need to be taken to the next level to discuss the costs involved. What is the cost being incurred by NGOs to teach one child? And how much new financing would be needed to do what NGOs are proposing to do? What would be the source of this finance?

We have come a long way from the ‘hand-waving’ argument. Now we understand the scale of the problem, the level of response needed if the problem is to be addressed by an NGO-led strategy, and the amount of financing that would be required to do so.

We are well on the way to a standard problem assessment and feasibility analysis of a proposed solution. Just by asking a few questions and collecting a few numbers, we have reduced the risk of embarking on an infeasible strategy.

The objective of the post is to highlight the importance of such an analysis as part of argumentation about public policies. This is not an argument that says that NGOs should not set up schools. Every child that is fortunate enough to benefit from education could have his or her life prospects changed. But looking at the numbers can make us realize that NGOs can help a limited number of individuals but they cannot resolve the crisis of education in South Asia.

For an example of a similar analysis applied to the energy sector, see Giant Leaps And Small Steps For Energy Technology. The article asks what is the central reality that has changed over the decades? Answer: The scale. “As world GDP grows from $50 trillion to $80 trillion in 20 years, new supply equal to France’s total energy consumption will be needed each year. This is the central challenge of our era. A Manhattan or Apollo Program just won’t cut it.” 

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Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

October 6, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID.

Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem.

This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one school at a time. I will argue that this will send us off on the wrong track.

Think of it this way. If you go to a physician with fever and rashes, the physician does not treat you for fever and rashes. The fever and rashes are not the disease; they are just the symptoms of a disease. And the disease is unidentified till there is a diagnosis which is the real job of the physician. Only when the underlying cause is identified can the appropriate treatment be prescribed. And this prescription will be very different depending on whether the fever and rashes are due to malaria as opposed to chicken pox.

The social scientist is the physician of the social system and his/her real task in this case is to identify the underlying cause whose symptom is 50 percent illiteracy in Pakistan. Before we begin to address that question we should also clarify that just as illiteracy is not the problem, the 50 percent of the citizens who are illiterate are not the problem. They are not the ones holding back the development and prosperity of the country. Blaming them would be akin to blaming the patients and the victims.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is a grossly mismanaged country. And the ones who have been in charge of mismanaging the country are its literate, not its illiterate, citizens. Let us grant for the moment that it is part of this mismanagement that is manifested in the illiteracy of half the population. So the question we have to ask is why the literate managers have failed to impart literacy to the still illiterate citizens?

The two explanations that one hears all the time are lack of political will and lack of money. But these are not convincing explanations. Why is political will needed to spread literacy? Who in the country is opposing the spread of literacy? Why does political capital need to be expended for this cause? There is no satisfactory answer.

And why is there a lack of money for education? There seems to be a lot of money for everything else from the making of nuclear bombs to buying F-16 planes to building the highest water fountain in the world. Why is it education that is starved for money? Once again there is no satisfactory answer.

The only plausible conclusion seems to be that spreading literacy amongst the illiterate has a very low priority for the literate managers of the country. And so we push back the question further to ask why that priority is so low?

Let me try to present a hypothesis with a few examples. Take the tribal sardars in Balochistan. The population of Balochistan is only 10 million and only half of those are ethnic Baloch. We know that a number of Baloch sardars have earned millions of dollars for the use of natural resources on their lands. So why have the sardars not used this revenue to educate their tribesmen?

When you pose that question almost everyone in Pakistan is quick to inform you that the sardars do not wish to educate or otherwise develop their tribesmen because they want them to remain dependent.

Leaving aside the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan, we can conclude from this that there is at least one type of political-economic system in which the rulers are positively not interested in educating their constituents.

Have I picked an outlier, the only such system of this type in the world ruled by backward tribal sardars? Think again. Recall that in the American South before the Civil War many states had passed laws making it a crime for slaves to learn to read and write and for others to instruct them. The punishments included flogging for slaves and heavy fines for the teachers.

Why was this necessary? Because if the slaves had been able to read the Constitution they would have noted that it began with the statement that all men were born equal and, one presumes, they would have been curious to know why the equality did not apply to them.

So we can begin to believe that there are indeed political-economic systems, especially those based on oppression, where the rulers do not wish the ruled to develop the ability to think and question because that questioning would lead to a questioning of the legitimacy of the systems themselves.

Do you believe that such things just happen by themselves without conscious thought? Once more you will have to think again. Most people in the subcontinent are familiar with the name of Lord Macaulay made famous by his 1837 ‘Minute on Education’. Here is what he said in a remarkable speech in the British Parliament on the Government of India Bill in 1833:

“Are we to keep the people of India ignorant in order that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition? Or do we mean to awaken ambition and provide it with no legitimate vent?”

What happened in India later is a fascinating digression but I will not get into that here. The point to take away is that the decision to educate or not to educate the subjects is a political decision, that education policy is an element in the political calculus, and that there are some political-economic systems, of which I have provided three examples, where the decision of the rulers is not to educate the ruled beyond the minimum that is necessary for the functioning of the system.

Of course, not all systems are like that. Here in the Silicon Valley you have a sub-system that puts a great premium on learning and that even pays you to acquire more knowledge. Why? Because this system is part of a globally competitive environment in which it would die if it didn’t remain ahead of its competition. So, one can conclude that it is the needs of a political-economic system, not good will, that determine its attitudes towards education.

Note that one cannot even generalize from the Silicon Valley sub-system to the US as a whole. You might agree that the US does not really want its citizens to learn more than it feels necessary about the Iraq war, for example. And it does not strongly enough wish the same kind of thinking to be taught in inner city schools as it does in the schools of Palo Alto. Do you attribute that in the richest country of the world to lack of political will or lack of money?

So, here is the first major conclusion: Education is a political issue; political-economic systems are in general inimical to enabling their citizens to think; they enable only as much thinking as is necessary for the survival of the system; and systems differ in how much thinking-power they need to survive.

You can even apply this perspective to attitudes towards the education of women within families if you think of a family as a political-economic system. When we see the issue in this perspective we can understand better why education has such a low priority in Pakistan for the managers of the system. They sense a very low need for innovative thinking that is satisfied by a handful of elite institutions whose teaching methods have never trickled down to the vast majority of schools and colleges. On balance, the dangers posed by critical thinking far outweigh its benefits to the status quo.

Now, of course, there are occasions when populations rebel against this kind of oppression. We can think of the warlords in China, the Tsars in Russia, and the capitalists in Cuba as the equivalents of our Baloch sardars. Their populations under Mao, Lenin, and Castro rebelled against the oppression and were able to win universal literacy for themselves.

But does this stop education from remaining an instrument of politics? No, the politics just moves up to the next level – that of the content that comprises education and literacy. So, the Chinese were made literate with the Little Red Book, the Russians with Marxism-Leninism, and the Cubans with the Socialist Man. The object was to concede the hard-won right of citizens to learn but to ensure that they thought in a particular, state-sanctioned, way. Many would call that indoctrination, not education.

The second major conclusion is that literacy is important but the content of that literacy is even more important. Let me give you an example from closer to home. Ashis Nandy, the leading political psychologist in India, recently got into a lot of trouble for writing an article in which he laid the blame for the ethnic cleansing in Gujarat on its educated middle class. Remember that this ethnic cleansing is alleged to have been incited and encouraged by Narendra Modi, the very literate Chief Minister of the state.

Related to this, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading scholar of ethnic conflict working in Mumbai, asked a very profound question: Why is that the educated middle class is more bigoted than the illiterate masses? And he had a very simple answer: because it is educated.

Think about this. If you take the mind of a child as an empty vessel and make the child literate while filling his or her mind with hate and lies what will you get? You will get a literate young person who is infinitely more dangerous than an illiterate one.

So, if you teach numeric literacy in a school by asking how many kar-sevaks it would take to demolish 7 mosques in 3 days if one kar-sevak can demolish one mosque in two days, you will certainly achieve literacy, but at a very heavy cost to society.

Of course, this political use of education is not confined to India. The curriculum wing of the ministry of education in Pakistan retains very tight control over what is to be taught in public schools in Pakistan. An analysis of the content is available on the web in a report prepared by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. When you see it you will be convinced that this is indeed not education but indoctrination. And, of course, you are quite well aware how some others are being made literate in the well-funded madrassas.

So this is what we mean by the term “beyond literacy”. Education is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves. And thus we have a twin struggle: first to ensure that our citizens obtain their basic human right of education; and second that the education they get enables them to think for themselves.

Once we have diagnosed the problem and placed it in its political context only then can we begin to think how we can get from where we are to where we want to be. The first part is obviously a political struggle. We have to mobilize the citizens to demand their right to a good education – no one is going to give it to them as charity. But this also requires us to see the role of NGOs in a realistic perspective – the arithmetic does not support the conclusion that NGOs on their own can fill the gap left by the omissions of the state.

NGOs are doing a commendable job in changing the life chances of the proportionately very few people they are able to touch. But all the statistics confirm that the overall gap in Pakistan is widening despite the heroic commitment of the NGOs. NGOs need at the same time to act as awareness-raising groups to mobilize citizens around their rights and as pressure groups to force the state to discharge its responsibility to its citizens.

Second, we must contest the struggle over the content of education and the pedagogy of critical thinking, aspects we have ignored to our detriment by allowing ideologues to capture and enfeeble the educational arena since the time of Zia ul Haq. Here again, NGOs have a vital role in the evolution of new content and learning methods that they can experiment with in their institutions. But here we must realize that the conventional approach to improving the quality of education is no longer possible. Quite apart from the opposition of the state and of those who control educational institutions today, there is no way we can get the thousands of trained teachers we need in the schools and colleges spread over the rural areas, the small towns and the secondary cities of Pakistan. We have to think of a way to leapfrog this limitation.

Here we have an opportunity provided by the emergence of technologies that did not exist even a few decades ago. Recall that Ayotallah Khomeini toppled the Shah by using cassette tapes to educate Iranians about the oppression in the country. We may disagree with the political content of this education but here we only want to note the leverage provided by new technology and the weakening of state controls because of it.

Since that time digital technology has made remarkable inroads. The cell phone has now penetrated into the remotest villages and reached amongst the poorest of the citizens. And if you in Silicon Valley continue what you are doing the digital content that would be available on cell phones tomorrow cannot even be imagined today.

It is this democratization of access to information not subject to state control (recall the attempts to ban dish-antennas a few years back) that holds out the biggest hope for the future. It would be technological forces supported by civic action that would be the driving force of this transformation. Our job would be to find the content that would take advantage of these technological opportunities. So the ball is very much in our court.

On our part, we have started a modest initiative to provide content in a thought-provoking format for college students in South Asia. It is still in an experimental stage seeking to find the right mix of content, format and complexity. We hope to turn this into a major e-learning platform grounded in specific nodes in South Asia with the content transferred to local language blogs. I invite you to take a look at this initiative, to provide your inputs, and to participate in the experiment to see if we can really make a difference in the sense that I have outlined in this presentation.

I think we can and I am excited by the challenge. If we pool our strengths – mastery of technology, familiarity with content, and motivation for civic action – we can make our presence felt and make a decisive contribution to the cause of education and liberation in Pakistan.

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See endnote 25 in Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India by Vani K. Barooah and Sriya Iyer, 2004. See also, The Constitutional Mandate and Education, 2005.