Perils in strategy

Pakistan is at a crossroads. Battered by a set of interlocked crises the country faces unprecedented challenges of governance, security, the economy and meeting the basic needs of an exploding population. In one direction lies prosperity and stability.

By Maleeha Lodhi (Debate)

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Published: Mon 23 Apr 2012, 9:13 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:29 PM

In the other, a fate too frightening to contemplate. No single issue is more important for charting a path to a secure future for Pakistan than a transformation in the quality and coverage of the education offered to its children. Conversely, today’s education deficit – which is vast and, in comparison with Pakistan’s economic competitors, growing exponentially – is one of the key factors driving the country towards an exceedingly bleak future.

It was not always this way, and it doesn’t have to be. In 1947, the All-Pakistan Education Conference warned that education would be critical to Pakistan’s viability as a state. Since then, successive governments failed to make this an issue of utmost urgency. No leader had the vision to pursue a comprehensive set of reforms that would have given every Pakistani child the right to an education. The blame has to be shared among all – elected and military governments, and among parties that paid lip service to achieving literacy, but lacked political commitment and failed to provide the resources to translate this slogan into reality.

The short-termism that characterised almost every government hobbled the country’s progress. For much too long national security has been construed in narrow terms and almost entirely in its military dimensions. A comprehensive view of security shouldn’t just be confined to the physical protection of borders and to state security but extend to the lives of people inside and across the borders – to human security.

After all ‘soft’ threats to security imperil human life and welfare as much as ‘hard’ security threats. The security of people and their ‘freedom from want and deprivation’ must be assured in addition to steps that ensure ‘freedom from fear.’

Human security is not just about addressing dangers but also removing risks and vulnerabilities. With 25 million children (6 to 16 years of age) out of school in Pakistan today if this does not make for vulnerability what does? Unless the sources of future disadvantage and deprivation are resolved now they hold untold danger for Pakistan’s future stability and security

Education lies at the heart of almost all the challenges the country confronts. That is why is has to be treated as a strategic imperative, and not just a desirable social goal. It is the key that will unlock almost every problem – economic development, international competitiveness, social progress, countering extremism, promoting tolerance, and above all delivering on the social contract to the people. Pakistan needs to achieve universal literacy for compelling reasons. The country has a large and fast growing youthful population – a large youth bulge. A 2009 report published by the British Council and called The Next Generation set out the demographic challenges ahead. By 2030, Pakistan will have around 85 million additional citizens. These young people should be a vital resource. They should be an opportunity. Already they are pouring onto the job market at awesome speed. 36 million more jobs need to be created by the economy in the next 10 years alone.

Find these young people work and Pakistan will be poised for an economic boom, but, as the 2009 report argued, this demographic dividend does not come for free. It has to be earned. This means the country needs to educate its children. The reverse side of a boom could be a doomsday scenario. Young populations if they face a jobless future can become a source of serious social instability. Countries that have a high proportion of young people in the population are more than twice as likely to suffer civil conflict than those with older populations, while urbanisation and competition for scarce resources such as land and water, further heightens the risk.

That the past 20 years have been ones of growing conflict and violence within Pakistan cannot of course be put down solely to demographic drivers. Many other factors have intervened. But the fact that we have an ill educated ‘lost generation’ should be a cause for serious concern and a spur for action. Without educating our children – all children – there is little chance of reversing the decline.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom

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