THE GREATEST CHALLENGE
Pakistan, after 63 years, continues to remain overwhelmingly
illiterate without any serious reflection or debate taking place in
the national parliament, the provincial assemblies, the print and
electronic media, think tanks, the educational institutions and
political parties on the consequences of illiteracy.
Even the judiciary has not invoked its power to come to grips with
this constitutional right. The fact that the Mundi Index of literacy
rates us at 49.9 per cent and shows us at 182 amongst 201 countries
in international rankings, with 63 per cent of the female population
and 35 per cent of the male population unable to read or write in
any language, does not seem to draw the attention of the high and
A nuclear-armed nation, with a hostile neighbor to its east and
international forces occupying the neighboring country to the west,
coupled with foreign intelligence agencies working to achieve their
interests and anti-state elements destabilizing the country from
within, must think of its national security by empowering its
citizens with literacy.
Let us see where we stand in this regard. Literacy is typically
described as the ability to read and write and UNESCO considers
literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create,
communicate, compute and use printed and written materials
associated with varying contexts”. Pakistan defines literacy as the
acquisition of basic skills of reading and writing. Let us take this
simple definition of literacy to understand our challenge.
A major effort was launched by the Musharraf government in 2002. It
established the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) at
the federal level with its outreach to the provinces. It was funded
uniquely by a separate organization, the Pakistan Human Development
Fund (PHDF), mainly with national and international private
donations and managed by its independent board.
The NCHD provided literacy through its now 120,263 adult literacy
centres to 2.5 million adults, 90 per cent of them females. The NCHD
estimates that almost 50 million people in Pakistan are illiterate,
a figure more or less reflected by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics
which cites the literacy rate for 2007 at 54.9 per cent. The
Economic Survey of Pakistan 2009-10 says it is 57 per cent. No
matter which statistic we take, we are faced with a stark reality.
We spend a dismal 2.1 per cent of our federal budget on education
and low amounts on literacy. It can be said that education (and thus
literacy) is a provincial subject. Literacy in our largest province
Baluchistan comes under the Social Welfare, Special Education,
Literacy/Non-Formal Education & Women Development Department whose
proclaimed vision is “to provide better social facilities to
socially disadvantaged people and to empower women”. However, it has
not provided any data on its official website on the state of
literacy in the province. The Economic Survey 2009-10 shows a
literacy rate of 45 per cent.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa we find that there is a School & Literacy
Department which is committed to providing access to quality
education to all. There is no mention of the literacy rate. However,
the latest available data indicates a literacy rate of 50 per cent.
In the commercial and industrial province of Sindh one finds that
literacy is the responsibility of the Education & Literacy
Department. It recognizes education as one of the most important
pillars of government and stands for “strong policy actions for
raising literacy to 100 per cent”. The department does not spell out
when and how it will meet this target. The province appears heavily
dependent on the NCHD, a federal institution, for its literacy
program. The latest data pertaining to Sindh puts the literacy rate
there at 59 per cent.
Moving to the most populated province, Punjab, one comes to the
conclusion that all is not lost. One is pleased to see a history of
concerted efforts, well-established programs, recognizable
achievements and plans. Since 2002, the Punjab government has the
Literacy & Non Formal Basic Education Department with its goal “to
make Punjab literate by 2020”.
New initiatives have been launched in 2008-09. These include:
strengthening capacity, the establishment of 300 adult literacy
centres in jails, factories and brick kilns, mobile literacy
programs, vocational training and above all an awareness campaign.
They actively partner with national organizations like the NCHD and
international organizations like the Asian Development Bank. The
latest 2009-10 Survey puts the literacy rate in Punjab literacy at
59 per cent.
Pakistan’s Millennium Development Goal for the literacy rate is 88
per cent by 2015, while the NCHD’s is 86 per cent. Pakistan has made
a clear commitment, yet ongoing efforts cast serious doubts on the
achievement of this goal.
In the last Mundi Index, France with 99 per cent literacy ranks
40th, while China with 91 per cent ranks 105. Neighboring Iran at
144 has a 77 per cent literacy rate. Evidently, there is a
correlation between literacy and development, literacy and
international standing, literacy and stability.
If we want to be seen as a self-respecting and empowered nation with
a democratic dispensation the only way forward is to make this
nation literate so that all citizens can be empowered to take part
in the nation-building exercise and stand guard against all internal
and external challenges to the country’s culture heritage, economic
independence and sovereignty. It requires strategies and plans to
meet this national challenge with all stakeholders on board.
Published in Daily Dawn
14th June 2010