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DAWN Editorials - 4th July 2015

Express Tribune Editorials – 2nd May 2016

Education woes

Yet another report has been published bemoaning the lack of funds for education in Pakistan. The Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS) presented its report regarding the financing of education in Pakistan during 2015-16 on April 28. To the surprise of no one, the report stated that Pakistan spends a measly 2.14 per cent of is GDP on education, the lowest in South Asia.

Consequently, we have failed to come even close to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of raising the literacy level to 88 per cent. Currently, the literacy rate in Pakistan is at 58 per cent but this statistic does not present the full picture. The report unpacks the myriad of problems created by years of underfunding and ignoring of the education sector. A huge portion of the current budget is used for meeting administrative expenses such as employee salaries. Only 15 per cent of the budget is set aside for development projects.

Then there is the huge disparity in numbers that exists at different stages of education. Primary schools form the bulk of educational institutions in every province of the country with numbers rapidly increasing. Higher secondary schools are only one per cent of the total. Even those counted amongst the literate are barely getting past the stage of doing basic arithmetic and learning to read and write. That is enough for a developing country one might argue, but with only Rs4.4 billion allocated for teacher training, the quality of education being provided to children, especially in underdeveloped parts of the country, is doubtful. Education is often hailed as the cure all for the ills plaguing this country. From terrorism to violence against women and minority religious groups, conversations often revolve around the positive role education could play in changing mindsets. However, despite the numerous inches devoted to this topic by newspapers, reports published both by government-funded and independent researchers and the statements issued by top government officials, there still appears to be no momentum towards changing this dismal situation and the education sector in Pakistan continues to operate on a shoestring budget.

Foreign policy stumbles

The year 2015 was marked by perceptible shifts in foreign policy that were indicative of a state moving into youthful maturity. There was a swing away from the states in the Gulf region and on the Arabian Peninsula which have dominated the foreign policy landscape for decades, tied as we are to their oil supplies and largesse when we are in financial difficulty. Pakistan declined the invitation to join the war being fought by Saudi Arabia in Yemen to the considerable irritation of the Saudis who are used to Pakistan doing their bidding. Eyes turned instead to the east and China, with the emergent China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being touted as the Uber-Fix for a myriad of economic and social woes, the fix-all to fix everything. Eyes also turned to Iran as the opportunities opened up by the lifting of American sanctions suddenly made the long-delayed pipeline project between Iran and Pakistan more of a possibility. Relations with India seemed to improve and a halting dialogue got under way. Even relations with Afghanistan took an uptick. America warmed slightly as well and by the end of the year, the foreign policy environment was beginning to look healthier than it had for decades — but it may all have been a house of cards.

The collapse began with the attack on the Indian airbase at Pathankot that skewered the bilateral talks that were about to move to the foreign secretary level. There were efforts to keep the talks on track and as recently as last week, there were ‘contacts’ between the two sides but the talks are effectively dead in the water, killed off by a group that has a base in Pakistan. It is that failure by the state to control or even regulate extremist and terrorist groups that has been the stiletto through the ribs for our nascent foreign policy shifts, and the rot does not stop there. As previously noted in these columns, American lawmakers are far from happy with the obvious and continuing presence and capacity of Taliban groups to operate from Pakistan; so irritated are they that the latest F16 purchase has run into the sand and Pakistan is going to have to find $700 million because the US Congress refuses to use American taxpayers’ money to fund the deal.

To cap four months of foreign policy discomfort, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to refuse the invitation to visit Pakistan in what is the diplomatic equivalent of a mighty slap in the face. Russia is not a country that is to the fore in terms of protecting the human rights of its citizenry and has its own problems with extremist groups, Muslim and otherwise — to say nothing of its interventionist positions in the Middle East and Ukraine. A state already the subject of sanctions in the wider world yet disdainful of an invitation by Pakistan. The reasons for declining the visit are somewhat opaque but Russia is believed to be less than delighted — as are any number of other states — with the persistence, indeed proliferation, of extremist groups within our borders. Russia has considerable potential for Pakistan as a trading partner, but citing insufficient “substance” to Mr Putin’s trip as the reason to refuse the invitation, which in diplomatic terms is almost unparalleled as invitations such as this are only given after the back-channel work has been done — is virtually unprecedented.

Pakistan keeps snakes in the back garden. They are not fussy about who they bite. When they bite other states around us or those with which we have economic or cultural ties, then unsurprisingly those states want to know why our snakes have bitten them and what we are doing about not letting it happen again. Snakes are never friendly. They cannot be tamed or domesticated though they can be defanged and rendered harmless but have to be caught first. They bit foreign policy. Unfortunately, nobody had bothered to remove their fangs.

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