Pakiban I.

Public schools are—or should be—a big issue for Pakistan. The country is very poor. It isn’t a major oil producer, nor does it have much in the way of other natural resources. Other countries in similar circumstances, like South Korea, have created a competitive advantage by investing heavily in improved “human capital.” That means public education. You build up from the primary schools to secondary schools to technical training schools to universities. Furthermore, developing countries can’t afford to ignore any segment of the school-age population in this drive for prosperity. As was the case with the American and European public schools systems created in the 19th Century, girls and boys both have to go to school. Education is only part of the solution to national and individual poverty, but it is a vital part.

Pakistan needs such a basic school system: about one-quarter of its population is aged between 5 and 16 years old. It doesn’t have one.[1]

Almost half of the school age population doesn’t go to school at all. Almost all of the children not in school are girls. The law says that they are supposed to go to school. But imams and parents say that girls should not go to school. The government doesn’t bother or doesn’t dare to enforce the law.

Test scores for primary school students matter most in a country building up its schools from the bottom. In Pakistan, about half of 10 year-olds score at the level of 6 year-olds in language mastery, at the level of 7 year-olds in arithmetic. How do you make only one year or two years of progress in five years of school?

You turn the schools into a political machine, that’s how. Right from the establishment of independence in 1947, Pakistan has botched its public school system. The school system has always been under-financed relative to needs. Then much of the funding has been diverted into the pockets of crooked politicians and their bureaucratic clients. Half of public primary schools have no electricity. Forty percent have no working toilets. A third have no drinking water.

Jobs as school teachers became a plum awarded to political supporters and nephews. Usually the teacher’s salary goes to the man who got him the job, while the teacher sells off whatever school resources fall into his grasp and takes another job. So, Pakistan has schoolrooms with students, but without teachers or books or desks. In the 1970s and 1980s the national government played to a rising religious tide by “Islamizing” the school curriculum.

Everyone knows that the schools are a disaster. Malala Yousafzai was campaigning against the many failings of the school system when she came to the attention of the Taliban. Many powerful people have a vested interest in the disaster continuing. Is it fair to ask if the government of Pakistan put the Taliban up to shooting Malala Yousafzai so that it wouldn’t have to do the work itself?

Pakistan isn’t the only developing country with a disdain for public education or for school girls. Aravind Adiga’s novel of contemporary India, The White Tiger, scalded Indian opinion exactly because it told so many truths about the country, the schools included. The kidnapping of hundreds of school-girls by the Nigerian Islamist movement Bozo Haram[2] is telling about the attitude of Islamists. The slack response of the Nigerian government is even more telling about the attitude of an elite pre-occupied with stealing oil revenues.

It’s worth comparing these places with Japan, China, South Korea, and even Turkey.

[1] Mosharraf Zaidi, “How Pakistan Fails Its Children,” NYT, 15 October 2014.


[2] Yes, I know, but did you ever see that guy on television?

Somalia a little while ago.

Richard Burton, the explorer not the actor, went to Somalia in the 1850s.  He got a spear through his face for his trouble.  Things aren’t much different now.  The British claimed the territory as part of their drive to protect the “lifeline to India” that ran through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.  They never managed to turn its tribes and regions into a coherent country before granting it independence.  The country disintegrated in 1991, with two regions (Somaliland, Puntland) seceding and the rest of the country falling prey to robber bands.  The economy fell apart and over a million people fled their homes to escape danger or starvation.  Nobody in the outside world cared very much about this catastrophe.  However, international television journalists discovered the place and broadcast the human suffering all over the world.  In 1992 President George H. W. Bush sent in some troops to try to restore some order.  Then an international peace-keeping force came in.  In 1993, under President Clinton, “mission creep” appeared as the Americans tried to batter the local war-lords into line.  This ended in the “Blackhawk Down” disaster.  Americans became very shy about intervening in tropical hell-holes.

Eventually, many people turned to radical Islamists who didn’t approve of robbers and had the guns to do something about it.  The Islamic Courts Union established control of most of the country by 2005.  However, in the wake of 9/11 the US had developed a strong dislike for radical Islamists.  The intervention the 1990s hadn’t gone too well and American forces were busy with other wars (Iraq, Afghanistan).  So, in 2006 the US encouraged Ethiopia, which had its own territorial ambitions, to invade Somalia and toss out the Islamic Courts government.  Before pulling out its troops in January 2009 Ethiopia didn’t entirely succeed in getting rid of the Islamic Courts, but it did enough to wreck any the progress that had been made.  Somalia is ungoverned and attracts anti-Western radical Islamists.  A third of Somalis live from internationally-supplied food rations.  A million people are in refugee camps or wandering around dazed.

Under these conditions, many Somalis living near the coast turned to piracy.  The original British motivation to occupying Somalia arose from the important shipping route between the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean and the Red Sea-Suez Canal.  The British Empire is gone, but shipping still uses the route.  Somalia is awash in weapons.  Put merchants ship and automatic weapons together with poor people who know small boats, place in a law-less environment, and you get instant piracy.  By early 2009 the pirates were seizing three ships a week and they made an estimated $100 million in ransom in 2008.

“Somalia: A state of failure,” The Week, 22 May 2009, p. 11.