Over the next few months – drawing on my ongoing PhD research project – I will write a series of blogs on the challenges of access to quality education for all young people in Pakistan, and the role of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in providing a framework for action in relation to these challenges.
The blog series is informed by my PhD research project, which engages with issues of cultural politics of education curriculum, pluralism, inclusion and the relevance of the SDGs, using postcolonial theory. My thesis, titled The Cultural Politics of Curriculum in Pakistan: The challenges for pluralism, inclusion and the UN SDGs in a Postcolonial context uses the SDGs as a global framework. The significance of this investigation stems from the complex manifestations and outcomes of religious-sectarian, fundamentalist, violent extremism and intolerance, which have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people over the last 2 decades in Pakistan. Through an engagement with the ‘cultural politics’ of education curriculum, the research project seeks to explore the possibilities of reshaping the cultural politics of education curriculum towards the goals of pluralism and inclusion in Pakistani society.
In part 1 of this blog series, I provide a brief introduction to the emergence of Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state and refer to some of the challenges which played an important role in determining the future course of its history with regard to development and education.
Pakistan and the challenges for sustainable development in a postcolonial nation-state
Pakistan is a postcolonial nation-state in South Asia. With a population of 214 million people, others estimate it around 222 million, Pakistan is the 5th largest country in the world in terms of population. Before it emerged as a postcolonial nation-state on 14th August 1947, the regions constituting Pakistan were part of the British colonial-India. The British colonial occupation transformed the South Asian societies by replacing the traditional systems of governance, institutions, education systems and practices, and various modes of political association. It is in this sense that we can say that many of Pakistan’s current problems of development and education have colonial strings attached to it.
Though heir to some of the greatest ancient human civilisations including those of the Indus Valley and Gandhara, Pakistan is a young nation-state. Since its independence in 1947, it has been facing a number of key challenges. These challenges, outlined below, have played a role in determining the course of Pakistan’s history, society, education and development.
One of the major challenges is geography. In 1947, Pakistan consisted of two exclaves called East and West Pakistan. Both were separated from each other by more than 1000 miles of Indian territory. All federating units consisting of the provinces and princely states which joined Pakistan in 1947 had different languages, cultures, and some even had vastly different courses of histories. This created the challenge of articulating a national identity that would reflect the unity of the nation while encompassing the hugely diverse society. To respond to this challenge, Pakistan opted for Islam as the foundation of its national identity. Islam, the religion of an overwhelming majority of the country’s population, provided a unifying and bonding element. Over the years this version of the national identity became enshrined in the concept of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’.
Despite these efforts, throughout its postcolonial history since 1947, Pakistan has faced periods of ethnic, linguistic, and religious-sectarian violence. From the early days, matters related to the issues of official language and political representations created rifts between East and West Pakistan resulting in the ethnic-inspired civil war in 1971, which ended in the separation of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.
More recently, from 2004 to 2018, and in ways that are intimately connected to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the so-called global ‘war-on-terror’, religious-sectarian groups have waged a war against Pakistan, causing the deaths of over 65,000 Pakistanis. Along with these challenges, sectarian violence has continued to haunt the nation from the beginning of its independence and particularly since the 1980s. Armed local sectarian groups, claimed to have global connections, have continuously targeted their sectarian rivals by killing religious leaders, bombing religious gatherings, and damaging properties.
Another challenge that Pakistan has been facing is a lack of industrialisation and infrastructure. The regions consisting of Pakistan were at the periphery of both the Mughal and British Empires. Though the British colonial administration did some work in developing a network of irrigation channels in Punjab, most of the Pakistani regions remained devoid of the institutional and industrial facilities during the colonial era. For example, out of 87 technical institutes only 6 were in Pakistan and out of 21 Universities only 3 were in Pakistan (see the proceedings of Pakistan’s first educational conference in Karachi 1947).
Pakistan has not done very well in industrial development over its postcolonial history. Economic and technological development remains a distant dream even after 73 years of independence. Resource scarcity and inefficient use of the existing resources can be blamed for Pakistan’s poor economic performance. A simple comparison with Bangladesh reflects this poor economic performance. In 1973 Pakistan’s GDP was over 10 Billion US$, while that of Bangladesh was just 6 Billion US$, Bangladesh’s export were 377 million US$ and Pakistan’s export stood at 760 million US$ in the same period. 2018’s data indicates that Bangladesh’s exports stand at $US35.8 Billion in comparison to Pakistan’s $US24.8 Billion. The Asian Development Bank’s Developmental Outlook for the South Asia region released in 2019, before the outbreak of Covid-19, showed that Pakistan’s economy was expected to perform lower than that of every country in South Asia, including Afghanistan. As a result of this economic crunch, Pakistan has become economically dependent on the Western nations, as it receives aid/loans from the West-based economic institutions and loan/donation from the United States by providing strategic concessions.
Political instability, yet another challenge for Pakistan, has also contributed to the dire developmental performance of the country and poor state of education. Pakistan’s political instability and issues of governance have continued to hamper sustainable economic growth, social development and democratic stability. The military-Generals have ruled the country for 35 years through martial law and have also influenced the democratic governments throughout history. A political culture centred on feudal and tribal values, where people choose their political representatives based on familial, clan and sectarian affiliations, or for personal-material gains instead of merit has contributed to a weak democratic system.
The armed forces were granted a prominent place in the national institutional fabric after independence, because of the hostile geopolitical neighbourhood, particularly the tensions with the two of Pakistan’s neighbours, India and Afghanistan. This has diverted the majority of the nation’s resources to defence, instead of development and education. As a result, education and social development initiatives do not find their place on the priority list of any government in Pakistan. The history of spending on social development in Pakistan, including education, reflects this sorry state of the economy. The UNDP’s human development report 2013 indicated that Pakistan’s spending on the social sector was lower than even the poorest African countries i.e., Congo. In 2020, Pakistan’s State Bank admitted that the country was spending very little on the social sector in the context of continuous economic problems.
Despite all these challenges and many more, the size of the youth population provides Pakistan with an opportunity to steer the country towards development and progress. 64% of Pakistanis, according to the data of 2018, are below the age of 30 years, and 29% of Pakistanis are aged between 15 to 19. However, the education system’s capacity to harness this potential of the young population through provision of access to appropriate knowledge, attitude and relevant skills is doubtful. This is obvious from the more than 22.8 million school-age young people who do not attend school. The corrupt practices, nepotism, undue political interferences in education, and lack of capacity to efficiently use the available resources, make the public education system’s capability to provide access to quality education for all young Pakistanis uncertain. The confinement of quality education to a relatively small, privileged segment of the society, through the network of high-fee elite private schools, works against the possibility of quality education for all.
The major challenges faced by the postcolonial state of Pakistan continue to play a role in determining Pakistan’s future course of history with regard to society, polity, development and education. In the next blog, I will discuss the key challenges that constrain young people in Pakistan in relation to access to education – a situation that currently leaves tens of millions of school-age children out of school.