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This fiscal year alone, the United States has pledged $335 million in aid to strengthen Pakistan’s education system -- or more than 1/5 of the total $1.5 billion U.S. aid program in Pakistan.  This figure makes USAID’s education program in Pakistan its largest in the world.  (As a point of comparison, in 2004, USAID’s total global budget for basic education was $365.5 million, split among some 43 countries.)  But as CGD President Nancy Birdsall underscores in a new open letter to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, money alone is not the solution to Pakistan’s underperforming education system.  How that money is spent is just as important.  A big push on innovation, transparency, and accountability is key.

It is little wonder that the United States has prioritized education in its aid program in Pakistan.  Pakistan is sitting on a ticking “population bomb,” with a youth population that is unusually large compared to its South Asian neighbors, and growing.  Half of Pakistan’s 185 million-strong population is under the age of 17.   By 2050, conservative estimates predict that Pakistan’s population will grow to 335 million, which would make Pakistan the world’s fourth largest country.  How well Pakistan’s education system prepares its millions of young people for a productive future will profoundly impact the country’s internal stability, security and prosperity.

The status quo, however, foretells a dismal future. By all counts, Pakistan has one of the worst performing education systems in the world.  On the United Nation’s education rankings, Pakistan scored an abysmal 163rd out of 177 countries.  Pakistan has a net primary enrollment rate of just 66 percent – significantly lower than India’s 90 percent and lower even than (much poorer) Bangladesh’s rate of 88 percent. Consider these three startling facts from a superb paper by Sir Michael Barber:

  • For each 100 children that begin kindergarten in Pakistan, only one will make it to 12th grade
  • Each day, a quarter of Pakistan’s teachers simply do not show up to school
  • Over a quarter of Karachi’s 4 million children of school age are not in school at all, which makes Karachi arguably the worst educated megacity in the world

Learn More About Education in Pakistan

Pakistan: Learning and Educational Achievements in Punjab Schools (LEAPS): Insights to Inform the Education Policy Debate” by Tahir Andrabi, Jisnhu Das, Asim Ijaz Khwaja, Tara Vishwanath, Tristan Zajonc and the LEAPS team.

A Dime a Day: The Possibility and Limits of Private Schooling in Pakistan” by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das, Asim Ijaz Khwaja

2009 Pakistan Education Policy

USAID education fact sheet for Pakistan.

Beyond Madrassas: Assessing Links between Education and Militancy in Pakistan” by Rebecca Winthrop and Corinne Graff

Education Reform in Pakistan: This Time it’s Going to be Different” by Sir Michael Barber

Donor attention to Pakistan’s failing education system is not new.  In fact, as my colleagues and I documented in a recent CGD analysis, the World Bank and other donors spent hundreds of millions of aid dollars to improve Pakistan’s education system and other social sectors in the 1990s.  The results were deeply disappointing. During the decade when the program was implemented, school-enrollment rates stagnated, while enrollment for boys and children in public schools actually declined. Some of the reasons were frustratingly clear: teachers were not hired on the basis of merit,  were frequently transferred from one school to another, and were often simply not present.

Despite this uneven donor track record, today there are several promising trends in Pakistan’s education sector that might provide a window of opportunity for the U.S. aid program.  The first is the success of several recent donor efforts in mobilizing political will in the Pakistani government.  The newly formed Pakistan Education Task Force -- co-led by the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Government of Pakistan -- is leading the charge on policy and curriculum reforms. At the provincial level in Punjab and beyond, the World Bank has collaborated with provincial ministries to craft effective education sector reform programs.

The second opportunity is the clear parental demand for a good, quality primary education for their children – a demand so great that millions of Pakistani parents are willing to pay for it.  In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed an explosive growth of its secular private schools.  Some estimates suggest that as many as 75 percent of school-attending children in Karachi alone are enrolled in private schools.   Even with less qualified and lower paid teachers, one influential study in Punjab found these private schools in at least this area are on average three times as efficient as public schools from the perspective of cost and learning outcomes.

In her open letter, Nancy delivers five recommendations for what U.S. policies and aid programs would be most effective in strengthening Pakistan’s education sector:

  • Improving Pakistan’s education system and learning outcomes depends on how well aid money is spent more than how much the United States spends.  Money alone won’t solve Pakistan’s education problems.  A big push on innovation, transparency, and accountability is key, especially as some portion of the education budget is likely to be redirected for school reconstruction in the flood-affected communities.
  • Earlier, we put forth the idea for U.S. and Pakistani policymakers to agree upon a small set of simple indicators to serve as the benchmarks for the success of development programs. As part of this exercise, U.S. and Pakistani leaders should identify and track a single, simple measure of national education attainment to serve as the benchmark of success. For instance, they might choose to track the primary school completion rate or the percentage of children that enter secondary school.
  • To build on the positive momentum around private schools and to empower parents to hold schools accountable for results, the United States should consider financing a massive effort to provide information to parents about the availability and quality of both private and public schools. For instance, U.S. assistance could help Pakistan’s federal government finance nationwide student testing.  U.S. aid could also fund other accountability and transparency initiatives that provide parents with information about teacher attendance, school funding, learning outcomes, and other school characteristics.
  • The United States could build on the successful efforts of other donors, including by co-financing the World Bank’s provincial-level education programs in Punjab and beyond.  The United States could announce a major U.S.-U.K. partnership on education in Pakistan over the next five years.  This partnership could introduce outcome-based assessments at the district and provincial levels, with an emphasis on school quality and learning results.  Some portion of aid could be used to provide incentives for governments that are willing to make these issues a priority.  One such aid model is a “cash on delivery” arrangement, whereby a provincial-level government in Pakistan would be given a flexible stream of aid based on incremental progress on a fundamental education indicator.  The United States could also consider contributing $50 million to a new innovation fund established by the United Kingdom.  As in the U.S. Race to the Top model, this fund could provide financial incentives to districts or provinces that administer tests and publicize the results.
  • The United States should leverage its comparative advantage in higher education to finance investments in advanced training and science and technology education, which equip Pakistanis with skills needed to put the country on a more stable economic path.

Read Nancy’s full open letter here. Thanks to the members of CGD’s Study Group on a U.S. Development Strategy in Pakistan for their suggestions and feedback. What do you think of these recommendations? Leave your comments below or send me an email.