National education emergency

Mosharraf Zaidi
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

In large-scale systems (such as in mega corporations or governments of large countries like Pakistan) with many, many thousands of moving parts, it is always extremely difficult to tell signal from noise. This means that leaders and key executives in such large-scale systems are often struggling to be able to figure out whether they are on the right or the wrong track.

A good system of accountability and performance indicators that assess the process, in addition to metrics that measure output and outcomes, tend to be helpful – but they are never enough. Most leaders also have the disadvantage of being surrounded by people they have chosen to be around them, introducing major bias in the worldview of the immediate surroundings. We are all victims of information bubbles, but key executives and leaders are especially vulnerable.

Let’s take our individual bubbles first. One of the tragedies of the modern age of social media is the ability of social media company algorithms to enable us to curate bubbles of information (and a lot of misinformation and disinformation) or the wrong data around us. The “wrong data” problem is not just what those with opposing viewpoints suffer from. It is what you and I suffer from too. The problem isn’t them, or you (or maybe even I). The problem is how bubbles of information are made.

When we ‘choose’ who we follow and who seems credible to us, we are making three actual and very important choices. The first is the obvious one: we are choosing a source of data and information that we believe is credible – and indeed it might be – but it might not be infallible. Indeed, no entity or individual is infallible. That property is exclusively the domain of the Almighty Lord of the Heavens and the Earth, to Whom we come from and to Whom we shall return.

Two, when we choose who we follow, we are in some ways closing the door to ‘new entrants’ in the information ecosystem – individuals and entities that may or may not be credible, but about whom we just don’t know. This has the effect of potentially skewing the incentives of those we already listen to and take seriously (by making them complacent and lazy). Three, when we choose one set of ‘follows’ we are kind of choosing another (much larger) set of, what you might call ‘not follows’ – this is a clear and active choice we are making to not listen to the other side or sides.

Now all this skewed and ‘wrong data’ is a micro- and macro-level problem that afflicts every human being connected to the digital world. But when it comes to running a large system – company, government, or organization – this wrong data problem becomes vastly magnified. Chief ministers in Pakistan are essentially running massive organizations with disparate functions. According to Dr Ishrat Husain, there are a total of 3.2 million civilian public-sector employees – with a million belonging to the federal government, and the rest, a staggering 2.2 million for, by and of the provinces. How exactly is a chief minister supposed to be able to assess the state of play of their ‘team’?

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ran Punjab from 2008 to 2018 with only a short interruption caused by the falling out of the PPP and the PML-N in 2009. For some public policy nerds (like me), this was a period of incredible lesson-learning in governance. The obsessive-compulsive nature of ‘CM Shehbaz’ meant that long hours and intense engagement were routine for Lahore’s civil servants. But over time, then-chief minister Shehbaz Sharif added a range of tools to his arsenal to try to keep abreast of whether the things that he had asked to be done, were actually getting done.

The best marketed among these tools was in the education sector where the entire Punjab government would be tested on whether goals set for the education sector were being met or not. This would take place in large meetings known as ‘stocktakes’. A range of consulting firms led by McKinsey and Company would provide input under the leadership of ‘delivery unit’ guru Sir Michael Barber. This work is partly what helped convince now PTI leader and then-McKinsey partner Taimur Jhagra to commit more robustly to change in Pakistan. It is also how the Punjab government continued and deepened some of the work begun by Pervez Elahi in the early 2000s.

The rate of change in this period was undeniable. In 2010, there were a total of 4,980,249 million girls enrolled in government schools and colleges in Punjab. By 2018 this number had risen to over 11,002,320. This single change in how the education sector was run in Punjab is a signal – it isn’t noise. It is real results. There are a range of important questions that need to be asked about how this progress was achieved and what this progress actually means. Perhaps the biggest question of all, for me, was how in his role as prime minister Shehbaz Sharif would try to translate and evolve his effectiveness in Punjab into meaningful results at the national stage.

Two weeks ago, PM Sharif announced the launch of his National Education Emergency programme. Participants at the event arrived with great anticipation but left with a sense of dejection. The event announced the PM’s intent but lacked a plan. Without a robust and coherent plan, even the mere question of monitoring and tracking seems ludicrous. How would we ever know if this so-called ‘education emergency’ actually means anything? And perhaps equally: how would the federal government – in a country where education is a provincial domain – make any kind of impact?

Last week, on the 16th of May, at least some of the anxiety around the National Education Emergency was relieved when the Prime Minister’s Office issued a follow-up set of fourteen action items that would be undertaken to fulfil the vision of instituting a national emergency for education service delivery.

The first priority in the list of action items is to reduce the number of out-of-school children in the country. This is an important metric, in part because there was enormous progress achieved in reducing this number between 2013 and 2018. I use this time horizon in part because this is the duration of the Alif Ailaan campaign – which I ran throughout its existence – but also because the enrolment numbers in the country increased dramatically in this time frame.

Pakistan reduced its out-of-school children population from roughly 28 million in 2011 to about 25 million in 2014 to around 22.7 million by 2018. The impact of Covid-19 on enrolment numbers is undeniable and in the most recent statistical update by the government, it was confirmed that the current number of out-of-school children has ballooned back up above 25 million.

The challenge for the intrepid and tireless Mohiyuddin Wani, the secretary at the Ministry of Education and Professional Training, will be to focus the prime minister’s attention on education in a context where, as the country’s leader, his priorities are very different than what they were when he was a CM. The more complex challenge will be to secure provincial endorsement and support for the work the federal government wants to do in education – especially as it relates to the vertical programming that the National Education Emergency Plan entails.

Perhaps most importantly, the prime minister will need the kind of administrative support that Ahad Cheema – putatively the economic affairs minister, but really PM Sharif’s human resource tsar – is too stretched to provide in a politically fractured and dangerously divided cabinet, party and country.

The high number of out-of-school children in Pakistan is not the emergency. It is a symptom of the emergency. The emergency is a public sector and society that allowed this problem to metastasize and still seems to require external agents’ validation and support for work that is central to its future.

Education is nothing if kids aren’t learning. Kids in school are not learning. The declaration of a national education emergency needs to be welcomed for the intent it articulates. The prime minister and federal secretary should be feted for at least declaring intent. It is however 2024, and it isn’t good enough for us to declare that a crisis has been recognized.

Substantially more needs to be done for this emergency to be taken seriously. It will begin with a credible answer to the question of how exactly the prime minister will assess the state of play of their education emergency. The first items on the list are due this week. The clock is ticking.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.