Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Literacy Laggard

September 25th, 2009 · 2 Comments

We have to think there’s some sort of correlation between Pakistan’s persistent internal turmoil and its atrociously bad system of primary education. The nation may have one of the world’s top fifty economies, but its literacy rate officially languishes around the 50 percent mark. That makes Pakistan’s population less bookish than such poverty-stricken countries as Haiti, Liberia, and Malawi, all of which presumably have far less public lucre to spend on educating their children.

Yet is the Pakistani literacy rate even lower than advertised? A columnist for the Pakistan Observer makes the case:

The result of the above efforts have been that during 1981 and 1998 (17 years) the literacy rate in Pakistan increased from 26.2% in 1981 to 45% in 1998 which means an average of 1.1 points every year between 1981 to 1998. It was, therefore, very surprising when the Prime Minister of Pakistan recently announced the literacy rate in Pakistan being 56%. The same figure appears in the “Pakistan Economic Survey 2008-09”. It is interesting that from 1998 to 2008, a period of ten years multiplied by an average increase of 1.1 points every year comes to 11 points. Added to the 45% literacy rate in 1998 it also comes to 56%. This has been the practice of the Ministry of Education to add every year 1.1 points to the previous year’s literacy rate and make an announcement of the increased ratio of literacy in the country. The announcement of literacy ratio had been only a “desk exercise”. This can be verified from the Pakistan Economic Surveys of the previous years.

The writer blames the low literacy rate on a deliberate government scheme to keep the masses ignorant, and therefore less likely to “ask many questions for which our Rulers have no answers.” That explanation actually strikes us as overly cynical; our own take is that Pakistan’s central government simply prefers to focus on petty squabbling. It thus gives local ministers inordinate power of primary education, with no system of checks to ensure that basic standards are being met. But with statistical sleight of hand making the situation look far better on paper than on the ground, there is far too little pressure for Pakistan to change.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I suspect that many countries fudge the literacy numbers. I think Ecuador reports a pretty good rate, but I encountered many people who had trouble getting through a tabloid newspaper when I was there (ok, it was almost 20 years ago, but I doubt the adults have been taught remedial reading). The School there was free, but there was an opportunity cost of sending kids to school instead of to work. I imagine it is similar in many poor countries, where it takes more than free school to get everyone able to read.

    You might also look at the age distribution. It is possible that 1.1% of Pakistan’s population finishes 6th grade every year, so those reading numbers might be legitimate, unlikely but possible. In Ecuador half the population was under 18 so the demand for schools and qualified teachers was really tough for the government to meet.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Good point re: the universality of fudging.

    Upon further reflection, using GDP per capita as a measuring stick might’ve been the better statistical choice. There, Pakistan performs a lot worse due to its relatively large population.Still, I think the core concern remains–esp. compared to its foe to the south, Pakistan’s primary education system is abysmal.

    Ecuador is something of a basket case, too. I’ve rarely heard an expat utter a kind word about their homeland.

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