Education Reform: NGOs Hold Forum in Silicon Valley
By Amjad Noorani  

Dr Anjum Altaf
Prof Abdul Jabbar
Pam Morehouse
Dr Anne Dixe


Leaders of four US-based education non-profits – Human Development Foundation (HDF), Developments in Literacy (DiL), Central Asia Institute (CAI) and The Citizens Foundation, USA – recently came together at a conference on Education Reform in Pakistan.  The conference was hosted by TCF-USA and held at the newly established Pakistani American Culture Center in Silicon Valley on August 30, 2008.  

The straightforward objectives of the forum were to briefly review the current state of education and the impact of NGOs, to explore the formation of a coalition, and for the coalition to develop a partnership with government for reform in education.

To get things rolling, an NGO panel comprising of Sara Abbasi from  DiL, Julia Bergman of CAI, Javed Khan and Shahid Khan of HDF, and Adnan Asar of TCF-USA – each presented a brief history of the organization, its programs and impact on education.   The collective impact of these four relatively young NGOs has been that they have between them about 1,000 schools in operation and about 200,000  students in these schools.   The NGO panel was followed by a brief report by the moderator on the Current State of Education.   Excerpts from a 2004 State Bank of Pakistan report on education presented “… a dismal picture, characterized by a high illiteracy rate, low enrollment, high drop out rate and poor quality of education” and 5.8 million children not in schools out of 22.3 million in the 5-9 age group.   The central bank report also states that expenditure on education in 2001 as a percent of GNP was the lowest (1.8%) in the region. 

Participants in the forum


A brief report was also given on the National Education Foundation (Pakistan) and excerpts from a recent message from NEF Chairman Sabeeh Qamar-uz-Zaman was read: “The education statistics in Pakistan are not encouraging. The officially claimed literacy rate is 55 percent. Nearly 6.5 million children (5-9 years) are out of school, and the number of dropouts is over 5.6 million.  These figures mean that almost half the population is illiterate and over 12 million children are out of school.”  The chairman’s message continued: “The fact that we are facing this grave situation despite efforts by the government and civil society should be a cause for serious reflection” … and that: “… optimum results can only be achieved through the combined efforts of all the stakeholders – with the ultimate responsibility [of providing quality education] being accepted and implemented by the government.”

An impressive array of invited speakers was led off by a thought provoking keynote presentation by Dr. Anjum Altaf from Washington, D.C., who gave a diagnostic perspective of the problem and strategic direction for future solutions.  Dr. Altaf was quick to dismiss the  common assumption that lack of resources was the major factor and he convincingly built a case for the source of the problem being the politicizing of education through deliberate limits on mass education for retention of the feudal system and its control over the governance and economy of the country.  “Literacy is important but the content of that literacy is even more important.  Education is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves”, said Dr. Altaf, a devout proponent of balanced content in the curriculum and access to information not subject to state control.  Encouraging initiatives of  “… technological forces supported by civic action that would be the driving force of this transformation”, Dr. Altaf added: “Our job would be to find the content that would take advantage of these technological opportunities.”   Concluding the keynote in support of collective action, Dr. Altaf said: “If we pool our strengths – mastery of technology, familiarity with content, and motivation for civic action – we can make our presence felt and make a decisive contribution to the cause of education and liberation in Pakistan.”  A lively panel discussion followed the keynote with Dr. Altaf fielding many of the questions from the audience.  Other panelists included Shahid Khan of HDF, Sara Abbasi of Dil, and Asghar Aboobaker of PACC.  

Resuming after a nutritious lunch hosted by TCF-USA, the afternoon session was initiated by Prof. Abdul Jabbar of San Francisco who serves on the Board of CAI and is closely connected with CAI programs in the Skardu-Baltistan region of Pakistan.   Prof. Jabbar addressed one aspect of innovative changes in curriculum, specifically the issues related to ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Pakistan.   In the style of an   academician, he outlined the integration of these issues into a required course in Pakistan Culture Studies to focus on positive contributions of all major ethnic groups that make up the cultural mosaic. He proposed that this course should highlight the attributes of prominent figures in Pakistan’s history and serve as emulating inspiration in the develop-ment and transformation of the young student into an ideal citizen.  Prof. Jabbar suggested a bilingual Urdu-English textbook for elementary to post-secondary levels and the course to include a progressive study of the accomplishments of all religious, ethnic and sectarian groups in the fields of literature, arts, civic and spiritual development.   He advocates active partnership with government and called on the coalition of NGOs to move this idea forward and to bring about changes in the curriculum.   

The next speaker was Pam Morehouse, an educator from Winthrop, Washington state, who was recently assisting with teacher training in Pakistan as a volunteer with TCF.   Ms. Morehouse’ presentation focused on low-cost and no-cost inquiry based teaching methods  adapted to the learning environment in Pakistan.   With skillful demonstration, Ms. Morehouse illustrated how a classroom can be turned into an inter-active lab for all ages in any part of the world.   Pam Morehouse also spoke of her pleasant volunteer and travel experience in Pakistan and encouraged US teachers and others to consider offering their skills as trainers and volunteers in the developing world.    Ms. Morehouse’ husband, Welles Brethermore (also a retired high school teacher) accompanied her on the trip to Pakistan.

The closing presentation was by Dr. Anne Dix, Officer in Charge of the Pakistan desk at the USAID office in Washington, D.C. who presented the agency’s programs and spoke about the complexity of challenges faced by USAID in Pakistan.   Dr. Dix stated that she had learnt a great deal from the ideas shared by other speakers and participants and that there was definite hope for improvements in Pakistan despite the dire situation and overwhelming statistics which comprise the low socio-economic indicators.   Pakistan is 136 out of 177 on the Human Development Index with 100 million people living on less than $2 per day and 50% to 70% of household income spent on bare essentials of living.    USAID estimates that there are 251,000 schools in Pakistan and 80,000 are in the private non-government sector; this has doubled in the last 20 years.  There are 1.34 million teachers in the country from early levels to university.   In addition to the 12 million children not in schools in the 5-9 age group, the USAID field office in Islamabad estimates that there are 29 million – a startling 79% - in the 10-16 age group that are not in schools.   The highest dropout in schools occurs between the first and second year of school and again in the transition from elementary (grade 5) to secondary schooling.   

Dr. Dix underscored the importance of NGOs and a stronger role in advocacy for education to let government know that the people are interested in the delivery and effectiveness of education, and to draw the government’s attention to things which may otherwise not receive any attention.   She added that USAID plays a role in helping to enhance the capacity of Pakistani people to contribute to the development of their own country and to expand access to education in underserved sectors – the poor, the rural communities, gender disparity and for the handicapped.

The afternoon session came to an end with a panel consisting of Dr. Dix, Prof. Jabbar, Pam Morehouse and Zeba Savage, a high school teacher from Los Angeles who has done two tours of Pakistan recently to offer teacher training with TCF.   A period of ‘Open Discussion’ followed with every person in the audience having an opportunity to comment or ask questions on the subject of reform.   

Concluding the conference, appreciation was expressed to all speakers, panelists and the 55 participants who contributed to the forum and to the initiative to form the International Coalition of Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP).    The next steps for the coalition are to develop grassroots support from individuals and organizations, and to establish contact with the government’s education agencies to partner a program of meaningful reform in education.   Conference presenters and participants essentially agreed that the immediate private-public partnership effort should have equal focus on (1) improving the delivery of universal education to the secondary level, and (2) to propose and implement changes in the education content to reflect balance, tolerance and as very aptly stated by Dr. Altaf, the enabling of young minds to think for themselves.  

This special issue of Pakistan Link has dedicated three items to Education Reform in Pakistan.   For additional thoughts and discussion on the subject, readers are urged to see the Op Ed column and the text of Dr. Anjum Altaf’s keynote presentation.   

To join the ICERP coalition and to access the resources and information about the reform initiative, readers should visit or contact  Comments and suggestions may also be posted on the blog.      



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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