Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Investment into the Future

South Asia is considered to be a region that promises dynamic growth and potential. However, it lacks in some crucial elements of social development that risks its progress; and education and health are two factions high on the list. The World Bank is aware of the significance of this part of the world and true to its mission to “help people help themselves and their environment by providing resources, sharing knowledge, building capacity and forging partnerships in the public and private sectors.”

The World Bank is a vital source of technical and financial assistance for many developing countries as it supports initiatives essential for the countries’ progress and stability. It was founded in 1944 and consists of two institutions; the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA) that provide low interest loans, interest free credits, and grants for investment in development initiatives in the field of education, health, public administration, infrastructure, financial and private sector development, agriculture, and environmental and natural resource management.

In South Asia, the World Bank has supported several programmes over the years to increase literacy rates and support development of a healthy, skilled workforce as an investment into the future. However, many social challenges faced by the developing countries of South Asia affect their progress including extreme poverty, low status of women, orphaned children, unemployed youth and war ravaged widows, shortage of well-trained professionals and sometimes a lack of commitment by governments towards effective management. These developmental issues pose challenges for policy planners and practitioners and require constant evaluation and adaptation of strategies in order to meet the goals.

Since South Asia is home to some of the world’s poorest countries, literacy does not always fare well on the priority list. The estimated percentage of people living below the UN defined poverty line of less than $2 a day is 40% in Pakistan and 84% in Bangladesh. In India, 75% of the population lives on less than $1/day, according to a World Bank study. In these societies, keeping children out of school is not seen as a violation of their rights, but simply a means of survival. India also has 18 million street children, the world’s largest concentration (HRWA 2000), while Nepal is home to about 30,000 street children according to a 1996 estimate. These school-age children constitute the marginalized group often neglected by governments when implementing welfare schemes.

Moreover, widespread gender bias and discrimination exists in societies across the globe and an estimated 2/3rd adults without access to literacy worldwide are women. In most of the patriarchal societies of South Asia, it is even more rampant. However, there is a source of relief for development experts in the tiny Buddhist state, the Royal Republic of Bhutan with a population of 700,000. A 2007 Country Report on Human Rights Practices about Bhutan issued by the US State Department revealed that about 30% of Bhutanese women constituted the formal workforce in 2004 and 60% of women held land registration titles. A recent WB study has also shown near gender parity at 93% at primary level. The World Bank programmes in Bhutan focus on improving quality of education, strengthening institutional capacity, teacher training management and monitoring.

Similarly, Bangladesh takes pride in achieving gender parity at the primary and secondary school level, and primary school enrollment shows a steady upward trend with 91% girls and 87% boys enrolled in 2007 (UNICEF). The World Bank provides assistance to Bangladeshi government at the primary and secondary level, reaching out-of-school children and continuing-education projects. Another success story is Sri Lanka which has one of the best performing education sectors in South Asia. With primary enrollment of boys and girls well above 90 % for two decades, and a secondary enrollment rate of above 80 %, through a network of state-supported schools, the commitment of the Sri Lankan government and society can certainly serve as a source of inspiration for others to follow.

Pakistan’s participation in the education sector remains among the lowest in South Asia, with just 2.3% of the GDP allocated to this sector, and widespread gender bias. In the more conservative Northwest of Pakistan, cultural customs clash with religious sentiment and access to schools for girls has been a grave issue in the past years with extremist clerics declaring modern education as un-Islamic and misleading. Small wonder then, that only 14% of the formal workforce in Pakistan comprises of women. The World Bank is making a significant contribution towards quality education and policy reforms in educational institutions in Pakistan. A series of four one-year education development policy credits in the Punjab province has resulted in an increase in enrollments in 15 districts which had been identified as having the lowest literacy rates. The reforms in NWFP and Sindh showed similar benefits, as gross primary enrollment among girls increased between 2001- 2002 by 11%. Another important programme of the World Bank in improving the quality of learning in Pakistan is monitoring of student learning through regular assessments with a National Education Assessment System. A Higher Education Support Programme is in the starting phase, and the private sector is being supported through education foundations. In June 2009, World Bank also approved $900 million in loans, most of which would serve to improve education in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces as the country has also had to battle with a balance of payments crisis in the last one year due to fighting in the northwest of the country which has left 2.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) struggling to survive.

The issue of children belonging to conflict zones has also drawn attention from the humanitarian agencies. In Sri Lanka, in the North-Eastern Province alone, it is estimated that 2,000 children have been involved in guerilla warfare as child soldiers, and face difficulties readapting to age-appropriate, stable lifestyles. Education in crisis situations can actually provide children with a sense of normalcy, but unfortunately, the first Global Survey on Education in Emergencies shows that “over 27 million children and youth do not have access to education in 10 countries affected by conflict.” Other disabled children and young adults of war-torn countries like Afghanistan are left with very few options in societies already stretched thin in terms of resources.

In Afghanistan, there are serious developmental concerns regarding status of women and absence of a well-educated and skilled workforce to build institutions, as the country struggles with almost three decades of war and instability that have resulted in huge numbers of widows and orphaned children. Hence education, skill development and vocational training programmes are taking priority. It is hoped that WB’s Afghan Skill Development Project which is estimated to cost US $35million (WB is providing US $20 through the IDA), will bring in some respite for these vulnerable sections of the population.

Moreover, the World Bank’s reform programmes are working with governments in recruitment and monitoring of teacher presence. South Asia’s schools lack sufficient number of qualified teachers and present a huge challenge to the goal of universal education. In Pakistan, the student/teacher ratio is 1:35 in primary schools and 1:48 at secondary level while in 75% of Indian schools there is only one teacher for several classes. Bangladeshi pupils are found to be in the most crowded classes, with a ratio of 1:57. More serious, however, is the presence of ‘Ghost’ schools in remote areas where teachers simply don’t turn up. A 2004 World Bank study in India showed that 25% of teachers are absent from class at any time.

The World Bank is also providing technical support and conducting joint research and analysis exercises on improving access for girls and other marginalized groups in different countries of the region. Since 2000, the World Bank has committed over US $1 billion to education in India. However, extensive inter-regional, rural-urban and male-female disparities exist despite the government’s commitment to the cause of ushering in ‘a new era’ of literacy. As reported in an article in Asia Sentinel, August 2009, “a third of India’s billion-strong population is illiterate and 70 million children are denied schooling of any kind.” A US $250 million World Bank operation is also helping improve India’s technical and engineering education.

Educational challenges in South Asia continue to be daunting, but it would serve South Asian governments and citizens well to realize that in order to build any kind of potential for economic prosperity, they must show an unwavering commitment to initiatives that can help build a future for themselves and their coming generations.

Published Oct 2009 Investment Into the Future, SouthAsia Magazine

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