Extended Interview: Mosharraf Zaidi
Mosharraf Zaidi is an American-educated Pakistani analyst and policy development adviser. He has worked as both a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor on education and as an adviser to the British government’s development arm. A strong supporter of Pakistan educational reform, Zaidi has become a widely followed columnist and contributing writer for newspapers in Pakistan, the United States, and the Middle East. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in Islamabad in November 2009.
David Montero: I’m going to read you some statistics. India has an 83 per cent net enrollment rate for primary school. Sri Lanka has 90 percent. Nepal has 70 percent. Pakistan, 52 percent. Why is that?
Mosharraf Zaidi: Education is not a priority for the Pakistani state. The Pakistani elite benefit from the sustained illiteracy of the Pakistani people.
Benefit in what sense?
There is a peculiar worldview that’s prevalent, particularly among Pakistan’s feudal class, that an illiterate, unlettered electorate is an electorate that will sustain the dividends they seek.
So there has been an intentional policy enacted over years to prevent the education system from being fixed?
Intentional insofar as there is the absence of a functional education system today in a country that has exploded a nuclear weapon, gone toe-to-toe with world powers, and derived tremendous benefits from its military relationships with countries like China and the United States. Based on all of these other things, the Pakistani elite surely could have fixed education if they’d wanted to.
Pakistan spends roughly $4.5 billion a year on its military but less than $400 million on education. What does that tell you?
The biggest expenditure that Pakistan incurs every year is actually not the military; it’s debt servicing. The military is the second-largest component of the budget, and the government administration is the third largest. Education, health care, clean water, social protection, police services -- all the things that make life livable in a country like the United States -- are the things that are seemingly the least of Pakistan’s priorities.
The real question in Pakistan is whether it is going to start spending its money in different ways. Debt servicing, military expenditure, and a huge bureaucracy and government structure are three of the poorest choices that Pakistan makes at the expense of young children, at the expense of young girls and women, at the expense of disabled kids.
What’s the longer-term cost of those choices?
Today, there are roughly 70 million children between the ages of five and 19 in this country. Fewer than 30 million of those kids are in any type of school -- public, private, or other. If Pakistan is going to be a functional country in the future, it needs people that are able to participate in the global economy. You have to be part of the production process of either goods or services that somebody somewhere wants to consume. Increasingly, you will need some level of education to do that.
People look at Pakistan’s public education system, and they see a mess. But they look at private schools, and they see modern buildings, children learning well. Can there be a private solution?
It is true that private schooling has become a “panacea” for Pakistan’s problems. But it’s really not true because the numbers just don’t work. The total number of schools in Pakistan is roughly 220,000. We’re talking about primary, middle, and high schools in this country, catering to 28 million kids. But there are 42 million kids out of school. That’s the first set of numbers to remember.
Out of these 220,000 schools, 44,000 are private. And the rest, about 180,000, are public. But when people see those shiny buildings and hear those touching, emotional stories about how private philanthropy and “for profit” innovation is producing results, they are seeing things like Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” program, which is brilliant. We need to acknowledge and celebrate the noble work that philanthropists like Greg Mortenson do. But Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute have begun only about 150 schools.
Even some of the bigger philanthropic initiatives, like The Citizens Foundation -- brilliant work, very efficient, really good results, across-the-board secular -- [but it accounts for only about] 600 schools, compared to 220,000. The Reed Foundation, based in Kashmir -- again, very effective, low-cost, excellent work -- but in just 330 schools.
Philanthropy can’t possibly respond to the scale of the educational needs of Pakistan, and neither can the private sector. It requires a state response. And let’s remember, any country worth speaking of that’s been built by an educated work force and multiple generations of educated children, has done it through a state education system. The United States is the best example.
Do you see this more as a technical obligation for the state, or as a moral obligation?
When you have this many kids not in school in Pakistan, a moral responsibility needs to be met. Look at the consequences of these kids not going to school. Aside from the scaremongering of saying, “What if all these kids became terrorists?” the real problem is that if you aren’t capable of participating in the global economy, you will be very, very poor. And desperate and extreme poverty has some diabolical consequences for societies and for individuals.
Can you talk about why you see teachers as a problem?
The teacher problem in Pakistan starts and ends with their recruitment, promotion, and retention. Increasingly, teachers are recruited as contract employees, but within a few years, they’re made permanent employees of the government, either at the provincial level or at the federal level. It produces a lifelong liability for the government. Once a teacher is a permanent employee, they become a cost center, not just for the 20 or 30 years they will be a public employee, but beyond their career as they retire and are eligible for a pension. That’s the first problem with teachers.
The second problem is that, today, the hiring of those teachers is largely a political patronage decision. If you have been a good soldier for one of the main political parties and you’ve served the leadership well, the government will give you a permanent job. It becomes a lifelong liability for the state, but a lifelong gift for the person who gets that job. If you work for the government, eight or nine times out of ten, you are going to be a teacher, because most government employees tend to be teachers.
Do all these teachers receive proper training?
If you’ve attended high school and you’ve finished grade ten, you’ve achieved matriculation, which qualifies you to become a primary school teacher. One way to understand this is that in Pakistan cities, among the wealthy, the upper middle class -- in a household like mine, for example -- when we employ somebody to water our garden, drive our car, cook in our kitchen, we often ask them what kind of qualifications they have. And the minimum qualification to do one of these jobs is matriculation. Those are the people that Pakistan’s children are being entrusted to.
A few years ago, the government added another stipulation, saying that you had to have a primary school teaching certificate, a PTC. But given the state of affairs in the public sector, this certificate, which is issued by the government itself, is really just a rubber stamp that provides an added layer of legitimacy to the hiring of people who are basically not even high school grads as primary school teachers.
What was your own educational experience?
I went to high school in the West, but I also went to high school here in Pakistan and to a private school that cost a lot of money. So my life is almost completely separate from the life of the average Pakistani, who, in most cases, goes to a public school, where English is not the standard language.
Wealthy people in Pakistan, the ones who have influence, don’t know what a public school looks like. They didn’t study there. They studied at elite private educational institutions, or they studied abroad. And you can’t expect somebody who can afford a better education for their children to start sending them to public school for the sake of national cohesion.
So you are saying that the decision makers don’t care about public education?
It is unlikely that they do, because they don’t have any stake in it. But there is an international conversation developing about Pakistan’s education system. So there may be an increased sensitivity toward the state of the public schools. But it’s not going to be organic.
How would you rate USAID’s efforts to reform education in Pakistan since 9/11? Have they given enough money?
Until now, they’ve given a lot of money, but Pakistan’s fundamental problems are not about money. They’re about the choices that Pakistan makes. Has the United States leveraged its money to, basically, buy different choices about how that money is spent by Pakistan? No, it hasn’t. So from that perspective, not enough money was spent. But again, if there are people within Pakistan who don’t want to change, then no amount of money will change that.
The point is not to demonize USAID. It’s the only group of people within the United States government or society that has any chance of understanding the problems. They are experts because they’ve been doing this for a long time. Unfortunately, because of the security situation in Pakistan, increasingly the really good people America could send, either as consultants or as part of the USAID mission, aren’t coming here. What you have instead is a large number of very young people who are just starting their careers.
The United States is about to put $7.5 billion in civilian aid into Pakistan over the next five years. There are mixed opinions about this and how it’s been done. Nonetheless it’s a lot of money. Is this enough?
To put this $7.5 billion into context, it’s not all for the government. It looks like, if Richard Holbrook has his way, a large chunk of it is going to be spent directly through the Pakistani government, but it’s also going to be spent through nonprofits, and it’s going to be spread through consulting firms. But let’s look at what $7.5 billion means in Pakistan. Last year, all those cab drivers in New York City who are Pakistani, all the investment bankers, the technology workers, the doctors, the engineers in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in Saudi Arabia -- the Pakistani diaspora -- globally sent home $7.5 billion in remittances.
It is important to remember that this is a country of almost 180 million people now. So, yes, I think it’s generous of the American taxpayer, and I think it’s important that Congress and the president and the administration have made this kind of a long-term commitment. But it is not going to make the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional Pakistan. The choice of whether Pakistan is going to be a functional country is a choice that has to be made by Pakistanis. And Pakistanis haven’t made that choice yet because government after government fails to make the investments that it needs to make.
Let’s go back to this $7.5 billion. Some of it is for education. How should it be spent in terms of schools?
On public sector schools all the way, with very specific requirements and conditions.
I know part of the debate and anger that the Kerry-Lugar Bill ignited in Pakistan was around its saying that the money is for Pakistan’s children, for Pakistan’s girls, Pakistan’s women -- but then putting conditions on [the bill] that had nothing directly to do with those things, but with military oversight and things like that. And those conditions are fine. It’s important that Pakistani civilian governments exercise control over the military in Pakistan.
But it would have been really interesting to have conditions within the bill that, for example, said that X percent of Pakistan’s budget will be spent on education, that X number of teachers every year will need to demonstrate Y qualities to keep their jobs, that civil service status for teachers will be transformed over several years into contractual relationships with the state, that communities will govern what happens in terms of the administration of their school rather than having a bureaucrat sitting in Lahore control a school in the outskirts, which is how the education system works today. The provincial headquarters determines what happens hundreds of miles away.
There are U.S. State Department folks and USAID folks that understand these things really well. But unfortunately, when the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is being determined by terrorism and by fear, rather than by a hopefulness for the future and by a genuine interest in each other, then this is the kind of problematic aid construct that you’ll end up with.
Then should the federal government pour this money into provincial governments that would then give it to the local schools? How would you advise the United States right now to spend this money?
Sure, if they are going to give money to the government, then it should be earmarked. It needs to be earmarked so that none of the money stays at the federal level, that all of that money goes into the federal government but immediately gets passed on to the four provinces; and within the four provinces, it gets passed on to the education department, the health department, the water and sanitation department, rather than getting lost in bureaucracy.
The educational system in Pakistan, like that in many countries around the world, has a reputation for being very corrupt. So there are legitimate concerns that this money would get siphoned off.
Sure, but there isn’t a country in the world that USAID supports that doesn’t have a corruption problem.
So are you confident that, if this money is given at the federal level and passed down to the provincial level, it will make its way to schools?
No, I’m not confident at all. If the Kerry-Lugar Bill money goes to the government, it will get spent in the kinds of places where the Pakistani elite have been spending money in the past. They might not spend it on the military, because they might not be allowed to. And they might indeed invest it in things like education and health, but in the wrong places.
We want to stimulate expenditure in the education sector at the school level, which does two things. One, it increases the number of kids that are going to school, because we already said that we’re looking at a 42-million kid gap in terms of primary, middle, and high school. So we need to get those 42 million kids into school. To do that, you need more schools, and you need ways in which those kids can get to school; so you need transportation networks. You need more teachers.
But alongside all of those things, you also need to improve the quality of the teachers and the schools that already exist, because clearly they’re not producing the goods. If they were, you wouldn’t have this growth of private schools, which seems to give us this phantom suggestion of a solution on the horizon.
You’ve talked before about a fear in Pakistan consuming the country and the outside world. Can you explain that?
Primarily the narrative is of fear, that we tend to be more interested in the improvised explosive device that killed so many people, the suicide bombing. But there are things about Pakistan that we haven’t discussed that Americans should pay attention to. There are 90 million cell phone subscribers in Pakistan. Urbanization has taken on a whole new meaning here. By 2025, this country will be half urban and half rural. The conversation in Pakistan has totally changed as well.
This used to be a country that accepted feudal and elite politicians and the military in whatever they said. But society questions everything now. And one of the reasons for this is our media. There are over 120 FM radio stations. There are almost 100 television stations. Almost one in four of those stations is a news channel, so 24/7news is very important in Pakistan. There’s something like eight different MTV-type music stations in Pakistan. There’s a tremendous amount of questioning of authority that all of these changes are producing.
The United States, Pakistan’s friend in general, needs to find ways of supporting this new voice, which is Pakistan’s emerging middle class.
How does this new middle class narrative you are describing trickle down to education?
Up to 30 million Pakistanis now live in a household that has a middle class income. This is a totally globalized conversation that’s taking place in Pakistan When people ask more questions, they’re going ask why their system isn’t working, why the schools aren’t working, why there are not enough kids that are going to school or getting a good enough education when they are there. That conversation will produce a better system, but it will take a long time.
It took roughly 100 years to go from Andrew Jackson’s spoilage system to a conversation about how you can reduce the influence of patronage on decision making. It’s going to take 25 to 30 years for the Pakistani conversation to mature to a level where these policy issues -- education, health, clean water, even national security and terrorism -- become determinable by the Pakistani people and not by the patronage of a small sliver of Pakistani elite or a small sliver of Pakistani terrorists.