A nation without education is little more than a gathering of “apes and monkeys,” at least according to an embittered statement made by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, president of Pakistan’s Academy of Sciences and former president of Pakistan’s Higher Education Committee.

While scathing, this sentiment is also sadly indicative of growing frustration over the dismal state of Pakistan’s education system.

Federal Mismanagement and Corruption

Pakistan boasts some of the least-encouraging educational statistics in the world.

One out of ten of the world’s non-school-going children live in Pakistan. This trend begins at an early age and is not likely to improve anytime soon: over 70 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys never reach secondary school.

If Pakistan continued with similar enrollment growth rates by region, Punjab would only achieve full enrollment by 2041, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by 2064, and Balochistan by 2100.

While primary and secondary school enrollment is a chief issue, an even larger and more perplexing problem is the country’s overall literacy rates: one out of three men and one out of two women cannot read.

Pakistan’s federal government is largely to blame. While most countries invest at least 4 percent of the annual federal budget on education, Pakistan limits its spending to 1.9 percent of GDP; only seven countries in the world spend less on education.

When these paltry funds are eventually disbursed to provincial or local educational administrators, they produce little in terms of results because the education system is fraught with corruption. “Ghost schools” channel funds into teachers’ pockets long after the schools themselves have shut down.   

International Aid and Economic Development

International aid has been ineffective in attacking the root of the literacy problem: unwillingness of the federal government to invest in social institutions due to prioritization of military spending.

In addition, any philanthropic intervention in the form of private, bilateral, and multilateral aid has only fueled pre-existing resistance to Western, particularly American, interference.

The vacuum has caused a proliferation of private schools—only accessible to elite portions of society—and religious madrassas, which provide free education, lodging, and meals to (mostly poor) students.

The result has been a polarization in the education system, with the middle class largely left out.

In a country of 200 million people—112 million of whom are under the age of 25—the educational exclusion of the middle portion of society is not only a humanitarian concern, it is an impediment to the country’s socioeconomic development.

Acquiring technological knowledge and skills is vital for accelerating economic growth. Advancement in education reduces poverty, shrinks income inequality, improves health, and helps promote good governance with the implementation of more socially-minded policies.

While there is debate as to which should come first—economic investment or the promotion of social infrastructure—evidence from Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen reveals that when we view educational spending as “investment” rather than “consumption,” we can capitalize on its role as an intermediate good that encourages the production of other goods and services.

Rather than an obstacle to economic development, investment in public education stimulates the cycle of growth in the global economy.

The Politics of Education

Pakistan’s failing education system exacerbates graver issues. Illiteracy consolidates power within elite political circles, weakening the capacity for democratic dissent and amplifying socioeconomic and ethnic distinctions.

Lack of economic opportunity and—in the Balochistan region—scarce access to large amounts of state revenue accrued from natural gas and petroleum extraction has contributed to sectarian conflict and ethnocentric nationalism, as identity politics are amplified by insufficient federal representation and monetary deprivation.

The Pakistani state has used a firm hand in responding to political unrest from ethnic separatist groups, such as the Balochistan nationals, labeling violent groups “terrorist organizations” and dispatching the state military and secret service to quell separatist and anti-government protest.

At the same time, the federal government popularized Islamic identity, supporting Islamic-based fundamentalism as a means to challenge ethnic nationalism. The state’s heavy oppression of anti-establishment proxies has strengthened anti-state fervor.

Unfortunately, both anti-establishment and pro-government affiliations have used education as a “soft target” to manipulate political outcomes, making educational institutions the center stage for political showdowns.

As the education arena plays host to powerful ideological differences, violent strategies have larger economic implications.

Political instability from within Pakistan hampers progress on enacting regional trade initiatives that could help defuse the longstanding dispute between India and Pakistan, inhibits regional economic integration with its Caspian Sea neighbors, and stunts foreign investment from large global actors such as China.

The Need for a New U.S. Policy Approach

From a U.S. foreign policy perspective, the question is, what role can and should the U.S. take in Pakistan’s development?

The answer to that question is complicated by the “anti-terrorism” rhetoric that defines America’s relationship with Pakistan. Despite mass urbanization in Pakistan—which has created a boom in technological markets and amplified the country’s media outlets—the narrative of fear adopted by U.S. officials has distorted the potential for a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship. Mosharraf Zaidi, former government advisor and campaign director for Alif Ailaan, argues the window for political dialogue and economic participation between the U.S. and Pakistan is destroyed by this narrow perspective.

In order for the United States to support the democratic mobilization of Pakistani civil society, where citizens can demand higher spending on public education and accountability from federal officials, U.S. foreign policy must decisively step away from anti-terrorism discourse and instead focus on shared outcomes from investment in social institutions.

It is not yet clear whether support will come in the form of U.S. pressure on the Pakistani government to enhance GDP spending on education, the facilitation of trade agreements between Pakistan and India, or the push to develop renewable energy sources.

What is evident is the necessity of a shift in U.S. foreign policy, from a security-oriented approach to one that views Pakistan’s internal, educational development as the means to achieve economic growth and limit violent dispute.