WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pakistan’s poor public education system helps stoke militancy, while the religious schools often cited as a cause of extremism appear not to be a major risk factor, says a report by a Washington think tank.
The report, set to be released by the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, examined a raft of studies to assess links between militancy and education, a priority area for the Obama administration as it boosts development aid to Islamabad.
The researchers said low enrollment rates were a risk factor for violence and demand for education inside Pakistan far exceeded the government’s ability to provide it.
In addition, Pakistan’s public school system was highly corrupt with positions handed out for political favors and teachers paid whether they turned up for class or not.
“The way the education system is set up is contributing to support militancy,” said Rebecca Winthrop, with the Center for Universal Education at Brookings.
“Historically education in Pakistan has been used as a tool by successive regimes in pursuing narrow political ends,” she added.
The curriculum and teaching methods in public schools helped create intolerant views and also did little to prepare students for the labor market, frustrating youngsters and increasing the pool of militant recruits, the report said.
Winthrop and fellow conflict specialist Corinne Graff said the religious schools, or madrasas, that were frequently cited by the West as causing Islamist militancy, were not as numerous as suspected. Far less than 10 percent of the full-time, school-going population went to them.
“Madrasas account for a tiny fraction of student enrollment and they can hardly be cast as the main obstacle to high quality education and stability,” they wrote.
“The almost exclusive focus on madrasas as a security challenge — which is especially prevalent in the West — needs to be corrected,” the researchers added.
Education statistics in Pakistan are “sobering”, they said — just 54 percent of the population is able to read and 6.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 9 are not in school.
Less than a quarter of girls complete elementary school and only one-third of Pakistani children get a secondary education, with many dropping out.
“The data shows that lack of access to schooling is a risk factor for conflict or militancy. We know that Pakistan has extremely limited access (to education),” said Graff.
The Obama administration has promised to put more money into improving education in Pakistan and has made it a focus of the $1.5 billion in nonmilitary aid allocated annually by Congress for Pakistan over the next five years.
“Undoubtedly, a high-quality education system prepares its students to participate in and contribute to economic growth, which leads toward security and stability,” said Rajiv Shah, who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Improvements in education are critical to reducing violence,” he said in an email response to questions.
USAID’s total education budget in Pakistan for fiscal year 2010 is $335 million — with $265 million for basic education and the remainder for higher education. Since 2002, USAID has invested $682 million for education projects in Pakistan.
One way in which the money is being used is to offer stipends to families as a temporary measure to offset the cost of education for the poor.
The Brookings researchers cited problems with the curriculum in many schools, with historical facts altered and hatred toward archrival India and Hindus prominent in texts.
Shah encouraged Pakistan’s government to implement a new curriculum announced in 2007, which he said addressed many problems with previous content but had not been put in place.
For example, with the new curriculum, science and math were treated as secular subjects and Islamic studies was a stand-alone topic, he said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham