By Meera Eaton Contributing Writer December 12, 2015

Lack of education in Pakistan is a key challenge that feeds into other major issues, such as poor health, social inequality, and national security problems with terrorist groups and criminal gangs. The average literacy rate in Pakistan for ages 15 and over is 57.9%. This is significantly lower than literacy rates in the United States (99.9%), India (69%), Bangladesh (61.5%) and both Indonesia and Malaysia (93%).1 If the United States does not intervene to promote education in the country, it is nearly guaranteed that Pakistan will become a failed state in the next 30 years.

Providing good education to children can upwardly change the social status of an average family from extreme poverty to lower middle-class potentially within one generation. When countries invest in education, there is a positive correlation with increased economic development. Higher levels of education are associated with an individual’s higher capacity to perform nominal tasks and to learn new tasks faster. Increased education rates also boost one’s ability to comprehend and apply new information, evaluate changing situations, and adapt easier.2

While providing education may seem like a solution that is simple to implement, eradicating poverty by providing education is not as straightforward as shipping food or medicine to developing countries. Investments in education require long-term commitment from both donor and recipient nations. The reasons it has been so difficult historically to successfully implement public education for Pakistani youth include, but are not limited to: 1) low investment by the Pakistani government, 2) waste, corruption, and mismanagement by local and national government officials, and 3) lack of local participation in international aid programs.

Since 2002, Pakistan has received approximately $1 billion a year from the United States under various foreign aid programs. This aid was intended to reimburse costs incurred by the Pakistani military while aiding the United States and allied nations in fighting militant and terrorist groups living and operating near the Afghanistan border. Unfortunately, Pakistan has very little to show for this enormous amount of foreign aid. If anything, Pakistan has descended into more turmoil, and the Taliban has increased its influence and power, not only in the border region with Afghanistan, but also in major cities such as Karachi and Lahore.

In Pakistan, the closest thing to an opportunity to learn and make a better life for oneself is a deeni madrassa, or religious school. These religious schools are often operated and funded by extremist groups that teach Wahhabi (orthodox) sect of Islam. The religious education, in madrassas for boys and in homes for girls, is a mainstream phenomenon in Pakistan, but it cannot be a substitution for formal education. The danger is not only that madrassas deliberately brainwash the poor students, but their unorthodox teaching style that requires memorizing the Quran (the Islamic holy literature) in Arabic is about the only skill the students are taught. Because of the emphasis placed on memorization, the average graduate of a madrassa does not have an ability to hold a normal job in the formal economy. Religious schools simply add to the platoons of Pakistanis who are unemployable and perfect recruits for the Taliban or al-Qaeda.3

Improved education in Pakistan can promote civil societies and secular values as it did in the past. Pakistan gained its independence through civil societies in 1947 by educated men and women walking alongside Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi. Groups such as the All-India Muslim League and the Indian National Congress protested against the British Empire through peaceful marches, hunger strikes, and knowledge of legal frameworks. The two states solution, which divided India and Pakistan, was not formed to promote the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or other Islamic extremists. It was designed to provide Indian-Muslim minorities’ with equal rights and a chance for democracy. The United States must help this nation to achieve its potential, not only for the people of Pakistan, but to defeat terror that has lingered in the region far too long.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 budget overview, total military spending was $581.2 billion.4 What if instead of military aid, the United States invested a fraction of that money in Pakistan’s educational system? Will charismatic leaders then rise from the ashes of conflict and poverty to save Pakistan from an almost certain future as a failed state?

Indeed, small, federal-funded agencies such as the Peace Corps and Inter-American Foundation have made a tremendous difference in the world by engaging nations in development projects. The Peace Corps currently serves in 64 countries around the world, assisting host nations in improving their education, health, environment, economy, and agriculture. The Peace Corps’ annual spending in 2014 was $379 million.5 Since 1972, the Inter-American Foundation has awarded about 5,100 grants, valued at more than $720 million, to local grass-roots organizations in Latin America and Caribbean. These grants have helped promote more profitable agriculture, micro businesses, and community enterprises. Additionally, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has made progress through small-scale programs like The Fulbright Program, International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), and MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) Camp.6

Using the Peace Corps and the Inter-American Foundation as roadmaps, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) should design and initiate specific educational projects in Pakistan. These projects must engage the Pakistani Education Ministry, Provincial Ministry, and local communities in efforts to revamp existing public schools and build new public schools where necessary. USAID has already awarded grants to the International Rescue Committee in partnership with World Learning and local partners to implement the Pakistan Reading Project, which aims to build the reading skills of millions of children across all provinces and areas of Pakistan. USAID can further promote education with similar projects and bilateral tied aid agreements. The educational projects should focus on Urdu and English language, STEM subjects, skilled-based vocational courses, and professional development for local teachers.

In regards to implementing partners, the Peace Corps has not had volunteers stationed in Pakistan since 1967. For security reasons, the U.S. government will be hesitant to send ordinary citizens into harm’s way. However, USAID can work with grassroots organizations such as Teach for Pakistan, which recruits Pakistani college students and recent graduates from local universities within Pakistan, and Pakistani college graduates living abroad to teach at schools in rural and disadvantaged regions of Pakistan.7

The current system of counterterrorism-linked assistance is ineffective and fosters corruption among Pakistani leaders as well as resentment among the local population. U.S. policy must instead align with Pakistani society through civilian power. The Pakistani government, in its new national policy, concedes that access at all levels to educational opportunities remains low. The United States must intervene because the Pakistani government has failed its people and will continue to do so. If the United States will not act to solve this massive problem, it will inadvertently lock Pakistan’s future in the hands of the Taliban. Providing decent education is a viable solution to help repair this deeply fractured nation.

1. CIA. The World Fact Book. n.d. (accessed December 10, 2015).
2. Yardimcioglu, Fatih, Temel Gürdal, and Mehmet Emin Altundemir. “Education and Economic Growth: A Panel Cointegration Approach in OECD Countries (1980-2008).” Egitim ve Bilim, 2014.
3. The Telegraph. “Lack of basic education fuels rise in Taliban and extremism in Pakistan.” The Telegraph World, November 05, 2009: Asia.
4. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request Overview. Financial Reporting, U.S. Department of Defense, 2014.
5. MPeace Corps. Congressional Budget Justification. Strategic Plan , Peace Corps, 2015.
6. U.S.Department of State. Programs and Initiatives. n.d. (accessed September 21, 2015).
7. According to its website, Teach for Pakistan has recruited teachers from Lahore University of Management Sciences, McGill University, New York University, and University College of London.

Meera Shah Eaton is a graduate student in the International Policy and Practice program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She currently works for Discovery Communications and in past she has worked for the American National Red Cross and the Institute of Current World Affairs. She can be reached at

Photo taken by DFID – UK Department for International Development, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.