Asad Zaidi/Unicef

Exploring the role of non-state actors on learning in South Asia

By Baela Raza Jamil, Chief Executive Officer, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi

South Asia is home to a quarter of the global population and three of the nine most populous countries of the world (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan). In spite of the layered and rich traditions of learning, heritage, culture, philanthropy, innovations and five Nobel prize winners, 89 million children, adolescents and youth are not in school while many of those enrolled are not necessarily learning what is expected. In Pakistan, for instance, among grade 5 students in 2019, 6 in 10 in rural areas and 7 n 10 in urban areas could read a grade 2 level text, while the percentage of those reading with understanding is even lower. On top of that, the impact of the pandemic has been heavy and the concern is that it may be long-lasting for the generation currently in school.

Despite a rapid increase in non-state provision, learning has not progressed as supporters might expect

Seeing an opportunity to fill gaps in state provision, there has been a significant rise of non-state provision education in South Asia, much faster than in the rest of the world. South Asia has by far the highest share of private institutions in total enrolment in primary education (38%, compared to a 19% global average) and secondary education (50%, compared to a 27% global average). In addition to schools, other forms of non-state education services have expanded too, for instance private tuition and coaching centres. These trends have been documented in the South Asia regional report on Non-state actors in education: Who chooses? Who loses? in which Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi and five other partners in the region worked with the Global Education Monitoring Report team.

Despite this trend and the massive shift of enrolment from public to private schools, the percentage of students who meet global minimum proficiency levels are not only low but have also grown more slowly in South Asia than in the rest of the world. The trend has left parents burdened with heavier costs for education services. This does not hold well against bold constitutional entitlements in Article 25 A for all 5- to 16-year-olds in Pakistan and the SDG 4 commitments for all children in the world to benefit from ‘free’ education.

Given the importance of this issue, a series of events were held by the regional report partners to launch our joint report in Delhi, Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Kathmandu, Colombo and Dhaka. We brought in senior government representatives, civil society organizations, academics, industry and development partners. The government representatives reiterated firmly their policy stance about the public financing of education through accountable procurement of partnerships; they appreciated the challenges on wider uptake on early years, regulations for all with fewer don’ts but above all on quality.  Experts called for urgent actions where ‘quality means equity’ and education fragmentation needs to be addressed urgently as must the chronic challenges of low education budgets that need solutions through innovative financing.

Baela Raza Jamil with Manos Antoninis, Director of the GEM Report, and Syed Sardar Ali Shah, Sindh Minister of Education, Culture, Tourism, and Antiquities

Our events aired the concerns that shifting all responsibility to non-state actors with, at best, low cost subsidies cannot produce sufficient outcomes, given complex regulations. It is important to recognize that education lies at the intersection of other crises of poverty, health, nutrition, clean water and population growth. Academics welcomed the report, seeking ways and means to popularize it, including the accompanying PEER country profiles which document how countries regulate non-state actors – but also the Spotlight report on foundational learning in Africa, which offers important insights on how to tackle the learning challenge also in South Asia.

Non-state actors are the fastest to respond in education emergencies

There is a sense of global urgency behind these discussions as learning levels have been put under so much pressure with pandemic-induced school shutdowns. Pakistan sadly remains in the eye of the storm. In 2021, it was classified as one of the 10 countries at highest risk for climate change disasters. As if to prove that point, massive floods in June 2022 unleashed across the country. The floods directly affected 33 million people , reportedly raising the national poverty headcount rate by four percentage points. They also damaged or destroyed 26,000 schools with an additional 7,000 schools used as shelters, disrupting the education of 3.5 million students. We can see how this has taken its toll on children’s learning from the renowned citizen-led Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) assessment as well as from government assessments.

Millions of people in Pakistan have been displaced because of the floods and deprived of all basic necessities. Credit: Save the Children.

Just as the regional report on non-state actors was being launched, it was clear that the first response on relief, protection, continuity of learning and recovery came from precisely those actors. They instantly mobilized philanthropy through calls for action and resources online, to provide food, shelter, health and hygiene, water and sanitation, menstrual hygiene management, and learning support to large communities in the worst-affected districts. They formed active WhatsApp groups to ensure optimal coverage without duplication, seeking effective and efficient solutions with care.

The state machinery also responded at scale through flood social safety net grants, restoration of infrastructure, opening of education institutions as shelters to save lives, and waiving of stiff protocols for non-state actor operations during the crisis. The global architecture on relief and recovery kicked in with government, non-state actor and development partner participation in the Education Services Working Group frequent planning, reporting and coordination sessions to discuss work on the ground, needs and commitments.

The recommendations of the regional report on common standards, monitoring and support mechanisms and on the need to share innovations with all schools, regardless of sector, remained poignant throughout this crisis. They reaffirmed their importance in my mind as an indicative holistic roadmap to reposition non-state actors in education together with the public sector as collaborators rather than adversaries where every child is learning and every partner counts.


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