Disasters and the frailty of the education system

September 25, 2022

The slow but steady resumption of normal educational activities initially through temporary learning centers is important

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ore than 16 million children have been displaced, more than 20,000 schools partially or fully destroyed, more than 3.5 million students left without access to education. This is the most immediate impact of the recent floods on Pakistan’s frail education system. The long-term impact is yet to unfold.

Going by the past precedent, when a calamity of the magnitude of the 2022 floods hits, it takes years to rehabilitate, and rebuild the infrastructure that was swept away. The last lot of schools destroyed in the 2005 earthquake were reconstructed only last year, after a lapse of 17 years. Education has often been treated as an afterthought and has never been strongly linked with national development and the country’s sovereignty despite being a matter of national security and supreme national interest.

The primary reasons for this glaring lapse are missing political will and incentives to work on education, an acute lack of financial resources and inefficiencies inherent to the system.

In the face of the fresh challenges brought forth by the floods, it is extremely frustrating that despite Pakistan having witnessed multiple calamities in the last two decades, the education system neither has a disaster management strategy nor the ability to respond with viable solutions for the displaced students. Every time a calamity hits, the education system falls flat on its face.

This is abject criminal neglect on the part of the state. For once there ought to be across-the-board accountability to address the convention of violating Pakistani children’s constitutional right to education. The support from non-state actors also requires major disruption and a well-thought-through makeover. The current model of development support through donors has certainly not had much impact on the education system’s capacity and performance. Unless this specific area undergoes dramatic improvement, there is little point in investing in anything else.

Going by the previous experiences, we do not expect the fully destroyed schools to be reopened any time soon. In their absence, there is no alternative mechanism to provide education to the children who, immediately on the heels of the pandemic, are once again affected by indefinite closures.

Prolonged school closures are directly proportional to acute losses of learning for students. The Andrabi, Daniels and Das study highlighted a gap of 1.5 to 2 full years of learning losses among children after the 2005 earthquake where students were out of school for an average of 14 weeks. Later research showed that those children, once adults, earned 15-18 percent less than they should have for the rest of their lives as a direct consequence of unaddressed, post-disaster learning losses.

Now let’s take this information to process what the impact of the lost level of learning would be for the students who were already struggling to academically catch up following the pandemic where the first spell of school closures across the country alone lasted for an unprecedented 25 weeks. The large majority of Pakistani children during this period had no access to education at all. A year into the reopening of schools, the state was still racking its brains to assess the extent of learning losses incurred during the pandemic and devise a plan for remedial learning. Then the floods hit.

With this fresh calamity, a significant number of the children whose learning had halted during the pandemic are once again reliving the uncertainty of a future that seems too good to conquer. Having witnessed widespread death and destruction, perhaps having lost their family members and friends to the unforgiving torrents, cooped up in unfamiliar settings with the baggage of post-trauma stress these children, at least for now, have quite literally been left to fend for themselves.

Granted that addressing the needs of children during a humanitarian response is no easy feat, lack of immediate donor priority vis-à-vis education, lack of access to affected areas and limited to no data on the specific educational needs of the affected children make the challenge all the more uphill. However, there are several important practices one can learn from based on the experiences of Pakistan and other countries during natural disasters.

To begin with, the education system must have a strong preparedness and disaster-risk management component inherent to it. This would essentially include the system’s ability to systematically and swiftly gather data on the extent of damage incurred by school infrastructure, the number of children in need of education (including those who were not part of the formal education stream previously but are of school-going age), and the number of teachers whose physical and mental health allows them to resume duty.

Such an assessment is often followed by measures that meet the most immediate need of children in the aftermath of an emergency, i.e., the provision of a safe environment in which they can express themselves and begin engaging in normal social interactions. This is important to buttress their resilience and cater to their protection needs through education programming. The training of teachers in inclusive psycho-social first-aid for children is paramount to this effort.

Beyond the humanitarian phase of the response, the slow but steady resumption of normal educational activities initially through temporary learning centers is important to address students’ learning needs during the uncertain, interim period before schools are ready to open their gates once again. However, too much reliance on temporary learning facilities can prove counter-productive in the long run. Accordingly, mobilising sufficient funds to undertake an across-the-board reconstruction of damaged or destroyed school infrastructure needs to be prioritised by the state at par with any other component within the rebuilding phase.

For such a systematic response to transpire, we must circle back to first building the system’s capacity and enriching it with a comprehensive education sector-specific preparedness and contingency plan. This plan should be locally informed and tailored to the specific context of the area that it is meant to cater.

The concern is not that there aren’t solutions available to address the education crisis erupting from emergencies but that there isn’t enough will in the system to make amends. If there is one commonality in the response to past disasters such as the 2005 earthquake, the 2010 floods, and the 2020 pandemic, it is that the system failed to prioritise our children. The underfunded, lethargic system cannot be left on itself to process this crisis with the same apathy that was meted out in the past.

Moiz Hussain is a development professional working on girls’ education with Malala Fund

Areebah Shahid is the executive director of Pakistan Youth Change Advocates (PYCA).

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