The government must allocate adequate resources to education and disaster risk reduction
t has been more than six months since the catastrophic floods swept most of Pakistan’s landmass. The climate-induced calamity disrupted the lives of 33 million of the country’s most vulnerable people, including an estimated 16 million children.
After the passage of about half a year, the situation on the ground remains bleak with a majority of families battling acute food shortage, malnourishment and disease. Despite various commitments made during bilateral meetings and the UN conference in Geneva during January, Pakistan has not received the sort of international support that a calamity of this magnitude demands. This has put the future of the millions of affected households in a limbo.
Amid this gloomy situation, many might write off education as a luxury. Some might even go as far as to label those who demand the continuation of learning for the affected children as being divorced from reality or elitist. However, now is a time more critical than ever before to demand our children’s right to education.
Historically, Pakistan has remained a disaster-prone country. Any socio-economic progress made in times of calm is disrupted and often pushed back to square one as soon as a calamity strikes. This has been a huge contributing factor vis-à-vis the dismal education indicators that Pakistan has been struggling against for decades. Lack of emergency preparedness and coordination across most sectors, especially those related to social welfare, such as education prevents the state from coming up with a meaningful response.
We are very well aware of the gaining effect of climate change on Pakistan. Despite contributing less than 1 percent of the global carbon emissions, it ranks 8th on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change with a recorded increase in glacial melting, erratic rainfalls, extreme temperatures, forest fires, flash floods and other life-threatening climate-related events. This sobering reality indicates that last year’s floods might very well be the beginning of climate-triggered disasters in the country. Decades of battling the same sorry scenario have not taught us anything at all.
Data collected for a recent rapid response research, Towards a Resilient Education Recovery from Pakistan’s Floods, authored by Dr Moizza B Sarwar, reveals that no tangible technical or financial investment was made in education to protect students from disruption of education in 2022. This is despite the fact that many of the currently flood-affected districts had also faced floods in 2010-11. This suggests that there has been a lack of preparedness and coordination across sectors that has hindered the state’s ability to offer a meaningful response.
Unfortunately, this is not the only glaring gap in Pakistan’s emergency response when it comes to education. The biggest hurdle in the way of a resilient education system is perhaps the mindset of the education planners and disaster managers. For instance, efforts to recover losses to education after an emergency in Pakistan are almost always narrowly focused on the rebuilding of damaged school infrastructure without due consideration for ensuring that the rebuilt schools are disaster resilient.
Instead of waiting for the re-building of schools, unharmed buildings in the communities should be rented to set up classrooms and begin learning activities. It is equally important to incentivise education for traditionally marginalised groups of students such as girls.
Additionally, medium- and long-term responses after past disasters have also failed to factor in the crucial role of remedial learning programmes to help affected students make up for the lost period of learning. A lack of focus on these two aspects has repeatedly contributed to recurrent episodes of disrupted education on the one hand and hugely compromised learning outcomes on the other. Thus, a truly meaningful disaster response in education sector must entail critical infrastructure that can withstand future shocks and a school system that is prepared to diagnose affected students’ learning needs and respond accordingly.
The study also identified several promising practices and lessons learnt that can inform the development of more resilient education systems. These include improving the disaster preparedness and response capacities of schools and communities, providing psychosocial support to students and teachers, promoting distance and flexible learning options, ensuring continuity of education services during emergencies and involving local stakeholders in the decision-making processes.
In the short term, education planners and disaster managers must understand that the learning needs of the millions of affected children cannot wait for the long and tedious process entailing the reconstruction of schools. Instead of waiting for the re-building of schools to get children back into classrooms, unharmed buildings in the communities should be rented to set up classrooms and begin learning activities. At the same time, it is equally important to incentivise education for traditionally marginalised groups of students such as girls, children with disabilities and transgender students.
Simultaneously, the education system must also have adequate planning in place to help students make up for the lost period of learning. This calls for conducting a baseline of students’ learning levels and using that data to establish learning targets at the district and school levels. The head teachers across the public school system need to be both financially and technically empowered to ensure the successful development and roll-out of school disaster response plans, and the roll-out of remedial learning programmes. Such a step would not merely quicken the pace of the post-disaster education response but will also ensure a bottom-up approach that is necessary to meet the unique needs of each school and its students.
For any of this to materialise, there is an urgent need for sustained funding and political commitment to support education resilience in Pakistan. The government must allocate adequate resources to education and disaster risk reduction, establish stronger partnerships with civil society organisations and the private sector and prioritise the needs of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, including girls, children with disabilities and those living in remote and conflict-affected areas.
The writer is the national coordinator for Pakistan Coalition for Education and the Malala Fund Education Champion. She can be contacted at email@example.com & on Twitter @zehra2576.