Points of order

Professor Anita Ghulam Ali talks about the latest object of her passion

By Zubeida Mustafa
From Dawn Archives Library 28 June 1998

Pakistan is a country which has been ignominiously sliding down the Human Development Index of the UNDP — from 94th in 1990 to 139th in 1997. Today only 13 countries out of the 175 listed have a lower score than Pakistan’s in the education index, which is calculated on the basis of adult literacy rate and gross enrolment ratio in schools. In this dismal scenario when things seem to be falling apart one can get cynical about optimists like Professor Anita Ghulam Ali, the Managing Director of the Sindh Education Foundation.

She says that she feels hopeful that the situation will improve. When you visit her spick and span office in Clifton with its neatly laid out garden patch and are reminded twice by its dynamic MD that this too is a government office, you are forced to concede that the official machinery can work if the will is present. As she proudly shows you round, you note that the environment is too pleasant for it to be the usual kind of government institution one is accustomed to — you make a mental comparison with the decrepit passport office, which you had visited a few weeks ago and which earns a handsome revenue for the exchequer. The SEF’s library, computers, notice-boards with colourful pictures pinned on them, spotless floors free of paan stains makes it more like the office of a private sector organization.

This miracle is possible because Anita strongly believes that surroundings matter. She can be seen marching up and down the Foundation’s office at all hours checking the cleanliness. “Nobody would dare spit paan here after what I did to an MPA who spat a mouthful outside my window,” she recalls. “May be I should not have raised the rumpus which I did but that was the only way I could create an impact,” she adds. She actually hauled him up insisting that he should clean the mess. As this honourable member of the Sindh Assembly cringed with embarrassment, she ordered one of her assistants to bring a jharoo so that she would clean up the paan stains herself for the sake of a brother! It was too melodramatic for words and the MPA ended up apologizing profusely and promising never to spit paan anywhere again. Anita capped the episode by inviting him into her office for a.cup of tea.

The state of the SEF office is symbolic of the fact that the existing system does not have to be dismantled and replaced by a revolutionary structure to make it functional and efficient. Anita is very much a part of the government machinery with which she identifies herself. But there is a difference. She is the lone dissenting voice in the education Establishment in Pakistan and is its merciless critic. What is more important is that she is actually doing things which, if she is there long enough, could change the face of the education sector in Sindh. This is significant because in this country it is more normal for the non-governmental sector with its limited reach to produce results, albeit in a small area.

Although the SEF was set up in 1992 and notified in 1993, it is only in the last few years that it has broken new ground. Originally, the Foundation was designed to channel loans and grants to private institutions. But its vague and broad objectives gave it a sweeping mandate and despite resistance from those on whose toes she has been treading, Anita has penetrated areas which a run-of-the-mill bureaucrat would not bother to approach. Hence the impact. Some of her programmes tend to explode the common myths about our education system and how the government operates. If her experiments succeed she would make a bigger impact than others in the field because of the advantage she enjoys by virtue of the fact that she is working in the public sector and has a much wider reach. There are 40,000 government schools — though she says 3,000 are not working—in Sindh alone.

Beginning from the premise that the loot maar of the private sector can be ended only if the government schools are upgraded and thenstandards improved to make them attractive to students”, Anita is focussing on the quality factor. This involves multifarious approaches, ranging from channelling grants (from the funds given by foreign donors and the Sindh government), introducing new management concepts to providing motivation (which Anita has in abundance). The Adopt-a-School programme about which Anita never tires of talking and which covers fifty schools already is designed to provide these inputs through an adopter. The idea is not simply to get a donor to pay for repairs and furniture. It is more important to get a sponsor who is willing to give time and involve himself in the working of a school. This provides an impetus to the school management to attend to its responsibilities. “We let the adopter change the working of the school as much as he likes so long as he takes the community along with him,” she says. When funds also follow, as they invariably do, and visible improvements in the physical environment are produced the enrolment also rises. As the classrooms are repaired the children start trickling in. One team of adopters led by Asma Kazmi, a retired college professor, visits its school every day. The presence of these women has made a world of a difference to the school.

The community schools project in which the SEF is involved in a big way seeks to help the schools set up by the community. Again, it is just not funds but the human intervention that is vital. The SEF team’s visits to these institutions serve as a monitoring mechanism. Some of the schools are in remote rural backwaters of the province. They respond to the interest which is taken in their running.

For Anita it is the human dimension which is important. She has concentrated on the pedagogic aspects to improve the quality of education (she is scouting around for talent to get good books published which are used as supplementary reading material in schools). But the focus is on the human beings to bring out the best in them. “To sustain my programme I want to involve the community in it. If the parents and community leaders are present in the Parents-Teachers Associations and the Parents Education Committees/Village Education Committees, they will ensure that the school continues to function and its standard improves,” Anita says with a lot of conviction. She wants that the parental interest in education which is there at the grassroots level is capitalized to activate dysfunctional schools and keep the pressure on the teachers to perform well.

Since she wants her strategy to be replicable and sustainable the machinery of the education department is not bypassed. “We work in partnership with the education department. When any school is being adopted, the District Education Officer and his deputies are informed and requested to attend the meetings. If they ignore us, we lodge a complaint and then they have had it,” she says.

She wants the education department to be named the Human Resources Department as many other countries have done. “Focus on the teachers and the Students as human resources. Improve the skills of the first to facilitate the resource development of the other and you can accomplish a lot,” she insists. To prove her point, she takes an active interest in the skill development of all her staff. The Foundation provides the funds for them to attend classes and improve their qualifications. Every year they have to plan their personal agenda and are accountable for it.

Some of her theories might sound outlandish to the cynics but in a purely human context they make sense. “Give a child comfortable and clean shoes to wear on his feet and see how it changes his personality and makes him inclined to work,” she explains as a volunteer comes in to discuss the shoe collection drive. She goes a step further. “A person who is casually dressed in loose and baggy clothes will never gear himself for serious work,” Anita remarks.

“The main problem we face is the resistance we meet from the vested interest,” she says. “Most people don’t realize it but the fact is that many feudals still do not want schools to be set up in their areas. They feel that their haris will be spoilt by education for they will become aware of their rights. When we have moved to get a school adopted many voices have been raised advising us to leave it alone. Any one working in the field of education has not had easy sailing. People cite BRAC in Bangladesh as a model. But ask BRAC if they have ever had big landlords opposing them,” she says.

Source: Dawn Archives

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