By Zubeida Mustafa
THE concept of education and knowledge has changed over the years. It is not just communication technology with the accompanying information explosion that has triggered this change. Also responsible is the phenomenon of specialisation that encourages people to know more and more about less and less. Hence the trend towards continuing and life long education. But this education is generally highly focused. This can pose a challenge in an age when the range of knowledge is becoming wider and to be effective one needs to adopt a holistic approach. It pays if you are a jack of all trade and also a master of one.
Small wonder then that organisations are now trying to expose their staff to knowledge and education of issues that may not be directly concerned with their area of work. I remember when I visited London in 2003 as the guest of the British government, one of the items on my programme was a visit to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Relations Office. It was Thursday afternoon and the occasion was the weekly lecture hour. A member from the House of Lords was the speaker and he discussed with his audience – a number of senior and junior diplomats – the question whether the British democracy was genuinely democratic. One could ask why should those ambassadors and foreign policy experts worry about the quality of their country’s democracy. But to a discerning mind it is clear that a diplomat who doesn’t understand the domestic politics of his own country is hardly qualified to represent his government abroad.
Seen against this backdrop, I find the “Critical Discourse” (CD) sessions launched by the Sindh Education Foundation an excellent and innovative idea. Describing it as a capacity building measure to strengthen its human resource, SEF says the CD is designed to “create an environment of continuous learning for the growth and development of its employees and stakeholders”. The brainchild of Prof Anita Ghulam Ali, the managing director of the SEF, and Aziz Kabani, the director, the Critical Discourse is an on-going process that was started in early 2011. Marked with remarkable diversity, each session has an audience of about 75 comprising mostly SEF’s staff from all departments, with a few guests also invited.
Seven discourses have been held so far since February 2011. The speakers were people who excel in their fields and have made a contribution that is widely recognised. Be it Fahmida Riaz who was the head of the Urdu Dictionary Board at the time she came as the guest speaker or Dr Kaiser Bengali, the adviser to Sindh’s chief minister, the speakers made a contribution towards enhancing the intellectual capacity of the SEF audience. They had their own unique point of view — with Riaz recounting her experiences as a working woman and Bengali elucidating the role of the social sectors in development. Others like Tasneem Siddiqui, a bureaucrat who retired as director of the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority, amply demonstrated that a paradigm shift can be brought about by committed people even while they are working as government servants. By focusing on the need for establishing symbiotic relationships between the government and the private sector for community engagement, Tasneem Siddiqui emphasised the importance of minimising dependency on foreign aid.
Fatima Surraiya Bajia, novelist and playwright, who has strong views on education and culture in Pakistan, was a speaker in November. Earlier Khurram Ali Shafique, a writer and researcher who has benefited newspaper readers with his wealth of knowledge, shed light on Iqbal, Shakespeare and Abdul Latif Bhitai.. The SEF’s move to invite such speakers, which also included the former chief of the Higher Education Commission, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, and Agha Saleem, a Sindhi language novelist and playwright, to speak to its staff and expose its workers to a wide range of progressive views testifies to the open-mindedness and confidence of the SEF bosses.
In this context, another unusual move undertaken by the Foundation was to translate into Urdu and Sindhi the code of conduct its employees are expected to observe. This code elucidates the provisions of the Sexual Harassment Act 2010. This is an educative move and should enlighten the staff of the SEF about the law and thus create a congenial working atmosphere at work.
These are positive moves that should be emulated by others as well. One only feels that the frequency of the CD sessions should be increased. That is necessary to create and sustain the momentum for intellectual change which is the underlying goal of this exercise.