Sep 1, 2010

Back to the book

Whatever solution stems in response to a crisis needs to be rooted in the masses and driven by them

By Farheen Hussain

Whether we officially acknowledge it or not, seems like after the dust has settled on the decade of globalisation and its discontents, we are now converging on the philosophy of going organic. Be it the food we eat, the wisdom we adhere to or even the change we believe in. The new age wisdom borne out of the globalisation hangover is all about embracing your roots.

In the development world, it stems from a deep disillusionment of the Washington Consensus inspired development programmes that have failed to pan out in most developing countries. So, now the talk is about unearthing the organic intellectuals, engaging the organic activists, sensitising yourself to the local context; so that whatever change is induced is organic not imposed by a foreign institution or people.

In all disciplines, values and beliefs that now characterise the global culture are being questioned. Noted educationist Ken Robinson has won great recognition for his work on rethinking the global education system that is highly dependent on a universal hierarchy of subjects and standardised testing, again the emphasis is on developing an organic understanding of our talents instead of trying to fit them into predefined and pre-approved categories.

Michael Pollan, a noted foodie and scientist, is also the author of the best seller, "An Omnivore's Dilemma", in which he provides a scathing critique of this generation's obsession with overly processed food, which boast of high nutritional value but in reality barely resemble the natural foods. Pollan conjectures that the farther we deviated from consuming food stuffs in their primal, organic stage the higher the incidence of debilitating diseases and disorders in our generations.

The point of this brief narrative is to demonstrate how the world seems to have come full circle; with the greatest intellectuals and thinkers of our time attempting to end our fixation with adopting technologies, systems and models passed down from the developed to the developing world with no sensitisation of the latter's context.

Pakistan has been specifically prone to this malaise of deviating too far from its roots and trying to approach a problem without sensitising itself to its cause and instead replicating some pre-specified solution adopted from a foreign country. Case in point, the education sector in Pakistan has been plagued with a crisis at every level.

Successive governments have spent billions of rupees on education programmes that more or less failed to deliver. The overwhelming emphasis always lies on investing money in school buildings, infrastructure and other perfunctory factors; the assumption being if you set up a school in any village, urban slum or town and provide education free of cost, children will flock to it, literacy rates will rise and the education crisis alleviated. Alas many years, uninspired programmes and billions of rupees later; we have realised that the process to cultivate a culture of education and learning is far more complex.

What is needed but inevitably never sufficiently discussed, is to develop a deep understanding of the cause behind the crisis and how it can be addressed through 'organic' means, not applying World Bank-mandated programmes. Whatever solution stems in response to a crisis needs to be rooted in the masses and driven by them. If our policies and development programmes suffer from this disconnect they fail to capture the imagination of exactly those whom they intend to target.

Paulo Friere was amongst the first who spoke of the Participatory Development Approach and though his work was initially considered unscientific, decades of implementing the 'scientific', standardised prescription programmes of the International Financial Institutions has made us return to the uncelebrated wisdom of Friere.

Instead of delving into the intricacies of Friere's work to understand how powerful and relevant it is in Pakistan's context I will share the example of a programme based on the philosophy of participatory development. The Community Based Schooling Programme (CBSP) was initiated by the Society for the Advancement of Education (SAHE) over a decade ago in response to the appalling female literacy rates in southern and interior Punjab.

CBSP was conceived with the intention of creating change that was organic and rooted in the community so it is entirely driven by the people themselves. From their engagement with the community, the organisation realised that the real obstacle to education was not lack of physical infrastructure but the absence of a culture of education and learning. To this end, the organisation embarked on an approach that was firstly, entirely community driven; the people were the owners of everything from providing the infrastructure for the school to being in charge of its daily administration.

Secondly, the CBSP is sensitive to the local realities of each community; every community is unique and provides its own set of obstacles and assets, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach, the organization targets the unique obstacles to girls' education in every locality. For instance, at Basti Balochan in district Lodhran it was the remoteness and dependence on rural livelihoods that acted as deterrence to girls getting education.

In a semi urban slum Zia Nagar of district Pakpattan, it was the high incidence of crime and the unfavourable street culture that prevented women from being more active in the public domain. In response to the unique conditions in each community the program tailored itself to meet whatever the obstacles to girls' education were.

Lastly, the organisation's contribution to cultivating a culture of education and increasing the consciousness and receptiveness for girls' education in particular, is the quality of the programme. One of the most debilitating causes of the education crisis is the failure to deliver meaningful, quality education to the masses. As a consequence, regardless what programme, or free books incentives the government ties with free primary education, when the people can see no tangible benefits in the form of improved literacy, language skills and creativity in their children, they see no point in pulling their daughters out of domestic or rural labour to send them to school.

The key components of quality that the organization controls are curriculum and learning/training material development, along with the training of the local women into competent teachers. It is the quality and sensitisation of education programme that has led to 200 primary CB schools in 3 districts, 5500 graduates and over 200 locally trained female teachers to date.

Recently, I attended a screening of the documentary film, "Partner for Change", that beautifully documented the impact of the CBSP through the stories of different community members who are involved with the CBSP. As I walked out of the screening hall I was left with an overwhelming appreciation of the human spirit and how the CBS initiative taught us that the answer to one of the most indomitable crisis in Pakistan's history is not endless funding and blind implementation of the tried and tested approaches of the first world but a need to go back to our roots and create strategies that are organic and true to our nature.

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