The road to nowhere-By Shehryar Khakwani

MANY years ago, during a job interview with a relatively small firm in the Silicon Valley, the interviewer wanted to impress upon me the possibilities of the Internet.

He asked me the usual questions about my background and work experience, and told me that one day people from Pakistan would attend universities right there in California without leaving Pakistan. Medical procedures would be performed on patients in Pakistan without the surgeon ever leaving California.

Commercial industry was budding with Netscape announcing the advent of a popular ‘browser’. A few years later Al Gore made the famous gaffe of inventing the Internet; but there was no denying the arrival of the Information Highway. The virtual road ran right through our homes and offices, and today, an Internet outage at home, is nothing short of a crisis for my children.

For those who follow the IT industry, buzzwords abound: ‘infostructure’, ‘broadband’, ‘wireless loops’, ‘fibre optics’ and ‘satellite communications’ to list just a few. The present administration announced that every town with a population of over 10,000 inhabitants would be served with a fibre optic connection.

The previous government too invested in and implemented initiatives such as broadband technology — the always ‘on’ Internet connection. Let us give credit where it is due, remarkable achievements have been made; for once we are not left trailing the pack.

But we are not seeing the wood for the trees. At the end of the day, it is the ministry of education which holds the key. If a person cannot read, a web address is meaningless to him. If a person does not complete high school, vocational training to support a high-tech industry is useless for him. If a person does not attend university, the pursuit of a career in computer science technology is doubtful.

We delude ourselves if we think that our country is rich in human resource. It is rich in human resource only if the population is educated. A poorly educated population is a mismanaged resource.

The official statistics, released by the education ministry, show roughly 17m children in primary schools, which include mosque schools and private institutions.

The total number of middle school students enrolled in the public and private sector is 5.2m with 2.1m high school students. A decade old census undertaken by the Population Census Organisation (PCO) shows a nation of 132m with 40 per cent of the population under 15 years of age. More than half the people live in rural areas, where four out of five women are illiterate.

There is an underlying urgency which elevates inaction to a criminal status. I will dare to say that children who do not become literate (defined as being able to read a newspaper and write a simple letter in any language) will never become literate as adults.

We are failing at effectively grappling with educating our children, and programmes targeted at illiterate adults are virtually non-existent. These citizens will have fewer opportunities, the burdens of everyday life growing more and more unbearable.

The prospects for the educated include more than their fair share of challenges, but for the illiterate, life is nothing more than a series of struggles and constraints.

Education cannot just be on the government’s agenda, it needs to be on the forefront of the government’s agenda. The enormity of the challenges is undeniable. We will not find a reasonable person, no matter what his level of literacy, who will argue against every child receiving primary education, modernising the curriculum, training the workforce, and encouraging research and broadening horizons. The fight is intimidating, but to lose will be to lose everything.

The words of that recruiter still ring in my ears, and I am hopeful that one day our children will live in better circumstances facilitated by technology. In the meanwhile, the austere reality is that until we educate our masses, the Internet for them will be a road to nowhere.

Source: Daily Dawn, 8/9/2008

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