Education and Development Linkages in South Asia (VI)

Though it is obvious, the possible positive contribution of education towards economic and human development can be seen from the experience of different countries in the South Asian region. A virtuous equilibrium can be seen in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives. On the other hand, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal show a vicious equilibrium marked by social factors disabling education and this impacts and is impacted by economic underdevelopment. 

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Part VI: Conclusion

This series of articles briefly outlines the way education has evolved in the countries of South Asia through the influence of contextual social factors and forces of globalisation. The way education and economic development have interacted mutually is an important concern here. The selection of these countries is important not only because of their geographical proximity; there are other commonalities among them. There were historical similarities among these countries in terms of the origin of education. Four of these countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (which was part of Pakistan until 1971), and Sri Lanka were British colonies and the two others, Nepal and Bhutan, were also influenced by the colonialists (though these were not colonies directly). However, there are notable differences between these countries in terms of education, at present. There are also notable social features of this region, like the caste system and severe gender discrimination. The possible impact of these on education is also of interest.

In the introduction to this essay, we saw how these counties can be categorised on the basis of comparative statistics: (a) Sri Lanka and Bhutan; (b) Pakistan and Afghanistan; © India and Nepal; and (d) Bangladesh and Maldives. The key features of each of these groups are mentioned in the following paragraphs.

Sri Lanka and Bhutan

Sri Lanka and Bhutan have done remarkably well in spreading school education to most of the adult population. There are notable efforts towards improving the quality of school education. Sri Lanka is the pioneer in the region to provide school education to almost all sections of its population. Though Bhutan is the latest entrant to embrace modern education, it could do much better than other countries in the region. There are indications that education development has contributed to the economic development of the two countries. Both these countries could witness a structural transformation of the economy with a decline in dependence on agriculture and the growth of non-agricultural sectors of the economy. The development of education also had a positive impact on the human development indicators of these countries. The economic development enabled the governments in these countries to invest more in education. It may be noted that both these countries have Buddhism as the religion of the majority. It would mean that the caste system and its persisting impact on the education of certain social groups is not a major issue in both these countries. (We did not overlook the prevalence of caste and such social fragmentations among sections of people in both these countries). The religion and social structure of these two countries were such that they did not negatively impact the education of girls. These two factors seem to have contributed to a virtuous cycle of education and development in these two countries. However, there are country-specific problems that prevented Sri Lanka and Bhutan to achieve the full potential of their educational development. The civil war in the Northern parts of Sri Lanka led to a diversion of public resources and disrupted some gains in terms of education and development. The physical isolation and limited economic opportunities of Bhutan pose specific challenges in its education and economic development.

Pakistan and Afghanistan

Pakistan and Afghanistan are doing poorly in terms of education in the region, with Afghanistan facing severer challenges. In both these countries, a sizeable section of teenagers does not enrol in secondary schools and dropping out from primary education is also significant. The slower pace of education development has contributed to the problems in the economy with limited industrialisation and a higher dependence on agriculture and un- or less-skilled work in both these countries. The problems in the economy reduce the ability of their governments to invest adequately in education. The poor performance in the domains of education and economy make the human development indicators of these countries very low. The way Islam is practised in these two countries comes in the way of the schooling of girls, and this has negative implications for education and human development. (We realise that it is not a problem of Islam per se, as we can see it in the case of Maldives and Bangladesh in this region.) The reluctance to allow grown-up women to take up paid employment also seemed to have worked against the education and economic and human development in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hence, the absence of a caste system, and the historical attempts in Islam to provide religious education to all have not enhanced the achievements in modern education in these two countries.

India and Nepal 

India and Nepal witnessed a lopsided development of education. A small section of the Indian society (mostly the social elites) could complete school education, benefit from the post-independence investments in higher education, participate in the global labour market opened up as part of the economic reforms which began in the mid-1980s, and could prosper within and outside the country. Though similar economic opportunities were not available in Nepal, the elites (mainly the Hindu uppercases) benefitted from the state-provided education. However, the majority did not complete school education and hence, took up unskilled jobs in agriculture or construction, and continued in poverty and financial vulnerability. The historical deprivation of education for the lower castes and the reluctance to educate girls and enable them to take up paid employment, continue to shape the economic conditions, which, in turn, shape the incentives to use education as far as the majority is concerned. Hence, the contextual factors and forces of globalisation have enhanced the traditional inequalities in Indian society. The situation in Nepal is somewhat closer to that in India, though it neither focussed on higher education nor could benefit from a service sector in giving jobs to people with such education. Hence, education could not have a major impact on the poverty and vulnerability of the majority of its people.

Bangladesh and Maldives

Though Bangladesh was similar to India and Pakistan in the past, education-development interlinkage became more of a mutually strengthening one over time. This is manifested in the employment opportunities for girls in manufacturing (mainly garment industry) and their increased enrolment in secondary schools. The Maldives has started investing heavily in school education (despite having problems, like the lack of easy accessibility of several islands and the lack of qualified teachers). This has improved enrolment and retention in secondary schools. The transformation of its economy with a higher dependence on services (tourism) also benefitted from, and shaped, the developments in education. The governments in both these countries could use the resources that are available through the economic growth for education development. Though the majority in both these countries follow Islam, the key differentiating feature in these two countries is that there is less reluctance to educate girls because of which women could take up paid employment when the opportunities were available and could earn. This created the demand for education of both boys and girls, and also improve human development indicators. The supply-demand equilibrium in education in these countries could expand the coverage of education to the majority. The experience of Bangladesh and Maldives (as against Pakistan and Afghanistan) shows that Islam, as a religion, is not necessarily against the spread of modern education.

By looking at the experience of these four categories of countries, a few key observations are possible. The negative impact of Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan is more due to the pre-existing community norms in the region and the way these norms have interacted with influences from outside. The influence of the rigid versions of Islam from Saudi Arabia, and the support that extremist religious forces have received from outside (the USA and the Middle East) during the Cold War period might have accentuated this negative impact. It may be noted that the aversion to educating girls can be seen among sections of Hindus in North and North-western parts of India, which indicates the influence of the pre-existing community norms.

The caste system in India and Nepal have caused educational fragmentation and economic inequality. This system ensured that a section of people has been getting education for generations and could do well economically in the global market, and another section (and possibly the majority) is deprived of education and hence, trapped in less productive occupations. Even though the governments could enhance the provision of education, the historically marginalised groups continue to face challenges. This has worked against the expansion of coverage of education in these two countries.

Though it is obvious, the possible positive contribution of education towards economic and human development (and the negative impacts due to educational under-achievements) can be seen from the experience of different countries in the south Asian region. A virtuous equilibrium can be seen in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives. On the other hand, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal show a vicious equilibrium marked by social factors disabling education and this impacts and is impacted by economic underdevelopment. India is marked by inequality in this regard. Though a section of its people and a part of the economy are doing notably well, a sizeable section of the population suffers from lower levels of education and not enough economic opportunities.


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V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

This is Part VI of VI parts