Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Education should be Pakistan's top priority
Pakistan's government has failed to provide its people with primary education, but for the country's long-term stability it's more important than spending on defence and security
A few months after the earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, I toured the devastated town of Batal in the north where a community owned primary school had been rebuilt with donations from overseas. Inside the only functioning classroom located on a hillside, girls and boys of varying ages were seated together behind tiny desks. The boys all wanted to grow up to be doctors, the girls all wanted to be teachers.

A community elder, Ghulam Jan, who had donated his land for the building of the school, told me: "Our time is over ... We want our children to study so that they can become something when they grow up."

This plea has been echoed by communities in struggling coastal towns in the south to remote mountain valleys in the north of Pakistan. Wherever I have gone to cover stories from sea intrusion to glacier melt, I have heard the same demand – we want schools for our children; we want them to have better lives. But the community in Batal is just one of the lucky few to have a functioning primary school for its children.

For more than 60 years now, the government of Pakistan has failed abysmally to provide its people with primary education; a basic right enshrined in article 25A of its constitution which assigns the state with providing free and compulsory education to all children aged between five and 16 years. A recent report written by the Pakistan Education Task Force, a non-partisan body that includes representatives from the federal and provincial governments and NGOs, paints a dismal picture of the state of education in the world's sixth most populous country.

The report, Education Emergency Pakistan, was published in March, before David Cameron's recent visit to Pakistan where he announced £650m in aid for education. The report says that about 10% of the world's primary school-age children who do not attend school live in Pakistan. In the global ranking of out-of-school children, Pakistan is in second place.

"Pakistan is crippled by an education emergency that threatens tens of millions of children," the report says. "The economic impact of the education emergency is as expensive as a flood every year," according to the report. Last summer's extensive floods caused about $10bn worth of damage, including destroying or damaging a thousand schools.

To make matters worse, the Pakistani government is yet to announce its reconstruction strategy. The delay has meant that urgent rebuilding and recovery work has barely started eight months after the flooding, according to Oxfam.

Given such a bleak situation, any money that will go towards education is more than welcome, and Cameron's promise of aid, which is to be spent on 4m primary school places and 90,000 teachers will go a long way in improving the situation, provided the money is channelled through trustworthy organisations such as the community based organisation that built the school in Batal. At the moment, however, it appears that the funds are to be allocated to the provincial governments where the fear is the money might just slip through the cracks of poor governance.

The report also notes the striking gender disparity in schooling in Pakistan. Fewer than half of Pakistani women have had any formal education. The figure is even worse in rural areas, where just one in three women has ever attended school. For most families, the archaic thinking is that girls must marry and look after their husbands and in-laws, so why bother wasting precious money on their education? According to the report, there is "zero chance" that Pakistan will reach the millennium development goal for education by 2015.

"This is not just another emergency declared, this is a matter of Pakistan's survival," said Shenaz Wazir Ali, a member of the national assembly and co-chair of the Education Task Force, who also served as the head of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan.

The government has allocated less than 1.5% of the country's GDP for education. Cameron made it a point to criticise Islamabad for spending only 1.5% of its national income on education and asked it to improve its tax revenues.

Perhaps more important, the Pakistani government has to get its priorities right. Pakistan spends almost all its resources on defence and state security, leaving aside little for education. If it really wants improve its long-term security it should be pouring money into education, which – as David Cameron pointed out – is actually the best antidote to terror.

‘British responsible for Kashmir’

British Prime Minister David Cameron has held his own country responsible for many of the world’s historic problems, including the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. Cameron’s remarks came during his one-day visit to Pakistan on Tuesday, when he was asked at a university in Islamabad as to how Britain could help to end the row over Kashmir.
“I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place,” The Telegraph quoted Cameron, as replying.

His remarks about Kashmir were greeted warmly by the Pakistani audience, but drew accusations from historians that the premier was wrongly apologising for Britain’s past.

Daisy Cooper, the director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, said: “This is typical of the UK’s schizophrenic relationship with former colonies where it is both proud and embarrassed about its past.

Scientists find superbugs in Delhi drinking water

A gene that makes bugs highly resistant to almost all known antibiotics has been found in bacteria in water supplies in New Delhi used by local people for drinking, washing and cooking, scientists said on Thursday.

The NDM 1 gene, which creates what some experts describe as "super superbugs," has spread to germs that cause cholera and dysentery, and is circulating freely in other bacteria in the Indian city capital of 14 million people, the researchers said.
"The inhabitants of New Delhi are continually being exposed to multidrug-resistant and NDM 1-positive bacteria," said Mark Toleman of Britain's Cardiff University School of Medicine, who published the findings in a study on Thursday.
A "substantial number" of them are consuming such bacteria on a daily basis, he told a briefing in London. "We believe we have discovered a very significant underlying source of NDM 1 in the capital city of India," he said.
NDM 1, or New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1, makes bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics, including the most powerful class, called carbapenems.
It first emerged in India three years ago and has now spread across the world. It has been found in a wide variety of bugs, including familiar pathogens like Escherichia coli, or E. coli.
No new drugs are on the horizon for at least 5-6 years to tackle it and experts are concerned that only a few major drug companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, still have strong antibiotic development programmes.
Toleman's study, carried out with Cardiff University's Timothy Walsh and published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, investigated how common NDM 1-producing bacteria are in community waste seepage -- such as water pools or rivulets in streets -- and tap water in urban New Delhi.
The researchers collected 171 swabs from seepage water and 50 public tap water samples from sites within a 12 kilometer radius of central New Delhi between September and October 2010.
The NDM 1 gene was found in two of the drinking-water samples and 51 of seepage samples, the researchers said, and bacteria positive for NDM 1 were grown from two drinking-water samples and 12 seepage samples.
"We would expect that perhaps as many as half a million people are carrying NDM 1-producing bacteria as normal (gut) flora in New Dehli alone," Toleman said.
Experts say the spread of superbugs threatens whole swathes of modern medicine, which cannot be practiced if doctors have no effective antibiotics to ward off infections during surgery, intensive care or cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
In a commentary about Walsh and Toleman's findings, Mohd Shahid from Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India, said global action was needed.
"The potential for wider international spread of ... NDM 1 is real and should not be ignored," he wrote.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated April 7 as World Health Day and under the slogan "No action today, no cure tomorrow" it is campaigning about the risks of life-saving antibiotics losing their healing power.
"We are at a critical point in time where antibiotic resistance is reaching unprecedented levels," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe.
"Given the growth of travel and trade in Europe and across the world, people should be aware that until all countries tackle this, no country alone can be safe."

Stop flirting with extremism, Dhaka daily tells politicians

A prominent Dhaka daily newspaper has urged political parties to take note of ‘what has happened in Pakistan’ and ‘stop flirting with religious extremism’ as had happened during Monday’s strike.
The Daily Star Wednesday took serious note of some Islamist activists wearing ‘the Holy Quran around their necks or under their loosely fitted outer garments’, while being part of the strike called by a conglomerate of Islamist organisations. The strike was ‘tacitly’ supported by main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
‘Knowing full well what happens when there is a street fight with the police, bringing the holy book on to the streets is a clear indication that these people wanted the Holy Quran to be exposed to situations when it might be unwittingly and unintentionally desecrated,’ the daily said.
‘The aim appears to have been to show on TV screen and in newspaper photographs that our holy book was desecrated by police. This then could be used to fan anti-government sentiment,’ the newspaper wrote.
‘Such blatant, shameless, and cynical use of religion and of our Quran had never been seen in the past, and must be condemned by all,’ it said.
‘To us nothing exposes the moral bankruptcy of these agitators as the sight that they stooped to using our Holy Quran for their narrow political purpose.’
The newspaper said: ‘Pakistan serves as a good example as to what happens if extremism is not tackled with a firm hand…’
Supporting the government in fighting religious extremism, the newspaper said: ‘We must also acknowledge, other than Sheikh Hasina’s government none dared to take the bull by the horn, and fight extremism with courage, determination, and a lot of political and personal risk.’
‘The opposition must study what has happened in Pakistan, and stop flirting with religious extremism just because it gives an additional number of cadres to harass the government,’ the newspaper said.
Bangladesh was East Pakistan between 1947 and 1971.
‘During our time with Pakistan, the oft-used propaganda against Awami League was that it was a party against Islam. It is ironic that the slogans and propaganda tactics that we heard and saw in the late fifties, sixties, and in the freedom fighting days of the early seventies — are now being repeated,’ the newspaper noted.
‘We must remember that extremism has done no good to any people any where in the world,’ the newspaper’s editor in chief Mahfuz Anam wrote.

Pakistan lacks plan to defeat Taliban: US

situation in FATA deteriorating

Operation against Taliban in Mohmand Agency and Bajaur Agency hampered by terrorist resistance, poor weather, need to settle IDPs and discovery of caches of IEDsg Report says Pak-US military cooperation survived outcry caused by Raymond Davis shooting incident

WASHINGTON: Pakistan lacks a robust plan to defeat the Taliban and its security forces struggle to hold areas cleared of the al Qaeda-linked fighters at great cost, says a critical US report which came just three months before US President Barack Obama is scheduled to announce the pace at which American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

The semi-annual White House report to Congress is designed to judge progress or otherwise towards key objectives of the war in Afghanistan and operations against al Qaeda in Pakistan.

The report notes a deterioration of the situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the country’s northwest alongside the Afghan border between January and March this year. It details an operation in Mohmand Agency and Bajaur Agency that started in January to clear insurgent strongholds – the third time in two years that the Pakistani army has attempted to complete the task. It says the operation had been hampered by terrorist resistance, poor weather, the need to settle internally displaced people and the discovery of several caches of improvised explosive devices.

The report acknowledges that “tremendous human sacrifices” were made by Pakistani forces in the region, but concludes “what remains vexing is the lack of any indication of ‘hold’ and ‘build’ planning or staging efforts to complement ongoing clearing operations”.

“There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the unprecedented and sustained deployment of over 147,000 forces,” the Obama administration says in the report.

The critical assessment, however, emphasises that the US “must strengthen our dialogue with both Pakistan and Afghanistan on regional stability”. It also hints at the Obama administration plans to hold next round of trilateral talks with the two countries in Washington.

On a more encouraging note, the report says US-Pakistan military cooperation had survived the outcry caused by a deadly shooting incident involving a CIA operative, Raymond Davis. It also touches on strains in relations and refers to incidents involving NATO and ISAF incursions and closure of Torkham border.

The survey, portions of which remained classified, also reflects rising recent bloodshed in Afghanistan, particularly among civilians. It also warns that Pakistan still had no clear path to triumph over insurgents and that Afghanistan’s Taliban were turning more and more to soft civilian targets.

According to declassified portions of the report, Pakistan is central to US efforts to defeat al Qaeda. The report determines that “progress in our relationship with Pakisttan over the last years has been substantial, but also uneven”. It shows slight progress in the last six months in involving the international community to help stabilise Pakistan, and overall, modest progress in the US surge strategy to subdue the Taliban. But, it says that absenteeism and attrition continued to pose a risk to the quality of the Afghan national security forces that are vital to Washington’s goal of eventually drawing down its troop presence in Afghanistan. The report issued on Tuesday was not accompanied by any public statement by Obama. But, the report states clearly what many administration and Pentagon officials have long said in private: Without pressure from the Pakistani side of the border, it is virtually impossible to wipe out terrorism.

Obama holds urgent budget talks with lawmakers

President Barack Obama held an urgent round of budget talks with U.S. congressional leaders on Wednesday evening to try to avert a government shutdown.

With the clock ticking toward a midnight Friday deadline, Obama met at the White House with Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

Republicans and Democrats have said negotiators were making progress on a compromise that would fund government operations past Friday's deadline and keep more than 800,000 workers in their jobs.

The two parties remain at odds over about $10 billion in spending cuts, according to a Democratic aide.

The final size of the cuts for the rest of this fiscal year will likely end up closer to the $33 billion Democrats have agreed on than the Republicans' $40 billion target, the aide said.

A government shutdown, the first in 15 years, would ripple through an economy still recovering from the worst recession since the 1930s. Obama urged both parties to compromise and said failure to reach agreement would hurt the economy just as it was gaining momentum.

"Companies don't like uncertainty, and if they start seeing that suddenly we may have a shutdown of our government, that could halt momentum, right when we need to build it up," he said at a town-hall style event in Pennsylvania earlier.


Boehner criticized Obama for a failure of leadership in the budget showdown and said the House on Thursday would consider a short-term bill to cut an additional $12 billion in spending and fund the government for another week while negotiations continued.

Obama and many of his fellow Democrats oppose another short-term extension. Some Republicans said it could serve as a legislative vehicle for a final budget deal.

"That's not just bad policy, that's a fantasy," Reid said of the temporary extension. He said it would only put off the tough choices needed to reach a deal on the budget.

The White House painted a bleak picture of the potential impact of a government shutdown, saying it could hurt recovery in the housing market and spark reactions ranging from the closure of national parks to the suspension of the weekend cherry blossom parade in the capital.

A senior administration official told reporters the processing of some tax refunds and audits, as well as small business loans would be halted, and operations of the Federal Housing Administration would be curbed.

"Having the FHA not be able to guarantee loans during this period will have a significant impact if we shut down on the housing market, which is very fragile," the official said.

The investment firm Goldman Sachs estimated a government shutdown lasting more than a week could cost the economy $8 billion in missed federal spending, dragging down growth.
Both parties blamed each other for the political showdown, which will set the stage for more budget battles ahead and also promises to echo through the 2012 election campaign.

Reid said the budget talks were "constantly evolving" and accused Republicans of changing the terms of the debate before the midnight Friday deadline.


"Every time we agree to meet in the middle they move where the middle is," Reid said. "We stand here with fewer than 72 hours on the clock. ... It's time to get the job done."

Negotiators had tentatively agreed on a figure of $33 billion in spending cuts earlier this week, but Boehner is now pushing for a target of $40 billion.

The budget showdown is the biggest political test for both parties since Republicans swept to power in the House and made big Senate gains in last year's elections on promises to slash government spending and reduce the federal government.

Boehner is under pressure to push for deeper cuts from fiscal conservatives aligned with the Tea Party movement who oppose any compromise. Democrats said the Tea Party was the driving force in the showdown.

Boehner told ABC News in an interview that there was "no daylight" between him and the Tea Party. "What they want is they want us to cut spending," he said.

A new Gallup poll showed that most Americans favored a compromise. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed wanted government leaders who share their views to back a compromise. Just 33 percent said it would be better to hold out for a budget they agree with, even if that forced a shutdown.