This week we were treated to scenes of Maryam Nawaz Sharif standing with Michelle Obama as the First Lady announced an investment of $70 million as part of a new partnership between the United States and Pakistan to promote girls’ education. The money is part of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, which started up in March of this year and seeks to expand educational opportunities for girls.

Ms Sharif also spoke about Nawaz Sharif’s education reforms, and the importance of educating girls. It’s good to see commitment at the highest level to this worthy goal. However, I can’t help being a bit of a cynic about it. These days, girls’ education is a buzzword, with everyone talking about this as the way to move our country forward. Educating girls has become the new sexy catchphrase, with conferences, seminars, and other well-intentioned programs based on this breakthrough in development goals. (There are more than a few scammers, too, gaining from the glitz and glamour of the girls’ education circus, but that’s another blog post completely).

I have my doubts that the money will really go anywhere outside of Punjab, where Nawaz’s education reforms have been centred, thanks to the efforts of the chief minister. Department For International Development (DFID), the UK government’s development arm, has concentrated on Punjab as well, with some work done in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). The chief minister of Punjab has committed to getting every child in Punjab enrolled in school by 2018, and there are many mechanisms already in place to make sure schools improve, including geo-tagging of schools and electronic tracking of teacher and pupil attendance.

There’s no chance of these reforms being replicated in Balochistan, which has the vast majority of out of school girls (70 per cent, in December 2014, of Balochistan’s girls are not in school), or in Sindh, where DFID refused to work with the Sindh Government when it started to look into getting out of school children back into school through a private organisation, Education For Sindh (EFS). As a result, at least in Sindh, the numbers of children being enrolled with DFID’s help through EFS are quite low (100,000), while private organisations like The Citizens Foundation (TCF) try to fill the gaps too. It’s never enough: despite a minor increase in Sindh’s education budget, 6.2 million children are out of school, with rural areas and girls being the most underserved.

I’m not much of an expert on the provincial governments in K-P or Balochistan, but Sindh has always suffered from poor management of the education system. There’s not much willpower or vision about how to move things back to acceptable standards in any area of education. There has been movement towards education reforms in Sindh but they are very half-hearted, as compared to Punjab. The previous Education Minister, Pir Mazhar, inflated the sector with unqualified people hired for political gain, and the current education minister has inherited this bloated elephant. Yet the real work has to be done by Sindh’s bureaucrats, and education secretaries don’t tend to stick around for long enough to enact real reform.

Without financial backing and government commitment, all of Pakistan’s children will not get education in vast numbers needed to really get the girls in school. If Michelle Obama’s $70 million doesn’t get distributed evenly or fairly amongst all the provinces, gains in one province will be impressive, and they’ll be hailed as progress, but they won’t tell the true story about whether or not Pakistan’s girls are really gaining access to quality education.

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