Why has PTI failed to improve public education in K-P?

In the months leading up to the 2018 general election, campaign rhetoric began to intensify. In an advertisement by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), the party proudly showcased a 2017 article by The Economist titled “Imran Khan’s party improves services in Pakistan’s wildest province.” While the article started off flattering, it soon held up a more critical lens to the PTI’s efforts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), a province that has become synonymous with the party. In particular, the article took issue with PTI’s claims that “about 100,000 students have chosen to switch from private to public schools,” stating that this assertion was “based on dodgy data.”

This was true. Despite widespread acclamations, there was no strong indication that PTI had improved K-P’s public education system. In 2017, the Government of K-P spent almost Rs 481 million on primary and secondary education.[1] Yet it wasn’t clear how the schools had been targeted or whether their students had benefitted from this. Often large-scale government reforms are rigorously evaluated to determine their efficacy; however, given the lack of data on how the government was spending its education budget, no one had successfully attempted to evaluate its efforts. That is, until I decided to investigate this matter.[2]

The Issue At-Large

Besides exceptionally well-known programmes like the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), most government schemes go largely unchecked. Taxpayers thus have no idea what returns, if any, to expect from public investments. According to the IMF’s Resident Chief, nationwide tax collections are already 62% below their potential[3], meaning that the country does not have a rupee to spare on unsuccessful public programmes. Given that K-P already receives the least amount of federal funding per capita, it is imperative that the provincial government maximises the efficiency of existing allocations. In essence, there is no room for mismanagement in K-P as its burden will be disproportionately felt by those already marginalised in the national sphere.

There’s no denying the historic nature of the 2018 general election. For the first time since 1977, a party outside the bipartisan establishment won the majority in the National Assembly. While the PTI has made efforts to improve transparency, government accountability remains an unrelenting issue. As of 2018, Pakistan ranks 97th in transparency of government policymaking out of 137 countries.[4] This is reinforced by the fact that the country has been considered an inactive member of the Open Government Partnership – a multilateral initiative promoting accountable governance – since it joined in 2016. Thus verifying that the state needs to take bold steps towards building a government with more effective public oversight. Without an open government, Pakistan risks falling behind.

A Potential Large-Scale Solution

The benefits of open governance are numerous. In Indonesia, increasing government audits on village road projects reduced missing expenditures by 8 percentage points.[5] In Uganda, more extensive community-based monitoring of health care providers led to large increases in utilization and decreases in child mortality.[6] Even in rural Punjab, providing parents with information on school quality increased test scores and primary enrollment while decreasing private school fees.[7]

In theory, Pakistan isn’t opposed to open governance. As a matter of fact, Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to enact legislation mandating freedom of information. The country aims to integrate government databases in order to share requisite data and knowledge with citizens, as stated in its Digital Pakistan vision.[8] (But, it’s also worth noting that the last person to lead Digital Pakistan resigned last July and is yet to be replaced.[9]) The use of the term “requisite” is important. Though the Right of Access to Information Act of 2017 confirms citizens’ right “to have access to all information held by public bodies,”[10] in practice, this is not the case. To enforce this Act, the Pakistan Information Commission (PIC) was established in 2018. Although the public can formally request information through the PIC, this doesn’t necessarily make it open access, as the review and appeal process pose barriers. The review process is typical of freedom of information acts worldwide. However, governments with better transparency rankings often do a better job at making other forms of information available to the global community. Meanwhile the final results from the 2017 Census of Pakistan are yet to be released.

An Attempted Investigation

Over the past two decades, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) has consistently surveyed households across the country, collecting valuable data on individual educational outcomes.

Much of this data has since been visualised in the government’s recent Data4Pakistan portal.[11] Additionally, while it’s not clear how much the PTI spends on schools in different areas monetarily, the K-P Elementary and Secondary Education Department (KPESE) keeps records on the number of schools in each city that has access to basic facilities such as water, electricity, and toilets. Though these data sources weren’t ideal for my evaluation efforts, they were a step in the right direction.

The results of my study were surprising yet fascinating. First, I found that basic facilities in schools in cities with previously worse conditions were given more attention by the PTI. Despite this thoughtfully targeted spending on physical infrastructure, I found that public investment had no immediate effect on educational attainment and attendance rates in K-P. In fact, it appears these outcomes have worsened since 2013 and are disproportionately lower among girls. By those metrics, educational reforms that have long been publicly praised – and may have substantially contributed to PTI’s 2018 victory – were not as successful as I’d imagined.

Conclusively, I propose that if the federal government is unwilling to rigorously self-evaluate its own initiatives, it should at least provide the people with enough information to assess their efficacy themselves. With the most recent polls suggesting that the PTI’s 2023 reelection is at stake, any and all efforts demonstrating the party’s competence may go a long way. More importantly, as stated by the PIC, above all, the Pakistani people have the fundamental right “to access information from government and private bodies that receive public funds.”

[1] Finance Department, Government of KPK. “Annual Budget Statement 2018-19.” October 15, 2018. https://www.finance.gkp.pk/article/annual-budget-statement-2018-19.

[2] The full paper, as published by Stanford University’s journal Comparative Advantage, can be found here: https://stanfordeconjournal.com/2020/06/02/high-hopes-and-low-budget-an-empirical-investigation-on-the-impact-of-differential-school-investment-in-khyber-pakhtunkhwa-pakistan/.

[3] Haider, Mehtab. “Pakistan Tax Collection 62pc below Its Potential: IMF.” The News International. March 12, 2020. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/627871-pakistan-tax-collection-62pc-below-its-potential-imf.

[4] World Economic Forum. “Competitiveness Rankings.” 2018. http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-index-2017-2018/competitiveness-rankings/.

[5] Olken, Benjamin A. “Monitoring corruption: evidence from a field experiment in Indonesia.” Journal of Political Economy 115, no. 2 (2007): 200-249.

[6] Björkman, Martina, and Jakob Svensson. “Power to the people: evidence from a randomized field experiment on community-based monitoring in Uganda.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 124, no. 2 (2009): 735-769.

[7] Andrabi, Tahir, Jishnu Das, and Asim Ijaz Khwaja. “Report cards: The impact of providing school and child test scores on educational markets.” The World Bank, 2015.

[8] Ministry of Information Technology & Telecom. “Digital Pakistan Policy.” May 22, 2018. http://moib.gov.pk/Downloads/Policy/DIGITAL_PAKISTAN_POLICY(22-05-2018).pdf.

[9] “Who is Tania Aidrus?” The News International. https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/693855-who-is-tania-aidrus.

[10] National Assembly. “Rights of Access to Information Act, 2017.” http://www.na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1506960942_594.pdf

[11] Data for Pakistan: District Development Portal. http://www.data4pakistan.com/.