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‘Making Punjab literate by 2020’: Making the impossible possible - Interview with Dr. Allah Bakhsh Malik

Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan, has got a number of adult illiterates of up to 38 million in the age cohort of 15+ years and the number of out of school children at 3.8 million in the age cohort of 5-9 years.

In nine years time the Government of the Punjab plans to make the province 100 per cent literate.

UNESCO Bangkok interviews Dr. Allah Bakhsh Malik, Head of the Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department and Secretary to the Government who was recently awarded the Honorable Mention of the 2011 UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy for his leadership role in the implementation of the Literacy, Adult Education and Vocational skills program ‘Making Punjab literate by 2020’.


Q: In short, please give us some background about the programme ‘‘Making Punjab literate by 2020’.

A: Punjab is the largest province of Pakistan with a population of 92 million. Unfortunately, the number of adult illiterates soared up to 38 million in the age cohort of 15+ years and the number of out of school children is 3.8 million in the age cohort of 5-9 years. 

‘Making Punjab Literate by 2020’ is a big challenge in terms of huge number of illiterate population in Punjab with diverse cultural, geographical and social backgrounds. The focus is to bring the out-of-school children in the age cohort of 5-9 years into mainstream. We have prepared 36 months cycle in non-formal schools for these out-of-school boys and girls. Consequent upon completion of their primary, they are enrolled into formal public school system. In order to realize this dream, Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department opened 9400 Non Formal Schools, bringing in 1.2 million children to school and provided them a second chance in life to access higher education. Similarly for adult illiterates, we have endeavored to make them literate and skilled. Through 9600 Adult Literacy and Vocational Skills Centers, 1.9 million adult illiterates were imparted functional literacy along with a life learning skill. The intervention helped them to earn a decent livelihood and get out of vicious circle of poverty. We are determined to make Punjab literate by the year 2020 and we have put the institutional arrangements in place for this purpose.         

Q: In Pakistan, as you said, the great majority still struggles to read and write the most basics. Although the situation in the Province of Punjab is comparatively better as compared to the rest of the country, 38 million of its citizens are still illiterate. Do you truly believe that Punjab would become literate by 2020? 

A: There is an old adage, ‘Where there is will, there is a way. But if there is a way, the will can be found’. The long 1000 miles journey starts with the first step. We have come a long way through our experience of over a decade. The important ingredients for the success are, right intention, right design, right instruments, right allocation of resources, right institutional arrangements, right political will and right professional leadership. Fortunately we have a nice mix of all these attributes and accoutrements and I am sure that we will be able to make Punjab literate by 2020.        

Q: To achieve 100% literacy throughout Punjab by 2020, it means you’ll have to make the 38 million literate in nine years. How would you do that?  

A: We had chalked out a Five Year Strategy Plan and Ten Year Strategy Plan with the technical assistance from UNESCO Pakistan. We have marked important milestones to guide ourselves and identified pockets with the highest concentration of illiterates. We planned our initiatives on the basis of area-specific requirements. We monitor our own progress against the milestones fixed in the Strategy Plans. Up until now, the progress has been according to planned and programmed schedule in the Strategy Plans. We are determined to continue with the same pace and I am sure that by the year 2020, will be able to make Punjab 100% literate.   

Q: What do you see as potential challenges? 

A: The potential challenge to the repose of society in Pakistan is insecurity and uncertainty. The major challenge for programmes is abrupt change at top political and professional level. Unfortunately the myriad issues of terrorism and extremism have plagued our society over the last 10 years or so. At the same time, despite all odds, Pakistanis have proved to be the most resilient nation, boldly facing the terrorists and extremists. The terrorists blow up our schools but we rebuild them. They try to discourage and demoralize the society but there is stoic determination to move forward, towards literacy, education and skill leading to awareness, prosperity and economic development. 

At times, change in political and professional leadership disturb or stall the progress of the programmes. Luckily the Parliament of Pakistan has inserted Article 25-A in the Constitution of Pakistan through the landmark 18th Constitutional Amendment and right to education has been made an obligation of the state. Through the statutory and constitutional arrangements, there is an absolute surety and security now that no change in Government in future would be able to impact the educational programmes. Moreover, the Superior Courts in the country have become independent and civil society organizations pro-active. It will not be possible for anyone to refuse the Constitutional rights of the citizens to access free and compulsory education up to Secondary level.            

Q: What makes the Province of Punjab’s programme differ from the rest of the country?  Would you attribute it to the leadership or the methods used?

A: It is both leadership and methods. In terms of leadership, there is ownership at the top political leadership level. The political ownership works like a mercurial maverick for success of programmes. In terms of method, the ownership is with the communities. The holy alliance of parents, students and teachers with the collaboration and coordination of communities in Punjab makes it different from other provinces. Once all the stakeholders are involved and they all have vested interests in literacy and education programmes, being the beneficiaries, it becomes much easier to operate in such an enabling, conducive and congenial environment. Although, there were teething troubles in the beginning but the wrinkles were ironed out through a chiseled and honed strategy: bringing all stakeholders at one platform and sharing with them the details and methodologies of the programmes in a symmetrical fashion and without touching their cultural and religious sensitivities.         

Q: The Literacy Program of the Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department which you have led has become operational in 2008 in 31 Districts of the Punjab. Within 3 years, it educated 187,780 young learners and 331,366 adult learners. What are the secret of this achievement? 

A: The achievements would not have been possible without a committed, dedicated, qualified and competent professional team with me implementing the programme. Strict monitoring and evaluation and the experiences bleeding and integrating into the design of the programmes, continuously enriched the systems thinking. There has been absolute symmetrical communication among different tears at policy, operational and tactical level. The communities and stakeholders were on board in far-off and distant locations in the province. The synergy and synchronization among the stakeholders and implementers brought laurels.      

Q: How has the relationship with UNESCO in Punjab influenced the programs’ achievements?

A: UNESCO Pakistan, being an international organization has global experiences and has expertise and knowledge of the international best practices. UNESCO Pakistan always extended financial and technical support to Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department. The interaction with the experts of UNESCO Pakistan opened windows of new opportunities for the professionals in the department to access the best practices. The model of Community Learning Centers has been a great contribution by UNESCO Pakistan and it has been highly successful. UNESCO Pakistan established Punjab Literacy Resource Centers in Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department. The center is a treasure-trove of knowledge and guidance for the professionals with up-to-date data. During the unprecedented floods in 2010, UNESCO Pakistan established Community Learning Centers in flood affected districts of Punjab through Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department. This was again a great experience for the professionals of the department to work with the communities and see them becoming prosperous. Literacy and Non Formal Basic Education Department with the support of UNESCO Pakistan opened 30 CLCs in the flood affected areas for female illiterates in the age cohort of 15-45 years. The target population was females, worst affected by the inundating floods. The vocational skills identified were demand-driven and market-oriented like sewing, stitching, designing clothes and embroidery. A three-month cycle for literacy and vocational skills was designed for each learner; keeping in view the best international practices of CLCs around the globe, shared by the experts of UNESCO with the planning and implementation team. Learners were provided literacy kits and requisite technical material and equipment, free of cost, to learn the basic literacy and the prescribed skills. Local qualified teachers for literacy and skill development were identified and employed by the Department for a class of 30 learners, in the closest vicinity of the homes of learners. 

Contrary to the traditional adult literacy programmes, the initiative of CLCs was a huge success primarily due to community ownership, convenience for female learners and the socially acceptability by the communities living in backward rural and tribal areas. During three cycles, at thirty CLCs, with thirty participants at each center, 2700 females were equipped with literacy and vocational skills. The literacy and skill empowerment enabled female learners to be self-employed, working in their own homes with commercial clientele from nearby villages and neighborhoods and earning decent livelihoods ranging from PKR 10000 to 15000 per month per learner. The immediate benefits to newly literate and skilled females were self-employment, social and economic empowerment, getting-out of the vicious circle of poverty and demonstrating a replicable model to be followed by other adult illiterate females. The initiative helped them to become self-reliant, improving quality of life and contributing towards the development of respective communities as a responsible citizen.   

Q: You once said “...the phenomenon needs iron will and steel nerves to fight the menace of illiteracy.” Through 20 years of working how have you maintained your iron will and steel nerves?

A: Character, courage, industry and perseverance are four pillars on which the whole superstructure of human life can be built and then one can say, ‘Failure is the word unknown to me’. Over the years, I have learnt that good intention with hard work and the right direction always bestows competitive advantage. Consistency, patience, humility and competence together can defeat any obstacle in your way. The success and achievement gives me new vigor and energy. The response and respect by the communities, peers and associates rejuvenates my spirits and further encourage me to work hard for the noble cause of education and literacy. The conferment of Confucius Award by UNESCO has further encouraged and honored me. I am sanguine that I would be able to keep iron will with steel nerves with the indubitable belief that service to the humanity is the hallmark of achievement for a person like me. The meritorious services rendered by me have always been recognized. The good work satisfies my own inner conscience. I am fortunate that I got an opportunity to serve the people.                


By Rojana Manowalailao and Jeffry Peguero, UNESCO Bangkok