I wrote about the need for societies to take care of their children in a past article, [1] although the focus of that piece was on the impact of conflicting development models on economic growth. This article examines the role that could be played by education in eliminating the link between poverty and terrorism.

First off, in all fairness, the title should be changed for different countries in South Asia – while it applies to Pakistan and Bangladesh, it should perhaps read as “Maoists ate my homework” for India and Nepal and “The Tiger ate my homework” in Sri Lanka. The core problem in all South Asian countries is that basic education has been denied to a large proportion of children, and even among those who get education too many get the kind that fails to prepare them for a meaningful role in society. Government policies that all too often focus on grandiose projects at the expense of basic education help to perpetuate a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

Multilateral agencies have paid attention to the incorporation of children in wars around the world. [2, 3] These reports blame both terrorist groups and governments fighting such groups for recruiting children into wars. However, as is typical of these agencies, they have missed the links among poverty, education and war. In essence, the only way to prevent children from going to war is to keep them in schools. An additional benefit of that approach is that like a fire that burns out because of a lack of oxygen, wars collapse into their own weight when children are provided proper education.

Vicious cycles

Among the primary causes of a lack of primary education is the sheer economic weight thrown against sending children to school. In rural parts of South Asia, many families have meager access to land and resources, and hence find that the only way to increase production is a linear increase in labor inputs. In simple words, that means employing children as farm workers. This produces entrenched resistance to the notion of sending children into schools.

Consequently, countries in South Asia have much less success at urbanizing their populations as more people in every generation are tied to tilling land. With smaller plots come smaller incomes, thus perpetuating the cycle described above, forcing as it does the poor to have more children and also making them work. The dual impact of this cycle is of course for greater population growth, accompanied by fewer opportunities.

In this volatile mix of poverty and desperation, the introduction of external agents proves catastrophic. Wretched people are easily seduced by terrorist groups. Some are local phenomena, such as the Maoists guerrillas plaguing Nepal, and parts of India. These outfits, which ostensibly fight the landed rich on behalf of the poor but almost invariably indulge in illegal businesses such as smuggling and strip-mining, find ready recruits among the poor who are attracted by the potential for three square meals a day rather than any ideological commitment to Marx or Mao.

The more eye-catching outfits are of course the international terrorist groups. Even as Islamic terrorist groups have a hardcore cadre of well-educated radicals, their foot soldiers invariably comprise the desperate poor. Thus it is that al-Qaeda found a base among the dirt-poor Afghans, who were happy to fight a war for little cash. It is also the reason the Taliban openly cavort with opium producers, as they need the money to pay their cadres who are attracted by the money rather than religious fervor. As their recruitment in Afghanistan has dipped, the Taliban have found a ready supply of freshly minted “graduates” from Pakistani madrassas, religious schools run by Islamic “charities”. Government writ does not run in much of Pakistan, its many religious schools included.

One Tamil, two outcomes

An example of a successful program was a midday-meals scheme pioneered in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which caused a vast increase in school enrollment. [4] Alongside, the state observed a decline in its population growth, which became more remarkable from the 1980s. Thus it is easy to conclude that the idea of providing incentives for children to attend school also provided the basis for measurable improvements in the quality of life. It is also interesting to note that India’s famed information-technology industry is based almost entirely in the south of the country, due mainly to ample availability of local talent.

An element of irony is apparent in the plight of Tamil children in Sri Lanka, where many are being pushed to fight in the separatist war against government forces. There, the ongoing war has displaced thousands of children. Common with terrorist groups operating in Africa, children are co-opted into the war often against their wills, according to the United Nations reports cited above. This produces a vicious cycle of terror on the island, which will presumably last until one or both sides to the conflict run out of cannon fodder.

Government indifference

At the heart of the entire mess is government indifference. First, many of these countries do not have legal requirements for compulsory education even if they have been mandated. Even the Asian countries that do have such laws on their books do not necessarily have the ability or willingness to enforce them. Government resource constraints present problems in terms of both access to schools that are near enough for villagers to send their children, and the manpower available to prosecute families that do not send children to schools.

South Asian governments too often have the wrong priorities. Pakistan spends 60% of its national budget on defending its borders, and a less respectable 2% on schools. India’s police service can provide thousands of cops to protect politicians, but the country cannot hire enough teachers for its schools. This is a remarkable gap in a country where 5% of educated people claim to be unemployed. Similar observations can be made about Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, among others.

The second type of government indifference concerns the quality of education provided. In particular, the inability of governments to construct and staff schools has forced families to send their children to madrassas for education in turn exposing them to radicalization. [5] Additionally, students from such schools are all too often unemployable in industry, thereby presenting a greater threat to society.

Addressing the problem will require an intelligent approach to compulsory schooling, monitoring enrollment and modernizing the education curriculum. There are few technocrats around the region who see this picture, which is what makes the situation all the more tragic.

1. Love your children, those little terrors, Asia Times Online, November 4, 2006.
2. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, United Nations.
3. The State of the World’s Children 2007, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
4. Wikipedia.
5. Rich bad, poor bad, ATol, February 7.