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Originally published August 16, 2009 at 12:01 AM | Page modified August 16, 2009 at 11:56 AM

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'Ghost schools' in Pakistan plagued by government neglect

The government-run Mirza Adam Khan compound of schools in Karachi is among an estimated 30,000 "ghost schools" across Pakistan. Many of these schools-on-paper were never built; others are inhabited by squatters, gangsters and drug addicts.

Special to GlobalPost

About the journalists

Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, journalists with the Common Language Project (www.clpmag.org), traveled to Pakistan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Stuteville can be reached at sarah@clpmag.org.

To read more about education in Pakistan, visit the Pulitzer Center's website.

Part 2 | Monday: Pakistani immigrants in Seattle confront their home country's "brain drain"

Information

Interested in helping? Find out more at these sites.

The Citizens Foundation: www.tcfusa.org

Human Development Foundation: www.hdf.com/dotnetnuke/home.aspx

Pakistan Association of Greater Seattle: www.pakistanseattle.com

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KARACHI — Amid ankle-deep garbage, charcoal-scribbled graffiti images of machine guns and the scorched remains of squatters' fires, the dusty green chalkboard still reads "December 2, 2006." That's the last day classes were held in the primary-school wing of Mirza Adam Khan, a government-run compound of schools in the poor and violence-plagued neighborhood of Lyari.

This is just one of an estimated 30,000 "ghost schools" — nonfunctioning schools that exist only on paper — throughout Pakistan.

"A ghost school might be a school which is not there, it never was built, and they said, 'Oh we've built the school,' " said professor Anita Ghulam Ali, former Sindh education minister and head of Sindh Education Foundation, a government agency that works to address education issues in the province.

"Then of course the usual, the most common one is where the school is closed and there are no teachers, so for all intents and purposes it's a ghost school."

Literacy rates in Pakistan, while recently improved, still hover around 50 percent. The Pakistani government has promised a renewed commitment to improving education, including an increased budget and the launch of new programs.

And both the U.S. House and Senate have passed military and civilian aid packages to Pakistan with earmarks for education. The two versions must still be reconciled.

But many here worry that money and promises won't address the root problems.

While international attention is focused on religious extremism in madrassas and the destruction of girls' schools by the Taliban, the violent fallout of neglecting education may have been overlooked.

Though there are many definitions for a "ghost school," and many paths schools take to end up on this shadowy list, most narratives include tales of persistent government neglect, corruption and mismanagement.

According to teachers and administrators within the Mirza Adam Khan compound, drug addicts began breaking into the primary school a few years ago, using the empty classrooms every night to shoot heroin, eventually even stripping metal grates and ceiling fans to resell for scrap.

When repeated requests to government representatives for additional money to hire the security necessary to prevent the nightly break-ins went unheeded, the situation became untenable, the wing was emptied and students were absorbed into other classes.

Addicts and gangsters have claimed the building as their own, arriving like clockwork every evening to build fires where desks once sat and to add to the violent mural of graffiti that now marches across the soiled whitewashed walls.

Whether this primary school continues to exist on paper as a functional school somewhere in the labyrinthine government bureaucracy is hard to determine, but community members are cynical.

"Government schools in Lyari are like this," says Haji Noon Baloch, head of a community organization here, as he wanders through the compound gesturing not only to the classrooms of the primary wing but also to the six other troubled government schools squeezed into the courtyard.

"It is all about bread and water for the politicians," he continues, invoking an Urdu phrase for corruption.

A sense of doom permeates the remaining classrooms. Outside one primary classroom, young children wait in the searing midday sun to see if their government-appointed teachers will arrive, complaining that classes are habitually late and that teacher absenteeism is common.

Munawar Ali Lasi, a 16-year-old ninth-grader, said that while he shows up every day, most of his classmates have become too discouraged to attend regularly.

"I come here to study because it's better than riding a donkey cart," he said, anger creeping into his voice.

New building projects are politically popular and can provide lucrative contracting opportunities, government money and grants, but no one here expects much from these promises.

When asked whether the 2-year-old cement skeleton of a half-built library here will ever be finished or if anyone holds out hope for finishing a physics lab, Baloch shakes his head and laughs, answering simply, "If Allah wills it."

The impoverished and densely populated neighborhood is infamous for mafia activity and a rampant narcotics trade, illegal activities that snare many of the community's unemployed and undereducated young men. As a result, Lyari is a regular flash point of violence — and that reputation was further entrenched when ethnic clashes rippled through Karachi in April.

Lasi, the 16-year-old, acknowledges that more than just his future is at stake.

"If the situation continues and there are other schools like this, only God knows what is going to happen to this country," he said, swiping at the sweat forming under his beaded prayer cap. "But it's not going to be anything good."

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.com, an American news organization with more than 50 correspondents worldwide.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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