Education is the key to development and stability

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Education can offer hope to poverty-stricken children in Pakistan. [DFID /Flickr]

The EU needs to reach out to civil society in South Asia and make sure its efforts to support education in the region do not go astray, writes Ana Maria Gomez.

Ana Maria Gomes is an MEP from the Portuguese Socialist Party (S&D group) and a member of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Security and Defence.

The reality for the people living in the countries of South Asia, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, is devastating, with terrorist groups still flourishing and ISIS gaining ground. It appears that this situation takes an even greater toll on the most fragile groups in these societies. Children, in one way or another, are usually an easy target for those who run the rings of terrorist groups, depriving these countries both from their present and their future and destabilising regional peace.

In one of the most horrifying revelations, the spokesman of the Afghan Directorate of National Security (NDS), Lotfullah Mashal, reported on April 30, 2014 that 80% of suicide attacks in Afghanistan have been carried out by children, explaining that these children received education in religious Madrasas beyond the Afghan borders. According to Mashal, various militant organisations such as Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Haraktol Ansar and the Haqqani network track children in religious schools in Pakistan’s tribal areas and use them in terror activities under the pretext of religion.

Children are not the culprits here. They are once more being made the victims of the reality that others have formed for them. In Karachi for instance, Pakistan’s biggest city, the vast majority of the residents are out of work with no hope of a job; millions live in slums, and in the middle of this situation, small children are found on the streets, among dangerous traffic, begging and competing with older men and women.

Facing poverty and desperation, the only way to a decent living and regular meals is presented to them by the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, responsible for the recent attacks against the military school in Peshawar, in which 141 were killed, and the attack at the University in the same province, where 20 people were killed. The message of the terrorists is simple. No other form of education, other than the one that they offer, can be tolerated. Targeting children at risk provides the Taliban with a perfect opportunity to reach out to parents with an offer to help “save” their children. The militants promise a future involving discipline, belonging, purpose, and meaningful work. In some cases, families face a horrible choice – pay an enormous financial tax (double the annual wage) or surrender a child to the movement.

Of course, children are the ideal candidates to commit suicide attacks for terrorist groups. Children are easier to manipulate, and like female operatives, they can penetrate security checkpoints without raising the normal levels of suspicions. A 2012 report from Afghanistan suggested that almost 100 would-be child suicide bombers had been “intercepted” in the preceding 12-month period.

Brainwashing is a now a tactic typically followed by the Taliban and terrorist groups such as ISIS, who orchestrate the transformation of innocent children into their messengers of terror. The largely illiterate boys are fed a diet of anti-Western and anti-government propaganda until they are prepared to kill. But the boys are also assured that they will miraculously survive the devastation they cause. According to officials, the worst part is that these children don’t think that they are killing themselves, but only those that oppose their religion.

What we need to realise, and what it appears the terrorists have come to see before the rest of the world, is that education is the key to all this. Education is what forms societies and beliefs and it is the foundation upon which countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan can build progress and social stability.

Still a lot needs to be done towards this goal. According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report released by UNESCO, 5.4 million children are out of school in Pakistan, making them easy victims for religious extremists. Further, according to the UNESCO Report, Pakistan has reduced its national contribution to education from 2.6% of the GNP in 1999 to 2.3% in 2010. National governments must come to recognise the substantive value of education and start investing more in developing democratic values and respect for human rights within the conscience of local societies.

The international community and Europe specifically have an equal responsibility here. Billions of euros of funds are being spent every year in assisting these countries with development. A great deal of this is in the form of trade benefits such as the GSP+ scheme. In negotiating such agreements, the European Union should not only bear in mind the financial benefits of these deals, but should also place the emphasis the establishment of an action plan and policies that will reinforce education and social development. The recent review of the GSP scheme and the discussion that followed in the European Parliament at the joint INTE and DROI meetings showed the lack of real progress in improving the situation of human rights on multiple fronts. The implementation of the commitments that such countries have undertaken should not be ignored or trivialised.

Furthermore, we have heard from local activists that the vast majority of the EU funds do not reach the people on the ground. Local civil society organisations do not have access to such funds, while at the same time it is clearly the local NGOs that can make a real difference, changing the lives of the people and acting as a counterbalance to the activities of extremist organisations. The EU needs to find a way to reach out to civil society organisations in these countries and provide them with the tools that will reinforce democracy and the core values that support the respect for education, women’s rights and the protection of minorities.

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