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The ghost schools of Pakistan

Significant funding — much of it US money — goes toward non-existent education provided by non-existent schools.

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

This is just one of as many as an estimated 30,000 “ghost schools” — nonfunctioning schools that continue to exist only on paper — throughout Pakistan. Recent government reports suggest almost 7,000 such schools exist throughout the southern Pakistani province of Sindh, many of them in the megacity of Karachi.

“A ghost school might be a school which is not there, it never was built, and they said ‘oh we’ve built the school’ and there’s actually no school there,” 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 and school attendance in Pakistan, while recently improved, still hover around 50 percent. The Pakistani government has promised a renewed commitment to improving education in the country including an increased budget and the launching of new programs.

And the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a military and civilian aid package to Pakistan with earmarks for education which now awaits approval in the Senate.

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

“If you don’t have people who go regularly to check up and see whether the school is running, then obviously you don’t know what’s happening on the ground,” said Ali about the mismanagement of government schools. “The whole problem is that nobody wants to upset anybody’s apple cart.”

And 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 in this part of the country 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.