2. An overview of human political evolution
3. Democracy and its principles
4. Facts which prove that democracy and illiteracy can’t move together
5. Factors responsible for the prevalence of illiteracy
6. Recommendations for the eradication of illiteracy
Democracy, owing to its fruits and dividends, wields a distinguished and unique position among all the different forms of government. All the gurus and thinkers in the field of political science, despite having much disagreement over their other concepts and beliefs, are unanimous in their support for democracy, declaring it as the only form of government capable of representing people’s wishes and safeguarding their wellbeing. Where so many other factors jeopardize the existence, growth and performance of democracy, illiteracy can be rated as its biggest enemy because of its potential of creating such an environment that not only endangers the very existence of democracy but also deprives it of all the fruits that are promised by a democratic dispensation. Democracy and illiteracy, certainly and irrefutably, can never move together.
Since the beginning of life on the Earth, human needs have undergone many changes. Initially, only food, clothes and shelter were the basic necessities of life because these were the only things humans needed for survival. Gradually, these requirements transformed owing to increase in population and a well-organised, collective governance system became the topmost priority of every society and civilization. Political journey of mankind saw different stations of experience and various junctures of observation. After experiencing monarchy, theocracy, autocracy, dictatorship and many more political models; human wisdom is now fully convinced that democracy and only democracy is the system that can best serve human desire of inclusive progress, prosperity and growth.
Democracy has been and can be defined in a number of ways. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” As per Cambridge Dictionary, democracy is “the belief in freedom and equality between people or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.” In simple words, democracy can be defined as a political system in which collective affairs are run through people’s chosen representatives. Provision of fundamental rights, equality before law, participatory governance, accountability and transparency, and decentralization of power and authority are some basic principles of democracy.
Democracy, owing to its multitude of benefits, is certainly the best form of government. Like every system, however, democracy too has some vulnerabilities and limitations as far as its sustenance, growth and performance are concerned. Illiteracy is one of the very same factors the presence of which is highly detrimental to the very existence of democracy. Illiteracy, just like a powerful witch, clips the wings of the dove of democracy till the time it dies its natural death. Many ground realities provide substantial evidence to the very same fact that democracy and illiteracy can never and by no means move together. A detailed analysis of these realities can be extremely informative and eye-opener.
The fact that can be presented as the very first evidence to prove democracy’s incompatibility with illiteracy is electorate’s political unawareness that is caused by lack of education. This unawareness leads to unwise and imprudent decisions at the time of elections and resultantly the state, despite having a democratic form of government, remains deprived of the most suitable persons to run its affairs. Similarly, being unaware of their rights, these electors remain incapable of exerting pressure on those elected by them that is necessary to keep them on the right track, and hence democracy yields no fruitful results .
Likewise, low voter turnout is another issue that is peculiar to the states having poor literacy rates, and it also has detrimental impacts on democracy. According to a report released by the Pew Research Centre, the highest turnout rates among OECD nations in this decade were in Belgium (87.2%), Sweden (82.6%) and Denmark (80.3%); and these are the countries having exceptional literacy rate of 99 percent. Conversely, Pakistan recently touched a voter turnout of 58 percent and the literacy rate in Pakistan is also below 60 percent. The directly proportional connection between literacy rate and voter turnout renders it impossible for democracy to move hand in hand with illiteracy.
Similarly literacy rate has a direct connection with the quality of leadership in a country. Political leaders are nothing but the members of a particular society having all the good and the bad features that it carries. An illiterate society does – and it should – produce illiterate and unaware political leadership and that is extremely dangerous for the effective performance of democracy. Prudence, intelligence, vision, farsightedness, broad-mindedness, maturity: these traits evolve only in a well-educated and well-groomed society. A comparison between the members of parliaments of developed and underdeveloped countries will clearly exhibit the very same reality; where the MPs of developed countries are not only highly educated but also experts in some particular academic fields, the ones of underdeveloped countries are barely equipped with fundamental education, not to talk of having specific expertise. In Pakistan, prior to the imposition of the condition that declared graduation as the minimum requirement for being a part of the legislature; many such politicians used to get repeatedly elected who were unable to write even their name. So, what quality of contribution should one expect of these individuals who were dependent on others in reading the agenda of the legislative session. Even today, most of the members of provincial assemblies and the national parliament in Pakistan are unable to comprehend the wording of simple draft bills; leave aside contributing to their improvement.
Similarly, illiteracy does not let democratic norms develop within the mainstream political parties, leading to one man’s or one family’s hold over the party – a situation that is closer to monarchy than to the actual spirit of democracy. Political landscapes of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India reflect the very same realities where leadership of political parties gets transferred from one generation to the next purely on inheritance basis. Members and followers of these political parties, owing to their illiteracy and unawareness, have developed a mindset of blindly following their leaders without bothering to consider whether they actually hold the credentials necessary to run the affairs of the party, or for that matter the state. Such sort of democracy, which is far away from democratic values, leads to an environment that impedes the provision of even the fundamental rights.
The fact that democracy and illiteracy cannot move together can also be proved by having a glance at the economic conditions of the states riddled with the evil of illiteracy. Poverty, unemployment and backwardness: this is what illiteracy brings whenever and wherever it prevails. All these socioeconomic issues make people too miserable to consider anything beyond the basic necessities of life. Not casting of votes due to lack of interest or fear of losing a day’s bread and butter, selling of votes for a few coins and supporting such candidates who may fulfil voter’s economic needs are some manifestations of the political behaviour that engulfs states having poor literacy rates. Whereas democracy require such people as electorate who are able to cast their votes keeping themselves above all the material temptations; illiteracy creates for the political leaders a complete and well-settled “voter market” where they buy votes by offering more lucrative incentives than their rivals do.
Likewise, the quality of planning and policymaking in countries having low literacy rates is never up to the mark and the very outcome of this shortcoming appears in the form of poor performance of the democratically-elected governments. Quality of policies improves when a system of critically evaluating and analysing the same is available. This system can be put in place only if necessary knowledge and skills are available in the form of think tanks or quality opposition leadership. Illiteracy, however, deprives the state of all these essential elements that can contribute to the drafting of farsighted policies. Resultantly, the plans and policies devised in such states reflect the whims and wishes of a single mind; and most of the time, they lack balance, practicability, vision and inclusiveness, and do nothing for directly addressing the issues and grievances of the general masses. Pakistan’s economic and social policies can be used as a perfect example to portray the very same reality. In the 1950s, for example, the democratically-elected governments devised economic policies that favoured industry, purely at the cost of agriculture. This not only adversely impacted the agricultural sector of the country but also filled the eyes of our East Pakistani brethren with mistrust and apprehensions as the economy of East Pakistan was dependent on agriculture; and these policies were dealing them severe blows. Similarly, nationalization policy of 1970s and blind privatization policy of the 1990s also did nothing more than adding to the failures of democratically-elected governments. Laptop Scheme, Sasti Roti scheme, Metro Bus project, and Ramadan Bazaars also reflect the very same policies of the government, the very purpose of which was to gain political appreciation without focussing on these potential to contribute to the social uplift of the society.
Illiteracy has another conflicting point with respect to democracy which is its tendency to promote centralized control of power and authority. Illiteracy creates and supports class disparities by keeping the power and authority confined to a few hands only – and this thing kills the spirit of democracy. It can be observed that feudal system and colonial mindset mostly prevail in societies where illiteracy has not been eradicated so far, and people feel protected while living in a tribal or a feudal environment. This mindset, when prevails in a particular society, does not remain confined to social sector only as it keeps other sectors, including the political one, also under its sway. Democratically-elected rulers in these societies try to keep most of the financial and administrative powers under their thumb, and the general public too accepts it without any sort of resentment or resistance. When one looks at the political history of Pakistan, a country where feudal mindset prevails owing to illiteracy, it dawns on one that none of the democratically-elected governments showed interest in devolution of power through effective local government system. Every time it was put in place, utmost efforts were made to not devolve substantially the financial and administrative powers to this lowest and most important tier of the government. Centralization of authority caused by illiteracy detrimentally affects the performance of democratically-elected government and jeopardizes the existence of democracy in the long run.
Yet another factor that makes democracy not adjustable with illiteracy is lack of accountability that is an indirect outcome of lack of education and awareness. In an illiterate society accountability never exists as a general norm and, resultantly, all the sectors lack sound and foolproof accountability mechanism. In absence of accountability, democracy never delivers the way it should. Ultimately people start losing faith and trust in democratic form of government. This creates an opportunity for the rogue elements which are always interested in destabilizing democracy by trying to replace it with another system promising general people immediate resolution of their issues. In Pakistan, all the three martial laws were greatly welcomed by the general public and declared justified by the superior courts merely because they were imposed when an environment of disappointment and uncertainty had engulfed the whole country, and people were anxiously waiting for some miracle to happen so as to help them get rid of their miseries and sufferings.
Similarly, illiteracy is one of the biggest impediments to women empowerment – an imperative to the sustenance, growth and effective performance of democracy. An illiterate society promotes patriarchal culture and resists every effort aimed at liberating the women from the shackles of backwardness and privation. Since backwardness of women keeps social and economic sectors of the state deprived of the active contribution and input by the half of the population, democracy remains unable to perform well and to address the basic grievances of the general public, leading to growing mistrust on the performance of democratic governments and creating conducive environment for the anti-democratic forces.
Now after having proved beyond doubt that illiteracy is extremely detrimental to the sustenance and functioning of democracy, it is highly pertinent to have a glance at the factors responsible for the unabated presence of illiteracy in different parts of the world. The very first among these is financial incapability of different states to support their education sector properly. Statistics endorse the fact that the countries that are considered illiteracy-ridden are mostly the ones having poor economies; resultantly, less spending on their education sectors. According to a study conducted by Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development in 2017, this is the United States that spends on education more than any other country of the world. US’s spending in 2014, according to this report, averaged $16,268 per student per year, whereas the literacy rate there in 2019 is 99%, according to UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
Absence of suitable policies is another cause of illiteracy in many countries of the world. Although every government does formulate education policy in order to combat illiteracy, this policy usually lacks a farsighted approach and vision which results directly in the non-accomplishment of goals. Similarly, in many states, ground realities are totally ignored while designing education policy; therefore, these policies fail to cast a substantial impact on the overall literacy rate. Pakistan can be quoted as a pertinent example where education policies never focussed on the factors like child labour, poverty and religious fanaticism; and ultimately the targets were almost always missed.
Poverty is another big reason for illiteracy across the globe. A glance at the global literacy position vis-à-vis economic development index reveals that the countries where people are affluent are far more educated as compared to those which are poverty-ridden. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Singapore: all these countries are not only rich but also more literate. In fact, poverty has a direct link with the priorities of a state and its people. People having not sufficient resources to feed their children would never focus on education at least till the time their basic needs are fulfilled. Poverty and education also can’t move together; and this is what is happening in all the Third World countries.
While considering the factors responsible for illiteracy, one cannot ignore the role of social, cultural and religious barriers that are also big impediments to the spread of education. In many parts of the world, despite huge awareness campaigns runs by media, people are not sensitized to the importance of education in general and of females in particular. Areas of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan can be quoted as pertinent examples where girls’ schools have been attacked and destroyed on the behest of such religious fanatics who declare women’s education as un-Islamic and illegitimate (haram). Some social and cultural traditions also damage the cause of education in the very same way.
Overpopulation and corruption, too, are the factors hugely responsible for illiteracy that, in turn, is an impediment to the sustenance of democracy. Both these evils cast deleterious impacts on the national exchequer and debilitate a state’s capacity to support its education sector. All the states having poor literacy rates are also afflicted with the same two issues and ultimately have weak and unstable democracies.
Now a big question: what should be done to ameliorate the situation as illiteracy, if allowed to prevail, would never let democracy sustain and deliver? The very first thing in this context would be to devise some meticulous education policy based on realistic facts and figures; divided in short-, medium- and long-term goals. For this purpose, all states should gather necessary statistics to be used for policymaking purpose and involve all the stakeholders and international experts in the process.
Similarly, budgetary allocation for education should be enhanced particularly in those countries where literacy rates and standards are not up to the mark. The United Nations and its attached organizations should step further to assist developing countries in terms of finance, and expertise. A minimum standard in terms of percentage to GDP should be fixed globally to bind all the states to allocate substantial funds for their education sectors.
Poverty eradication is also an important milestone to be achieved if the destination of cent per cent literacy rate is to be reached at. Visionary leadership, farsighted policies and a wholehearted implementation, as well as frequent evaluation of these policies can be the key to eradication of poverty at state level.
An effective population control programme can also be a key to improving education sector as it is always difficult to cater to the needs of a fast-growing number of people. Meticulous planning followed by flawless and inflexible implementation is immensely important for the purpose.
Eradication of corruption from education sector can also be helpful in maximizing the utility and benefit of resources available with the education sector. Use of technology, comprehensive internal and external audit programmes, strict accountability mechanism and simplification of procedures can be effective for the purpose. Transparent use of resources in education sector will enhance the efficiency and efficacy of this sector and the literacy rate will automatically improve.
To put it in a nutshell, democracy can by no means move together with illiteracy. Democracy requires some peculiar factors for its smooth functioning. And, these factors are available only when the people who are to serve as electorate are not only educated but are also aware enough to use their right of political choice independently and sagaciously. Many impediments sprouting from political, economic, social and administrative sectors block the spread of education, casting deleterious impacts on democracy. Meticulously devised plans coupled with across-the-board implementation, however, can still do the job and expedite the process of spread of education. The way technology has made its way to common people, it is not unjust to comment that people are getting sensitized to the importance of both education and democracy and the day is not much far away when only democratically-elected governments would be seen governing the states of the world. Though right now it appears only to be a sweet wish, yet everything that is perceivable is achievable.