PAKISTAN: US higher education aid to improve ties

United States aid to higher education has assumed a greater role in its foreign policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan this year, with experts saying that this form of soft diplomacy could help patch up the rocky relationship between the US and the two countries since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the attack on NATO headquarters in Kabul in September.

"Despite upheavals in their security relations, US cooperation on higher education in Pakistan is showing tangible results for increased public understanding beyond the military relations that the two countries have," according to Sohail Naqvi, executive director of Pakistan's Higher Education Commission.

US education diplomacy has significantly increased in the region as, like in Pakistan, the US is sponsoring the training of Afghan professors to "raise the quality of university-level instruction by training them in modern teaching through supporting masters degree and short-term study-abroad programmes", according to the office of the US non-military aid agency USAID in Kabul.

A USAID assessment mission on a two-week visit to Pakistan in November discussed stepping up higher education relations by establishing centres of excellence at various Pakistani universities, an idea that first emerged during last year's US-Pakistan strategic dialogue on higher education.

"These centres will have special focus on water, energy and agriculture development in our country," said Kashif Meher, vice-president of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce, who represented the business community during the delegation's visit to Pakistan's second biggest city.

"Higher education cooperation between the United States and Pakistan is essential to fuelling the economic development of Pakistan for a knowledge-based economy here," said Andrew Sissons, head of the USAID mission in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

A third of the funds USAID provides to the country for education goes towards higher education. "Linkages between our two nations help bring institutes and industries closer together. We intend to carry on our assistance to Pakistan's universities in the coming years," Sissons said.

Strained relations

Relations between the US and Pakistan became strained after the US killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in April, and again after a brazen attack on the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul in September by the Taliban, which the US claims was carried out from within Pakistan with the possible blessing of Pakistani intelligence.

On 26 November, in apparent 'friendly fire', US helicopters attacked two Pakistani military checkposts close to the Afghan border, killing 28 Pakistani soldiers, causing further tensions.

"It is a sad fact that because of some non-state actors (for example the Taliban) some segments of the population in these two countries have grown apart from each other, but we are hopeful that intensified efforts by the Unites States in Pakistan's higher education could reverse this effect," Rifaat Hussain, head of the department of strategic studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, told University World News.

Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia studies programme at Johns Hopkins University and co-president of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, said: "putting more aid into the higher education sector in Pakistan can be very effective in building peace and better relationship among the peoples and governments."

Hussain said that with the relationship between the two countries going back decades, "US-Pakistan relations should not be seen only in the context of the war on terror context."

Nonetheless, it is a commonly held view that US higher education cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan can help achieve security-related objectives.

"President Barack Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, referred to as the Af-Pak strategy, shows clearly that the thrust of US interests in this region is security-related and higher education cooperation is just one part of the US approach towards Pakistan and Afghanistan," Asma Shehbaz, a professor at the National Defence University in Islamabad told University World News.

For example, there is a view that Islamic extremism can be defeated by investing more in education, particularly higher education as university leaders and students are well placed to shape public opinion in these countries.

US officials also believe that Pakistani youth are more likely to turn to the Taliban or other extremist groups if they have fewer job opportunities.

Key area of cooperation

Foreign assistance for higher education is also one of the key areas of cooperation laid out in the 2011 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations report.

"US foreign assistance for higher education strengthens institutional capacities of public and private higher education facilities...US higher education investments help people, businesses and governments develop the knowledge, skills and institutional capacity needed to support economic growth, promote just and democratic governance, and foster healthy, well-educated citizens," the report said.

USAID provides scholarships, emergency budget support and laboratory equipment to universities, and funds scientific and cultural exchanges of university specialists, said the director of USAID Pakistan education programmes, Jo Lesser-Oltheten.

The Fulbright programme in Pakistan, administered by the US Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) offering 200 scholarships to the brightest Pakistani university students for advanced degrees, commenced this year and a similar number of scholarships are planned for the coming year.

During the academic year 2010-11, the number of Pakistani students studying overseas at universities in the US universities rose by 5% to 5,297 from the previous year's 5,045 students.

Meanwhile, the US government has provided US$ 12.6million for 73 university research projects for which the Pakistan government also provided a matching grant under the Pakistan-US Science and Technology Cooperation Programme.

The Higher Education Commission's Naqvi, however, maintained that indigenous support to the higher education system was more important than foreign funding for a few projects.

"While we fully acknowledge the support US government has provided over the years to higher education in Pakistan, we strongly believe that continued support from our own government is essential to achieve development goals," he said.

In November the commission approved the award of 155 USAID-funded scholarships, compared with 5,000 local scholarships financed by the commission from government funds every year.

"The programme aims to increase the number of poor yet meritorious Pakistani students studying at universities. It will also help the higher education sector develop in an equitable manner, through the participation of men and women from all regions of the country," Lesser-Oltheten said.

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