Reflection from AC4 Fellow, Emily Richardson

Working in a conflict-affected context is never easy. In a country like Pakistan, security threats are constant. When I lived in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city for most of 2013, I was regularly on “lock-down”. Forced to work from home, I was not allowed to leave my apartment until the situation was deemed safe. During elections in mid-May, I was advised to go to Dubai for a little weekend away. And my work trips to Karachi, disputed Kashmir territory, and Gilgit in the far north were often rescheduled. Nevertheless, I was eager to return to Pakistan to conduct my dissertation research.

In a country where access to free quality education is a constitutional right, Pakistanis have been increasingly forced to turn to private schools for a primary education as there are few other options. Government primary and secondary schools are declining in quality nationwide. Plagued by teacher absenteeism, corruption, high hidden costs, such as uniforms, textbooks, and miscellaneous fees, public schools are under serious scrutiny in Pakistan. As such, the private school sector has rapidly expanded in recent years. The majority of this growth has been within the low-fee private school (LFPS) sector, which now accounts for more than 30 percent of total school enrollment. In fact, the number of private schools has multiplied almost three-fold in the last 15 years, and in certain districts, more than 60 percent of children are enrolled in LFPSs. Yet little is known about the teachers and the quality of education taking place inside of these schools. There is tremendous diversity in type, location, cost, provider, language-of-instruction, ownership and regulatory status within the low-fee private school sector. Thus, the goal of my research was to explore a wide variety of LFPSs and examine the quality of teaching and learning within and between these schools.

In Fall 2014, as I began to refine and finalize my dissertation research plans, I traveled to Pakistan to conduct preliminary research. I sought to ensure that I had an accurate understanding of the issue at hand and seek feedback and input on my proposed methodology. I met with former and current colleagues in Islamabad and Lahore, set up numerous interviews with key policymakers and local policy research organizations, and established relationships that would facilitate my data collection the following summer. All in all it was a successful trip and I returned to New York eager to move forward with my dissertation research.

Little did I know that the Ministry of Interior, Pakistan’s version of a State Department, was tightening its visa policies. For as long as I can remember, obtaining a work visa in Pakistan has been a challenge. When I moved to Pakistan in January 2013, I immediately applied for a 12-month work visa with the support of my colleagues. However, the extended visa did not arrive until the day before I moved back to New York. Throughout the year I needed to leave the country several times to renew my visa and return to work. Since 2013, several international NGO staff have been forced to leave their jobs and homes as they could not get their visas renewed. Nonetheless, having lived and worked in Pakistan for so long, I felt amply prepared to initiate the visa process early last summer so that I could begin my dissertation field research in the early fall.

I assembled a seemingly flawless visa application. I received grant support for my study, in addition to multiple personal and professional letters of support, housing and transportation accommodation details, and local affiliation. I submitted my application and prepared for my departure a few weeks later.

Six months later, I still have not traveled to Pakistan. For over five months I visited and/or called the Consulate in New York almost weekly to request an update on my visa. I was told it would be ready “any day now” every single time. I moved my already booked flight four times and pushed back my study start date over and over. Then, in early February, I learned that I would not be receiving a visa this year, due to unspecified “security” reasons.

While I cannot know for sure what is going on, I can guess that the security situation continues to deteriorate. In the last 18 months there have been too many school and university attacks, including the December 16, 2014 massacre in Peshawar, where 144 children and teachers were murdered. Education in Pakistan is a particularly precarious issue right now.

Conducting research in a conflict-affected context has its own unique and complex set of challenges on top of the already enumerable obstacles that accompany field research in any foreign country. Certain issues, specific regions, and particular individuals are often off-limits for research. Moreover, research of this nature requires significant flexibility, both methodologically and in terms of timeline. It is crucial to acknowledge the possibility for hindrances so that if, or likely when they arise, you are better equipped to manage the challenges.

Needless to say I was devastated when I learned that I will not be able to proceed with my dissertation research in Pakistan for the time being. I have been developing this study for over two years and had invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in fully understanding the context and procuring and maintaining a network of relevant stakeholders. I had even hired two research assistants who were ready to start as soon as I would have arrived. Nonetheless, I recognize that I selected an especially complicated context for my dissertation research. I have been contemplating a Plan B throughout my entire visa waiting period. Consequently, it is now time to put Plan B into action. This spring I will take my proposed study to neighboring Bangladesh, where conflict and crisis are not as omnipresent, yet the education landscape and its issues are relatively similar. Inshallah, there will be fewer hiccups this time around.

Author: Emily Richardson is a doctorate candidate, studying policy and planning in the International & Comparative Ed program at Teachers College, with a focus on teacher policy related issues and the public-private education landscape in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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