Katharina Cavano l Palladium - May 13 2024
Meet Dr Naeem, A Scholar on a Journey to Transform Girls’ Education in Pakistan

Dr Naeem at an MoU signing between USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Project and Federal Directorate of Education to handover Mobile Bus Libraries.

“If you educate a woman in Pakistan, they can do wonders, not only for the family, but for the country itself.” For Dr. Naeem Butt, educating girls is critical for Pakistan as a whole. He witnessed the impact firsthand within his own family, and now after over 20 years working and leading large-scale donor-funded education programs across all of Pakistan’s provinces and regions, he’s seen the difference that an accessible school can make for a community.

Dr Naeem is Palladium’s education advisor for Pakistan. He’s been a teacher, teacher trainer, early grade reading assessor, community mobiliser, and contributed to education policy and planning at the highest levels.

But he didn’t begin his career in education. In fact, his PhD is in physics, and he recognised quickly that few in his home province in Pakistan had similar opportunities.

“When I went back to Pakistan, I realised that one of the best solutions to inequality was education,” he explains. “I wanted to open a school where you could provide education to these poor kids. Because if you provide your people with education, then they have the wings to reach greater heights and do what they want to do.”

For Dr Naeem the solution was clear; a school that provided boys and girls with an accessible education that would both break down gender disparities and help break the cycle of poverty and gender-based violence. As of 2018, the net enrolment rate for girls in primary education in Pakistan was around 63% and as of 2019, women’s literacy was only 48%, compared to 71% for men. While the government has taken steps to promote girls’ education through programs and financial incentives for families sending their daughters to school, progress, especially in rural provinces, has been slow.

“This is where my journey really started,” Naeem shares. “I realised that it would require a lot of investment for the school I was envisioning, so I looked into teacher training and donor work, and at the same time, a development project came in and asked me to be a part of it.”

Dr Naeem’s first direct involvement with education development project management and implementation started with the USAID-funded Educational Sector Reform Activity in Pakistan. “I was originally thinking about just one school and then I got a chance to serve so many hundreds of schools across Pakistan,” he says.

“When I’m working on these projects, time means nothing to me, because this is my true passion.”

Opportunities and Barriers

In partnership with the Government of Pakistan and International Donors, Dr. Naeem's work includes an award winning project that improved the education of millions of children including girls all over Pakistan.

Most recently, he worked as Chief of Party for USAID’s Pakistan Reading Project (PRP). PRP reached 1.7 million early grade students, 47% of which were girls, through training 27,000 teachers across Pakistan and distributed 7.3 million copies of reading learning material developed in coordination with Federal and Provincial Governments.

Internal studies and USAID independent evaluations showed that students participating in PRP school level reading interventions performed markedly better than students in non-intervention schools. “If people don’t read, they can’t form opinions,” Dr Naeem explains, “and you can’t look at any problem or issue from other angles or access more information to make better choices.

I truly believe that education will help in reducing the challenges that Pakistan is facing.” PRP went on to win the Library of Congress 2020 International Literacy Award.

Pakistan, which has cultural and social norms that pose significant barriers to girls’ education, faces security concerns, especially in regions where extremist ideologies have targeted girls and schools for girls.

“When I’m working on these projects, time means nothing to me, because this is my true passion.”

“We’re about delivering at scale and scale is the very nature of Pakistan’s problem,” says Corin Armstrong, Palladium Director of Education. “1 in 5 children out of school are in Pakistan and if you solve the problem of out of school children there, you actually make a big leap towards solving the problem in the whole world.”

“Dr Naeem is not only knowledgeable and an expert on education in Pakistan, but he’s got a proven track record of delivering programs to great success at scale,” Armstrong continues. "He understands that change is not just about deliverables—getting things done—but about the mindset and expectations that underpin how an education system works.”

A Mother’s Inspiration

While Dr Naeem’s work in education came later in life, he credits his mother with helping to shape his passions. “I am who I am today because of my mother. She wasn’t highly educated but she sat with me every night to help me with my schoolwork. She gave me my passion for reading and excelling and helped me realise that if you educate a boy, you educate one person, but if you educate a girl, you educate a whole family; a whole generation.”

It’s this belief that drives his work to this day. “About 50% of Pakistan’s population is female and if you’re not educating them, you’re wasting half of your resources. How can a country truly progress if you leave half of the people out of the system?” he asks. “I have five sisters and my family didn’t allow them to continue their education, I still regret it because they could have contributed a lot to society.”

What he couldn’t do for his sisters, he says he’s given to his daughter. “I have one daughter and I tell her that she can do whatever she wants, and I am with her fully.”

Dr Naeem knows that changes won’t come overnight, especially in such a divided place as Pakistan. However, he continues to push for a shift in culture, because small wins can make big ripple effects. “When we were developing materials like big books for reading or books with cartoon pictures for public schools that hardly even had textbooks, these poor village kids had never even seen books. It was clear that we were really working with something important and life changing here.”

Learn more about Palladium's Education and Workforce Development work and contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com for more.