Twenty-one million people. Sixty-two thousand square miles of land. These figures have meant little to the international community, but for Pakistan it means unprecedented destruction which has rolled back its already limited development by years. To put these figures in perspective, the floods in Pakistan have affected an area larger than England and displaced a population the size of New York State.

The United Nations has termed the Pakistani floods as one of the worst natural disasters in human memory and has launched an unprecedented appeal for $2 billion dollars for immediate relief and reconstruction efforts. The international community’s response has been sluggish at best, due to Pakistan’s reputation for being a haven for terrorism. Charities and disaster relief non-profits have had immense difficulty raising funds from private individuals and organizations.

According to initial UNESCO estimates, almost 10 thousand public schools have been affected across the country, depriving up to 3 million students of basic access to education. Considering that the primary literacy rate in Pakistan is barely over 50 percent, the damage done to schools and educational institutions will further reduce this rate in the years to come.

The Pakistani government spends a mere 2.1 percent of its GDP on education and is way short of reaching the literacy targets laid out in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. Many rural areas and large parts of the Balochistan and Pakhtunkhawa provinces have even lower literacy rates, especially for females. A number of schools are being used as camp sites for relief activities and are providing shelter to the displaced masses. To make matters worse, the government has stopped the distribution of funds to 71 universities, which has pushed them to the brink of potential closure since they are unable to meet their operating expenses.

Historically, the Pakistani government has always dedicated the largest portion of its budget to defense, which has left little for development expenditures. Through the years, the proportion of the education budget in relation to GDP has increased from a meager 0.5 percent to 2.1 percent. In the past three fiscal years, the amount allocated to the education sector has increased from 24.2 billion rupees (FY 2007) to 32.1 billion rupees (FY 2009)

Even though FY 2009 contains the largest nominal budget allocation for the education sector in Pakistan’s history, as a proportion of GDP the education budget still stands at an appalling 2.1 percent. According to Education Policy Experts, obstacles to any increase in literacy rate include  financial constraints and lack of innovative public education schemes.

Pakistan has the lowest literacy rate and the smallest education budget in South Asia. At a time when countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are making progress due to their investment in education, Pakistan has suffered another setback to its education sector with the devastation caused by floods.

The damage caused to the infrastructure by the recent floods has made it virtually impossible for Pakistan to achieve its target of having universal enrollment in primary education with gender parity by 2015. However, it is imperative for both the Pakistani government and the international community to allocate funds to ensure revival of the education sector.

Since the school year has already started, the government, along with the support of relief organizations, should set up temporary schools in the camps. Some local non-profit organizations have already initiated this effort, but it needs to be implemented further across the affected areas.

International donors could channel their funds through various credible non-profit organizations to ensure transparency and effective use of funds. The aid can be tied directly to setting up schools, hiring teachers, purchasing school supplies and repairing damaged schools.

Time is critical for these flood-affected children since it might be months, if not years, before they have access to a proper school building and environment. Under such dire circumstances, it is important that a concerted effort is made to provide schooling to these kids in whatever way possible. In the long run, the Pakistani government should increase the budgeted allocation to the education sector and honor its financial commitments to educational institutions across the country. Specific education-focused foreign aid projects should be funded by donor organizations to help Pakistan build and strengthen its educational capacity.

Currently, Pakistan faces some of the toughest challenges since its independence, ranging from a corrupt democratic government to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. The international community has often labeled Pakistan as “a haven for terrorists,” but what they should not forget is that the people of Pakistan have put everything at stake in this global war against terror and have already suffered severe losses in terms of human life and property. Now it’s time for the international community to step up and help Pakistan out during such a testing time.