April 18, 2004
The Citizen's Foundation schools of Pakistan
The following article, by Joanna Pitman, under the headline "Lessons in hope", which I am taking the liberty of reproducing in its entirety, appeared in the (paper only I think – I couldn't find anything linkable to other than this Citizen's Foundation website) Times Magazine of yesterday, Saturday 17th of April. I hope no copyright toes are being trodden on, but it so impressed me that I am taking that chance.

I have done a posting at Samizdata about this article.

Samreen is a ten-year-old Pakistani girl who lives in Machar Colony, one of the biggest and most desperately poor of the 553 slum communities that are multiplying and choking the port city of Karachi to death. Her living conditions are medieval. On reclaimed harbour land, just a mile and a half from the impossibly remote, high-rise financial centre of the city, she shares a small, dark, dirt-floored room, no more than a box, with her mother and four brothers and sisters, hidden away down a narrow, stinking alleyway swarming with people and vermin. All around, as far as the eye can absorb, is a sea of filth, shimmering beneath a hot brown fog. In open sewers, rats,
playful as baby rabbits, mingle with malnourished children struggling to get through the day, labouring for miniscule wages, listlessly scrounging for food scraps and minding the babies, often their own. Generation follows generation quickly here, men and women as easily replaceable as the hovels in which they live. It is a special kind of human waste that comes with this sort of established destitution. And for the hundreds of thousands marooned in Machar Colony and other slums like it, cruelty no longer has a meaning. It is life itself.

Samreen's father has abandoned the family and disappeared, but she works alongside her mother and siblings, earning one penny for an hour's work peeling tiny, slimy shrimps. Every day they share some tea for breakfast. At lunchtime they have a piece of roti bread, made from flour and water, and in the evenings they usually manage to put together a meal of sorts - more roti and a few lentils, perhaps some vegetables if they've earned enough during the day.

Samreen is one of the lucky ones. On weekday mornings, after she's done her first two hours peeling shrimps, she puts on her school uniform and walks proudly to school. Built and run by the Pakistani educational charity. The Citizens Foundation (TCF), her school is an astonishing oasis in the middle of this desert of utter degradation. Entering the school gates she crosses a neatly swept playground planted with ornamental trees, and goes into the purpose-built primary school building equipped with six light and spacious classrooms, a library, an art room, a computer room, clean washrooms and staff quarters. She shares her classroom with 19 other children, roughly equal numbers of boys and girls, each of whom has his or her own desk and chair, exercise books and pencils. On the walls are colourful tissue paper pictures of rabbits, horses and cows made by Samreen and her classmates, the letters of the alphabet and a range of educational posters about volcanoes, dinosaurs and the solar system. Oxford University Press textbooks are piled neatly on the shelves and a string of numbers, cut out and coloured by the children, is pegged to a washing line strung jauntily across the sparkling window. The classroom would not look out of place in one of London's top private primary schools.

At school, Samreen has learnt not only Urdu and English, but also how to use a loo, wash her hands properly, brush her teeth and plait her hair. She can read and write, recite her times tables, work out complex percentages and compose poems that make her teachers laugh. She studies science and uses the school's computers every week. Each term she has three sets of assessment tests, and her mother - who had never seen a school before - attends three parents' evenings to discuss the results. Samreen's grades are excellent.

Samreen is, understandably, thrilled with her school. She adores her teachers, all of whom are women specially trained by TCF, and she enjoys all her subjects, particularly English. One day, she says, her eyes bright with excitement, she wants to become a teacher. To her mother, this is a concept as ungraspable as owning her own home. but instinctively she is proud of Samreen, and endures the beatings she gets from her brother-in-law who is opposed to the idea of education for girls. Although they miss the income Samreen would bring in during the mornings when she's at school, her mother is happy that her daughter is being given a chance in life. "When she grows up," she says shyly from behind her veil, "she won't have to do shrimp-peeling like me. Something better will come along and I can feel I've done my best for her."

samreen.jpg

Samreen's is just one of thousands of such heartbreaking stories that pour out of the hellish slums housing the dispossessed of Pakistan. Her school, Machar Primary School 1, was among the first of the 180 schools that have been built by TCF since 1995 in 17 cities around Pakistan, each one of them a small drop of hope in the middle of these parched and blighted communities.

The problems TCF is addressing are, of course, immense, but TCF is a remarkable charity. Raising funds through the donations of wealthy Pakistanis at home, through the expatriate community in the oil-rich Gulf region, in the UK and North America, and through corporate sponsorship, it has proved so successful that it now opens new purpose-built schools at a rate of one a week; and last year it received donations totalling £2 million.

There are many reasons why we should be interested in TCF,but one in particular will strike a chord with those in the West concerned about the rise of Islamic militancy. TCF schools offer an alternative to the most extreme of the madrassahs - the religious schools - that often target poor areas and become breeding grounds for Islamic extremism. These schools only came to the attention of the West after September 11, but in many Karachi slums it has long been normal to see walls plastered with graffiti calling for volunteers to join Taleban-style Islamic organisations. Over the past two decades, madrassah schools have sprung up across Pakistan, offering the incentive of a free education. Some of them also offer the prospect of a wage earned through activism for a hardline group. Today, evidence indicates that madrassah schools are not operating in areas where there are clusters of TCF schools.

TCF was founded nine years ago by six wealthy Pakistani businessmen living in Karachi, who had become increasingly disturbed by the level of begging on the streets. "The divide between rich and poor was getting wider and a large proportion of the population was becoming isolated from the mainstream," says TCP chairman Ahsan Saleem, an entrepreneurial industrialist, whose Crescent Steel group has interests in banking, engineering and textiles. "It was a burning issue and a fashionable topic for pious talk at expensive dinner parties. One day, a group of us were coming back from such a dinner and we just felt nauseated. Either we continued to sit back and watch the place decline or we would do something about it We knew the solution had to come from within Pakistan."

The six of them - all highly successful top-level managers - met in August 1995 and began to think seriously about the problems. They addressed poverty, health, intolerance, population, education, water and sanitation, and concluded that the solution to all these issues was education. In Pakistan, education remains desperately, stupidly low on the list of government priorities. The state schooling system, riddled with corruption, has been either non-existent or on the point of collapse for many years. The result is a massive intellectual deficit: out of a total population of 145 million, the country has 28 million children entirely unschooled and 41 per cent of adult men and 70 per cent of adult women illiterate. Ironically, in some areas, the first parents queueing to send their children to TCP schools rum out to be government schoolteachers.

The six businessmen decided to set up a corporate-style charitable organisation to build and run schools offering high-quality education to both girls and boys in the poorest areas of the country. Within four months, the ground had been broken to construct the first five schools, paid for out of the pockets of the founders, and by May 1996 all five were operational. Only once the schools had been running successfully for a year did TCF begin to expand – not through advertising or asking for funds, but simply by taking people to see the reality and letting them spread the word.

Its target is to build 1,000 primary a secondary schools by 2010, which will cater for 350-400,000 children at a time, offering them a high-quality, secular education that is the envy of most government schools and comparable to the country's elite private schools. "We want these children to compete with our own children," says Saleem, whose four teenage children are being educated at the best Pakistani private school and at the American School.

TCF stands out from other non-governmental organisations because it uses modem, professional management techniques. "TCF is one of the best endeavours in the private sector to compensate for the total decay in the government system," says Imran Khan, whose constituency is one of the most backward in the Punjab region. "There is an apartheid in education between the rich elite and the masses and TCF is trying to bridge that gap."

From the donors' point of view, all the boxes can be ticked. TCF has a clear vision, a set of rules, transparency and longevity. No one individual fronts the organisation, and none of the six founders has a role in its management. Just 5 per cent of funds are spent on administration. The rest goes into the building and running of the schools, providing equipment, uniforms, books, milk and biscuits for the children, and specialist training for the teachers, which is done from a central teacher training college in Karachi. All the teachers are women, which in a Muslim society makes the parents more comfortable about sending their daughters to school; and they are transported in TCF vans to and from their schools, which placates their parents. Every teacher is evaluated during the year and attends a refresher course each summer.

"It takes real courage for these women to teach in schools surrounded by this level of poverty," says Neelam Habib. TCF's manager of donor relations. "Their commitment is very high. They all have clear objectives and the results they're getting are wonderful - of the first batch of students to take the Class IX Board Exams, 92 per cent passed and 25 per cent got A grades."

Each school employs at least two women from within the community who are trained in hygiene. Part of their job is to convince parents to send their children, especially the girls, to school. Although many of the schools have huge waiting lists, their task has not been easy. Many men are opposed to educating girls, and it is not unusual for mothers or older sisters to be beaten by male relatives for sending the girls to school. A child at school also means the loss of valuable income. As a result, most of the children work before and after school, often well into the night. One ten-year-old boy, who has no father and whose mother is blind, is responsible for five younger siblings. Every morning, after a breakfast of water, he works two hours before school and then again after school. With his earnings he buys food in the evening for the family. He puts a plate in front of his mother, and she asks him if they have all eaten. When he tells her they have, she eats her fill, and only then does he allow himself and his siblings to eat, sharing whatever leftovers there are.

But despite individual difficulties, the value of these schools is immeasurable. At a cost of £6 per month per child, TCF schools are giving these children the chance to have a real childhood, at least for a few hours of the day, away from the horror of their home environments, as well as the potential for a future outside the slums. Although it is still relatively young, TCF is already providing a model for a professional, privately run system that could be replicated in other developing countries - there is talk of establishing a similar organisation in Brazil. And it has also set up its own support chapters across the world. "Since 9/11, around half of our UK supporters are of non-Pakistani extraction," says Tariq Hussain, a Trustee who helps run the UK chapter of the Friends of the Citizens Foundation, a UK Charities Commission registered charity. "That's a real boost for us."

The professionals who run the UK Friends of TCF on a voluntary basis, are typical of those who have set up TCF chapters around the world. Its trustees, Hussain himself, Khurram Jafree. a successful City investment manager and Dr Azhar Aslam, a Harley Street surgeon, formed the chapter in 2001. Hussain was born in Stranraer, the son of Pakistanis who moved from the Punjab to Scotland in the Fifties. His father, a self-made entrepreneur, built a successful apparel wholesale business primarily to support his children's education. Tariq went to Glasgow University, qualified as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen, completed an MBA at IMD international business school in Switzerland, and is now a managing director in the corporate finance department of a global investment bank in London.

"Every summer holiday we used to go to Pakistan to visit family in Lahore. I hated it at first The country was so poor. But it has so much charm that seeps into your blood and you want to give something back. Many years later I was hunting around for an educational cause to support in Pakistan and I found TCF on the internet. I'd never heard of it, but it had been given a UN award. It was transparent, apolitical, and not fronted by any single personality. The more I saw, the more impressed I was. Khurram, Azhar and I asked TCF if we could set up a UK chapter and we currently raise roughly 20 per cent of TCF's annual budget through corporate and individual donations and special fundraising events. Because we come from professional backgrounds we believe donors should be able to see a professional structure and modern teaching methods. TCF likes to be judged by its actions rather than by spin. Donors are encouraged to visit the schools to see how their funds are spent"

And the children themselves are contributing funds, too. To give them a sense of dignity and to encourage pride in their education. the families of all students make a nominal contribution to fees and to the costs of uniforms, books and stationery, depending on their income - anything from 5p to £1 a month. At times, the results are amazing. Two years ago, a TCF boy won a Unilever sponsored international art prize and had his work exhibited at Tate Modern.

There are many incredible stories of these physically stunted, undernourished children who struggle so hard, taking on the responsibilities of adults to make ends meet, so they can attend these schools. There is the 14-year-old girl from a rural community outside Lahore who, working late at night last year, lost all the fingers of her right hand in a food cutter, but went straight back to work and has also, with help from her teachers, learnt to write again. There is nine-year-old Samina who peels shrimps for six hours a day in return for 6p and attends TCF school along with her brother and sister. Her father spends his meagre earnings on drugs and beats their mother for allowing three of their five children to go to school. And there are so many more like them. It is humbling to see the spirit of these children, their palpable energy and purpose, their enlivened hopes. But it is also humbling to witness the compassion and dedication of their more fortunate compatriots who are providing them, against all odds, with life's most valuable gift.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:51 PM
Category: IslamPrimary schools