Zofeen T Ebrahim

Some nine years ago a cattle pen stood where now rises a pink school building, one of the original five schools established by The Citizen’s Foundation (TCF), an experiment by five affluent Karachi businessmen that has taken the form of a movement across Pakistan. Ironically, it is not the mosquitoes, as the name of the area — Machhar Colony — suggests, but the hordes of flies that have invaded the place, along with a burgeoning migrant population. Like the rest of the now 195 schools built by TCF, this 6,000-sq-ft building includes an administrative block, six classrooms, an art room, a library, a play area and a canteen. In 1995, a handful of affluent businessmen decided they had had enough of after-dinner talks where they discussed what ailed their country, and then went home and slept off the guilt. They felt they were not giving back to the country what they owed.

“We decided we needed to stop talking and do something more meaningful. There were options and choices — setting up of hospitals, or funding family planning campaigns,” says Mushtaq Chhapra, one of the six TCF founders. But the more they looked deeper into the nation’s mire, one problem seemed to stand out glaringly — illiteracy — the root cause of all malaise. “We needed to give the underprivileged the opportunity to study. Education should not be the preserve of the privileged alone,” says Chhapra. And so the group decided to build schools in areas not covered or underserved by the government. The plan is so simple and doable that one wonders why it could not be adopted by the government. “Once the area has been earmarked and we have the plot, we begin building,” says Chhapra. TCF wields the advantage of having an architect of international acclaim on its board.

TCF has a policy of hiring only female teachers although the schools are co-education. “The idea is that parents feel secure that their daughters are being taught by females, which is a major concern in some rural and remote communities. For all the teachers we provide transport so that commuting is not a problem,” according to Chhapra. Surprisingly, co-education has not been an issue, except in two areas. There, officials segregated the boys and girls. “We want the boys and girls to study together. These boys when they grow up will respect women more than their fathers ever do,” adds the founder. The process of socialization, though slow, is having a positive effect, says Neelam Habib, TCF’s manager of donor relations, who regularly visits schools and even homes.

TCF offers the same courses as those prescribed for government schools, but they include supplementary books.

TCF’s target is to build 1,000 schools across Pakistan and educate 350,000- 360,000 children by the year 2015. This also happens to be the education target set by the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Somehow this does not seem too tall an order for TCF. For, so far, they have delivered all that they promised. — IPS