Monday, February 2, 2009

The Charity With a Difference

Today I want to talk about my favorite charity, my first employer, and my pet cause that is so close to my heart, I haven't been able to get away from it since I first entered the seventh floor of the shabby N.I.C building in Karachi, three years ago.

I joined The Citizens Foundation (TCF to everyone) right after my MBA. I actually applied there right after a die-hard idealistic, and rather futile activist stint at the World Social Forum event in Karachi. It was there that I first heard good things about TCF, and also discovered many disturbing facts about the complicated nonprofit world of Pakistan, which is another story for another time.

That TCF stands out among most other nonprofits in Pakistan is a gross understatement. For instance, it is organized like the Pakistan army, for the lack of a better institutional example from Pakistan, which is no wonder since most of its top administrative personnel are retired army officers. Or women. TCF is one of very few women-strong organizations in Pakistan. Its inner organizational operations and schools are led by a host of incredibly driven women. It has a network of almost 4,000 female teachers throughout the country, which it trains within its own infrastructure. It's these women who run the training, hold their own with all those retired army colonels, and bravely go to teach in its 530 schools in some of the most far-flung and conservative villages of the country. Why only women as teachers, you might ask? The answer's simple. In a country where millions of parents discriminate between their sons and daughters when the time comes to send them to school, TCF does not want any parent to use the presence of male teachers as an excuse to prevent their daughters from studying. As a result, almost 50 percent of its students are girls--a feat not yet accomplished by Pakistan's tattered public school system.

TCF was founded by a group of six very successful, and very determined men from the metropolis of Karachi--two architect brothers, three businessmen, and one retired general. One single statement defined their reason. They got tired of the talk. The relentless but futile talk about what is it that plagues our nation, talk that defines the drawing rooms of the developing world's intelligentsia. One fine evening, they decided to stop discussing the problem--which was the millions of Pakistan children on streets instead of schools--and to start doing something about it.

They pooled some money in, bought a plot in a Karachi slum, and started building a school. What started with one school in 1995, grew into a network encompassing the whole of Pakistan--all four provinces, and the Kashmir region--in just a decade.

Today, thirteen years later, TCF has 530 schools in Sindh, Baluchistan, Sarhad, Punjab and Kashmir, including the region that was hit by the devastating earthquake of 2005. TCF has built about twenty earthquake-safe school buildings in this region, and has recruited hundreds of teachers left unemployed after the destruction of the region's school's system. Each of its schools, whether it's in a fishing village of Sindh with no electricity or running water, or in the far-flung mountains of Mansehra, is purpose-built and comparable to any modern, private school in the country. Every single school is carefully, lovingly designed by TCF's architects to contain playgrounds, libraries, computer and science labs, spacious and airy classrooms and toilets. Facilities alien to millions of Pakistani children who either go to a government school, or have never seen the inside of a classroom at all.

Each TCF teacher is vigorously trained before she begins teaching, and has more of a surrogate mother bond with the students than that of just a teacher. Which is necessary, if you've ever met these incredibly unique children, who somehow manage to keep their high ambitions and goals despite having been born into the worst-possible circumstances. Preparation is essential to be able to teach and mentor these unusual charges. There are the tireless shrimp-cleaners of Machar Colony among them, who wake up at three every morning to clean a fresh batch of shrimp and continue till their fingers are scarred and numb. Their teachers have to be well-prepared with bottles of vaseline to soothe their wounded, small fingers each morning. There are also the part-time factory workers, street-hawkers and children whose former lives were spent in streets and sometimes orphanages because their parents couldn't afford to feed them. The TCF teacher cannot afford to be like an ordinary teacher.

I can go on and on about my experiences and memories at TCF. The passionate future scientist I met in the desert town of Daharki, the girl from a Karachi slum who was going to fly jets, the mother who was being taught by her eight-year old son to read, the teachers who traveled three hours each day on a broken road to teach in the fishing village of Jhangesar, and the thousands of young girls to become the first ever women in their family's generations to ever go to college...or be able to read. But I'll keep these for another post in the future, and first come to the news that I wanted to share when I decided to write about TCF today (and got rather distracted!:)

From time to time, I help TCF-USA, TCF's U.S. chapter, with its marketing efforts and publications. Recently, TCF-USA was selected by the U.S. Congressional Commission on WMD (formed post 9/11) as the recipient of the Commission's final report's sales proceeds. The report was recently submitted to the new administration as it concluded its work of six years.

The report (go here to buy it) is an interesting read, as instead of proposing gung-ho military solutions that have marked the Bush administration, it points toward the most obvious root-cause of extremism and terrorism in countries like Pakistan. Desperate poverty, frustration and lack of education. It proposes greater investment in social development of these nations, rather than just funding their defense forces.

The selection of TCF-USA symbolizes the Commission's emphasis and is a reflection of its recommendation. So congratulations to TCF-USA and its team of volunteers on the selection, which says plenty for TCF's recognition as a nonprofit making a valuable difference in Pakistan. This is a huge accomplishment for these hundreds of selfless men and women across the United States who constantly take time out of their busy lives and schedules to organize fundraising and awareness campaigns for TCF schools in Pakistan, with no expectation of any returns for themselves. This is your achievement.