Pakistan, says the UNESCO, has the world’s second highest number of children who are out of school – around five and a half million, some 66 percent of them girls. It can also be a dangerous place for education, being one of those countries seriously challenged by religious extremism. The shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria just this year has appalled the world. But shocking as these events are, the problem is even broader than the cases may suggest, since the denial of education is caused as well by widespread poverty and the stark deficit in government spending on education.
In 1995, a group of six Pakistani business leaders and executives decided they could not just sit back and watch the country’s educational system deteriorate and thus leave the country’s poor trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. They needed to mobilize investments in education, and deciding at the outset that they could not ask for private sector support unless they put in their own money first, they built five schools contributing their own personal funds. They launched The Citizens Foundation (TCF) as a nonprofit organization, declaring as its mission “to remove barriers of class and privilege” through affordable, quality education and “to make the citizens of Pakistan agents of positive change.”
From the outset, TCF had a clear vision of the schools it would build: well-designed and fully -equipped buildings with a capacity for 180 students at the elementary level and 360 at the secondary level; located in poor districts, whether urban or rural; open to all, but maintaining a 50/50 balance of boys and girls; professionally managed by well-trained teachers.
To assure quality, TCF has adopted an improved version of the government-mandated curriculum; develops its own books and instructional materials; and runs intensive pre-service and in-service programs for its teachers in its two teacher training centers. To assure access by the poor, tuition fees are low and costs are heavily subsidized, with 100 percent of TCF students covered by full or partial scholarships. Books and uniforms for the children are provided free.
TCF’s success has been spectacular. From its initial five schools and eight hundred students in 1996, the TCF network has now grown to one thousand schools, spread over a hundred towns and cities, with over 145,000 students in attendance, and guided by 7,700 teachers and principals. Consistent with TCF’s expressed desire to open up employment opportunities for women, all the teachers in their schools are women. Academically, TCF students have a 92 percent passing rate, higher than the national average of 56 percent, in the Matric Test required to earn their Secondary School Certificates.
All this has become possible through a well-conceived portfolio of donor packages that taps corporate sponsors, and tens of thousands of individual donors – particularly among the Pakistani diaspora — through TCF chapters in seven countries outside Pakistan. This fund mobilization has been greatly aided by TCF’s corporate-style management system, an impressive track record in the academic results of TCF students, and by its reputation for transparency, accountability, and efficiency. TCF has successfully tapped a vital wellspring of civic responsiveness among Pakistanis, and hopes that its example will be followed by other groups. As one of its founders says, “This project belongs to the people of Pakistan. It’s for them to sustain. We have to learn to stand up and solve our problems.”
In electing The Citizens Foundation to receive the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes the social vision and high-level professionalism of its founders and those who run its schools, in successfully pursuing their conviction that, with sustained civic responsiveness, quality education made available to all – irrespective of religion, gender, or economic status – is the key to Pakistan’s brighter future.