Published in Inquirer Global Nation
MANILA, Philippines–They are in the business of giving, where the return on investment cannot be measured by digits in a bank account but by the brightness in the eyes of children given a chance to have a future. Taking children off the streets and into quality, caring schools has been the mission of The Citizens Foundation (TCF) of Pakistan, a nonprofit organization committed to investing in something “priceless”—raising generations of well-educated Pakistani children, the future of their nation. TCF founder and director Ateed Riaz drew a sharp contrast between children who have benefited from schooling and those who have not. “Children who are out of school … their eyes are not as bright, [their] faces are slightly sad. [But] inside the school, [their faces are] happy, the eyes are bright. [The donors] see what education can do, how being in school can change a person,” Riaz said in an interview with the Inquirer. “What we’re doing is we’re helping open windows in their (children’s) minds, windows through which fresh air and light are coming in. Once that happens, children start feeling relaxed and happy.” Businessmen with vision TCF is among this year’s six recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, selected for “successfully pursuing their conviction that … quality education made available to all is key to Pakistan’s brighter future.” The foundation was established by six businessmen in 1996, with a vision that Riaz could only describe as “mad.” Involved in industries such as chemicals, plastics, dairy and steel, the group was looking for a new enterprise—one beyond just an exercise of corporate social responsibility (CSR). “This is their passion, their life—to work in the foundation,” Riaz said of his cofounders. “It’s to put hours into it, it’s to carry bags and go all over the world and make presentations [to potential donors]. It’s more than CSR.” In putting up the foundation, the businessmen had been drawn to the sight of children on the streets, left out of opportunities others were fortunate to receive. “This is the future of any country—these children …. What drove us is that we used to see children on the street and we wanted to know where did they come from and why they didn’t go to school,” Riaz said. In a country where nearly half of the population live below the poverty line, education is a luxury to many and a burden to a government grappling with limited funding. Riaz said about 5.5 million Pakistani children are unable to go to school—among the highest out-of-school levels in the world. “The five of us thought, ‘Let us invest in a new business.’ This was the mindset. So we invested in a new business and a new venture. The only difference was that this venture will not give us any money,” he said. The goal when they began 18 years ago was to build 1,000 schools, kick-started with an initial five schools funded out of their own pockets. “We thought we were mad because we wouldn’t be able to get to a thousand schools. We started with five schools built from our own money. We built some more and we showed them to people, showed them what dedication, desire and passion can do,” Riaz said. Employing a corporate-style approach, the founders run TCF like a business, marketing the cause to potential “investors” (donors) through what the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation called “a well-conceived” fund mobilization scheme. A charity model Securing such funding involves “coffee mornings and afternoon teas” with Pakistan’s can-afford-a-lot, including corporations, individuals and TCF chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. “Our model is a charity model. We work not for profit; we work on donations, what we call a ‘zakat,’ the Islamic form of charity. It is a charity that you must give, like a purification tax of your wealth. Every year, you must part with some money to purify your wealth. It’s part of the Islamic ethos,” Riaz said. TCF is now reaping its rewards—profits measured by one less child on the street. “Our net profit is, we say, how many children have graduated? Have their grades improved? That is more profit. Are the buildings clean, well-maintained? That is net profit. “Are the teachers being picked up by transport on time? Is transport clean? Are the drivers well-mannered? Are the children looked after? Are the rooms well-painted? That is net profit. “So we write all these down and that is our net profit. And every year, we get more and more profit. It’s priceless.” 1,000 schools Today, TCF has 1,000 schools across Pakistan hosting some 145,000 students. “We admit a child no matter what religion, what color, what caste, what creed. We just want to take small children in and teach them, open doors, windows for them,” Riaz said. This means running the schools with about 7,700 teachers and principals, all of them women.It was a conscious choice for TCF to attract female students. Currently, nearly half of the school attendance comprises girls—considered a feat in a country where a conservative culture would prevent parents from sending their female children to class, Riaz said. Students now teachers TCF’s teaching pool includes 300 of its own former students who have finished their education. “Now, 300 have come back and become teachers. It’s like a cycle. Give us another 15 years and we’ll probably have 3,000,” Riaz said. TCF offers education from kindergarten to Grade 10 (equivalent to high school in the Philippine education system), and supports qualified students through college. TCF schools charge less than a dollar a month, a “token fee,” Riaz said. Total spending per child from kindergarten through Grade 10 is roughly $1,500. Staggering rate The foundation also boasts of a 92-percent passing rate, a staggering improvement from the national average rate of 56 percent. It has been so successful that the Pakistani government has tapped the organization to help improve the state education system. Having made headway since the mad plan began, TCF sees a future where the somber story of Pakistan’s out-of-school children will be no more. “When we dreamt 19 years ago, we dreamt of 1,000 school units. We have that 1,000 now. The future is to reach a million children in some form or another,” Riaz said. “We are taught that one of the best ways of gratitude is to develop other people. It’s to teach. So we’re actually only reaping the debts that we owe. We’re not doing anything special,” he said.
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