Life-changing learning

Published May 10, 2021
Ahsan M Saleem, co-founder and non-executive director of TCF
Ahsan M Saleem, co-founder and non-executive director of TCF

Nadeem Hussain was 10 years old when his family escaped from bonded labour and arrived in Karachi. His family took up residence in a katchiabadi and his father found a job in a textile factory. Nadeem enrolled in a neighbourhood The Citizens Foundation (TCF) school while working as child labour in the factory. Fast-forward years later, Mr Hussain attended the Institute of Business Administration, sitting in an aisle across the daughter of the owner of the textile factory that his father used to work in.

Such is the power of education, the great equaliser across classes.

Ahsan M Saleem, one of the five founders of TCF sits comfortably in his book-laden library-lookalike conference room. The CEO and MD of Crescent Steel & Allied Products Ltd refers to his occupation as his day job, and his calling at TCF as his ‘ticket to upstairs’.

‘The girl child was the biggest casualty of the pandemic in terms of education. We were afraid of losing 60,000-70,000 girls of about 270,000 students’

In the 1990s, Pakistan was burning, Mr Saleem recalls. On one hand, there were the usual lavish weddings with women dripping in jewellery and on the other hand, the masses were suffering. “My friends and I wanted to help so we started with the health sector but came to realise that 40 per cent of the health problems in Pakistan were hygiene related. And to improve hygiene we need to educate. Other problems such as joblessness, poverty and intolerance all have roots in lack of education,” narrates Mr Saleem.

Hence, TCF came into being in 1996 under Section 42 of the Companies Act 2017. To ensure the organisation was well-run, the founders decided that they could either run the organisation or provide oversight. And they chose the latter role while mostly staying in the background.

The pain threshold

In Pakistan, the comfort zone of parents to send their children to school, especially for girls, is 600 metres. Beyond 600 metres, it may as well be another school. Thus, the concept of TCF is for the school to be established in a neighbourhood close enough for impoverished children to walk to it.

On average, a primary TCF school till grade five has a capacity of 180 children operating on the principle of a single teacher, single classroom. Labs, specialised teachers and multiple sections are needed for secondary schools, which is why a cluster of three primary schools feeds into a larger secondary school.

In 1995, the minimum wage was Rs2,000. “We decided we will take each family to their threshold of pain for education. We determined it is 5pc of their family income for all their children, which was Rs100. We wanted each family to have a little skin in education.”

However, the fee is purely notional. Each family pays fees, even if it is Rs5, but it varies according to their ability to pay, assessed by the local principal. Thus the fees vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, city to city. The same principle applies to books, stationery and uniform.

Even 25 years later, the average school fees for a primary school student is Rs150 and about Rs400 for a secondary school student. If a family has 10 children and can pay only Rs150, then all 10 children will be educated for Rs150. The cost to TCF for a single child is roughly Rs1,500.

Raising revenue

“Over 90pc of our budget is generated through donations,” says Mr Saleem. In 2020, their operating expenditure was Rs4.66 billion of which 9pc was generated through fees, indicates the TCF’s annual report which is available on their website. Administrative expenses are less than 10pc of TCF’s top line.

As per policy, the support from multilateral organisations such as the World Bank or USAID is capped at 15pc. “We want there to be many small donors rather a few big heavyweights that may decide to stop lending one day,” explains Mr Saleem. Roughly 40pc is raised from the Pakistani diaspora abroad, with the bulk stemming from the United States.

“We went to America when 9/11 happened and filed for a tax-exempt status there. So we have gone through the toughest of scrutiny,” says Mr Saleem.

Corporate Pakistan’s donations constitute about 25-30pc of TCF’s revenue. Zakat contributes 20pc of TCF’s operating expenditure.

Interestingly, Mr Saleem pointed out that Zakat is only 20pc of donations across the non-profit sector — the rest is simple charity. Cash donations are limited to Rs20,000; anything more than that requires formal channels. Anonymous donations are not accepted.

The largest female employer

“Even though society is conservative, the country is co-ed. Male-female segregation is a middle-class and upper-class phenomenon. The household staff in elite classes sits together and eats. Similarly, men and women work together in fields,” says Mr Saleem explaining why TCF schools are co-education. Their aim is that half the students be girls.

However, having male teachers discourages parents from sending their daughters to school, thus all TCF schools have only female teachers. The watchman and clerk are the only males on campus. With 18,000 female workers (12,500 teachers), TCF is the largest employer of women in Pakistan. About a thousand of its teachers are TCF alumni, indicating the full circle of TCF students.

The starting salary of a teacher is roughly Rs17,000-18,000 and a pick-and-drop facility is provided. Over time, based on performance, qualification and experience, their salaries increase.

A 100x impact

“During the pandemic, leveraging our alumni and teachers, we facilitated parents of our students for livelihood support by transferring money through telecom accounts. Funds other than those earmarked for education were raised for this purpose,” explains Mr Saleem.

“Furthermore, we started a magazine, distributed work packs to engage students and working with PTV, we launched the serial ilm ka anghan.

“However, the girl child was the biggest casualty of the pandemic in terms of education. We were afraid of losing 60,000-70,000 girls of about 270,000 students. With concentrated efforts we got most of them back,” says Mr Saleem, adding that TCF is very possessive about its girl students.

“A girl child’s impact on society is about 100 times that of a male child because it is multi-generational. Even if the girl is a dropout, even if she is pulled out of school and forced to marry, she will ensure her children will study. It is practically a guarantee that an educated mother will educate her children. With a boy, there is a good chance, but not a guarantee.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 10th, 2021

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