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View from US: The inheritors

October 13, 2012

How about a warm-up with a zinger from a millionaire, also an aspirant for the White House? Mitt Romney tells his audience “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.” This line has become a deformed joke for those whose ‘parents’ (more than 44 million) live below the poverty line in America. No wonder, the money owed to banks in student loans is estimated at $1tr. It will take a lifetime for the under-30 to pay back this sum. They have to!

On the flip side, ever heard of charity moochers? Habitué who live on charity. They never learn to climb the mountain called life; begging for a helping hand to carry them through the thorny trek. Instead of feeding their need, give them tools to earn their bread. The best example is the well-known Chinese proverb: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Don’t provide incubators for charity moochers. Here’s an idea for Pakistani philanthropists to personify: organise to set up a bank that makes student loans. Invite Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, to give tips on how he established his Grameen Bank, almost 36 years ago.

He began small and as the bank grew, so did the fortunes of thousands of Bangladeshi men and women who secured loans and set up their own businesses. When they earned enough money in their pockets, they paid back the loans. The bank is a model for the world to emulate. Today, Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wajed wants to grab it! But that’s politics coupled with untold greed. We’ll talk about it another day.

As I sit to write, I recall a story older than I ever cared to remember. A woman in her dying days typed out her will and last testament, signed it and left it in her safe for her children to follow through with her wishes. She left behind Rs100,000 (quite a princely sum then) for two student scholarships. The beneficiaries, male and female, had to be outstanding students from rural areas but too poor to go to Lahore’s Kinnaird College for Women and Government College for Men. Her trustees of the fund were to invest the 100,000 in a high-yielding fixed deposit account that would pay for the two tuitions each year.

No one knows what became of the fund. It vanished into thin air. Most of the trustees didn’t live in Lahore. They were scattered all over the world. End of story. Except, it too has a moral: the woman, fortunate enough to have gone to Kinnaird College (pre-partition) and her husband to Government College wanted to give back. Her homespun plan entailed helping two poor students from the hinterlands to receive the kind of education she and her late husband were entitled to.

Presently, there are an estimated 103 million Pakistanis under the age of 25. They are not just a number but a critical mass — 63 per cent of Pakistan. Less than half are literate. And what do they do? Some are enrolled in madressas where the emphasis is learning the Holy Quran by rote; some others are sole family providers and slog for a minimum wage; others are just ‘sitting around’ guys who form a groundswell when politicians bus them in for political rallies, demonstrations and protests.

This in brief is the profile of our inheritors, who form Generation Y and X as the youth in America are known. Here’s the scary thing: Pakistan’s unlettered generation Y and X will decide who will be the next prime minister! This thought alone sends shivers of dread down one’s spine. They are more like the lost generation who fight for survival surrounded by poverty, sickness, dogma and ignorance. What do they know who to choose?

Those lucky enough to go to college have their own financial problems to face. One gets emails from needy students opening their life stories asking for financial help. Ah to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet with billions to give to people hungry for education. Still, one answers the call of a father in a small town in Punjab. His daughter, he wrote, wanted to go for higher education but he lacked the means to pay for it. A small cheque was mailed. He was grateful. Two months later, he asked for more!

This is a dilemma we face often. Last week, an immaculately written email by a youngster giving me his tragic life story turned up.

Here’s how he begins: “I know this is probably not the best idea but I have no choice. I am trying everything I can. This is basically to ask you for help. What help? I want to attend a college in America and I am receiving $18K scholarship too but I cannot pay rest of the cost which exceeds $25K. I plan to work too but that won’t cover everything. I said this is crazy but I have to do crazy, no other way. I am not asking you to finance me, all I need is a US co-signer to get me a student loan. If you can get me a generous co-signer my life can change. Now why am I so dying to go US? Do I need money? No. Do I have to feed family? No. Do I love America? No.

The only reason is I do not want to end up in a mental hospital. Now how will I end up there?’”

The young man spoke of his cruel father who regularly beats his mother, is filthy rich, does not want to marry off his girls — in sum, he’s an ogre!

If Pakistani charities were to set up a bank for student loans, run it professionally and employed people with merit and honesty, one would not get emails asking for help. Some of you may say: “It’s easier said than done.” I agree. Still if the resolve is to help the young men and women who are inheritors of our nation, we could do it. Pakistanis spend millions in charity. Why not invest in the future of the young by giving them a chance to go out and earn for themselves and their families.

Think about it the next time you sit down to write a cheque — hefty or otherwise — for a charitable cause.