What a brilliant article; the Pakistani people are making good on their promise to their Founding Founders among them Quaid-e-Azam, Sir Syed & Allama Iqbal.
Pity the people of Pakistan, trapped between self-serving, complacent elites who preside over a crumbling state, and a rich array of violent extremists who seem determined to tear the same state apart. The extremists promote crisis and the state depends on crisis to persuade people to put vested interests aside, if only for a while. The military, the country’s most meritocratic and efficient institution, is widely regarded as the only force that can break this grim cycle. Yet there are other, largely hidden forces at work in Pakistan that hold it together and offer it a better future: adaptability and resilience, entrepreneurship and shared coping.
These forces can be found in the very new – widespread mobile banking services – and the very old – Islam’s traditions of charity, justice and learning. When government and donors work creatively with these forces, amazing things can happen.
Pakistan has one of the best regulatory environments in the world for microfinance and one of the fastest-growing microfinance sectors, with 3m borrowers. It is also one of the most innovative places in the world for mobile banking services, partly due to the State Bank of Pakistan’s moves to encourage the market. About 1.5m customers make about 30m transactions a quarter through their mobiles, using a network of 20,000 agents, mainly local shops, to collect their cash.
A wave of charitable giving by individuals has helped to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by floods in 2010 are not still living in tents. A guerrilla army of more than 100,000 Lady Health Workers, funded by government, has helped to reduce markedly the number of women and babies who die in child birth, according to studies by the World Bank.
Too many children are still out of school and many government schools are woeful. Yet Pakistani parents go to enormous lengths to give their children, girls and boys, a chance at an education.
Low-cost private sector schools, charging perhaps $2 a week, are booming in slums and villages. Wherever girls receive a secondary level education, small private schools run in the homes of their owners start popping up, as they put their education to use to improve their standing in society. Even the government’s conservative figures suggest that a third of children in Pakistan and half in Karachi, many of them from poor households, attend such schools.
The Citizens Foundation, funded entirely by small, anonymous donations, has created almost 900 high-quality schools catering for girls and boys from poorer backgrounds, taught by women teachers trained by the charity.
Indeed, Pakistan has a record in picking up new approaches to learning. The Allama Iqbal university in Islamabad, the first open university outside the UK, is the second largest in the world with 1.8m students. Start-ups such as Tele Taleem, tucked away on a dusty industrial estate on the outskirts of Islamabad, are pioneering ways to take learning to schools in the remoter regions, through satellite links and cheap tablet computers.
Donors are playing a vital role in promoting social innovation. The UK’s Department for International Development has pioneered a new road map for school improvement in Punjab, which Sir Michael Barber, the education reform expert, says is delivering one of the world’s fastest improvements in school performance. In Karachi, tens of thousands of poorer families will next year receive vouchers to send their children to low-cost private schools.
In agriculture, social venture capitalists such as Indus Basin Holdings are leading efforts to link groups of small-scale rice farmers to multinational companies. Pakistan’s institutions may seem frozen, its elites worried that taking on the extremists will provoke even more violence in the run-up to next year’s elections. Yet, at the grassroots, Pakistan is in perpetual motion, with ceaseless creativity as people find affordable solutions to their basic needs. These largely hidden forces of resilience offer the best hope for the country’s future. In Pakistan, the state may be fragile but society is far stronger than many think.
The writer is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts