Time to look again at Pakistani society

By Charles Leadbeater

The Financial Times

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