BLISS in the Midst of Chaos

By , November 14, 2009

While security remains the biggest concern for Pakistani citizens, there are those who believe that education is the best way to ensure security in the future. Bringing education to the masses is no easy task, especially when parents cannot afford education for their children, and would understandably prefer their kids to make money by looming carpets for example. Business and Life Skills School (BLISS) wants to solve this “either school or work” problem.
Going to school costs money. Even if it did not, these children have to let go of the little money they make from several hours of carpet looming. In an Afghan community in Attock, residents (including children) make their living primarily by looming carpets. Carpet looming is extremely laborious and inhumane – in fact, one of the worst forms of child labor. Even if they miss a couple hours of work because of a wedding or an event in the community, they must stay up late that night to make up for it. “We are sick to death of weaving these carpets but know of no other respectable way to feed ourselves”, said Abdul Jabbar, the village elder.

It was, therefore, a welcome surprise when on a summer Monday morning in the same Afghan community, a dozen women, all over the age of 40, showed up at Ersari Middle School. All of them were eager to sit in the class. The women had to be politely told that the school did not have enough resources to accommodate older women while there were several younger girls wanting to be schooled. At the same time a few girls below the age of 13 also showed up. When they were told that the school allowed girls only between the ages of 13 and 25, two girls came forward and said: “We are turning 13 in just a few weeks. Can we please be allowed to join?”
MIT-IDEAS

The idea that generated such strong interest in these Pakistani women and girls originated on other side of the globe: at IDEAS competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While there are several collaborative educational, public service, entrepreneurship, health care, and consulting programs between MIT and dozens of countries – such as Brazil, India, China, Israel, Spain and Germany – surprisingly there is none for Pakistan. However, Saba Gul, a recent graduate of MIT, was determined to leverage the talent pool, mentorship, and resources of MIT. She teamed up with Barakat – a Cambridge, MA based organization aiming to advance literacy in South and Central Asia – to come up with a project plan that had a shot at winning the IDEAS competition.
Like most other competitions at MIT – whether it is a business plan competition or an arts contest – IDEAS  competition awards innovative ideas that are feasible and can make a strong community impact. The BLISS team consisting of Saba Gul, Dr. Ishrat Hussain, Nadeem Mazen, Ghazala Mehmood, and Eleni Orphanides developed a unique approach to promoting education while eliminating child labor at the same time. The idea is innovative yet simple: teach skills and hold workshops at schools that students can use to make money in a much more efficient way than they currently do mostly by looming carpets – a profession they seem to hate but unable to let go of because of lack of other skills and education. They usually work ten to fourteen hours and make up to four thousand rupees a month, whereas at school they can make around one thousand rupees by working only for an hour or so a day. Though, currently, part of that money comes from donations, the goal is to make the process sustainable so that students can earn enough money from their work at schools. This would reduce the opportunity cost of getting education in a society where most kids do not go to school so that they have enough time to make money to feed their families and themselves.
BLISS and Barakat team meeting with girls' parents for an orientation.

At the Barakat schools, they learn vocational skills such as embroidery, jewelry making, and toy making and actually make sellable products such as purses and toys, which are then sold in the market – some of them in the US. When I asked Saba, the program leader, whether this would constitute as child labor, she told me that BLISS went a long way to ensure that none of what they do is child labor by any means. They consulted the International Labor Organization guidelines and talked to experts. “We only allow girls between the ages of 13 and 25 to work for a maximum of an hour a day. All raw materials are kept in school so girls do not spend extra hours working. The program is carefully designed to allow these children to get education”, said Saba. Students are also taught several entrepreneurship and marketing classes at school, which are directly applicable to their workshops. By learning these skills, not only do they become more productive citizens for the society, they are also able to attend school. Obviously, a large driver behind this would be support from the community and the markets where these products are sold. It will be practically impossible to replace their 12 hours of work with 1 hour of work a day and compensate them by an equal amount – if it were not for the generosity of buyers and supporters. My hope is that when people hear this story, they will be more inclined to buy these products than would be bought if simply left to market supply and demand.
“Our one year goal is to make this a financially sustainable system for the 40 girls, and the long-term goal is to partner with established vocational schools, expand this model to other kinds of skills, and scale it to other communities”, says Saba. Whether they continue their studies after 8th grade is unknown at this point, but the goal of the program is to promote education, while imparting valuable skills such as entrepreneurship and marketing, at a primary and middle level. This learning and market environment is expected to become viral and encourage even more kids to attend the Barakat schools. The hope is that these children equipped with just primary education can potentially change the society for the better. Their next generations are more likely to study to even higher levels, and an ascending cycle would continue.
Girls embroider on fabric at Ersari Middle School

BLISS is still a program in its infancy. Several obstacles need to be overcome for it to be successful. First, while the program matures and a working supply chain is put in place to make and sell products, there is a need for funding so that students can be paid enough stipend to compensate for their forgone work income. Second, it is uncertain whether students would continue to study once they learn marketable skills and are tempted to start working full time to make even more money. Lastly, logistics of marketing and selling the products need to be panned out, and the project needs continuous support from volunteers and others in order for it to be sustainable.
BLISS is an intriguing approach to solving a complicated problem: several people still do not see the value of education, when they can earn more without going to school, and a degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee them a decent job. However, BLISS hopes that by imparting real life business skills along with school education, it has an opportunity to change that — one child at a time.
You can donate for the cause here. To make sure the funds go to BLISS, please specify BLISS in the program before donating.
Saad FazilSaad Fazil does freelance writing for VentureBeat, where he focuses on deep analysis of emerging trends in the industry. He is the founder of Whizner Consulting, a technology strategy consulting firm. Prior to consulting, he held business analyst, product management, and sales consultant positions at Kayak.com, Oracle, and Alcatel. He received his MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management. He blogs at IT Valley and tweets at @sfrocks.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of STEP.

14 Responses to “BLISS in the Midst of Chaos”

  1. Bilal Zafar says:

    Excellent work!

    On paper at least, this sounds like a much better approach to addressing the child labor & illiteracy problem, then the ‘get paid to learn’ programs (http://www.zindagitrust.org/imptl.asp) that organizations like Zindagi Trust are running (sincere and well-meaning as they might be).

    I have three question though, that I hope Saad or anyone from the team can answer:

    1. It might be too early to ask, but has the BLISS team done some back-of-the-envelop calculations to find out what can make the program sustainable in the long run?

    2. I understand from the description of the project at MIT IDEAS project site (http://web.mit.edu/ideas/www/pastprojects.htm#bliss) that development of a ‘hybrid curriculum’ is part of the project. How far is the team down that road, and is there a way to conduct this exercise in a collaborative way online? That way, the team can use volunteers from all over the world to develop not just the text material, but also the teaching guides, and even testing material like exams, and so forth.

    3. The article mentions that the items produced by the children at these centers are available in the US. More details on that would be really helpful.

    Once again, great work, my best wishes and please keep our STEP readers posted on the progress.

    • Saba Gul says:

      hi Bilal,

      Thank you for the support.

      (1) In this context, by sustainable we mean financially sustainable, such that the program pays for itself i.e. the cost of raw materials, making the products, paying the children their monthly allowance, marketing/shipping the products etc. comes from the income generated from selling them. So indeed, we’ve done calculations to this end – we’ve developed the cost model for each product/craft keeping this goal of sustainability in mind. In the end, it will be the design and marketing of our products that will determine how successful we are at selling them and generating the required amount of revenue to make the system sustainable.

      (2) We are implementing BLISS in phases. For the moment we’re concentrating our energies on getting the arts and crafts/vocational part of the program right; the curriculum is still in the brainstorming phase. Once we start generating revenue, we’ll divert some funds towards developing/publishing the curriculum and training the teachers for it. Your idea for an online collaboration on this is great; we’ll keep it in mind when the time comes.

      (3) We’re currently working on getting our products in their final form. The first set will be bags made from hand-embroidered fabric. We will mainly sell them online on our website, and at exhibitions we will hold on school campuses.

      We’re currently experiencing technical difficulties in connecting the BLISS website to the reserved domain name. As soon as it is up, we’ll share the link with you. It has a horde of information and FAQs that you might find useful.

      Again, thanks for your comment, and please feel free to write to us at projectbliss@mit.edu if you have more questions/comments.

      Saba

      • Bilal Zafar says:

        Thanks a lot, Saba, for taking time to answer the questions so promptly! I’ll wait for the site to come online.

        By the way, once the products are ready & available for sale, I’m sure at least a couple of STEP’s 700+ Facebook fans will be able to serve as sort of the the “Avon ladies” for the products and help get the ball rolling. Hopefully, it’ll be more than a couple … a lot more!

        I asked about sustainability, because I wanted to get a ball-park number for how much the difference might be between your cost (after including everything from the cost of raw material, to wages for the students, to the cost of education itself) and that for your competitor who’s in the business just to make money. Is it, say, 200% more or 20% more? My intuition is that it’ll probably be closer to the former than the later. Correct?

        • Sana Kazmi says:

          Bilal,

          That’s an excellent idea re: spreading awareness about BLISS to existing Facebook groups that are sympathetic to such causes.

          We’re hoping that the charitable effort behind BLISS’ products differentiates them from the products of a purely profit-seeking _competitor_ (bags for a cause are more than just bags), so that we have a bigger market and that that offsets our cost disadvantage. Also, since the schools are free, the only major factor putting us at a cost disadvantage is the slower turnover of the students vs. professionals in a big factory, so we’re hoping to be closer to 20% than to 200% in terms of exceeding the costs of our competitors.

  2. Bilal Salim says:

    Hi Saba and the rest of the team,

    This is indeed a marvellous plan. I am certainly interested in helping out in ways that I possibly can, from here in Singapore.

    I feel the sustainable aspect is the cornerstone of the project, and you have rightly focused your energies towards this. In my view, you are pretty much into the CSR domain. Knowing that corporations around the world are anguishing to practice CSR (Nestle, Starbucks to name a few), you may find a big corporation looking to take over or atleast help you run the BLISS project.

    Food for thought.

  3. Sahar says:

    Great Work Saba!

    I have been a huge fan of microfinancing. Your plan however, tackles not only the financial but also the eductaional aspect simulatneously.
    Must applaud your effort.

    I wish you the very best!

  4. usman zia says:

    Hi (Bliss & every one)

    I would congratulate my uncle Saad fazil,by writing that article{BLISS in the Midst of Chaos} about the security concern for Pakistani citizens, and showing a new path to Paki People to overcome the child labor problem & to promote Education.

    And it is really good idea {Bilal} of spreading awareness about BLISS to existing Facebook groups that are sympathetic to such causes.

    Best of luck to Bliss & his team members.

    • ahmed says:

      Hi,
      there is a sentence in Usman Zia’s comment i.e showing a new path to Paki people.As far as I know the word Paki originated in Britain as a derogatory term for Pakistani nationals.I am sorry for deviating from original discussion about the article but this word struck me so hard that I couldn’t help it.I would be thankful if someone can correct me if I am wrong.
      my best wishes to bliss team

  5. Umer Adnan Qureshi says:

    Great job guys.. ! I wish you all the luck in the world. I do feel that education is the only way forward..

  6. [...] Saad Fazil, recent alumnus of the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote an article on BLISS that was published today on STEP (Science, Technology and Education in Pakistan)—an online community that aims to bring together policy-makers, academics, researchers, professionals, and students to encourage collaboration. Read the article here. [...]

  7. [...] to the masses is no easy task, especially when parents cannot afford education for their… Read the rest of this entry blog comments powered by Disqus var disqus_url = [...]

  8. Sana Kazmi says:

    Just wanted to mention that our website is now up at http://bagsforbliss.org and you can also check out our blog at http://bagsforbliss.wordpress.com

  9. fareeha says:

    is this possible that i do something for preventing water shortage .kindly give me ideas

  10. [...] While security remains the biggest concern for Pakistani citizens, there are those who believe that education is the best way to ensure security in the future. Bringing education to the masses is no easy task, especially when parents cannot afford education for their… Read the rest of this entry [...]

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