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?”

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, 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.


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