Schools of hope

With the virtual collapse of government schools, many parents have to depend on Wahhabi-funded madra

Martin Amis, typical of the current rash of instant experts on Islam, wrote recently in the Observer: "We may wonder how the Islamists feel when they compare India to Pakistan, one a burgeoning democratic superpower, the other barely distinguishable from a failed state."

Yet the reality on the ground in Pakistan is far more complex than the caricature imagined by the likes of Amis: under the urbane eye of Shaukat Aziz, formerly a vice-president of Citi bank and now Pervez Musharraf's prime minister, Pakistan is enjoying a construction and consumer boom, with growth approaching 8 per cent and the fastest-rising stock market in Asia. It also has better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity than in India. Flying in to Lahore or Islamabad from Delhi or Bombay, one feels immediately that one is in a less poverty-ridden country: there are fewer beggars on the roads, the new motorways and concrete mosques make it more closely resemble a dusty Gulf state than a former part of India, and the houses look more substantial.

There are, however, many areas where Pakistan is doing less well than India: most obviously, the country seems unable to support sustained democratic governance. It has an abysmal human-rights record, a long history of some of the worst governmental corruption in the world, and an increasingly violent Islamist problem.

Yet, despite these awesome difficulties, no problem in Pakistan casts such a long shadow over its future as the abject failure of the government to educate more than a fraction of its own people: at the moment a mere 1.8 per cent of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. The statistics are dreadful: 15 per cent of these government schools are without a proper building; 52 per cent without a boundary wall; 40 per cent without water; 71 per cent without electricity. There is frequent absenteeism of teachers; indeed, many of these schools are empty ruins or exist only on paper.

This was graphically confirmed by a survey conducted two years ago by the former Pakistan cricket captain-turned-politician Imran Khan in his own constituency of Mianwali. His research showed that 20 per cent of government schools supposed to be functioning in his constituency did not exist at all, a quarter had no teachers and 70 per cent were closed. No school had more than half of the teachers it was meant to have. Of those that were just about functioning, many had children of all grades crammed into a single room, often sitting on the floor. There is little wonder that Pakistan ranks among the very lowest countries in the UNDP's world human development index.

This education gap is the most striking way in which Pakistan lags behind its neighbour: in India 65 per cent of the population is literate, and the number rises annually. Only last year, the Indian education system received a substantial boost from state funds; and there is, in any case, a tradition among Hindus of making terrific sacrifices in order to educate children. But in Pakistan the literacy figure is under half (it is currently 49 per cent), and falling: instead of investing in education, Musharraf's military government is spending money on a cripplingly expensive fleet of American F-16s for its air force. As a result, 83 million adults of 15 years and above - out of a population of 160 million - are illiterate. Among women the problem is worse still: 65 per cent of all female adults are illiterate. As the population rockets, the problem will get worse: only half the children in Pakistan will have access to any formal education, and the remaining half will never see the inside of a school. Of those who do enrol, half will drop out in the course of their primary education.

The virtual collapse of government schooling has meant that many of the poorest people who wish to enhance their children's hope of advancing themselves have no option but to place them in the madrasa system, where they are guaranteed an ultra-conservative and outdated but none the less free education, often subsidised by religious endowments provided by the Wahhabi Saudis.

Altogether there are now an estimated 800,000 to one million students enrolled in Pakistan's madrasas: an entire free Islamic education system existing parallel to the increasingly moribund state sector. Though the link between the madrasas and al-Qaeda is often exaggerated - the overwhelming majority of the sophisticated international Salafi jihadis associated with Osama Bin Laden's group are middle-class and were well educated at western-style colleges - it is true that madrasa students have been closely involved in both the rise of the Taliban and the growth of sectarian violence within Pakistan and Afghanistan; it is also true that the education provided by many madrasas is often wholly inadequate to prepare or equip children for modern life in a civil society.

Education within reach

There is, however, one bright glimmer of hope in this depressingly dark situation. In 1995, a group of Karachi-based Pakistani businessmen founded a new charity called The Citizens Foundation, or TCF, with the simple aim of taking Pakistan's children off the streets and providing them with a quality, secular education at heavily subsidised prices. Since then the charity has grown at the most remarkable rate: TCF now has 311 purpose-built schools located in Pakistan's most miserable slums and most underdeveloped rural areas, and a new one opens every single week. Each morning, around 40,000 boys and girls enter the gates of a TCF school somewhere in Pakistan.

The TCF schools I have visited are remarkable: in contrast to the government-run primaries, which usually resemble little more than cattle pens, TCF schools are beautifully planned two-storey structures built in brick, with attractive courtyards and verandas. Each has six classrooms, a library, an art room and washrooms with running water; the secondary schools have, in addition, science and computer rooms. The quality of teaching is surprisingly high, and TCF has its own purpose-built teacher-training institute where the staff - entirely made up of women, in order to encourage parents to enrol their girls - receive a thorough grounding in education. Since it was opened in 1997, more than 2,400 trained teachers have emerged from the institute and taken up positions in TCF schools.

The quality of teaching provided to the children in many cases equals that of Pakistan's smartest private schools; yet the kids who enrol are from the very poorest and most deprived families. Although all children have to pay fees of a minimum of ten Pakistani rupees a month, TCF's adjustable fee structure gives the poorest children access to an education, uniforms and school books at heavily subsidised rates - up to 95 per cent of fees - putting a top-quality edu cation within the reach of the poor for the first time. Already the first batch of graduates from the TCF system has been winning scholarships to Pakistan's leading colleges.

It costs just £10 a month to educate a child at a TCF school; £6,000 will keep an entire school running for a year. TCF is probably the most dynamic, impressive and well-run south Asian charity I have come across in 20 years of writing about the subcontinent. Yet, given Pakistan's now central geopolitical role, and the huge stake that the west has in seeing Pakistan surviving as a moderate and potentially democratic country, it is an NGO that we need to support almost as much out of self-interest as charity.

Donations can be sent to: The Friends of the Citizens Foundation, 9 Camden Road, London E11 2JP. The TCF website is

William Dalrymple will be giving a fundraising lecture for TCF on his new book, "The Last Mughal", at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7, on Thursday 17 May. Tickets cost £15 each and are available online at

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood