City of lights

With 3 million young people set to enter the labour force each year between 2015 and 2050, Pakistan faces a huge challenge. We visit Karachi, the country’s largest city, where a groundbreaking training initiative is transforming the lives of underserved Pakistani youth

It is as correct as it is convenient to label Karachi, the City of Lights, as a microcosm of Pakistan. The third-largest city in the world, Karachi is home to a huge cross-section of the country’s ethnicities and cultures. Of the estimated 40 million Pakistanis living below the poverty line, around 30 million live in rural areas, a disparity which has triggered an ongoing migration towards the country’s urban centres. Karachi is the fastest-growing city in the world, followed by Mexico City; its population is estimated to have swelled from 9.8 million in 1998 to 21.2 million in 2011, the steepest population increase recorded in any city over such a short period of time.

Moreover, Karachi’s position as Pakistan’s premier seaport means that the nation’s industrial and commercial wellbeing is inextricably tied to the fortunes of this modern-day megacity. Karachi accounts for as much as one-third of Pakistan’s economic activity, 95 per cent of foreign trade and 70 per cent of tax receipts – a state of affairs that has emboldened the theory that if you can ‘fix’ Karachi, then you have a real shot at remodelling the country’s cratered economic landscape.

The responsibility for change lies, ultimately, in the hands of the new government, elected in May this year. Asif Ali Zardari stepped down in September at the end of his five-year term, becoming the first democratically elected president in the country’s 65-year history to complete his full term in office. Pakistan’s new president, Mamnoon Hussain, and prime minister Nawaz Sharif are charged with preserving the nation’s promising democratic principles, as well as continuing to rebuild its splintered institutions, from the judiciary, to education and healthcare.

Widespread poverty has opened the door to religious fundamentalism and criminal violence: bomb and gun attacks blamed on Islamist insurgents have claimed thousands of lives already this year. In Karachi alone, official figures record that more than 1,700 were killed violently in the first half of 2013; the real death toll may lie closer to 2,500 over the six-month period, much of it attributable to internecine gangland warfare. In September, US magazine Foreign Policy termed Karachi “the most dangerous megacity” in the world.

“Sixty per cent of Pakistan’s population is under 30 years of age and is trying to enter the labour force, while not being equipped to do so,” explains Dr Ishrat Husain, dean of the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), the country’s oldest and most respected business school.

“Between 2015 and 2050 we will have 3 million young men and women each year entering the labour force, but if they’re not educated, and do not have the skills which the economy requires, then you have a ticking bomb because there is a danger they will join criminal gangs and mafias, or fundamentalists and terrorists.”

A former governor of Pakistan’s central bank and a veteran of the World Bank, Husain insists that comprehensive reform of the country’s outdated education system can turn this demographic time-bomb, into a dividend.

“We have to have [students] educated in the fields for which there is demand, both inside the country and outside,” he says. “We want to position ourselves as both the brain and the brawn: educated graduates, and trained workers with practical skills. Now is a tipping point for Pakistan and we need all hands on deck: government, private sector, communities, NGOs and civil society, all of these groups need to work together, to roll up their sleeves and do it.”

In Korangi Township, on the southern edge of the city, one non-profit organisation is already elbow-deep in making a difference. The Aman Foundation was formally established in 2008, seeded by a $100m donation from Karachi-born businessman Arif Naqvi. It operates out of a converted cotton warehouse and takes full advantage of the building’s hangar-like open spaces: while the upper floors of the foundation’s headquarters are surrendered to management and administration services, the entire ground floor is dedicated to AmanTech, a training complex which represents a bold new step in the development of skills schooling in Pakistan.

In one enclave scores of young apprentices in green overalls crowd around workbenches; arc welders and safety visors readily to hand. In another, a complicated model of a car engine splutters and dies; it is a simulator, and the gaggle of attendant students must identify why it has chosen this moment to shudder to a halt. Nearby, a plumbing tutor brandishes a spirit level in front of his pupils, holding it aloft as if it were their leader, and they its followers.

The largest vocational training facility in the country, AmanTech is in its third year of operation and has already transformed the lives of more than 6,000 young men, the majority of whom are between the ages of 16 and 22. An array of disciplines, from automobile repair to plumbing and software training, are covered by courses which are split 70/30 between practice and theory. Monthly exams ensure the kids are using their heads, but the majority of the work is with their hands – which is not to say that AmanTech is solely about engaging muscles other than the mind.

“AmanTech is about giving people a bundle of tools,” says Ahsan Jamil, CEO of the Aman Foundation. “It’s not just the tools you see in the workshop, or helping kids to use international tools like computers. It’s not even just about equipping them with a tool like the ability to speak English. It’s about harnessing emotional intelligence, an intangible skillset that so often gets missed in our regular schooling systems.

“Socialisation is very important: being able to work with people, to work in a system, and learn that if you treat people respectfully, that you will be treated respectfully,” he continues. “You learn the skills and you get the accreditation, but in my mind that’s a very small part of the whole thing. It’s not just about economic growth, but about wellbeing, satisfaction, and leading a healthy and productive life.”

To that end AmanTech students, many of them drawn from the most underserved tiers of Karachiite society, adhere to a necessarily strict regime. Examples range from the simple – no smoking is allowed on premises and students are forbidden from chewing betel nuts or gutka, both widely considered to cause oral cancer – to the sophisticated: each student must spend a minimum of two hours each week attending classes on ‘soft’ skills such as dining table etiquette, how to dress for an interview, and conflict resolution. Nor is AmanTech prepared to accept no-shows: over their six, 12 or 18-month courses, students must attend a minimum of 90 per cent of their classes, or face expulsion.

“Each kid brings a different set of circumstances with them to the institute. There is always stuff going on at home, and yet we are happy to try and work with the workable,” says Jamil. “There’s a test at the beginning, and there are dropouts, which are usually a consequence of the kids’ families needing them to go out and work right away, or the fact that Karachi is a huge city. Sometimes the students just can’t make the journey, and while that is unfortunate, we teach practical skills and so you can’t stay at home and read the book.”

If Jamil and his team have their way, it won’t be long before geography no longer represents a barrier to entry for those wishing to develop invaluable vocational skills. “Amantech is a lever, a fulcrum which is allowing us to open conversations with people who want to do the same thing in other parts of the country,” he says. “Pakistan is undergoing a democratic transition, and the new government wants to perform so that it can get the votes it needs next time around. As a result, two and a half years into the life of AmanTech and five years into the life of the foundation, we’re having conversations at local and national levels, on how we might partner with the government to replicate the programme in other provinces.”

This long-term and large-scale strategic thinking is central to the ethos of the Aman Foundation. While well-intended others are focused on micro solutions to local problems, Aman is presenting its findings to policymakers at a national level, casting itself as a catalyst for change and a springboard for innovative approaches to age-old problems. AmanTech is working, and was designed from the very outset as a scheme which could be up-scaled and even franchised with the minimum of fuss. So why shouldn’t it provide a blueprint for the successful recalibration of training initiatives across the country?

“There are very few institutions teaching technical or vocational skills,” says Husain at IBA. “Nationwide there’s only 1 per cent enrolment in technical and vocational disciplines. We need this to go up to 5 per cent in the next few years, and this is a big challenge because you need laboratories, you need working space, equipment, foundries, forging equipment, tools and dyes, and much more, to train the trades.

“I’d put money on the multiplication of the AmanTech model,” he continues. “They have a prototype that they have tested, and now there’s a need to enter into partnerships with other organisations, or operate it as a franchise through which the foundation provides backup and support services such as curriculums and testing. This is something which needs to be done as of yesterday, not today.”

Of the Aman Foundation’s many initiatives, which range from primary education and infrastructure development, to sports and healthcare provision, AmanTech is the leading candidate for immediate adoption at a national level. Pakistan is facing an uphill battle if it is to satisfy the expectations of its swelling youth population, and the readiness of the new government to embrace forward-thinking initiatives such as AmanTech may determine whether this new generation grows up frustrated, or enfranchised.

“Everybody plays lip service to education, and all the political parties in their manifestos have the right rhetoric as far as education is concerned,” says Husain. “However, I would suspend my judgment until I see some runs on the board, that they have done something and demonstrated that they are really interested. We need to improve access, to make it more relevant, and to improve the quality – which means matching the skills of our young people, to the skills that our economy so desperately needs.”