This year the Rural Support Programmes (RSPs), which are working with 32 million people across the country by organising communities and supporting them in development activities that the people themselves identify and undertake, are celebrating their 30th anniversary. “We feel that 30 years of our movement is an important milestone,” says Shandana Humayoun Khan, currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), which was registered in 2001 as a non-profit company. The RSPN acts as a strategic think tank and a networking mechanism for all the RSPs in Pakistan.
Today there are several RSPs in Pakistan like the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, Balochistan Rural Support Programme, Punjab Rural Support Programme, Sindh Rural Support Programme, National Rural Support Programme, etc. However, the first-ever RSP is the famous Aga Khan Rural Support Programme that was set up 30 years ago in 1983 by Shoaib Sultan Khan. Shoaib Sultan Khan recalls that back in the early 1980s, “I was most pleasantly surprised when on Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s recommendation, Aga Khan Foundation Geneva approached me to accept the General Manager-ship of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP)”. Dr Akhter Hameed Khan was, of course, Pakistan’s most visionary development expert, who believed in harnessing people’s potential.
Hailed as the “hero of the poor” Dr Akhter Hameed Khan was given many awards during his lifetime: the Hilal-i-Pakistan, Sitara-i-Pakistan and the international Magsaysay Award. Dr Akhter Hameed Khan passed away in 1999 but his work lives on in the people he inspired and taught, like Shoaib Sultan Khan and Shandana Humayoun Khan.
Shoaib Sultan Khan, currently Chairman of the RSPN, gives Dr Akhter Hameed Khan all the credit for teaching him about development. He says, “If I had not come in contact with Dr Akhter Hameed Khan from whom for 40 years I learnt everything about development and poverty reduction, I would most probably have retired as a civil servant on reaching the age of superannuation. I owe all my education in development to my tutelage under Dr Akhter Hameed Khan.”
Dr Akhter Hameed Khan believed that: “Where you go into a community with a mai-baap attitude, saying we’ll do this and that for you, you will fail. If you help people get up on their feet, you will succeed. That will only happen if the people from the community come forward as activists … be patient, look around for activists, train them and persuade them to motivate the others. Don’t take on the burden yourself like a donkey — your back will break just like the Pakistan government.”
Today, the RSPs have helped form 297,000 community organisations in 110 districts including two Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This incredible social mobilisation has led to innovations like the formation of micro-finance and health insurance and the empowerment of women. The overall aim of the RSPs is to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of the rural poor by harnessing their potential to help themselves.
“This programme has been replicated in India as part of the government’s rural policy and they are scaling it up. The government should really be doing this as well,” says Shandana who has over 21 years of grass-roots experience, having started her career working for the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. Just across the border, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the state government has applied Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s teachings. In the past decade, the poor of Andhra Pradesh have transformed their lives by setting up self-managed and self-reliant organisations, covering more than eight million people. “The poor of Andhra Pradesh owe a debt to Dr Akhter Hameed Khan for showing the world the intrinsic potential of the poor that lay buried deep under the prejudices and insensitivities of the governing elite,” pointed out Koppula Raju, who served as Principal Secretary, government of Andhra Pradesh. “The biggest contribution that Dr Akhter Hameed Khan made to the society was to correct our distorted perception of the poor. He taught us, through his lifelong work, that poverty arises not out of lack of money, but out of constant disempowerment.”
Koppula Raju, who is now Secretary of the National Social Council in India, has been invited to Pakistan to speak at “The National Convention of Civil Society Organisations” organised by the RSPN in Islamabad on July 1, 2013 to celebrate 30 years of the RSPs. Community activists from across the country have been invited to come together and share their experiences at the convention. The chief guest will be Sartaj Aziz, currently advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The book launch of Man in the Hat: The story of Shoaib Sultan Khan and the rural poor of South Asia will also take place at the event.
Shandana says that while the RSPs have done their spadework in Pakistan, they would like to see greater political commitment to scale things up. “We work at the micro level and that limits the difference you can make. If we had the resources we could really make a difference.” The Indians have certainly learnt from the Andhra Pradesh success story and the federal government of India has now made these lessons a part of their central policy under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. The Andhra Pradesh model of empowering the poor, which is now being replicated by 13 other states in India, is also attracting the attention of other South Asian and African states. This indeed is a tribute to the great legacy of Dr Akhter Hameed Khan. If other countries are scaling up this model, why can’t we in Pakistan?