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When in Rome ...

Updated November 24, 2013

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For those development practitioners who have to work in complex and insecure environments like those of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) where bomb blasts, kidnapping and threats by militants are almost daily occurrences, special skills are needed to cope. In these difficult places, finding solutions to the myriad problems confronting these communities might not be possible; but learning to adapt to the situation is, and that is the approach taken by the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), which has been working in five out of seven tribal agencies since 2007. These include Kurram, Mohmand, Bajaur, Orakzai, South Waziristan and Frontier Region Peshawar. The SRSP describes their approach in these complex areas as “adaptive, flexible and learning based”.

“Social mobilisation is really the key to peace in Fata,” stated Shoaib Sultan Khan, the head of the Rural Support Programmes Network in Pakistan, at a workshop on “Working in Uncertain, Complex and Fragile Environments,” held in Islamabad earlier this month. The two day workshop also included activists from Afghanistan, who are working with their National Solidarity Programme, one of the biggest rural support programmes in the world. Shoaib Sultan has worked for many years in the tribal belt of Pakistan as a top bureaucrat, and he recalled that he always found the tribesmen to be “very well organised, with a strong Pukhtun code that binds them”. It was Governor Lt. Gen Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai of Khyber Pukhtunkwa Province (KP) who first decided to extend the Rural Support Programme (RSP) to all of Fata through the SRSP. At the time Kurram Agency and Frontier Region Peshawar were relatively “soft areas” but now they too are infested with militancy and sectarianism.

The SRSP was chosen to carry out this difficult work given their track record in finding localised solutions to development with communities. During the post-earthquake period, SRSP successfully reconstructed houses and community infrastructure in Mansehra District in KP. They also carried out an effective early recovery programme after the floods of 2010 and earlier, helped manage the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) crisis in 2008 and 2009 (when the Pakistan army went in to clear Swat and other areas of militants). “There is no blue print approach to our work in Fata — we go in and respond to their needs. We keep a low profile and have local staff on board as much as possible,” explained Syed Aftab Ahmed, the Programme Manager Operations of SRSP. “How do you monitor in such difficult places (like South Waziristan)? We have to think out of the box. During the IDP crisis we set up simple and transparent systems and shared information with lots of partners. Public credibility is very important.”

“We face a challenge working in such difficult areas,” pointed out Masood Ul Mulk, the Chief Executive Officer of the SRSP. “But during the IDP crisis, we saw the potential of the community for self help. They took care of each other and we thought: could this social capital be tapped for community development? The answer was yes — through a flexible, people centred, adaptive and accountable manner.” The SRSP’s approach, like the other RSPs, is to carry out social mobilisation in communities, identify key social activists and then provide them with technical assistance. “Development should be owned by communities,” he stated.

The SRSP currently works in 22 districts of KP, building micro-hydel projects, roads and small dams, setting up village banks (providing micro-finance), planting trees, digging tube-wells and rebuilding schools destroyed by militants, floods and earthquakes. “We first started work in Kurram and Frontier Region Peshawar with CIDA funding (Canada’s lead agency for development assistance). Then we started working in other areas in Fata, first through humanitarian programmes and then under the Fata Local Area Development Programme.” The SRSP adopted an incremental approach of first building trust and then coming up with human resource policies and grafting on traditions. “We developed networks — bringing in marginalised groups, involving women, using culture but not fighting it so that there could be change from within.”

One of the more visible successes of the SRSP’s approach of helping marginalised communities to become self-reliant is Maria Salamat, a 26-year-old Hindu teacher turned social organiser from Parachinar, the capital of Kurram Agency. Maria confidently addressed the workshop, telling her moving story from being an outcaste to an empowered community activist. Maria explained how the poverty ridden Hindu community in Parachinar usually find work as janitors in the town and are often treated with contempt. Maria was lucky in that her father, who also worked as a janitor, insisted his children go to school to get an education. Maria would be taunted at school and later in college for belonging to this minority. She was treated no better when she started giving tuitions to earn extra money to help out her family.

Then SRSP started their work in Parachinar and came to their community and talked about self-help and community development. “They told us: when will you stop picking flowers from other’s gardens and start planting your own garden?” recalled Maria. “People listened and there were discussions in the community. Finally we sent women to the SRSP office and told them we need an embroidery centre. They heard us and we got training and sewing machines. I became a master trainer and people started earning much needed cash through sewing.” Maria credits the SRSP staff for instilling so much confidence in her that she could go from village to village as an activist. “I was given respect for the first time in my life. Now people called me Madam Maria and I soon became a social organiser in the SRSP office.”

Today Maria is a role model in her community and is helping them to pool their savings in a joint account to give small loans to those who need them for funerals and weddings. “I want to serve humanity and I want to work hard. Maybe one day I will take over Masood-Ul-Mulk’s position,” she laughed.

Maria is just one success story — there are others like the community school built in Spina Shagay, one of the last towns on the border with Afghanistan, which was once a hideout for the Taliban (now cleared by the Pakistan army).

Today the SRSP has built a school there because the local people actually did want education for their girls and they are now installing a micro-hydel unit to provide electricity to the village. Then there is the Kerman network, led by Habibullah Jan Fani, which has planted over 25,000 saplings in Kurram Agency and raised awareness about the damaging effects of deforestation in the region. As Masood-Ul-Mulk once put it to a friend, “I work with communities and see inspiring examples of the power and resilience of people every day and that gives me hope. Forget the people who want to flee Pakistan, and look at those who are here to stay and are working for a better future.”