Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


There are some amongst us who are driven to transform the course of history with their sheer vision, hard work and determination. For such people, comfort and personal success are secondary priorities as they devote their every single breath to the greater good of humanity. Some of them are rejected, ridiculed and even humiliated by the societies they live in, as their ideas and thoughts may be radical and different from those prevailing socially which discredits the existing status quo and makes people challenge their pre-existing notions about the world.

I have had the privilege to come across someone of such calibre, a person who pioneered the development sector in Pakistan. He prefers to identify himself as a humble disciple of another visionary, Akhtar Hameed Khan. The said person, of course, is none other than Shoaib Sultan Khan. We met in his rustic yet discerningly decorated home, with selected artefacts from around the world, in his study cum living room surrounded by his daughter’s paintings and family photographs.

Immaculately dressed, an engaging conversationalist speaking in chaste Urdu and impeccable English, he possesses an old world charm and unmistakably Victorian mannerism. As our tête-à-tête progresses the various facets of his multifarious personality come forth.

His impressive resume could explain many hats he has worn in his distinguished vocation. At an age of 79 years, he still travels between London and Islamabad frequently to oversee the progress of various National Rural Support Programmes (NRSPs) he founded nearly three decades ago.

Khan Sahib was born with a silver spoon in his mouth in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh, India), his mother passed away when he was only three years old. His grandfather, a civil servant in the provincial civil service of UP (United Provinces), took him under his wings. His childhood was spent in different cities as Shahjanpur, Dehradun, Lakhipur, and Hamirpur due to his grandfather’s frequent postings. After finishing his matriculation and intermediate from Moradabad he took admission in the University of Lucknow for his graduation and masters.

When he was in Moradabad, he fell in love with his distant cousin, Musarrat Rahim, and both of them decided to get married despite the ferocious opposition due to their young age. Anyway their perseverance melted the hearts of the family elders who allowed them to tie the knot. And it was the beginning of a long drawn romance in which his better half has always stood by him through thick and thin and has been a pillar of strength. They had four daughters, one of whom passed away, the other three are married and well settled in their professional and personal lives.

After migrating to Pakistan, he had a brief stint in Swat as a lecturer and then proceeded to join the civil services in 1955. As a part of his training, he also studied at the University of Cambridge. His first posting was in the former East Pakistan in district Brahaman Baria where his paths crossed with Hameed Sahib. They developed an immediate rapport and worked together to design a new development course for government officers in Comilla even though its implementation was disrupted after Khan Sahib was sent to the University of Oxford.

In 1970, he visited the district again and was taken aback by the pace of development as in his own words, “it was a different world altogether”. Explaining the developmental philosophy of his mentor, he says, “Hameed Sahib was advocating that a law and order unit i.e. thana (police station) was the most suitable place for development administration. Unlike West Pakistan, this Comilla model was applicable in the eastern half where they converted their thanas and brought 25 government departments to that level.

“The second idea he disseminated was that it was not possible for government officials to deliver services to each household, they simply couldn’t. Government officers should become teachers and instructors and select people from villages and train them in different fields, such as education, health, agriculture and livestock. To bring a change there was a need to create institutions to reach each and every household as poverty stems from such roots,” he adds.

Sensing his interest, Hameed Sahib suggested him to try the Comilla formula in one thana in his district and if successful, could serve as a model for the rest of the country. He launched his pilot project in Daudzai district near Peshawar in 1972 and within three years mobilised the entire population of nearly 90,000 people. However, Khan Sahib was made an OSD in a bizarre move and charged for a sedition. By that time he had made name in the international development agencies.

In 1978, the UN invited him to spend a year at its Centre for Regional Development in Nagoya, Japan. After some time, the Unicef approached him to become its senior consultant at Mahaweli Ganga Development Project in Sri Lanka. The roaring success of the project made him a well-known figure and Aga Khan Foundation approached him to head their programme in the Northern Areas of Pakistan.

As Khan Sahib was very sceptical due to his previous experiences he asked Aga Khan about the duration of the project and His Highness replied that it would be for 25 years. With that kind of material and moral support, he started Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and as they say, the rest is history. It changed the lives of nearly a million people and as the World Bank report of that time noted that their income doubled in real terms and there was a visible difference in every social and economic indicator.

When I asked him, what is the motivating factor behind this enormous success, he simply quotes Tolstoy, “The only certain happiness in life is to live for others.” This is the very notion which helped him to cope up with the tragic death of her daughter and her two kids in a gas leakage accident.

Well, the success of the ARSP model was replicated in many countries and at the request of the United Nations Development Programme, he undertook South Asian Poverty Alleviation programme (SAPAP), setting up demonstration plots on its pattern in India, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Islamabad also started the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) and the provincial programmes replicating the same model.

In this context, India launched a national programme called National Rural Livelihood Mission based on the SAPAP principles of development to benefit over 300 million poor. At the behest of Rahul Gandhi, he started a project in Rajiv Gandhi Mohila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) in his constituency in Uttar Pradesh on the same principles which has proved yet again that the model can help marginalised people overcome all obstacles even in the most hierarchical social structural settings. Similarly in Andhra Pradesh, the programme was started by the World Bank funding and it reached 50 million people and transformed their lives.

With this kind of social and community service, Khan Sahib has been showered with many prestigious awards on the national and international level including the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Award in 1989, the Raman Magsaysay Award by the President of Philippines in 1992 and World Conservation Medal in 1994, Man of the Year (2005) award by the Rotary International (Pakistan), and in 2009 he was elected as Ashoka Fellow. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for ‘unleashing the power and potential of the poor’. Pakistan also showered many laurels on its one of the most distinguished son including Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 1990, Sitara Eisaar and Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 2006.

On a parting note, when I ask him to mention a momentous occurrence which might have changed the course of his life, he answers instantaneously, “Meeting Hameed Sahib was the most remarkable event that happened to me, I might have otherwise been another bureaucrat.” Here he cites an example of Michelangelo that when someone praised his sculptures especially ‘David’, he humbly said that ‘David was there in the marble and I just removed the superficial material’. The same principle applies to the rural people as all RSPs just created the enabling environment which helped him to unleash their potential.

As opposed to so many saints and good Samaritans in the subcontinent such as Mother Teresa who provided food and shelter to the underprivileged, his programme empowered the rural population, by providing them a source of subsistence. It also inspired and paved the way for so many other development practitioners in our region. This is indeed his legacy, to teach a child how to fish so he won’t stay hungry tomorrow!