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“If we had listened to Dr Akhter Hameed Khan when he was alive, there would no longer be any poverty in Pakistan,” says Shoaib Sultan Khan, Chair of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) in Pakistan, which recently celebrated 30 years of its movement. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), the first rural support programme in the country, was founded by Shoaib Sultan himself in 1982. He was a student and friend of Dr Akhter Hameed Khan and he set up the AKRSP with Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s guidance. According to Shoaib Sultan, the Rural Support network is the result of Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s vision and it evolved over the years with the help of successive governments and various international donors.

Today, the Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) are working with 32 million people in 4.8 million households across the country. They 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.

The RSPs approach is based on organising communities and supporting them in development activities that the people themselves identify and undertake. RSPs support local communities by giving technical and financial support for building village infrastructure and supporting the natural resource sectors and small enterprise development amongst other activities. The RSPN, which was registered in 2001 as a non-profit company, acts as a strategic think tank and a networking mechanism for RSPs in Pakistan.

It was Dr Akhter Hameed Khan, Pakistan’s most visionary development expert, who believed in “harnessing people’s potential”. In his late 60s he was asked to set up the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi’s sprawling squatter settlements with the goal of facilitating the residents to construct their own sanitation and drainage system (which is now used as a model for urban development around the world). Hailed as the “hero of the poor” he 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 now Shandana Khan, the Chief Executive officer of the RSPN.

“We feel that 30 years of our movement is an important milestone,” says Shandana, who travels across the country visiting all the different programmes like the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, Balochistan Rural Support Programme, Punjab Rural Support Programme, Sindh Rural Support Programme, National Rural Support Programme, etc. “This programme has been replicated in India as part of the government’s rural policy and they are scaling it up. Pakistan’s government should really be doing this as well”. Shandana 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 taken Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s teachings and applied them. In the past decade, the poor of Andhra Pradesh have transformed their lives by setting up self-managed and self-reliant organisations, empowering more than 12 million women. “The federal government of India has now made it part of their central policy under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission and 13 other states are following the Andhra Pradesh model”.

Shandana says that while the RSPs have done their spadework in Pakistan, their efforts need to be scaled up. “We need to see greater political commitment… 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. India is scaling it up, why can’t we?”

The RSPN had arranged for a ‘Community Convention’ in Islamabad on January 14 to celebrate 30 years of the RSPs. Community activists from across the country had been invited to come together and share what they had been doing and the changes they had wrought in people’s lives, but unfortunately the convention had to be postponed due to Tahirul Qadri’s long march and rally held in Islamabad on the same dates.

Shandana is also proposing community exchange programmes with India and with Afghanistan (which is also implementing a similar national solidarity programme). “People to people contact will make a huge difference. We want our government behind this”. She says she feels a sense of hope for the country in working for the RSPN and there are so many success stories to share. “People can create change for themselves… there is no end to what they can do!”

Dr Akhter Hameed Khan used to say: “Pakistan’s development will not come from the top, it will come from the bottom, and it will happen in pockets — one island formed here, one there and one island will be made by you…” Let’s hope that some day these islands grow and come together for real change in this country.