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A must-read on rural uplift

August 11, 2009


IS poverty a mere ratio to base poverty reduction strategy papers on to solicit foreign assistance or the never-ending experience of millions losing hope? Day in and day out, the large majority of the poor start their journey to non-fulfilment in rural areas.

In terms of public spending, the neglect of agriculture is now being addressed to some extent. Agriculture, however, is only a part of rural development. Recent pronouncements that higher agricultural prices are transferring billions to rural areas echo the trickle-down make-believe of the Musharraf-Aziz period.

In this environment, the publication by Oxford University Press of Shoaib Sultan Khan's book The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme A Journey through Grassroots Development is most timely. It is a fascinating story of how, with a little bit of social and technical guidance, the poor in the poorest regions can organise themselves to discover their own potential to reduce poverty in a sustainable and self-reliant manner.

Anyone who visited the programme area of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) at the start of the 1980s and followed it up later will have seen a difference. Some amazing statistics are available now. Real income per capita in the programme area more than doubled between 1991 and 2001. From one-third of the real per capita income of Pakistan in 1991, the programme area had pushed ahead to 58 per cent. Hence Shoaib Sultan Khan's claim that he has actually witnessed the reduction of poverty.

The book outlines a government career imbued with a spirit of public service, learning at the feet of the great Akhtar Hameed Khan, and the experiences of the Daudzai project in the NWFP (cre

ated in the image of Comilla Pilot Project in what is now Bangladesh), the Mahaweli Ganga Project in Sri Lanka and the South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

But the real story for us is the success of AKRSP and its replication in the form of the National Rural Support Programme and its counterparts in the provinces. All told, some 5000 community organisations — the backbone of the rural support programmes — have been formed and nurtured across the country to demonstrate that development of the people, by the people and for the people is a realisable dream.

But it is only a demonstration. It needs scaling-up of a huge magnitude to cover a rural population of 105 million. A network of support organisations working outside the government will never have the resources to carry out the huge undertaking. Nor is it its mandate. Only the government has the resources to reduce poverty. But it does not know how. Working in the government for long time has given Shoaib Sultan Khan this important insight. As a district officer, he made honest attempts to implement the programme blueprints handed down from the top. However, districts, even tehsils, turned out to be too big to serve rural communities in any meaningful way.

The shift of emphasis to the thana to create a centre (markaz) of coordinated services under the Integrated Rural Development Programme in the 1970s was meant to establish a viable unit of development administration. Daudzai, a supply-driven departmental model, piloted this approach. It 'withered away' when Shoaib Sultan Khan had to leave government service 'for doing the right things'.

While extending the departmental outreach was important, a key lesson of Daudzai was that development could not be 'administered' to people. The communities had to get involved, participate and own. Supply did not create its own demand because a blueprint assumes, wrongly, that it knows what the needs of the people are. The people may be illiterate, but their knowledge of the grass roots and local realities is superior to those who make the blueprints.

It was at the AKRSP that the demand side came into full play through community participation. Communities would indicate their priorities through a process of dialogue, catalysed by the programme. They were also responsible for implementing and maintaining the projects reflecting their own priorities. Technical and financial support was provided by the programme.

Working in the government had brought home to Shoaib Sultan Khan the inadequacies of departments to reach the desired locations. Working with the communities led to the strong conclusion that eliminating mass poverty was beyond the resources of the non-governmental sector, no matter how unshakeable the commitment and how sincere the effort.

While AKRSP more than achieved its objective of doubling the real per capita income in the programme area, there was also the realisation that its replication in the length and breadth of Pakistan would require working with the government.

Working with the government to work with the communities has defined Shoaib Sultan Khan's struggle to reduce poverty since he left AKRSP. This is what distinguishes the rural-support-programme movement from the NGO sector. It does however own and implement in its work the ideals that the NGOs agitate for. Gender, equity and economic justice are among its fundamental objectives. The approach, however, is cooperative rather than antagonistic.

Khan talks about the successes, frustrations and unjustified allegations during this long journey through grassroots development. Successes have not made him complacent, frustrations have not weakened the resolve and the allegations have failed to demoralise.

As the book is a fine blend of Shoaib Sultan Khan the person and Shoaib Sultan Khan the development guru— in the form of diaries, notes for records, travelogues and analytical perspectives — the reader gets a refreshing insight into the critical problems facing the rural economy. It is a must-read for those interested in the history, theory and practice of rural development from a grassroots perspective.