When passing through a village a few kilometres below the famous Shandur Pass in Chitral, I saw a brownish two-storeyed building standing in the lush green village which looked like a beautiful oasis surrounded by an ocean of rugged mountains.
Curious to know what the building was, I went in and found it was one of the Aga Khan Schools in Chitral. Later in my travels via the Karakoram Highway to Khanjarab Pass, I saw a number of beautiful schools named Aga Khan Schools or Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee Schools. In Ghizer, Hunza, Gojal and Shimshal I noticed women running small businesses, all supported by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program or AKRSP. Similarly, during my stay in the area of Gojal I noticed women (young and old), men and children enjoying a music festival together without any fear or fuss. In Gilgit-Baltistan education is high, women empowerment is envious and social behaviour impressive.
To be in Hunza, Passu, Shimshal or Chipursan Valley like being in another country. Peace, order, acceptance and social intelligence are higher here. At first experience one is surprised over how all this is possible in this corner of the world. However, close observation and interaction tell that this change does not happen all by itself. There is a history of social engineering and education behind it in the form of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program and the network of developmental agencies under the Aga Khan Development Network.
When the traditional top-down developmental approaches failed – rather, fostered more disparity in the world – an acknowledgement of the importance of participation grew out of the recognition that the worlds’ poor have actually suffered as a result of development, and that everyone needs to be involved in development decisions, implementation and benefits. This shift represents a move towards people-centred development at a transformative level. This move was mainly happening in the 1960s and 1970s.
In Pakistan, the social scientist and development activist, late Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, was among the pioneers of advocating and practising the bottom-up approach and rural development through organising and training rural people. His Comilla Model in former East Pakistan inspired the rural support initiatives in Pakistan. This bottom-up sustainable development model, now termed as a rural support programme (RSP), works around three key concepts. First, mobilisation and organisation of the local communities to foster a more effective demand for better public goods and services at both the household and village levels. Second, building effective linkages between organised communities and government, private sectors et al for the supply of services. Third, whenever needed directly providing services where there is a dearth of these services or lack of quality in these services.
With this philosophy in the background, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan commissioned the establishment of the AKRSP in December 1982, as an initiative of his silver jubilee celebration. The task for setting up the programme was entrusted to Shoaib Sultan Khan, an ex-civil service officer with experience of working in the Comilla project in the 1960s and with the Daudzai project in then NWFP in the 1970s. The first model of the RSP model was thus established in Pakistan with the underpinning assumption of the inherent ability and willingness of the poor people of the country’s northern areas and Chitral, referred to as NAC – now known as GBC – to improve their living conditions.
The mountainous terrain and rugged landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral had for centuries forced its inhabitants to live a life based on few resources and traditional ways, with limited natural resources and harsh climatic conditions. The region mainly remained immune from the happenings occurring in the surrounding regions till the advent of the Dogras and British.
With gradual exposure to the outside world, especially after improvement in the accessibility routes to outside world through the Karakoram Highway, the local communities were introduced to newer lifestyles, economic modes and means for survival. However, the local communities could not keep pace with the rest of the world as they lacked basic skills and required finances. This barred them from fully capitalising on the opportunities of trade and commerce fostered with the bordering regions. This inability was because of the absence of modern skilled institutionalisation and education. The Diamond Jubilee Schools, a private initiative by Aga Khan III, tried to address the education issue in the region as the existing British-era government schools mainly served the aristocracy.
It is against this backdrop that the AKRSP was established to serve the communities of the erstwhile northern areas and Chitral. Since its inception, the AKRSP has been supporting micro-level developments in the mountainous rural areas using participatory approaches by investing in the social capital and ensuring community participation. One of the visible impacts of the AKRSP is the establishment of a micro-finance bank which promotes entrepreneurship among the women of the villages.
Along with social organisation and mobilisation, the AKRSP is also providing services in the form of micro hydel plants, link roads and irrigation channels; the programme has also made efforts to plant trees and set up fruit nurseries.
The AKRSP is an NGO. In Pakistan, most people – including governments – seem to hold a rather unfavourable opinion of NGOs. These organisations are maligned continuously by people and government officials. But the AKRSP is usually termed as a ‘tanzeem’ or ‘idara’, terms that lend it more ownership and acceptance.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral usually hold the AKRSP in high esteem. A local teacher from Hunza says: “I have personally witnessed many people reshaping their lives through assistance provided by the AKRSP.” She further stated, “I personally know women belonging to [the] far flung areas of [the] north who have been financially assisted by it [AKRSP] to run private businesses and now the women [are changing] the area”.
According to a working class woman, the “AKRSP also introduced modern agricultural products, dairy, fruits and poultry in Gilgit-Baltistan. They particularly trained women to earn income from poultry, agricultural and other cash product”.
One of the AKRSP’s former general managers says: “I have benefitted from its philosophy of local autonomy, and empowerment. Using my AKRSP experience, I developed my political ideas, which can be articulated as ‘New Localism’ defined by three autonomies: political, economic and cultural”.
By ‘New Localism’, he probably means trust in indigenous knowledge, human resources and community participation for the empowerment of the local people.
How can this ‘new localism’ be taken to other mountainous communities in Pakistan? One significant ingredient of new localism is the intangible heritage that is under severe threat in areas where the AKRSP operates. Perhaps that is one other area the Aga Khan umbrella can focus on.
The writer heads an independentorganisation dealing with education and development in Swat.