Driven by energy, hope, optimism, confidence and conviction, Shoaib Sultan Khan has all the credentials of a leader who continues to inspire the development world today. The lasting relevance of his ideas on inclusive community development and social transformation stems from the fact that the world, with all wealth, economic growth and technological advancement, has done very little to ameliorate the quality of life of the poor and marginalised.
Shoaib Sultan Khan plays a crucial role in promoting the discourse and practice of inclusive and participatory rural development in South Asia, which offers a long-term roadmap for sustainable rural development. As a mentee of Akhtar Hameed Khan and the pioneer of rural development programmes in Pakistan, Shoaib Sultan Khan has become a respected figure. Our endeavours to build a new, inclusive and prosperous Pakistan wouldn’t have reached fruition had we not invested in the model of long-term and participatory rural development envisioned by Shoaib Sultan Khan.
As a development practitioner, writer and social policy adviser, I have always been inspired by the enormous success of rural development programmes in empowering the poor. When I headed the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), the country’s largest social mobilisation programme, I had the privilege of working closely with rural support programmes across the country. The most important aspect of rural development programmes is their ability to organise millions of households, articulate local narratives, unleash local potential for change, and harness volunteerism and a sense of ownership over development programmes.
Let me paraphrase the key principles of the conceptual package of rural development that Shoaib Sultan Khan shed light on during our meeting last week. I went to his office in the morning and found him to be engrossed in work. But he welcomed me in his office and we spent more than an hour together. During our interaction, he patiently listened to me before he spoke about rural development programmes.
Shoaib Sultan Khan spent a great deal of time narrating the history of rural development in South Asia. Akhtar Hameed Khan inspired Shoaib Sultan Khan to resign from his lucrative job in the civil service and join the cause of rural development in South Asia. Both Akhtar Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan devoted their entire lives towards helping the rural poor articulate their own vision of social transformation.
Both development practitioners have a number of rural development initiatives to their credit – from the Comilla Project of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and the Andhra Pradesh Project in India to the Orangi Pilot Project and various rural development programmes in Pakistan.
According to Shoaib Sultan Khan, the first principle of the conceptual package of rural development is to adopt an organised approach to combat poverty, which is perpetuated through the tyranny of landlords, moneylenders and extractive commercial interests. The poor have no option but to form their own local organisation to harness their collective potential to address poverty and its structurally-embedded factors. Responding to a question that I asked about the development leadership, Shoaib Sultan Khan said: “leaders do not fall from the sky…an organic leadership is nurtured only through the process of organising at the local level.’
As per Shoaib Sultan Khan, the second principle of the conceptual package of rural development is capital formation to reduce reliance on external assistance. He asserted that capital is power and the poor must generate their own capital through savings, no matter how small the amount may be. He cites the example of how the meagre savings of poor households turned into millions of rupees over the years through the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Gilgit-Baltistan. This helped improve the household economy of the poor on countless occasions.
Shoaib Sultan Khan explains the third principle of the conceptual package as a process of unleashing local potential that otherwise remains hidden. Everyone has some potential that must be honed through technical inputs and skill development. Honing and harnessing human capital is critical to utilise the benefits of local organisations and escape intergenerational poverty through the productive use of savings.
The development practitioner also recalled his visited to Japuka, a remote village in the Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan, to present his conceptual package. The primitive, isolated and poverty-stricken village was transformed over the years and the journey of transformation eventually spread throughout Gilgit-Baltistan. Shoaib Sultan Khan asserted the success of rural development hinges on the willingness of the community to participate; an honest and competent leadership; and the role of catalysts in inculcating the vision of long-term change. He added that if the three principles of the conceptual package of rural development are applied correctly, they will ensure socioeconomic transformation. To him, these principles are as precise as the law of gravity.
Shoaib Sultan Khan’s contribution towards reducing multidimensional rural poverty in South Asia has had an impact on academics, policy research, and the practice of social development. There are 11 rural support programmes (RSPs) in Pakistan today in 4,255 union councils in 145 districts, including all agencies of Fata. RSPs have organised over seven million households, covering a population of 47.3 million in the form of 425,588 community organisations. The conceptual package of rural development has enormous potential to bring about socioeconomic transformation in Pakistan, provided that the government invests part of its development funds towards sustaining the journey of social transformation in rural Pakistan.
During our meeting, Shoaib Sultan Khan argued that poverty lies at the household level. Therefore, it is vital to devise solutions that affect the household economy and then scale it up across all regions of the country. The government neither has the capacity nor the institutional arrangements to reach out to every household. RSPs can fulfil this role on behalf of the government to address rural poverty. The government has two key functional pillars: the administrative function to ensure the writ of the state and the governance function to maintain a relationship between citizens and the state. Shoaib Sultan Khan claimed that the socioeconomic pillar is another means of addressing social development issues. RSPs play the role of socioeconomic pillars to complement the function of the government to meet its development commitments.
RSPs have created a well-knit network of community institutions at the hamlet, village and union council levels in 145 districts across Pakistan. It is now the responsibility of the government to invest in these institutions of the poor. The institutions of the poor, which are run and managed by poor communities, offer an opportunity for the government to address multidimensional poverty in rural Pakistan. Shoaib Sultan Khan termed these community institutions as conduits of socioeconomic investment where the government can spend its development funds to accelerate the pace of prosperity.
There are a countless success stories across South Asia where rural transformation has helped accelerate inclusive economic transformation. Bangladesh has shown promising and inclusive economic growth, with improved human development indicators, because successive governments in the country have spent a great deal on rural development initiatives. Community empowerment through rural support initiatives has worked well in India by following the rural development model introduced by Akhtar Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan.
Taking a cue from Bangladesh and India, Pakistan has an opportunity to utilise its robust network of RSPs and start investing in rural development to carve its path towards sustainable development. This is the best way to meet our Sustainable Development Goals.
To be continued
The writer is a senior socialdevelopment and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.