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November 16, 2017



A new paradigm of change

“There has been substantial investment in building community institutions during the last 15 years. This has [created] a critical mass of development activists and resource personnel within local communities.

“This new cadre of development is organically linked to the community institutions – the social capital created through integrated development inputs over the years. The social capital, [which is] thus created, is the cornerstone of the new theory of change for the poor and marginalised in a rapidly-changing Tharparkar. These institutions of indigenous communities are uniquely positioned to undertake, manage and sustain development at the local level. This will happen only if we believe that these institutions have [the] capacity and commitment to act as local agents of change and are [the] hub of poor-centric transformation in Thar.

“Nonetheless, there is a growing realisation to redefine the role of these institutions in our times of palpable urgency [in] coping with the transition of Tharparkar into the new reality. The new reality entails a rapid transformation of culture, the means of production and socioeconomic relations. These newly emerging productive processes and relationships call for an informed analysis of the new reality along with an inclusive development strategy to enable the community institutions to lead from the front. 

“If this happens, Tharparkar will see a new era of peace, prosperity and smooth transition into an inclusive and sustainable new economy for the poor and marginalised.”

The sheer brilliance of the objectives delivered in a speech by Dr Allah Nawaz Samoo – the CEO of the Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) – during a conference organised by the TRDP in Mithi, Tharparkar outlines the contours of poor-centric development.

This speech provides the gist of a new development strategy for Tharparkar, which, in a way, is a culmination of the grassroots experience of a development practitioner. For an ivory tower development strategist, it could have taken decades of intellectual investment to arrive at the conclusions that Dr Allah Nawaz Samoo had summed up in a 15-minute talk. What he spoke about was validated by the representatives of the community institutions who shared stories of how their institutions undertook, managed and led people out of poverty in different villages of Tharparkar.  

The local women members of community institutions in Tharparkar also shared their experiences of transformational journey during the conference and provided a new perspective of the future of this rapidly changing society. Their wisdom, courage and resilience are the real hope for a better future.

It’s time for development agencies to come forward to help these institutions of the poor grow as alternative voices against the likelihood of the top-down development. Private-sector investments must be leveraged for the benefit of locals through these community-led institutions. This is not only about corporate social responsibility. Instead, it must also be about mutually beneficial business propositions for the private sector and local communities. There is huge potential for micro-entrepreneurship for local communities to benefit from the business acumen of the private sector and it will be a viable solution for the private sector to utilise human, economic and social resources cost effectively. This requires business development and entrepreneurship trainings and skill development programmes for the local youth. 

There are specialist organisations like the Hashoo Foundation that can help the TRDP and a network of other local organisations in providing relevant skills for the youth. Skills for the employability of the youth in an emerging economy will be key to poverty alleviation in Tharparkar. Soft skills in IT, life skills, entrepreneurship training and hospitality management skills will also be a relevant area for job creation in Tharparkar.

Amid pessimism that tends to dominate the regional political discourse on the transformation of Tharparkar, Dr Allah Nawaz Samoo and his development team provide a forward-looking and optimistic approach of inclusivity and pragmatism. The transformational process of Tharparkar looks murky primarily because it has been politicised like other mega projects in the history of this country. It is legitimate to raise concerns about the potential risks of top-down, human-induced changes to people, their economy and culture. But it must be intertwined with well-informed analysis.

Local political voices are vital as an expression of the wishes of the indigenous people in the process of change. However, it must not be politicised for the parochial gains of dynastic politics. 

The transformational process in Tharparkar has economic, social, cultural and environmental dimensions and all of them are neither absolutely negative nor are they restricted to Thar alone. It is vital to understand the technical aspects of the forthcoming development prospects in Tharparkar lest we should turn it into another development fiasco like the Kalabagh Dam.  The extraction of coal for commercial purposes may not be a cost-effective proposition for investors given its high level of moisture. If we are hell-bent on using coal as a source of power generation, it would be cheaper to import it rather than use expensive technologies of separating a high content of water in processing Thar Coal.

Having said that, we cannot condone the importance of this coal as a reserve and a diverse source of energy in this country where natural gas reserves are fast-depleting. The hydrological and environmental cost is high for locals if mitigation measures are not taken in letter and spirit. This environmental compliance must not be left to the incompetent and poorly governed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Sindh. But it must be monitored through community-based local institutions. Public, private and third sectors must invest to capacitate these community-based institutions as local watchdogs to ensure the compliance of context-specific mitigation mechanisms.

This stakeholders’ conference allowed for the emergence of grassroots perspectives as an alternative discourse to both the ill-informed nationalistic narratives and the euphoria of the prosperity of vested business interests. Representatives from the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), the Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN), the Hashoo Foundation (HF), the European Union (EU), Oxfam, Welthungerhilfe        and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), among many others, participated in the conference to deliberate on the objectives set forth in the inaugural speech of Dr Allah Nawaz Samoo. 

Qazi Azmat Isa, the CEO of the PPAF, provided a passionate and thought-provoking perspective of how internalising the core values of inclusion, transparency, accountability and sustainability plays a pivotal role in social transformation. Azmat Isa emphatically put forth his famous dictum that passion, knowledge and action are key in unleashing the potential of human zest for change. He made a strong case for investing in the institutions of the poor through a historical analysis of his own experience of a journey of plight and prosperity in Tharparkar. 

His speech provides pertinent advice to policymakers, development practitioners and donors to bring about a long-term, durable and transformative change by allowing people to take charge of their lives in the fast-changing society of Thar. Development is incremental, long-term and it is not a linear process as it is experiential and contextual, said Qazi Azmat Isa. 

These poignantly articulated narratives of transformation will be key for sustainable development in Tharparkar. People are not merely objects of the development process. Instead, they are the primary actors of change. The term, like beneficiaries and recipients, must be replaced by the notion of primary actors, which allows human agency to act as a force of liberation and change. 

Whether we like it or not, change is inevitable and even more so in the case of Tharparkar. It would not suffice to label change as an exotic phenomenon. The real challenge is to engage with the new reality to make the best of the emerging opportunities. It would not be fair to whip up popular sentiments to resist change for parochial political interests. The wisdom lies in providing workable solutions for poor communities to make the most of this transformational process.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]