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February 27, 2020

Academics and rural development

Opinion

February 27, 2020

It will take no less than an academic book to capture the journey of rural transformation in Pakistan for being one of the countries with the largest rural development initiatives in the Global South.

There is a plethora of reports, case studies and articles on the development experiences of Pakistan but there is not a single academic book written so far to capture the whole journey of rural transformation.

The very idea of writing an academic account of rural transformation in the Global South with Pakistan as a case study was first floated by one of my teachers at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2016. He could convince some senior researchers amongst his friends from different universities in the West to volunteer for Skype discussions on a monthly basis to deliberate upon the content and structure of the proposed book.

The idea was to make it a participatory exercise to crowd source knowledge for a joint research project. To me, this was an innovative way of knowledge generation through an open debate rather than making it a snobbish academic work or a close corpus of development. The book is not a commercial enterprise at all; it is rather an open venture to bring together knowledge friends to help improve our development practice and policy.

The discussions continued for three years. In October 2019 all of the researchers agreed not only on the outline but to also write various sections of the book itself. In November 2019 I had the opportunity to meet with some of these research fellows in person in Dubai when the structure of the book was discussed at length again. The beauty of this initiative is that opinion and feedback of larger research community was sought from time to time which helped enrich the content of the proposed book. Here too I am pleased to share the objective, rational and methodology of this academic book to seek feedback from the wider research community in Pakistan in order to improve its overall structure and academic substance.

The book will provide grassroots’ perspectives emanating from primary research in the field and anecdotal evidence from real stories of rural transformation in Pakistan. The grassroots’ perspectives will be knit together in a theoretical framework of emerging development discourses and policy debates in the international arena vis-à-vis the Global South. Three dimensions of contemporary development discourse – evidence-based policymaking, neo-localism and co-creation of transformative knowledge – will be analyzed in the context of rural development.

The book will primarily be an academic account with substantial evidence from the field, based on discussions with the beneficiaries of rural development initiatives across Pakistan. The case studies chosen for research substantiation will have geographical, sectoral and thematic representation from the emerging debates of community participation and development practices adopted by various organizations.

In addition to field-based primary research, some secondary resources will also be used from various countries for comparative analysis of the experiences of rural transformation. Analogies may also be drawn as a measure to address some of the existing gaps in the universal policy framework of rural development. In recent times, the most visible and impact-oriented rural transformation programs have been designed and implemented in South Asia and Latin America.

In South Asia, the evolution of rural development programmes has been organic, connected and continuous process that originated from the Comilla Model, spearheaded by late Akhtar Hameed Khan in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The cumulative experiences of the Dawood Zai project in Pakistan, Andhra Pradesh development model in India, Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) in Pakistan, National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan and scaling up of these models at the national level across Pakistan has engendered great academic interest in recent times.

Despite the palpable impact of participatory development on household income and rural transformation, there is very little research-based academic work available to guide development policy framework today. It is, therefore, important that some serious scholarly work is carried out at this point in time which must provide deeper insight for the formulation of an informed and integrated rural development policy framework.

With this hindsight, one may expect that the proposed book will be a good academic addition to fill this academic lacuna in addition to providing an informed framework for replication of these poverty alleviation initiatives elsewhere in the Global South.

With its successful implementation and a seamless transition from one initiative as AKRSP to the formulation of the National Rural Support Programs Network, Pakistan is an ideal case for field-based critical research for this academic project.

Choosing Pakistan as a case of rural transformation experience in the Global South has primarily two interconnected factors or reasons: a) Currently, Pakistan has one of the largest rural support programmes network which has national outreach with decades of continuity; and b) The essence of participatory rural development has so far found a limited space in the mainstream academic discourse and policy debate. The key principles of rural development laid down from the Comilla Model to the AKRSP need to be captured in an academic account for university courses.

Rural development discourse has remained a rudimentary academic concern in tmainstream development literature. It has mostly been restricted to assessment reports by development agencies with some case studies and anecdotal evidence from the developing countries. The most comprehensive anecdotal report on rural poverty came from three volumes published by the World Bank in its series ‘Voices of the poor’ at the beginning of the 21st century. While comprehensive, this series lacks the academic rigour to be included in the taught courses of development studies at the university level. The proposed book in this sense is an attempt to fill this lacuna by linking field research with rigorous academic analysis contributed by leading academicians and researchers.

The book sets off with a fundamental premise that knowledge of rural transformation can best be narrated by poor people themselves from their firsthand experience of development. For the policy and practice of rural development this experiential knowledge has more power than the theorizing of a far-removed academic’s work on rural development.

The book, therefore, will be providing an in-depth analysis of the gap between policy and practice in rural development based on real stories from the field. It will also touch upon the evolution of rural development with a particular focus on its theoretical foundations. In a nutshell, the book will entail the sociological perspective of rural development and its theory of change. It will entail comparative analysis of evolving development experience in the developing world which will include what worked or did not work in transforming lives in the Global South. The book will dwell upon some important subjects like the reawakening of civic engagement through participatory rural development.

From a practitioner’s perspective, the book will demonstrate the ways the rural development programmes can complement the government’s role without losing the essence of civil society function. In addition to this, it will also offer a roadmap for international development agencies and national governments to invest productively for rural transformation through participatory approach. The book will provide a summary of takeaways, the way forward and policy recommendations for governments and international development agencies.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76