Learning from the people

How can one learn from people about the solutions to the problems they are facing

Graphic by Naseem ur Rehman

Before discussing social change brought about through various non-government initiatives in different social development sectors, let me briefly touch upon some stark social, economic and political realities of social development in Pakistan.

Firstly, social development and social change are not a linear process. Interventions do not impact development in either positive or negative ways. The result of intervention A, for instance, is seldom an expected or intended B. In reality A can lead to any outcome – C, D, and so on. The reason is simple: the world is not a chemical laboratory where scientists conduct experiments in controlled environments; where chemicals are made to meet, act, and react with one another under strictly regulated external factors like temperatures and air pressure etc.

Secondly, social development is a holistic process and cannot take place in isolated silos. Different factors in social development do not always move in the same direction. For instance, the trade-off between carbon emission and economic growth is a subject of massive debate. The single most important lesson that I have learnt is that these trade-offs need to be changed into synergies for an effective change.

The third important feature is the role of people facing a development challenge. A few decades ago, Bretton Woods Institutes came up with a theoretical financial framework for development which required governments and development professionals to devise and implement the same policies and projects in different part of the world with different socio-politico-economic background. However, the one-size-fits-all approach did not succeed.

The era of what is called “prescriptive development” in the academic circles was followed by what is known as “participatory and consultative” development. While in theory, this latter framework offered better opportunities for tailoring policies and projects that kept geographical, social, cultural, political, and environmental differences front and centre; in practice, participation and consultation degenerated into an internal monologue within the development sector practitioners, government sector agencies and the funders. The communities were informed of the outcome of the consultations – what others thought was best for the people. This led to a predictable outcome: in the best of cases, policies could be implemented only partially and projects produced much less than expected results; in the worst of cases, policies simply failed and the projects never took off.

This brings us to a new era of development: learning from people about solutions to the problems they are facing, rather than consulting them only about policies they don’t understand, and make them participate in projects they don’t own.

How can one learn from people about the solutions to the problems they are facing? There is no dearth of success stories in Pakistan. Akhtar Hameed Khan, father of the Comilla Cooperatives and Orangi Pilot Project, learnt from communities and succeeded where the US government failed in its Village Agricultural and Industrial Development (V-AID) programme that was launched in 1953 in both East and West Pakistan. Shoaib Sultan Khan, father of rural support programmes, used collective wisdom of communities to organise them in self-help groups at the village level to change the lives of millions. In Shoaib Sultan’s words: “(His) model is based on mass participation of villagers with relatively homogenous resources, private ownership of cultivated land, group management of irrigation water and common grazing land, and cooperation for the purpose of commercial activities…”.

Akhtar Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan are legends in the field of social mobilisation, and known globally. Besides them, we have many other islands of success where individual initiatives are bringing positive social change. Master Ayub’s Park School, in one of the parks in F-6 sector of Islamabad; Nargis Latif’s Gul Bahao initiative turning rubbish into houses in Karachi; and Gender Guardian, a dedicated school for transgenders where 12 years of formal education is offered are some of the examples of such success.

It is a known fact that no matter how well intended they are, governments acting alone cannot achieve their social development targets. That’s why governments need to appreciate and facilitate the role of non-governmental sector working in social development sector. Our capacity and resource-challenged federal and provincial governments, on their own, will never be able to deliver on sustainable development goals unless they allow partners from non-developmental sectors to join hands with them in poverty alleviation, food security, health, education, gender mainstreaming and climate change management sectors.

As for challenges facing such non-governmental sectors, many may think that lack of consistent financing is a major challenge for sustainability of such initiatives. Yes, finances do matter. However, I think that it is not the finances; it is innovative ideas where our non-governmental sector is lacking. Anyone who has practicable innovative ideas in this sector will likely find some source of finances.

The major issue to me seems to be a lack of trust between those who want to bring social change and those who love to remain in status quo. First, all non-governmental initiatives are branded in a single category – NGO walas. Then certain sections of media, politicians, bureaucracy, security establishments and the society at large think that these NGOs are “western agents” who operate to erode the basic fabric of our “eastern and Islamic values”. On the other hand, many NGOs are disappointed both by public sector service delivery mechanisms and the public sector decision makers.

Both sides would have to start trusting each other and complementing each other’s efforts for a common cause – no one is left behind in the race for social development. After all, our religion teaches us that God never changes the fate of those who are not interested in doing it themselves.

The writer heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets at @abidsuleri

Social development in Pakistan: Being the CHANGE