‘There should be no poverty. We can end it’

Shoaib Sultan Khan talks about defeating poverty through community mobilization

“I will walk for 40 minutes and after that you are welcome,” says 88-year-old Shoaib Sultan Khan as I approach him on a relatively cold Islamabad afternoon.

Done with his exercise and the walk, he sets the record straight saying that he has been organising communities to lift them out of poverty for 47 years now. “Before engaging directly with rural communities, I worked with the government for 25 years,” he says.

“Development means defeating poverty. There are various definitions of poverty but everybody agrees that it can be eliminated through concerted efforts. There should be no poverty in Pakistan. We can eradicate it,” he says.

Khan is the chairman of Rural Support Porgramme Network (RSPN), the largest community-based network in Pakistan. He launched the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in 1982. He is also a senior advisor to the UN Poverty Alleviation Programme.

In acknowledgment of his work to defeat poverty, he has been given many prestigious awards including the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (1990), the Roman Magsaysay Award (1992) and the WWF Conservation Medal (1994).

“The original poverty scorecard has 13 questions to measure the level of poverty in a society. For the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), it was adopted in 2009,” he said.

“But since last year, the government has changed that. Now 67 questions are asked to measure poverty. In the new set-up, we were given the target by the government institution concerned to survey poverty in rural areas of the country. The preparation time was very short and the process very complex,” he says.

Measuring poverty is the first step towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “Tablets (electronic devices) were given to enumerators who were hired temporarily for this purpose. They asked rural populations these 67 questions and recorded their replies. Initially, there was a four-month allocation to do this job. All the data that was keyed into the tablets was sent directly to the database that the government had built for this purpose,” he says.

“In the contract that we signed with the government, they said that they would let us know about any discrepancy when 400 or a “block” of forms are filled. After we had completed two million forms from rural areas of the country, the department concerned said that there were discrepancies in the forms. They did not specify what those were. So, you know, we then gave it up after spending Rs 450 million. We, however, completed about four million forms. Later, the government hired schoolteachers for the job,” he says.

Asked about the objections raised by women and transgender people to the process of measuring their poverty, he says, “I have told you what happened to us. Even then, we continued filling the forms and submitted the data of about four and a half million people. Any more questions about the flaws in measuring poverty should be directed to the BISP.”

“Next comes the stage of eliminating poverty. You cannot defeat poverty without going down to household level because poverty has trickled down to that level in the country.”

“In 1849, there was a mayor in Germany who was worried about the state of poverty in his community. The mayor got the community members together and told them that they could not defeat poverty by working alone. He told them that they could do it only by getting organised and working out a plan to identify their problems and pooling up resources,” Khan says.

“When we go to communities, we tell them that we are not there to solve their problems. We ask them if they believe that Allah has given them power to solve their problems. They say ‘yes’. Then we tell them that they cannot do it alone and they need to get organized,” Shoaib Sultan Khan says. 

He says that this is the model his Rural Development Support Programme is working on. “Since this community organisation model delivers results, there is no need to reinvent the wheel,” he says.

“When we go to communities, we tell them that we are not there to solve their problems. We ask them if they believe that Allah has given them power to solve their problems. They say ‘yes’. Then we tell them that they cannot do it alone and they need to get organised,” Khan says.

Khan says rural populations are then encouraged to develop their own micro investment plans. “They do it but they do not know that they are doing it. We tell them that this planning does not necessarily take place in Islamabad or Karachi,” he says.

A common obstacle to implementing their micro investment plans is lack of funds, he says. “To remove this obstacle, we set up a ‘community investment fund’ for them. We tell them that this is not a loan and they cannot spend it as they will. This money is invested in a business and then returned to the fund,” he says.

He says that his organization only monitors what rural populations do as they have to come out of poverty by their own effort.

“Every 15-20 households become an organisation, led by someone with good repute among them. Hence, in a village of 100 households, there can be five or six organisations with their own micro investment plans and community investment funds,” he explains.

He says that they tell the communities that their each and every member must save something. “I remember a community started saving up Re 1 per meeting. In 10 years, its savings went up to Rs 400,000,” he says.

This is a ‘development partnership’ in which his organization and the communities fulfil their obligations. Since 1982, Khan says, The RSPN has mobilised eight million of 20 million rural households.

“We did not get resources like the BISP gets. We have, however, persisted in our work. These 8 million households that are part of our programme account for over 50 million people. We have a presence in 2,500 out of 5,000 union councils of the country,” he says.

“Other than Sindh, no provincial government has facilitated the community organisations that we have set up. In Sindh, only women lead these organisations. This way, we achieve women empowerment in addition to development,” he says.

Khan says the government needs to use the data and the organisations to solve people’s problems. “Funds are needed to lift communities out of poverty. We are still waiting for the funds. At Howard University, all learning is carried out through case studies. I ask our universities to adopt this method. We have countless case studies for them.”

“A change at the household level is the real change. This is the secret I want to share with the decision-makers,” he says.

The writer, a media studies teacher, can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

‘There should be no poverty. We can end it’: Shoaib Sultan Khan