Fighting poverty

April 10, 2022

Shoaib Sultan Khan’s efforts to improve the lives of the poor are legendary

Fighting poverty


hoaib Sultan Khan’s (SSK) vision of reaching the poor has transcended many boundaries and helped millions of people out of the vicious circle of poverty in South Asia. As chairman, he is currently leading the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) Islamabad, a consortium of 11 rural support programmes in Pakistan. Has also helped the governments of India and Bangladesh develop participatory development strategies for their rural populations.

His conceptual affinity to Akhtar Hameed Khan (1914–1999), a civil servant turned social scientist, has deepened his belief in the theory of poverty reduction. The theory was originally conceived and practiced in 1849 by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen (1818–1888), a mayor of Flammersfeld municipality in Germany.

Raiffeisen would bring together peasants, labourers and poor people and tell them how they could escape money lenders, landlords and shopkeepers through self-help, self-governance and self-responsibility.

Akhter Hameed Khan taught SSK to get people organised and identify honest leadership, let them raise capital through savings and utilise their potential as members of their community organisations.

This was when Akhtar Hameed Khan had already resigned from civil service following the government’s failure to overcome the Bengal famine of 1943. In 1959, he was heading Pakistan Academy for Rural Development in Comilla, East Pakistan, and Shoaib Sultan Khan was an assistant commissioner in Brahmanbaria, a subdivision of the same district.

Shoaib Sultan Khan was born in 1933 in Uttar Pradesh, India. He lost his mother when he was three years old and was raised by his grandfather, who was in Indian civil services. He did his master’s in English literature and started his career as a lecturer before joining the Civil Services of Pakistan in 1955.

He married Musarrat Rahim, and they had four daughters. He served as deputy commissioner in Kohat and Peshawar and as commissioner in Karachi, as secretary in Departments of Health, Education and Social Welfare and as director for the Pakistan Academy of Rural Development.

In 1972, he established the Daudzai Pilot Project. He also working as a consultant to the United Nations Centre for Regional Development till 1982.

His hardest challenge came in 1982 when he was asked to lead the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) as its general manager.

Initiating activities in Japuka village in the Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan, he brought about a positive change to the livelihoods of a million people in the Northern Areas.

According to SSK, poverty lies at the household level. Therefore, it is essential to develop a strategy to reach low-income households and find solutions that affect the household economy before scaling it up across the country.

A World Bank evaluation of the AKRSP reflected that the programme more than doubled the income of the participating households in ten years.

Khan was appointed a senior advisor to the South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme (SAPAP) in 1994. Working in that capacity till 2005, besides Pakistan, he replicated the model in Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Inspired by Shoaib Sultan Khan, the Indian government started many programmes including the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), to reach millions of poor people.

Shoaib Sultan Khan holds that poverty lies at the household level. Therefore, it is essential to develop a strategy to reach low-income households and find solutions that affect the household economy before scaling up the effort across the country.

He believes that Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) function better in addressing rural poverty by reaching every household. The governments have neither such capacity nor institutional provisions to undertake such programmes.

Khan is of the opinion that the government has two functional pillars; the administrative pillar for ensuring the writ of the state and the governance pillar for maintaining a state-citizen relationship. He calls for a third one which he calls the socio-economic pillar, to address social development issues. RSPs can complement the function of the government by playing the role of the socio-economic pillar to help attain its development goals.

A critical function of the RSPs is to facilitate the formation of inclusive, accountable, transparent and sustainable institutions run and managed by poor communities in rural areas to transform their lives through willingness.

“The poor people of the villages have no option but to form local organisations to harness their collective potential to combat poverty,” Shoaib Sultan Khan says. It has been observed that this process of organising people at the local level has nurtured local leadership over the years.

The communities so organised need to generate capital using their own savings. It might be a very small amount, but it is necessary to limit their dependence on external aid. Khan explains, “Capital is power, and money attracts money. “ He has seen thousands of instances of how communities have changed their economic conditions through savings.

Next, he says everyone has some potential that normally remains hidden. It must be polished through technical input and skill development, which is very significant to benefit local institutions and escape poverty.

In recognition of his exceptional services, Shoaib Sultan Khan was awarded Sitara-i-Imtiaz (1990), Sitara-i-Eisaar, (2006) and Hilal-i-Imtiaz (2019) by the president of Pakistan. He was awarded the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Award in 1989, the Magsaysay Award in 1992, the World Conservation Medal by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1994 and the Rotary International (Pakistan) Man of the Year Gold Medal in 2005. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for “Unleashing the power and potential of the poor.“ He was also elected a Senior Ashoka Fellow.

Shoaib Sultan Khan has been a prolific writer. His Note for Records (NFR) is very popular among RSPs professionals. The most prominent of his books and papers are: The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme - A Journey Through Grassroots Development, Rural Change in the Third World: Pakistan and the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, Andhra Pradesh revisited and meetings at Delhi, Advocacy and replication of AKRSP strategy, The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, Gilgit, Andhra really shining and RSPs at the United Nations.

Shoaib Sultan Khan has always found happiness in working for the poor. He says, “a certain happiness is to live a life for others”

As a towering leader of rural development, Shoaib Sultan Khan continues to inspire us with his conviction, enthusiasm and hope. He is confident that people can change their condition by themselves, provided they have the required willingness to get organised, save and unleash their potential. To this effort, he has devoted 48 precious years of his life.

The writer is a rural development professional. He has a master’s in European Studies and can be reached at

Fighting poverty