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Which Khan Can Save Pakistan?

April 20, 2012 No Comment

By Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, published by Le Monde diplomatique

To say that Pakistan is at a crossroads is something of a truism. Over the last decade, the country has jumped from one political, constitutional and economic crisis to the next, with little sign of stability on the horizon. With parliament having issued its ultimatum to the US last week with a resolution demanding an end to drone strikes and military intelligence operations on Pakistani soil, among other things, the future of the country appears as uncertain as ever.

Despite that, prospects seem to have changed with the sudden meteoric rise of Pakistani cricket legend and opposition leader Imran Khan. When he first entered politics fifteen years ago to found Tehreek-e-Insaf (the Justice Party), he struggled to translate his sporting fame into votes. But in October last year, when up to 250,000 people turned out to support him in Lahore and Karachi — an unprecedented number — it became clear that Khan was a force to be reckoned with. No wonder that earlier this year Khan himself predicted his party would win a landslide victory at the upcoming national elections in 2013.

Khan’s grassroots popularity is driven by the very essence of his political campaign. As a relative newcomer to Pakistani politics who has never held office before, he is the only candidate to remain untainted by allegations or rumours of corruption. This lends unique credibility to his core campaign pillars — fighting corruption through political reform, promoting real democracy, transforming Pakistan’s relationship with the United States and, most of all, creating a meaningful welfare system and generating a robust and vibrant economy.

However, as Pakistanis look to Imran Khan as the country’s best — if not only — hope, questions remain about how much one man can really do to transform decades of accumulating social, political and economic challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is poverty. Currently 61 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Adult literacy is at 56 per cent, with overall female literacy even lower at 36 per cent. Sanitation coverage is only 58 per cent, and 40 per cent of the population lack access to safe drinking water. Overall, Pakistan ranks 145 in the human development index — a slide down from its position at 138 in 1999.

Why all the gloom? Pakistan has an unfortunate tradition of privileging military over development spending. In 2011, defence spending comprised a total of 22 per cent of the budget whereas health, education, infrastructure, and social spending amounted to a measly 2.1 percent of the total budget.

So despite his obvious popularity, many fear that Khan’s political plan lacks substance in dealing with such entrenched issues. Pakistani journalist Farooq Sulehria, writing in The News, points out that Khan’s political ideology simplistically “blames corruption for all the ills plaguing this country”, but lacks a clear manifesto for transformation. “The external debt is approaching $70 billion. Population growth and environmental catastrophes are depriving an increasing number of Pakistanis of their livelihoods. Nuclear waste holds our future hostage. Will Mr Khan solve all these problems by persuading politicians to make their bank accounts public?”

But perhaps this criticism goes too far. In a recent discussion on GEO TV, the prospective presidential candidate promised that his party would “bring into existence such a system that will free the people.” His source of inspiration for this endeavour? “Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan”, declared Imran. “He was a great man. He proved that if you give people the tools, they will be empowered to take care of themselves and be less vulnerable to the corruption of politicians.”

Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan (1914-1999) was a pioneering Pakistani social scientist and development activist. Among his many achievements, most salient was his founding in 1959 of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development at Comilla Victoria College. The groundbreaking principle of the Comilla model was that truly sustainable development must be driven by grassroots cooperative participation by the people. Only by creating “vigorous local institutions”, Akhtar Hameed said, could local infrastructure be sustained by the community long after the cessation of external funding.

Imran Khan’s referral to the late Akhtar Hameed is a heartening indication that there may be more to his politics than his domestic critics realise. Yet he did not mention an equally significant figure in the Pakistani development sector — a man who, thankfully, is still alive and kicking: Dr. Shoaib Sultan Khan.

Shoaib Sultan was effectively Akhtar Hameed’s principal apprentice in rural development, working with him on the Comilla Project from 1959. Under the guidance of his mentor, Shoaib established the Daudzai Pilot Project of the Integrated Rural Development Programme in 1972. In 1978, he was seconded to Nagoya, Japan, to consult for the United Nations Center for Regional Development. He went on to work as a UNICEF consultant in Sri Lanka, adapting his mentor’s insights. Then in 1982, he was asked by the Aga Khan Foundation to return to Pakistan to establish a Rural Support Programme (RSP) designed to create income-generating activities for nearly a million people. One thing led to another, and the resounding success of Shoaib’s work in the northern Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan regions, led him to replicate the programme across three quarters of Pakistan’s districts. Shoaib oversaw the establishment of a further ten autonomous RSPs up and down the country.

Today, Shoaib is chairman of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) — a position that has won him a Nobel Prize nomination. The RSPN is the umbrella structure conjoining its ten sub RSPs into what is now Pakistan’s largest nongovernment civil society organisation. Over the last thirty years, the RSPN’s unique participatory approach to grassroots development has had a staggering success rate – mobilising 4 million Pakistani households through local community organisations, providing skills training to nearly 3 million, and reaching approximately 30 million people.

Wajahat Ali — an American playwright, attorney and public affairs consultant returning from a field trip to investigate RSPN’s work in Sindh this March — recounts that the village women he met explained to him “how the village of 500 people and 48 village huts has become self-sufficient” with the assistance of the RSPN member organisation, the National Rural Support Programme. “They have been taught community organisation, management skills, and vocational training. Within one year, they have used these skills to organise, mobilise and invest their community’s wealth in local infrastructure. The results are mindblowing. After learning specific trades, each individual household is making its own profit, and all of their daughters between the ages of 6 to 12 are now literate. And even more inspiring, the community project manager is a woman.”

The one distinction between Shoaib’s model, and that of his mentor’s, is that Shoaib learnt from the latter’s mistake. Akhtar Hameed himself conceded that too much dependence on government foiled efforts to develop strong cooperative institutions at the local level. Government officials were frequently ill-equipped and unwilling to plan alongside citizens, and to report to them directly. That is not to say the RSPN model belittles the essential role of government — rather, it emphasises that the government’s relationship with citizens should be one of equal partnership, not unaccountable overlord. It is this distinction which explains the RSPN’s singular capacity to mobilise the poor so successfully.

But is Imran Khan ready to work with Shoaib in tackling the nation’s biggest challenges? It is widely suspected that Imran may well win a sweeping victory in upcoming elections. But everything rises and falls not simply on the ex-cricketer’s short-term political success, but on his capacity to deliver. The big question is whether Imran has learnt the very lesson that his development idol, Akhtar Hameed, learned: that government alone is not the answer. A truly democratic Pakistani state must be grounded in strong local civil society institutions capable of holding it to account and engaging with it constructively. Such a vision cannot be delivered without working in partnership with civil society networks like Shoaib Sultan’s RSPN. Only time will tell whether Imran has the wisdom to follow in the footsteps of the two senior Khans.

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