The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
Is social change quintessentially an impactful urban phenomena? If we go by common sense, there is a simple affirmative answer to this question. But in reality this is neither a simple question to ask nor a common sense one to be responded to with an affirmative nod. We have long been in the business of seeking fanciful shortcuts on many counts, from answering complex questions to assessing the impact of change.
What is social change? This is a more fundamental question to raise than asking about its spatial expression and impact. Social change is a broad-based and contested idea which may vary from changes in life because of an urban mega infrastructure to transforming the lives of rural poor in the long run. Changes in life due to an urban infrastructure like a metro bus service, a bridge or a circular railway is something planned beyond the ambit of local priorities. Such changes in general are the result of an externally formulated development policy, and this may not reflect the priorities of local people.
Our urban planning genius Arif Hassan would say that big infrastructures are more about making money through the nexus of international lenders and local elite than ensuring local development as a priority. Just a few yards away from the metro bus service on Murree Road in Rawalpindi you will see broken pavements, dilapidated streets flooded with sewer and poorly managed public health and educational services.
If one were to assess the development priorities in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Peshawar, how many local people would have chosen a metro bus service as compared to improved sanitation, better water supply, upgraded streets and affordable quality education and health services? Well people would, most likely, choose improvement in basic local services having direct benefits as compared to big infrastructure projects. Some people may argue that there should not be an either/or comparison between local development and building of metro bus services or big infrastructure projects. Both are important and therefore construction of big infrastructure and improvement of local services should go hand in hand.
But governments do not have unlimited resources and hence there must always be prioritization. This is where local planning matters, which in turn makes development a priority-based, ownership-driven and a sustainable process. Except for the Orangi Pilot Project, urban development in Pakistan has for the most part been a cartel-based top down process and an opportunity for the rich to make money. The Orangi Pilot Project was one great prospect to scale up the localization of urban development as a participatory process, in particular in the poverty stricken urban centers and in informal settlements. Unfortunately that did not happen and this opportunity of inclusive urban development was lost to cartel-based and top down mega infrastructure projects.
In rural development too, large-scale top-down transformation programmes failed to show any long-term change in the lives of people. On May 8, 2020, I wrote an article ‘Contextualizing rural development’ in these pages where I discussed the pitfalls of rural transformation programmes and the green revolution. Rural transformation programmes have had long-term implications for Pakistan in terms of policy, planning and practice of development. The Green revolution with all its promises of long-term prosperity failed to deliver and hence there emerged a coherent alternative of rural development.
The alternative model of rural development was rooted more in an incremental approach of grassroots development by unleashing the local potential of development rather than relying on the grand macroeconomic narrative of rural transformation programmes. Pioneered by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) in Pakistan, rural development programmes were founded on a conceptual package of building social, functional, financial and human capitals as key ingredients of development. Participatory in nature – contrary to the top-down technical and blueprint approaches of rural transformation – and predicated upon the vision of Akhtar Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan, this model was scaled up at the national level. At the core of the rural development programmes is the conviction that only the poor can get rid of poverty. This message is so powerful that it has worked wonders with minimal resource input.
Rural development programmes have been instrumental and impactful in fighting household poverty in Pakistan. The first condition to combat poverty is the formation of local organizations governed by the poor themselves. One key dimension of poverty is that the poor lack the voice and the power to affect change in their favour because they lack organization. The second important dimension is the lack of finances to bring socioeconomic change for which it is important that the local organization of the poor must mobilize savings from their members. This saving can be meagre but it must be a regular feature to reduce dependence on external agents of change.
The third dimension is the lack of appropriate skills to use the finances from internal savings and development aid – and hence it is important to develop human capital. Human capital was emphasized by Amartya Sen too as functional capability to benefit from the existing services and opportunities.
Once these prerequisites are created only then would it make sense to believe that macroeconomic policy will have a positive impact on the lives of the poor. The success of this conceptual package of building multiple capitals is contingent upon consistent investment from the government and development agencies. There are no shortcuts, in particular when it is about addressing the enduring issue of poverty and disempowerment. This is an incremental process in that the process of unleashing the potential of the rural poor opens up the possibilities of transformation. I recall one important advice of Shoaib Sultan Khan: that development is a process not a programme, but it needs a programme to initiate this process.
During the last couple of weeks I held telephonic conversations with the members of community organizations across Gilgit-Baltistan and some part of Chitral for my research work. The communities served by the AKRSP shared some eye-opening accounts of their journey out of poverty. The long-term impact of participatory rural development programmes has been visible: that is, from transition of dependence to self-reliance.
The World Bank in one of its evaluations of the AKRSP in 2010 states, “The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) continues to be an effective instrument to improve the productivity and the welfare of families in the communities. This has resulted from its interventions in productive investments, production-support investments such as access roads, training, and financial and technical services. A key element has been institutional development at the village level-village organizations (VO) and women’s organizations (WO)-which has provided the framework to organize the energies of community members to avail themselves of outside assistance, as well as to direct their own resources into more productive endeavors.”
The communities I interacted with shared their stories of transformation from intergenerational poverty to a self-reliant and forward-looking people connected with the larger world. Men and women who were the beneficiaries of AKRSP programmes now even hold ministerial positions in the provincial government. This is where one has to understand that development is about unleashing the local potential of a region.