Guest blog by Muddassar Ahmed, the founder and the Chief Executive of Unitas Communications Ltd; a London based international communications agency. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.
In the global search for poverty alleviation and sustainable development, Pakistan’s ‘Rural Support Programmes Network’ remains little known, yet offers enormous potential for the eradication of rural poverty across the world today.
The power of a collective community vision is what Pakistan's little known 'Rural Support Programmes Network' (RSPN) has used to empower rural communities to alleviate poverty. RSPN, Pakistan’s largest rural development NGO, is one of the most effective rural poverty alleviation models of the previous three decades. Yet its secret is surprisingly simple - community organizing.
The Network consists of eleven Rural Support Programmes, or RSPs. Founded in the early 1980’s, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) was created to improve agricultural productivity and raise incomes in poor, remote northern regions of Pakistan. Building on the success of AKRSP, other RSPs spread across the country, out of which came the birth of RSPN in 2000.
Today the RSPs stand out for their unique approach and staggering success rates. They have delivered outreach to 4.5 million Pakistani households (out of a network of 35 million) and skills training to 2.21 million. The RSP’s driving principle is the recognition that there can be no long-term poverty alleviation without community empowerment.
As such, their role is essentially one of a facilitator; empowering grassroots communities into local action that reduces poverty. By focusing on social mobilization and training in almost all areas of rural manufacturing, management and basic services, communities have been able to enhance their access to education, health care and social protection. And because the model holds that poverty alleviation cannot take place in a vacuum, it places a significant emphasis on enhancing those social and local governance conditions which allow economic development to flourish.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the activity of RSPN’s partner Sindh Rural Support Organisation’s (SRSO) activity in Pakistan’s rural Sindh province. My most striking observation was of the programme's immense impact on the collective self-esteem and aspirations of remote rural communities. Take the case of Ghulam Bibi in the RSPN supported Sindhi village of Imam Bux Gabol. As a 40-year-old mother of five, she used to work only sporadically on other people's land to keep her poor family afloat. However, the SRSO introduced the ‘Community Investment Fund’ (CIF), an innovative form of community-managed financing, funded by the Sindh government and managed by the women of the village. With this Ghulam Bibi was able to invest in livestock.
Having for the first time been afforded the opportunity to be enterprising, she has today expanded the livestock’s size and value and created a thriving livelihood for herself and her family. And as per the RSP strategy, beneficiaries become the greatest advocates. She now routinely preaches the benefits of the programme to neighboring villages.This policy of investing in people as a conduit to investing in infrastructure ensures that RSPN/RSP programmes do not lose momentum as soon as funding ends, or once immediate goals are met.
Long before Barack Obama, as a presidential hopeful, expounded the transformative power of community organizing and local grassroots leadership, RSPN and RSP’s were applying similar principles across rural Pakistan. Together they established localised leadership and governance structures across 10 independent Rural Support Programmes (RSP) that still exist today.
But it’s not just advice and training that RSPN/RSP’s provides. Limited access to capital can still stack the cards against the world's poor. As microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus puts it: ‘it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty’. And in addressing this, the RSPs have become a leading force in supporting rural access to microfinance in Pakistan.
In summary, the RSP success has come from its unique ability to foster a vision for self-empowerment within rural communities. And in helping develop the skills, community structures, and access to capital to make such a vision achievable. The formula undoubtedly works, having reached three quarters of Pakistan’s districts, trained 1.06 million women and enabled the establishment of over 1,900 schools that generally outperform those supported only by the government.
Since its inception, the model has received widespread international recognition. The World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group noted the RSPN's "impressive record of performance”. It has also been described as the NGO encapsulating one of 13 development ‘Ideas That Work’. Founding RSPN Chairman Shoaib Sultan Khan was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for his work in "unleashing the power and potential of the poor". He has addressed the UN General Assembly to showcase RSPN's proven model of sustainable development.
Yet if the model is really so effective why has there not been an even greater transformation across rural Pakistan, especially given the high concentration of rural poverty? After all, the RSPN model has been widely replicated outside of Pakistan. In 1994, the UN Development Programme requested that RSPN Chairman Shoaib Sultan Khan set-up demonstration pilots of the model in Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The success of those pilots led India to subsequently launch a similar countrywide programme that benefited over 300 million poor.
One reason for this discrepancy lies in the very secret of RSPN's success; the RSPN model is an effective but long-term one, where significant results can only be gauged in the long-term over periods of more than a decade. As such, international aid agencies fail to provide the level of support RSPN needs to kick-start the crucial early stages of new programmes across different regions. These agencies have also failed to continue servicing current programmes before rural communities achieve some semblance of self-sufficiency.
Although a 2004 World Bank evaluation acknowledges that the long-term success of RSP is tremendous, it also notes that the short-term 'quick-fix' results sought by international donors, result in pressures to swiftly demonstrate aid money can lead to tangible outcomes in the short-term.
Despite the economic and political challenges of supporting a programme offering such long-term returns, it is precisely these long-term returns that are needed if sustainability is to truly be achieved. And it would be at the expense of other poor rural communities in Pakistan, South Asia and indeed beyond, if such a ‘bigger picture’ approach to rural development is not embraced and Pakistan’s poverty alleviation secret is not spread.
*Image from RSPN website homepage