AKRSP at 40

.. by Mir Wazir Khan

The AKRSP was launched in 1982 in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral as part of Aga Khan Development Network’s efforts for acceleration of socioeconomic development of the areas. Before the introduction of AKRSP, limited AKDN presence was available in Chitral.

In March 1976 His Highness the Aga Khan visited Chitral. After necessary groundwork the idea of AKRSP was conceived and the program was launched to ‘help the people in helping themselves’. The AKRSP contributed considerably in the provision of much-needed services to the people such as potable water, roads, electricity generation, reclamation of lands through the construction of embankments, construction of water channels and irrigation of barren lands, construction of village and valley-wise link roads, agriculture and horticulture development and marketing. Large number of households is still benefitting from the services and the socioeconomic indicators and standard of living of the people has changed a lot for the better. There cannot be 100% achievement in any human efforts and expectation of perfection in any work is idealistic.

Community participation was in vogue in this area for centuries through the organization of ‘grams’ (village as a unit of basic management of community affairs) and ‘cooperative labor’.  AKRSP tried to broaden and institutionalize that concept by instituting Village Organizations (VOs) and Women Organizations (WOs). In addition to Imamate contribution, huge donor-funding also came to support the new initiatives of grass-roots development through community participation in one of the world’s inhospitable area. The good will and reputation that the name of His Highness the Aga Khan and his institutions carry worldwide and the spiritual affiliation with the Aga Khan of large segment of population from Chitral are some contributing factors in some of the successes of AKRSP programs in the initial stages.

A new philosophy and idea generally gets maximum support in its initial stages. However, with the passage of time due to errors and deviations,the appeal and attractiveness of the new idea weakens resulting reduced support for the philosophy. Secondly, a new vision  coming from the top often do not remain the same by the time it reaches implementation and execution level as the same metamorphoses at different hierarchies of bureaucratic orders and losses its original spirit as envisioned by the main architects of the vision. Major philosophical, religious and political movements have undergone such changes because as time passes and the new vision is taken to broader levels in new areas and the new vision encounters new challenges in new environments. The timely response and solutions to such emerging challenges by the leadership and stakeholders is, perhaps, a barometer for the success of that vision and for the idea becoming relevant to the people with changing times.

The objective of AKRSP and other AKDN programs were, perhaps, not just about implementation of specific programs. The idea behind the programs may have been to educate and train the communities, through project planning and implementation, so that they can carry on the development process from one stage to the other and could cope with and respond to emerging challenges on their own. Through AKRSP efforts many Village Organizations (VOs) and Women Organizations (WOs) sprang up and were trained in leadership and management. But largely the organizations, with the passage of time, are in need of more institutionalization to initiate developmental initiatives on their own and here more work is still needed.

The long-term maintenance of the projects completed by AKRSP is another area that needs the attention of policy-makers in the boardrooms and senior management. The roads constructed by AKRSP in most remote areas of Chitral in the early 1980s are still being used by the communities in the original shape without any improvement. The roads are narrow and dangerous for vehicular traffic and need widening by government or NGOs. Small and medium-sized powerhouses, which are mostly capable for lighting only, are faced with problems of maintenance. There appears to be no technical and organizational capacity in the communities to manage the powerhouses on long-term basis. Some medium-sized powerhouses built by AKRSP in partnership with provincial government of KP a few years back have not been operational due to issues of site suitability and technical defects.

More transparency is needed in self-help work, selection of local leadership and utilization of funds. For instance, presently in any village almost 50% households do not have grown up male members available at homes as they are away on employment. In any self-help program for completion of a project the available male member go for work but they mostly do not work full-time—that is for eight hours—and return to their homes after half-hearted work of two to three hours. While those who are absent from work due to non-availability of male members are compelled to pay wages for a full-day work. A work that would have been completed in 10-days had the available people worked 8-hour a day with some dedication takes months to complete making the cost unaffordable for those who are paying in lieu of their absence! This is against true spirit of self-help work and the ethos of self-conscious community. Overlapping of services, transparency in timely and full collection of user-charges and creation and management of maintenance funds are some other issues.

In any initiative transparency and meritocracy is important. There should be clear-cut yardsticks to gauge the assurance of meritocracy and transparency and it should not be the prerogative for the few to decide what is meritocratic or not differently at different times. Another objective for any program to be successful is to create meaningful awareness among the people about their civic responsibilities and rights and duties by enhancing the general consciousness of the people and changing their general mentality towards their civic responsibilities. If general consciousness of the people is developed then general mentality of the people gets transformed from tribalism and dependency to that of communitarian and humanitarian revival, progress and enlightenment. Such kind of a community can be an active stakeholder in all matters of development and civic affairs affecting their lives. Such a community of people can also be active and vigilant participants in political spheres making their elected representatives from village council level to provincial and national level responsible and accountable before the people in matters of peoples’ rights and entitlements. Communities and community leaders having acceptable level of general consciousness buttressed by ethical and moral values ultimately bring forth a culture where the people become informed and effective players in all matters of development impacting their lives. They can make rational choices and informed decisions in all affairs including electing their representatives and can make both private and public sector service providers accountable and sensitive to their needs and demands. Without the development of such communities having civic consciousness and awareness it would be very hard to make sustainable progress. Presently, this area needs more attention for any sustainable progress. Shoaib Sultan Khan, one of the founding members of AKRSP has maintained in one of his books that NGO-based socioeconomic development efforts cannot transform the whole lot of people from poverty as the same is beyond their mandate and resources and that large-scale development and poverty alleviation can only be done by government. This implies that informed communities are vital for prioritization of needs and for being vigilant and active partners in   both public and private sector development.

The United States, after twenty years of intervention in Afghanistan, and spending trillions of dollars could not bring the desired socioeconomic development, stability and transformation in that country of just about 30 million people.  The US and her local supporters failed in effective and judicious use of the money on people and in the transformation of the general mentality of the people through multi-pronged genuine development. The people remained silent with folded hands when rag-tag opponents of US-backed regime advanced on Kabul and triumphed. There are some objectives that are ideal and some that are achievable. Extravagance should be avoided and major chunk of the funds needs to be utilized on actual development instead of administrative costs.  When development practitioners aim at the ideal then they can achieve the ‘achievable’. Ideas need to be fought with ideas and ‘constructive feedback’ and ‘rational disagreements’ should not be branded as ‘negativity’ and the mantra of everything is ‘ok’ should be revisited. We need to move on from the stage of ‘jargons’ and ‘catchwords’ to the next stage and muster courage to accept differing viewpoints. When a person, an organization or a nation is afraid of news ideas and critique then it should be noticed that progress has stalled and stagnation has set in. .. Mir Wazir Khan, Awi Chitral 15 Dec 2022

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