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Shoaib Sultan Khan — legendary development leader

Shoaib Sultan Khan — legendary development leader

Following in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, Shoaib Sultan Khan has emerged as a pioneering force for rural development and poverty alleviation in Pakistan. His success in lifting communities out of abject poverty has won him international acclaim. A leader in social and economic development, he talks to Blue Chip about his unparalleled experience in poverty alleviation

With an illustrious career in the civil service of Pakistan, Shoaib Sultan first met the legendary Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan while posted in East Pakistan as Assistant Commissioner in 1959. At that time Dr. Hameed Khan was the Director of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development and chose his subdivision as the training ground for the faculty. Shoaib Sultan was deeply affected by Dr. Hameed Khan’s work in bringing about economic uplift in the lives of the rural poor.

In 1961 Shoaib Sultan was transferred to West Pakistan as Commissioner Karachi. However the post was suddenly deemed superfluous and abolished, “I have the distinction of being the last Commissioner of Karachi!” laughs Shoaib Sultan.

He now decided to fully pursue his passion for human development. “Mumtaz Bhutto was the governor, he was very kind to me. He said, ‘why don’t you stay on and name any post you want.’ I said that I would like to go to the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development in Peshawar so I got posted to Peshawar as deputy commissioner,” says Shoaib Sultan.

On a visit to East Paksitan as part of a delegation, Shoaib Sultan was amazed at the progress wrought through the programmes previously implemented by Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan “At that time they took a delegation from the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development to  East Pakistan. Because I had been in charge of a district there, they took me also. Akhtar Hameed Khan was still there and encouraged me to visit my old subdivision. I just couldn’t believe the transformation.”

Shoaib Sultan explains Dr. Hameed Khan’s concept for development administration, “Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan stressed the need to create a viable unit for development administration because he said that the districts and subdivisions were fine for services and supplies but these were not units of development administration. He said that for development administration, services must be concentrated where people can easily access it. He identified the police thanna jurisdiction as the viable unit for development administration. In those days, the station house officer had to be able to go to the remotest corner of his jurisdiction and come back. So the thanna jurisdiction in physical terms was accessible to the people. He said that this is where all the government services should be developed. He created the thanna training and development centre. The 400 thannas in East Pakistan become thanna training and development centres. It was like a school where farmers who wanted to learn about new seeds and irrigation methods started coming.”

The success of Dr. Hameed Khan’s model made a great impression on Shoaib Sultan,  “I was most impressed by that. When I came back to Peshawar, it stayed with me.”

He invited Dr. Hameed Khan to Peshawar where he further explained the principles of development to Shoaib Sultan, “He said if you are trying to improve the economic and social condition of the poorest of the poor then you have to see what has been the world experience. He used to say that if you look at the distillation of experience from the world, there is a development theory which is as precise as the law of gravity. If you don’t follow those principles and implement a development programme to help the poor, then you are really building crooked walls.”

Dr. Hameed Khan said development would always start from the bottom, not the top. Shoaib Sultan elaborates on this assertion, “There was a mayor in a small principality in Germany in 1849, his name was Raiffeisen. He had a very sympathetic heart towards the poor. He would gather the poor tenants and the landless and exhort them that you are being crushed by three giants. The three giants he identified in 19th century Europe were the landlord, the money lender and the shopkeeper. If you go to any Pakistani village you will find the same situation there. He said that there is only one way that you can overcome these limitations and fight this oppression. You cannot do anything yourself, you have to organise yourselves, you must learn to generate your own capital through savings, however small it may be. He told them to upgrade their human skills, productive skills and management skills. So he gave them the three principles of: organsiation, capital generation and human resource generation. These are the people at the bottom that you are organising. That is why he said development takes place at the bottom.”

Shoaib Sultan gained great acclaim for his work on the Daudzai Project through which the Daudzai police station emerged as a model unit for development administration. Urgently needed administrative departments were established and expanded including agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, cooperatives, health education, revenue and police. The local people were organised, plans for capital generation were made and a training and development centre was set up. Soon, his mentor Dr. Hameed Khan joined him on the Daudzai Project, “After I had started at Daudzai, Dr. Hameed Khan was a visiting professor at Michigan University. He came to see me at Daudzai. He told me to send him monthly reports. I invited him to a seminar which I was holding, he said it was a waste of money for him to come for two days to attend the seminar, but that he was interested in what I was doing at Daudzai. He said, ‘If you want I will come permanently on one condition that you will give me a salary of no more than Rs1500.’ I said, yes I agree but you will have to accept Rs2100 because as joint secretary to the government that is my salary and I cannot pay you less! So he agreed and came.”

Sadly political intrigue reared its head and Shoaib Sultan was suddenly made an officer on special duty (OSD) after false charges had been leveled against him. Though the charges were dropped after four months and he was reassigned elsewhere, he was now disillusioned with the civil service. “I decided to search for pastures new.”

He resigned from the civil service in 1978 and took up an assignment as a consultant for the United Nations in Nagoya, Japan. He was subsequently approached by UNICEF to be a consultant for social development in Sri Lanka. In 1982 he was asked by His Highness the Aga Khan to initiate the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Gilgit. The Aga Khan gained special permission from UNICEF, allowing Shoaib Sultan to be seconded to Pakistan.

“When I met His Highness, I asked him two questions: why have you selected me?; and what do you really want from this programme?” His Highness the Aga Khan explained that he had several programmes in the area but knew that the islands of prosperity brought about by these programmes would not last unless the whole area prospered. “So that is why he wanted an economic programme,” says Shoaib Sultan. His Highness the Aga Khan had selected Shoaib Sultan as he had not only by this time gained international renown, but was also richly recommended by Dr. Hameed Khan. “His Highness said that if you can double the income of the people  in 10 years I will be happy. He ended up staying in Gilgit for 12 years and within a decade the World Bank assessed that the incomes of the people had more than doubled in real terms. AKRSP had a twofold objective: to double the incomes of the people and develop a replicable model.”

Shoaib Sultan explains the methodology of the AKRSP model applied in Gilgit-Baltistan,  “The approach which Raiffeisen taught and Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan implemented and which I learnt had three elements: one was that there is tremendous potential, the basic issue is how to unleash it. When people would praise Michelangelo’s sculptures, he would say that he had done nothing, it was already there in the marble, he just removed the superfluous marble. So the potential is there in the people. The best way to bring it out is to not go with a pre-conceived package. So going to the community and asking what their problems are or saying that we have come to help you — not that. The approach is dialogue. Asking the people if they believe they have the potential; after all how are you surviving? Despite all the difficulties and constraints, you are surviving  so there must be potential. There was never any disagreement. They always said, ‘yes of course, we can do a lot of things.’ Then the issue was that how do we unleash this potential, how do we remove the obstacles starting at the household level. When we talk about the bottom, the bottom really means the bottom. We don’t stop at the village, we go to each household because poverty is there.”

Once the potential had been identified, organisation was essential. “I would say that I have not come here to listen to your demands, I have only come with a methodology, an approach which over the last 150 years, whichever country has adopted, they have been able to overcome the problems that they were facing. This is a development partnership and both sides have obligations.”

When asked what was required to be done,  Shoaib Sultan would tell them that they had to organise and that “an organisation will also have to find an honest and competent leader from amongst yourselves, because without an honest and competent leader you will not go any further. Look at Pakistan, what is Pakistan’s problem? Jinnah was able to capture the imagination of Muslims, he was a man whose integrity was unassailable.”

After getting organised, a micro-investment plan is made by each household on what they are capable of doing and what are the obstacles in the way. “That would become the basis of our partnership.”

Soon the partnership became a runaway success and was adopted by several villages.  “It was all a question of demonstration,  when one or two villages agreed and we were able to demonstrate that we say what we mean. In the first 55 days I held about 55 dialogues in different villages and about 10 villages came forward . In the next two or three months they were able to see how AKRSP kept its word. It gained a momentum. So success was based on the willingness of the community and the presence of an honest and competent leader.” This led to the successful establishment of other rural support programmes. A national icon, Shoaib Sultan has played a uniquely invaluable role in lifting people out of grinding poverty, empowering those previously consigned to lives of endemic poverty.

Through galvanising and empowering the impoverished, Shoaib Sultan has effected radical change in Pakistan, bringing millions out of extreme poverty, despair and economic isolation.

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