Escaping Pakistan’s poverty trap – Courtesy: Telegraph

Escaping Pakistan’s poverty trap – Courtesy: Telegraph

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7:00AM GMT 04 Mar 2013

We were on the road from Gilgit to Sost, in the far north of Pakistan, a journey that follows the Silk Route taken for millennia by merchants on the road to China.

We passed the site of the battle of Nilt, where three Victoria Crosses were awarded after a desperate fight in 1891 between British forces and local tribes.

We reached a great gorge where, according to geologists, the subcontinent of India crashed into Asia, the catastrophic event that threw up the Karakoram mountain range through which we were travelling. Around us were glaciers and great snow-packed mountains of 25,000ft or more.

The Karakoram mountains have still not settled. Three hours’ drive north of Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan province, we reached the spot where in 2010 a mountain had collapsed into the Hunza river, destroying the road and creating an enormous lake.

Lake Attabad, between Gilgit and Sost (EDUARDO DIAZ)

My travelling companion, 79-year-old Shoaib Sultan Khan, was taking me back to where the final stage of his awesome life story had begun.

Exactly 30 years ago, when General Zia-ul-Haq was in power in Pakistan, Khan was commissioned by the Aga Khan to combat the endemic poverty and backwardness of Pakistan’s northern areas. Khan, who was working in a Sri Lankan forest village when he was hired, had spent his life in development work. He was already convinced that democratic village institutions held the key to releasing the rural masses from poverty. He set up the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme to put his insights into practice.

Khan stayed for 12 years in Gilgit and Chitral, a town 100 miles to the west, moving from village to village and living among the people. The only money he had at his disposal came at first from a $400,000 annual grant from the Aga Khan – a pinprick in such a vast area. Though other donors (including Britain’s Department for International Development) followed, the small sums involved meant the only way he could bring about change was by persuading local people to do it themselves.

Yet during this period living standards improved more than twofold, according to World Bank figures. Literacy rates soared from a negligible three per cent in 1982 to 70 per cent or more today. Women – hidden from view across much of the rest of Pakistan – have obtained a fuller and more confident economic and social role.

Today Gilgit and Chitral are two fragile islands of stability in a part of the world given over to terrorism and war, in the surrounding tribal areas of Pakistan and in neighbouring Afghanistan. They alone have largely escaped the contagion. One of the most important reasons for this is Shoaib Sultan Khan. In the areas where he has worked there are jobs, means of livelihood, reasons for hope. So in the course of our journey, I asked him to explain how he set about transforming the lives of the people in these tough but incredibly beautiful areas.

Commuters cross Lake Attabad (EDUARDO DIAZ)

‘In every village I went to,’ he replied, ‘I was very blunt and would tell them that I have not come to listen to your problems nor your needs because I don’t have the resources to do anything about these. But I have come with the conviction that you have potential and we would like to unleash that. So I offered them a development partnership, which entailed their having to do something first before the programme can do anything. I told them that individually I would not be able to help and could only help if they got organised. And that organisation has to be in the common interest of the group.

‘My second condition to them was: you have to identify one of your own men or women as the activist who will lead the organisation. No outsider can do that. My third condition was saving. Since capital is power, you must generate your own capital through savings. However poor, you must save something – even one rupee a week.’

This model subverted the conventional model of social development, which assumed that either central government or outside agencies would lift people out of poverty. Years of experience had taught Khan that this method never worked, and that only the villagers themselves understood what they needed. Central to his vision were the community activists.

‘The basis of our system is to identify leaders,’ he told me. ‘I had no more than 200 of these at most at the start. Now we have 10,000. These were the ones who developed this area. I used to say these community activists are our diamonds. They gave the shine, glitter and permanence to our organisation. The qualities we looked for were twofold. First, they needed to be honest, because they had to do the work themselves and, second, they should be prepared to act for others besides themselves.’

It was the activists in Sost who came to Khan and told him that they wanted to build an irrigation channel deep into the mountain to reach the glacier.

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Pamir Times is the pioneering community news and views portal of Gilgit – Baltistan, Kohistan, Chitral and the surrounding mountain areas. It is a voluntary, not-for-profit, non-partisan and independent venture initiated by the youth.