Tue. Jul 16th, 2019

Challenges and Opportunities in Local Governance: Lessons from Hunza Experience

A view of the Pakistan-China Friendship Tunnel. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan


By Ghulam Amin Beg


Recently there was some debate in a section of social media about the Hunza development model and whether Hunza has become a shining star and island of prosperity for others to learn from? More recently the President of Pakistan while in Hunza also referred to the uniqueness of Hunza experience especially its hospitality, honest people, contributions of AKDN and the huge tourism potential of GB.

Map of Gilgit-Baltistan

For the sake of this contribution and discourse, I have picked few elements of local governance mainly relating to notions of leadership, social governance system, key actors and the ethical values and principles that are in action. The aim is to understand what it is like in social governance in Hunza, and what are the lessons and experiences to be shared with other districts?

Mir Muhammad Jamal Khan and Premier Chao En-Lai: Pakistan-China partnership builds on centuries old Hunza-China relationship. — Mir Family 

My personal impression is that the Hunza story is amazing, enterprising and unique. Hunza has remained a princely state for over 900 years. Bordered with western Xinjiang region of China, and northern Badakhshan Province of Afghanistan on the north, Hunza is a strategic gateway to CPEC as the Karakoram Highway passes through this land and connects Pakistan with China. Hunza and China enjoyed 200 years of tributary relationship between 1761 and 1963 and the present Pak-China partnership builds on that relationship and Hunza-China experience. For centuries, a very small, resilient, pluralistic tribal society managed to protect its individuality, sovereignty and freedoms and lived with internal and external risks and threats, irrespective of its population size, social stratification, administrative construction, concentration of power and the games of geopolitics it was dragged into.

Attabad Tunnel: Hunza is the gateway to CPEC and the custodian of Pak-China friendship. — Zulfiqar Ali Khan

A relatively new revenue district in Pakistan administered Gilgit Baltistan region, the official population of Hunza is counted as 50,000 but unofficial estimates put it to over 75,000 in 2017. More recently, upper Hunza Gojal was notified as sub-division and lower Hunza as Tehsil. Like other similar parts of GB and Pakistan, over 70% people are small farmers with less than 1.2 acre of land parcel. Small trading and tourism and public and private sector jobs are the major off-farm income sources. Majority of youth migrate seasonally for jobs, education and business reasons and they send remittances back home to feed families and meeting social costs.

Passu Dialogue-Participatory Village Development Process introduced by AKRSP. — AKRSP

Both the Government and AKDN has a history of working in Hunza; construction of KKH, opening up border trade with China, establishment of boys schools initially and provision of electricity by Government initially and a network of girl schools, primary health care services, rural uplift projects, tourism promotion and civil society mobilization and community institutions were some of the footprints of AKDN. While studies have shown, performance and real impact related to mass education and primary health indicators are comparatively better against other districts of GB, and in general human and social capital is relatively more developed, but in terms of educational outcomes, civic services, public sector jobs and participation in government, Hunza lags many districts of GB.

Similarly, while the 2017 MICS Survey by GoGB/UNICEF puts only 2 percent of population of Hunza as multidimensionally poor, but at the same time showed over 19.6 percent as severely vulnerable poor. Only 30.2 percent are categorized as richest on wealth index quintile. This shows there is widening inequality between the rich and the poor.

Hunza in 1935 : For the women of Hunza life has dramatically changed, thanks to Aga Khan and AKDN, but true women economic and political empowerment will take time.— Lorimer

Energy crises is the worst in Hunza in whole of GB and power outages for over 20 hours was a routine especially in winters when the period is prolonged. Only 0.5% of the population have access to electricity for cooking purposes, while only 13% use LPG gas for cooking and the rest 86.4 % still use wood as solid fuel for cooking. Similarly, youth unemployment is highest especially among women, as only 7.5% reported they are having a job and another 7.1% reported having income from self-employment.

Some of the other common deprivations reported in Hunza include stable jobs/gainful employment, lack of sustainable access to internet service, affordable quality secondary health care, quality education and affordable housing. Unsafe drinking water and lack of sewerage and sanitation services, ill-planned construction and lack of land-use and town planning in emerging towns. Besides, public perceptions of corruption, nepotism and lack of merit in both public and private sector jobs, injustices and slow pace of legal cases in courts against jailed political and social activists who raised voice against police brutality and killing of Attabad IDPs and lack of opportunities for participation in public decision making are some of the other issues highlighted by youth on social media and in focus group discussions that impact local governance and quality of life of the people.

Attabad Landslide :A disaster that exposed inability of Government to swiftly respond to needs of affected people; they still cry for their rights and dignified resettlement.— Inayat Ali 

In social governance, one of the key arguments revolves around quality of leadership. In the Hunza context, leadership has constantly spun around clan-based competition and representation for centuries, and it continues to be so even today in different colors though. In many ways, the Hunzukutz were and still continue to be uniquely transcendentalists as they have a strong sense of the power of nature, demonstrate loyalty and love for the natural authority of the Imam for spiritual guidance, but at the same time, they continue to demonstrate individuality, self-reliance and free thought.

However, this linkage with external world through allegiance to the Ismaili Imamat helps create a transcendental relationship that sustains the invincibility of Hunza for the majority population and hence glues the internal balance of power between clans, regional ethnicities, emerging economic interests and relationships with sister communities and the state institutions. A positive externality internalized which helps in self-governance locally. Although at times, the corporate character also creates buzz on social media and discussion groups.

Another aspect of Hunza local governance also needs contemplation. This relates to a strong sense of three political autonomous sub-regions central, upper and lower Hunza that existed within the old state system, which remained decentralized in local administration under a benevolent dictatorship. The present public and community institutions have not lived up to this reality, which creates undue friction, frustration and deprivations.

Hunza proactively joined Pakistan in 1947 with the hope to become its first citizens, which Islamabad continues to deny it.

Fast forward, and we have the period when Hunza took the lead and unilaterally acceded to joining Pakistan in November 1947. This period witnessed some degree of internal autonomy but the problems of interference in internal affairs started emerging. This internal autonomy of the sort was fully curtailed finally in 1974 by the then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by merging it with Gilgit agency at that time. The key outcomes were, people got rid of single-family rule symbolically and their localized elite administration dissolved, and common people felt truly free in terms of their choices for physical and social mobility, career, social behaviors and economic activities. But it also brought us closer to the political system of patronage and bureaucratic administrative structure that fail to be answerable to the people.

Similarly, we continue to struggle how to develop a local government system to fill the institutional vacuum at local levels. The village and women organizations fostered by AKRSP, continue to remain the only alternative village governance model that is inclusive and participatory for service mediation but has its own limitations and set of challenges in terms of leadership succession, ownership by government and legal legitimacy. While the different governments continue own periodic experimentations through village Councils and project committees and other ad-hoc elite structures like Lumbardars and ruling party structures etc., which is always abortive to deliver, the very public good, it ought to deliver.

Khunjerab: The only active border that connects Pakistan with China.

Thus, we are still struggling to ingrain the culture of integrity, participation, transparency, accountability and openness in public sector institutions and its development processes. The bureaucracy exercise control over public resources while the elected representative personifies leadership and the general public perception is, the nexus between elected representatives, corrupt officials and the contractors continue to misallocate, misuse and outflow public resources and inflow incompetence and corruption into the development processes. The continued delays in land compensation for KKH widening, the misery of affectees of Attabad landslide and the post disaster oppression against innocent youth put behind bars, whose only crime was voicing support for IDPs, are glaring examples of incompetence and inaction by government and elected leaders. Indeed, with notable exceptions, where upright officers fight against the constraints of the system to reaching out to the people, but always remain at marginal end.

Meanwhile, Hunza, which was already under-represented by one seat in the provincial legislative assembly for political reasons, has now for almost two years been disenfranchised totally by de-seating its only elected member and refusing to hold by-elections arguably for fear of youth surge against the ruling party candidate.

Today, most people argue much of these problems exist, because we as Hunzukuts have failed to find a voice and representation of our own or failed to even elect an honest leadership to public office just because of our tribal mindset and clan and ethnic-based leadership choices.

Secondly, thus far, the government and public sector institutions have remained unsuccessful to demonstrate any honest commitment and genuine interest in delivering public services as per their mandates and in forging partnership with local people, local institutions and the civil society. However, gradually, qualified, young and committed officers and specialist have led different departments including education, health, local administration and others. However, in general, bureaucratic attitude is demonstrated, irrespective of any political government or administrative leadership, the policies lack coherence, integrity, transparency and accountability to local people.

Thirdly, the argument and discussion about the role of political parties and their ability to bring any impactful change in Hunza is also getting more protracted and elusive. As these mainly federalist parties are linked to public sector themselves and mostly blamed for being responsible for bad governance and corruption in Pakistan and in GB, although during their tenures they were able to invest in key educational, health and infrastructure projects, but not without scars and blames of corruption and kickbacks. Similarly, their political organization, ideologies, democratic culture and leadership quality is not always what the society aspires for in general. Despite these issues, there is a need for the local people to continue to engage with whatever political affiliations they have, but always reach out to other parties and stakeholders for the minimum common agenda to benefit the common people and protect the interests of Hunza which is their prime responsibility. 

As far as evolution of indigenous political realities rooted in local politics and social, economic and environmental causes, they are still in infancy and it will take time to gain momentum and shape into organized political parties. However, the current advocacy, communication, media, social and research forums, both in social media spaces and otherwise, have important role to play in creating awareness and dissecting issues, exposing corruption and proposing policy changes and acting as nurseries for young leadership development while continuing their struggle and activism with a long-term view avoiding populist and agitative mindset and using localized instruments of mobilization and awareness raising and becoming more inclusive, pragmatic and creative.

Finally, the argument about the vibrancy of the local civil society which is a foremost vital strength of Hunza today. It has many shades, embedded in old tribal roots, ethics, village and women organizations and federations and affiliations in the form of local support organizations, youth, sports, cultural, environmental, professional associations, social and political streams as well as based on economic and family interests in the form of credit societies and business associations.

Inspired by the ethics of Islam and the teachings of His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam of the Ismaili Muslims and the wider ethical framework of AKDN, the Hunza civil society heavily relies upon local philanthropy, volunteering and social services to marginalized groups including poor, youth and women and creating expressions of culture and care of environment. Compared to the set of public sector institutions, and the political parties, the local civil society is seen relatively inclusive, participatory, transparent and accountable and showing more integrity and dedication to causes of education, health, rural uplift, climate change, disaster management and cultural renewals as well as issues related to peace and social harmony and social governance.

However, there are genuine issues and challenges facing these set of civil society institutions. Some of the challenges relate to participation and outreach, leadership succession and transition, elite capture, quality of volunteer time, professionalism, legitimacy and meeting compliance requirements, limitations to graduate to fifth generation social movements and capability to mobilize local or external resources to address gigantic social and economic issues and creating linkages with indigenous political streams and forums and state structures, remains challenging.

On the other hand, the larger civil society in Hunza in the form of faith based and Jamati institutions and the wider AKDN institutions have high influence and reputation for resourcefulness both in material resources and pool of volunteers, legitimacy, trust and acceptance. However, they are mostly challenged for being donor-driven, and over-centralized and the local leadership feel having little role in strategic engagement with government, resource allocation and decision making in such institutions.

It could thus be arguably said the Hunza model is unique and context specific both in theory and practice but has potential for sharing lessons provided certain conditions are met.

In order to draw some lessons from the Hunza experiences in social governance and making Hunza a model district, we can construe our conclusions on five policy pillars:

  1. Strong. honest and dedicated political and social leadership is vital who could look beyond clan-based and ethnic interests;
  2.  A proactive and people-centric local government system and local administration that demonstrate its worth through actions not words to ensure enabling environment, ease of doing business for local people, uninterrupted electricity supply, high bandwidth internet service and protecting the land rights of local people through land-use and town planning, releasing innocent youth jailed for raising voice against police brutality and maintaining law and order;
  3. A decentralized and empowered local community governance through Jamati and AKDN institutions with ability to engage creatively and at strategic levels with government and the private sector to improve governance, create jobs and improve quality of life;
  4. A vibrant local civil society and indigenous political advocacy groups with ability to graduate to social movements and acting as watchdogs and whistleblowers for curbing corruption and making the elected leadership, large political parties and the public and private sector institutions accountable and answerable to the people;
  5. A private sector that creates jobs and engages in ethical business and inclusive and sustainable growth and brings investments, making Hunza an engine of growth for GB and Pakistan.

Once these pre-conditions are met, we might really claim of a Hunza social governance model in action, the learnings and experiences of which could be replicated to other areas of Pakistan and the wider region in similar contexts. Hunza becomes a true partner under CPEC with neighboring Tashkurgan county and Kashgar Prefecter in Xinjiang, China.

Otherwise, despite our great achievements and huge contributions by government and AKDN and the impact of border trade with China, Hunza is no shining star, no island of prosperity, nor it envisions to be one. We wish equitable development and equal opportunities for all districts and communities of GB. But we have the right to dream for our own development in our own way, nobody could deny us this birth right to govern our own affairs and we would not allow anybody encroach on our identity and local autonomy.

However, with current tendencies of self-seeking and ineffective political leadership of different party shades, myopic clan, village-based and ethnic interests, corruption, nepotism, lack of merit and lack of accountability in public institutions, challenges faced by civil society and the private sector in terms of leadership, legitimacy and resource mobilization, things will continue to deteriorate. A friend told me yes, we live in paradise, but when it comes to governance and defending our rights, most of us continue to live in fool’s paradise and play ostrich.

Already issues of youth and women unemployment, inequity, energy crisis, affordability of quality healthcare and quality education, lack of civic services, land grabbing and violation of basic human rights, continues to accumulate with no solutions in sight. The current institutional and policy responses by public, private and civil society is unable to address those issues holistically. However, with active youth engagement through social media, increased awareness and understanding about the marginalized status of GB and Hunza, new opportunities exist for striking a new social contract and consensus, based on the five policy pillars, as outlined above.


The Writer is Social Impact investor and Freelance Policy Advisor on Local Governance, Youth and Civil Society.


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