Sharad Mathur

Shoaib Sultan Khan The Man Who Fought Poverty for India and Pakistan

Sharad Mathur

Shoaib Sultan Khan

The South Asian region is the most populated region in the world and is the home of over 1.7 billion people. According to the World Bank, 309 million of them are ‘extremely poor’! The South Asian region houses over 34% of ‘extremely poor’ people in the entire world and is marginally doing better than the Sub-Saharan Africa. While there is a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), effective cooperation between its constituents remains a distant dream. In fact, the region threatens to push the world into a nuclear war every now and then, thanks to a long history of conflict between two of its largest nations, India and Pakistan.
Considering this, the leadership provided by Shoaib Sultan Khan in bringing the solution to rural poverty from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) to Pakistan, perfecting it in Pakistan, and later helping India scale it to up to great heights, is nothing short of extraordinary. He took me through his journey, and while he constantly credited other individuals and co-incidences for his achievements, I could see a pattern of him building institutions and creating leaders.


Shoaib Sultan Khan was born in pre-partition India in 1933 and joined Civil Services of Pakistan (CSP) in 1955. He resigned from CSP in 1978 and dedicated himself to rural development. Through his work with Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), he provided the world with a holistic rural development program. He started Pakistan’s largest rural development program, National Rural Support Program (NRSP). India’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), a rural poverty alleviation program with a massive budget of $5.1 billion and benefits 350 million people is inspired by the work he did in Andhra Pradesh. Through the leaders he created and institutions he built, he went on to support over 150 million individuals and 30-40 thousand households escape poverty in India and Pakistan. He was awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1992 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

 The Calling  (Comilla, Bangladesh)

After joining the civil services in 1955, Shoaib Sultan Khan was posted to the Brahmanvari sub-division of the Comilla district in East Pakistan. That is where he first met Akhtar Hameed Khan, a former Indian civil services officer who had resigned to look for a solution to poverty after witnessing the horrors of 1943 Bengal famine. The influence of A.H. Khan, who was now the director of the Pakistan Academy of Rural Development (PARD) in Comilla, transformed S.S. Khan’s life.
“Akhtar Hameed Khan told me, ‘If you want to help the small farmers and the landless in our villages, you will have to look at the experiences of the world’,” S.S. Khan recalls. A.H. Khan had done a great deal of research on the 19th century Europe and how it overcame poverty. He found the solutions to South Asia’s rural poverty in the principles of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, a German mayor who freed his principality from the cruel clutches of poverty. “He told me, if I want to help the millions of people in my subdivision, I have to implement three principles of Raiffeisen – organise the poor under local leadership, get them to generate capital through the discipline of saving, and upgrade their human resources,” says S.S. Khan with reverence in his voice. He later also saw A.H. Khan implement these principles in Comilla for nine years. S.S. Khan told me, “The results of A.H. Khan’s work in Comilla were amazing. The impact sustained long after he had left Comilla. In 1995, when I visited there, its per capita income was $600 as against the national average of $220.”
Over and above this, to my mind, one of the greatest results of A.H. Khan’s work in Comilla was that it inspired S.S. Khan. It helped nuance his understanding of Raiffeisen’s three principles. The latter saw that it was futile to try and help individuals, but poverty could be defeated if the poor decide to organise themselves under an honest, and competent leader. He understood that you cannot start at the district level, or at the village level, but poverty reduction has to begin with every household. He began to believe that even the poorest of poor had an inherent ability to get out of poverty; a belief representative of supreme empathy.

Sharpening the Saw (Peshawar, Pakistan)

S.S. Khan returned to West Pakistan after the partition as the deputy commissioner of Peshawar and was later promoted to the position of commissioner of Karachi. Due to various constraints of civil services, he could not practice the three principles given to him by A.H. Khan. However, soon the circumstances were going to give him an opportunity to implement them under the guidance of his mentor himself.
Akhtar Hameed Khan

Akhtar Hameed Khan

The post of commissioner Karachi was all too powerful and the politicians wanted more power, more patronage. So, the post was abolished, and at his insistence, S.S. Khan was sent back to Peshawar as the director of Pakistan Academy of Rural Development (PARD). By that time, A.H. Khan had come back to West Pakistan and he started guiding S.S. Khan. It is during that time he took up a thana called Daudzai and began implementing Raiffeisen’s three principles. He started sending monthly reports to A.H. Khan and eventually got him on board as an advisor. The Daudzai project saw success and the quality of life of the locals improve. However, before it could grow and be replicated in nearby areas, it was sabotaged by political interference.
That is when Shoaib Sultan Khan resigned from the civil services and resolved to focus on speed and span in the future projects he would take on. After brief stints with United Nations (UN) bodies in Japan and Sri Lanka, he got an opportunity to do just that.

Perfecting the Model (Gilgit, Pakistan)

In 1982, S.S. Khan took up the ambitious Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), which was founded by the Geneva based Aga Khan Foundation. The area chosen for the programme was Northern Pakistan, and it started from the Gilgit district. “AKRSP was not an NGO. It was an organisation set up by Aga Khan, an individual who almost had the status that head of a state enjoys, normally. It was this support that enabled me to implement the holistic approach to rural development that I had learnt from Akhtar Hameed Khan,” he says.
On being asked about the approach he adopted, he adds in a matter of fact tone, “I did not go to villages with promises to solve their problems. I did not have resources for that. I went there with a development partnership on offer.” In line with the three principles, accepting the development partnership obligated the villagers to organise themselves, raise capital, and develop their human resources. But why would the villagers do any of that?
“I believe that villagers are capable of identifying a need, and getting together to fulfil that need,” retorts S.S. Khan. And the experience of AKRSP validates that 4,993 village organisations (VOs) were formed in the Northern Pakistan, a cadre of 50,000 community activists was developed, and $5 million in savings were raised.
It was made possible by creating an institution, which did not rely on the charisma of its leader, S.S. Khan. He institutionalised the implementation of Raiffeisen’s three principles at AKRSP by putting in place systems and processes. “Ours was a blueprint approach. Ours was a process-driven approach,” says S.S. Khan.
The portfolio of needs, which brought together individuals to form village organisations (VOs), was identified through a through diagnostic survey done by the S.S. Khan’s top team called Management Group (MG). Once it was done, AKRSP would commit a one-time investment (also called productive physical infrastructure), which on an average used to come to $9,000, in the VO. This investment was also used to pay wages to the villagers, albeit lesser than the market rates, to make it viable for them to dedicate themselves to the development work they had undertaken.
There was again a process put in place to prevent few influential individuals from hijacking the VOs. While the VO elected its president and the manager, it did not elect one single committee to manage the VO. There were different committees to manage different aspects of management e.g. committee for conflict resolution or for maintaining the VO owned machinery. Moreover, it was mandated for a general body meeting to be held at least once in a month.
VOs were made sustainable by getting them to develop local leadership in form of the village activists, who sometimes were also the managers and presidents. These village activists were not supposed to be self-sacrificing individuals but the individuals who were driven to improve the lives of their fellow villagers along with their own. They were trained and groomed to make their VO self-sustaining after the AKRSP phases out. Through them, over time, VOs also developed competence at organising and management, land development, increased productivity, credit and banking, marketing, and coordination with government and social sectors. Eventually, when AKRSP phased out, a cluster of VOs would come together to replace AKRSP, administratively and financially, by setting up its own financial institution.
S.S. Khan structured the AKRSP itself as a network of enablers. Programs and support was extended to a group of 75-100 VOs through a Social Organising Unit (SOU), which comprised a social organiser, a satellite social organiser, and a unit engineer. Each SOU functioned to support 350-500 village activists. 95% of the staff was local and they were held accountable to the VOs. The staff was trained to respect and listen to the villagers. Any complaints against staff members were looked into in a transparent manner. And if one of them lost the confidence of a VO, he had no place in AKRSP.
S.S. Khan and his MG, after the initial work in the three districts of Gilgit, took a back seat. The programme grew horizontally to the district of Chitral and Batlistan with minimal supervision and input from its leadership.

 A New Paradigm (Pakistan)

The Aga Khan Foundation invited the World Bank every five years to evaluate AKRSP’s performance. The first World Bank report said that the first four years of AKRSP were the best four years of any World Bank funded program. In their second report they concluded that after 10 years of the program, the income of the people in the region had more than doubled. Soon after the second evaluation by the World Bank, S.S. Khan was asked by then prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Shareef, to replicate his work in a much larger territory. After a thorough meeting with then finance minister, Sartaj Aziz, a programme with an approved budget of Rs 10 billion was launched. It was the beginning of National Rural Support Programme (NRSP), which was registered as a not for profit organisation. Unfortunately, after the first instalment of Rs 500 million, the government changed and next instalments were never released. And yet it was a breakthrough idea, since it was the first time when a government was funding a not-for-profit organisation at such a large level without controlling its activities directly.
 Shoaib_Sultan Khan

Replicating the Model (Andhra Pradesh, India)

In 1991, all the heads of SAARC states had set up an independent South Asia commission for poverty alleviation. “I was also a member of this commission. With me, from India, was K.R. Venugopal, who was an IAS officer and secretary to Narsimha Rao, then Indian prime minister,” says Khan. The panel studied AKRSP’s work and also the unique government-NGO partnership of NRSP.  Their report, submitted at the Dhaka summit of 1993, recommended having social mobilisation as the centrepiece of their poverty reduction programs. And to do that, it suggested to the governments to provide resources and facilitate setting up independent and autonomous rural support organisations.
Soon, at a World Bank conclave, he was approached by a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) representative who invited him to become a senior advisor to their South Asia Poverty Alleviation Program (SAPAP). UNDP at that time was trying to help the governments of South Asia to operationalise the recommendations of the very commission S.S. Khan was a member of.
“I went to Venugopal in India, who was a friend, and told him that we want to demonstrate the model. And if they liked it, they could take it on from there. Moreover, the money was being provided by UNDP,” recalls S.S. Khan. The proposal went right up to the level of the Prime Minister, Mr PV Narsimha Rao. Soon, he found himself in the home state of Rao and the project started from the district of Kannur. “It was like a dream come true for me,” says S.S. Khan with a palpable excitement in his voice.
However, when both India and Pakistan are involved in an equation, it is never easy to circumvent the misgivings between both the nations. S.S. Khan was given a team and his efforts were directed at enabling this team to replicate what was done in Gilgit. However, it was difficult to explain to them the model in its true essence without demonstrating it to them in Gilgit. “Unfortunately, I could not take my team to Gilgit. India and Pakistan both objected to it,” S.S. Khan recalls his frustration. India claimed the territory of Gilgit as its own and could not have its senior bureaucrats apply for a Pakistani visa to go to a place it claims its own. The Pakistanis also were suspicious of these ‘spies’ whom S.S. Khan wanted to bring to Gilgit. A year went by and the project was going nowhere. Meanwhile, another national project coordinator, an IAS officer called K. Raju, was assigned to work with S.S. Khan. Just when his patience was giving way, things changed.
“Luckily for me, one of the probationers who I had trained during my tenure as the deputy director of Civil Services Academy in Lahore, became the interior secretary in Pakistan. So, I went to him and told him that I am taking my team to Gilgit and he should do all he needs to allow it to happen,” chuckles S.S. Khan. The interior secretary took care of it. K. Raju and the team visited Gilgit, they understood the model, and went on to replicate the model in Andhra Pradesh. “In Andhra, UNDP organised only 100 million households. Raju, Vijay Kumar, Rajshekhar – all of these IAS officers – through their efforts, went on to cover 11 million households,” says S.S. Khan with a sense of pride.
But it was not the end of his contribution to India. Before leaving India at the end of the UNDP project, he was instrumental in raising funds for replication of the project and setting up of an autonomous and independent support organisation to facilitate the replication.
In 1999, he was approached by Miko Nishimori, a vice president with the World Bank and a great admirer of the work done at Gilgit. “She wanted to know if the World Bank could support a similar project in South Asia. That is when I invited her to Andhra Pradesh with me. She saw the work that had happened in the villages of Kannur under the UNDP project. Highly impressed, she came back to Hyderabad and told the officials in the chief minister’s office that the World Bank would be happy to support the projet should the government choose to replicate it,” S.S. Khan reminisces.
Now, setting up an independent and autonomous rural support organisation was the next priority. “A delegation, including the chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh, Madhav Rao came to Pakistan to understand the dynamic (of NRSP) and I took them to Sartaj Aziz. In response to their questions, Sartaj told them the partnership works if you believe in it and it doesn’t if you don’t believe in it,” S.S. Khan tells me. Convinced, the delegation went back to India and persuaded Chandra Babu Naidu for the same. The Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) was created and K. Raju became the CEO of this society and institutionalising of S.S. Khan’s method of rural poverty alleviation was completed.


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