The Journey of transformation: The untold success stories of rural women

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 By Amir Hussain

The journey of transformation is a series of success stories of rural women in the districts of Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Kashmore and Tharparkar of Sindh province in Pakistan. The stories of empowerment through Union Council Based Poverty Reduction Program (UCBPRP) supported by the Government of Sindh and implemented through the Rural Support Programs RSPs are the eye opening accounts of the journey of transformation from plight to prosperity. The stories provide deep insight into the contextual variances of poverty and help advocate policy yardstick of rural development in Pakistan.

Under this series of the Journey of Transformation 20 case studies will be published on weekly basis with two fold objective a) to help generate some relevant policy debate of how government and civil society together help address the multidimensional poverty b) articulating local narratives of transformation through mainstream media. This article being the first in the series of 20 articles is an introductory one. Before going into the rural development debate let us begin with a critical reflection on the national development policy.

There has been serious disconnect between the policy formulation and local development context in Pakistan like other developing countries across the globe. Development policies in general were influenced by some technical blue prints of program designs which at times did not reflect the local realities and evolving needs of the poor people.

The top-down development models of 1960s and 1970s could not produce long term impact in terms of empowering the marginalized, disfranchised and poverty ridden rural communities across the country. There was vertical growth in the urban centers in 1960s and early 1970s but there was no trickle-down effect of vertical economic growth in terms of poverty alleviation in the rural areas.

The rural poverty in the 1960s and 1970s increased by 10% in Pakistan though it was the period of industrial growth and macro-economic stability.  What went wrong and why did the rural poverty continue to rise despite the fact that Pakistan achieved its highest economic growth during this period? One cogent explanation is the absence of institutional arrangement at the grassroots’ level to help the poor households access the benefits of economic growth.  Top down economic growth is not poverty sensitive and inclusive in nature.

Therefore, the economic growth policy must envisage social investment at the grassroots’ level to enable the poor access the benefits of growth.

It is important to note nonetheless that poverty is relative, complex, and multi-dimensional and some of its factors are beyond the control of national government. There are factors like international trade regime, WTO regulations, de-industrialization and capital flight, neoliberalism and an increasing demand for regional security deterrence, etc. are beyond the control of national governments.

These uncontrollable factors have impact on prevalence of national poverty which cannot be attributed to the role of national development policy.   It is, therefore, important to avoid wild attributions of poverty reduction to certain development approaches and policy frameworks.

It is, however, important to understand the relevance, effectiveness and impact of various poverty alleviation programs and development approaches which can help devise realistic development programs.  Despite the adverse impact of globalization on poverty and income disparity, there are well-grounded and tested development approaches which can be scaled up to help empower the rural poor and to improve the quality of life.

Apart from top-down development models which did not make some visible dent on controllable factors of poverty, there have been participatory rural development programs initiated in 1982 from Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. The participatory rural development programs initiated in 1982 by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) under the leadership of Shoaib Sultan Khan created long term development trajectory for the communities of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral

Replicated across Pakistan these rural development programs provided a participatory development framework to help poor articulate their development agenda. On the one hand it enabled the poor to access the resources and on the other hand it empowered the poor communities as partners of transformation rather than mere recipients of economic development.

The social and human capital created in the villages helped leapfrog the long journey of social change in that the rural communities were able to set their own development agenda. Empowerment of women is central to the participatory development approach of rural development programs. The empowerment was realized through social organisation, asset creation, skill development, business development assistance, providing access to financial services, civic engagement and linking the women entrepreneur to market, etc.

Implemented at the village level these inclusive and participatory development models have helped address the controllable factors of poverty. Participatory development model entails the formation of local organization, provision of relevant skills, creation of productive assets, improving access and quality of health and education services, financial inclusion and scaling up, etc. From 1980s onwards these inclusive rural development models have demonstrated visible impacts in empowering the rural poor, in particular the women through local organization, asset creation, skill development and entrepreneurship. These development models have demonstrated potential to make a dent on the controllable factors of poverty.

The poverty alleviation impact of these programs becomes visible when one compares the human development indicators of the areas of intervention with other far-flung regions of Pakistan.  There is marked improvement in human development indicators despite geographical isolation, economic marginalization and political exclusion of Gilgit-Baltistan for instance.

With all the limitations of participatory rural development approaches, there is much to be learnt whereby the policy makers can benefit from these transformational experiments. These participatory rural development programs have now been scaled up and are being implemented at the national level by RSPs.

These rural development programs have three key features which all the top-down development models lacked. First they are bottom up with a basic premise that development is not possible without building inclusive, participative, transparent and accountable institutions of the poor at the grassroots’ level. Second, it is more important to equip the poor people with relevant skills to access the available resources rather than devising top down solutions of resource creation and distribution. Third investing in local institution of the poor with a multi-input poverty alleviation approach.

What is more important for the effectiveness of the programmatic outcomes is the idea of public private partnership. The most important example of such partnership is the Union Council-Based Poverty Reduction Program (UCBPRP) which was implemented by RSPs with the financial support of the Government of Sindh.

The program is a great example of collaborative work between the government and the support organizations which has been one of the most effective programs of empowerment and poverty alleviation in Sindh.

With support of the European Union, UCBPRP has been extended to another eight districts in Sindh under the SUCCESS program. In addition, Government of Sindh in 2017 extended the UCBPRP to six more districts. Today, UCBRP approach is adopted in 18 districts of Sindh. In the true sense of the word, UCBPRP provides a viable, scalable and replicable development model which can be implemented elsewhere in Pakistan.

The program was significant both in terms of its impact on quality of life of the marginalized rural communities, their empowerment and in dislodging the myth that governments are slow and unreliable development partners. In fact, the program demonstrated that poverty can effectively be tackled through collaborative efforts of government and people’s own institutions. The outreach, scale and resources of government and the technical expertise of rural development organizations together can be the best synergy to help the rural poor graduate out of poverty.

This experiment of collaborative development model in the four districts of Sindh (Shikarpur, Jacobabad, Kashmore and Tharparkar) provide a realistic policy choice for all provincial governments to invest in integrated rural development programs. These success stories must be communicated through the mainstream media to generate an informed policy debate. This will help policy makers, development practitioners and investors to reflect upon the options of long term rural development.

Following this piece, there will be a series of articles on these pages to highlight the actual stories of empowerment from the field. There are some amazing and inspiring stories of the poor people who were able to graduate out of poverty because of the UCBPRP.

Let us hope that the journey of development continues with more collaborative work to build an inclusive and prosperous Pakistan.   I am grateful to the editor and his team of this esteemed newspaper to provide a dedicated space, namely, “Development Corner” on every Thursday to promote the development journalism in the service of the poor of Pakistan.

Amir Hussain is a senior development professional and one of the leading columnists of English language newspapers in Pakistan