Journal Issue

Community Participation in Northern Pakistan: An experiment with encouraging results

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
December 1987
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Graham Donaldson

The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) was started in 1982 with the support and initial funding of the Aga Khan Foundation to foster the development of the rural poor in the remote and mountainous Northern Area of Pakistan. The project area (Gilgit, Chitral, and Baltistan) is surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world. It has been readily accessible by road only since the late 1970s, with the completion of the Karakorum Highway to China. It has a population of about 750,000 located in some 1,030 villages. The villages are oases constructed on river terraces, the “fans” of river valleys or scree from the mountains (often terraced), watered by ingeniously constructed irrigation channels which tap streams flowing from glaciers, springs, and snow melt.

Purpose, precepts. The program’s broad purpose is to support the commercialization of subsistence villages, by creating village level organizations, building productive physical infrastructure, establishing deposits to facilitate credit, and by providing production and marketing support systems and training. The intention is to double rural per capita incomes over a period of 10 to 15 years without significantly worsening income inequalities.

The community development model being followed owes much to the work centered on the Comilla Academy of Rural Development in Bangladesh in the 1960s and early 1970s. It has antecedents in the rural cooperatives in nineteenth century Europe and in village organization programs in the Republic of Korea, Taiwan (Province of China), and India in the 1940s and 1950s, and in Pakistan and in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. It relies on the mass participation of villagers with relatively homogeneous resources, private ownership of cultivated land, group management of irrigation water and common grazing land, and cooperation for the purpose of commercial activities.

This description of the community participation aspect of the AKRSP is drawn from “The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Pakistan: An Interim Evaluation,” a World Bank Operations Evaluation Study, July 1987, available from the World Bank Publications Sales Unit.

Among its basic principles for action are the following:

• small farmers in isolated communities need a village organization to overcome the disadvantages of small scale;

• village organizations can be used to promote genuine participation in planning and implementing development by villagers;

• villagers can be most effectively organized initially around economic, rather than social, activities;

• a project to create productive physical infrastructure is an effective beginning for the organization of villagers;

• in order to create such infrastructure efficiently and without exploitation, village labor employed should be paid;

• regular savings, however small, are an essential part of the discipline of collective management and finance of development;

• village organizations can be used successfully to promote formal savings and credit by individuals and the group, provided that control of the savings and credit remains with the group as a whole;

• members of village organizations can acquire the necessary organizational and technical skills to serve themselves and the community, and for which other villagers are prepared to pay;

• the village organization following these principles can take continuing responsibility for sustainable development of the resources at its disposal. A system of community participation makes it easier to follow farming practices that are environmentally sound. Hill irrigation and alpine pasture management both depend on high levels of cooperation between households within villages if they are to be sustained.

Methods. The process AKRSP follows is to establish a village organization with all families as participating members. Once established, this organization enters into formal partnership with AKRSP under which the latter provides technical and financial assistance in the form of programs. By late 1986, village organizations were active in half the villages in the program area. Given the difficulties of terrain and seasonal conditions this is a tremendous achievement.

The VO’s main function initially is the collective planning and implementation of a productive physical infrastructure project financed by a grant but collectively chosen by the organization. The infrastructure greatly increases the financial return to subsequent expenditures on the farm, and thus provides the very high incentives needed to encourage subsistence farmers’ participation in the program. Most of these projects are irrigation channels or link roads, but storage tanks, flood protection works, and pony tracks have also been chosen. Engineering and costing is done by AKRSP in conjunction with the villagers. The village organization is responsible for the execution of the project and for paying villagers wages for work on it.

The average grant made to these organizations is about $9,000, paid in five progressive installments. The grant covers about 40 percent of the imputed costs of the infrastructure project, taking account of the village’s labor contribution. (Only one grant is provided to each village; all subsequent activities, including maintenance of the project infrastructure, have to be financed by the village organization or through credit.)

All members of the VO must make savings deposits at their regular meetings; in fact, a high proportion of wages from work on the infrastructure projects is being saved in this way. The accumulated funds are recorded in individual passbooks but are banked collectively. This “equity capital” is essential to the viability of the organization since it gives farm families access to the formal rural financial system and its various services at a cost well below that of the informal credit system. The series of dialogues between project staff and village organizations to identify and plan the infrastructure project ensures that planning is location-specific and agreed by members. In addition, through frequent meetings of the village as a whole, and through the preparation of written records, the business of the village in relation to AKRSP becomes public and open to all. In this way the rights of less powerful members of the community are protected and opportunities for individuals or small groups to appropriate the benefits are minimized.

Originally the program had the goal of establishing separate women’s organizations independent of the VOs, but the validity of this approach gradually came to seem doubtful: since increased production, as well as most of the innovations being introduced under the program, implied an extra workload for women, there was a danger that the economic benefits from the infrastructure projects would be limited by shortages of labor. The program now views women’s work as an integral part of the local economy and has begun to merge its efforts for women into the overall development strategy of the village organization. In some villages, women now go freely to meetings with men. In others, dealings are complicated by the purdah traditions of the different sects, but the purdah problem is being overcome by using trained female AKRSP staff and training local women.

The longer-term benefit of most physical infrastructure projects comes only from their employment as fixed capital in the broader processes of farm production and marketing. A whole system of productive infrastructure must be developed before an investment in, say, irrigation channels becomes productive. The program is thus assisting technically with the on-farm development of the land and in agricultural processing and marketing. It has also served as intermediary between the banks and the VOs for the provision of credit for this purpose.

Relations with government. AKRSP’s aim is to leave in place local organizations and institutions that will facilitate continued progress in the future. All its activities are intended to complement and enrich the activities of government, not to duplicate or replace them.

The program’s initial activities, however, are largely independent of the government. Through the combination of the VO and the infrastructure project, and through the sequence of dialogues held between villagers and AKRSP management, local capacity for self-help is built where the people become the prime agents of their own development. AKRSP catalyzes this process and offers not only a significant financial incentive early on, but also expertise on organizational issues (how to conduct meetings, keep minutes, and maintain accounts), technical matters (surveying and estimating engineering work for channels, link-roads and bridges), and access to materials (opening supply lines for construction materials, tools, and equipment).

On completion of the infrastructure project, when the VO has reached a certain level of confidence and organizational skill, activities are begun that focus on human resource development (training of livestock specialists, plant production and protection specialists) and on the development of supply lines (for vaccines, pesticides, and fertilizers) that become closely linked to government agencies. Government officers are called upon to provide most of the training of village specialists in AKRSP’s training centers. This training significantly complements the work of government officials without enough time or resources to service remote communities. For example, AKRSP and the village organizations recognized the outbreak of anthrax near Gilgit in 1985 and 1986. Trained villagers recognized the disease, AKRSP provided the vaccine, and village livestock specialists performed hundreds of vaccinations under the supervision of government veterinarians. The government, an NGO, and villagers cooperated in a previously impossible way to combat a very serious human and animal health problem.

Program resources and costs. The program has one staff member for every 200 households served, and one professional for every 444 households. It employs 17 social organizers (all of whom are from the Northern Areas and all of whom have master’s degrees), supported by a central team of engineers, agriculturalists, economists, and other subject specialists. The salaries of its 86 professional staff are comparable to government salaries. Support facilities, including jeeps, are more abundant than in government.

The program’s total funding for its first four years has been $8.3 million, received largely in the form of grants from donors—the Aga Khan Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency, the Netherlands Government, Alberta Aid, US AID, the UK Overseas Development Agency, OXFAM, and the Ford Foundation. The Government of Pakistan has also provided funding.

The program’s costs per beneficiary are well within the range typical of most rural development projects. Expenditures in the first four years amounted to about $192 per beneficiary household.

Evaluation. An assessment by the World Bank shows that after four years of operation, AKRSP is benefiting 45 percent of the population in the project area. That the program works can be seen from the flow of apples, apricots, seed potatoes, and other produce moving down the roads and present in the market towns. The performance and achievements of AKRSP are impressive. The attitudes of villagers have changed from outright suspicion, alienated disinterest, or guarded curiosity at best, to a combination of willing acceptance, enthusiastic cooperation, or unqualified endorsement. The achievements are largely attributable to the effectiveness of the institution-building efforts at the village level.

Several management principles are critical to this effectiveness. First is the principle of primacy of the village organization, as the focal point of all AKRSP activities. Though AKRSP is firm in keeping to the agreed conditions of the partnership, the village organization’s activities are supported but never undercut. Second is the principle of continued attention to innovations. For example, when one VO proposed building an irrigation tunnel rather than a much longer open channel it was given the same support, despite the tunnel’s inherent difficulties and risks. Third, pursuit of the first two principles is aided by the flexibility of AKRSP as a small, independent, nongovernment organization, relatively free of fixed procedures, hierarchical clearance, or internal constraints on its actions. These features provide a degree of flexibility and responsiveness to changing needs that is a typical strength of NGOs.

Distinguishing features. AKRSP’s 10–15 year program horizon is much longer than in more conventional rural development projects. Its early implementation phases are institutional development, based on popular participation, and infrastructure construction—and not, as in many comparable projects, incremental production from Year 2 or so. In some respects the first four years of AKRSP correspond to the missing years in many “delayed” rural development plans, where there is frustration as institutions are established and essential infrastructure is constructed, but production targets are missed. Its patient pursuit of much longer-term institutional and social objectives may be compared with the typical five-to-six year cut-off of secured funding in most other rural development projects —which can lead to frenzied construction of expensive physical infrastructure, with too little emphasis on careful introduction of permanent institutional and social changes.

Second, village programs are planned from the bottom up. The infrastructure projects, which act as the catalyst for institution building, are identified by the beneficiaries themselves with assistance from AKRSP. Later developments for which credit is supplied are similarly the villagers’ choice. Nothing is imposed on the village as part of an externally determined master plan, and since villages have to implement and maintain the infrastructure projects, there is good assurance that the projects chosen are of very high priority. This approach contrasts with that in many other projects, which offer (or implement and then offer) a standard package of works and improvements to rural communities, on what resembles a “take it or leave it” basis. With any insight into the nature of human motivation, it is not surprising that the AKRSP approach has been so successful.

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