By Zubeida Mustafa
WHAT keeps Pakistan afloat? How, despite its seemingly precarious political existence and the gloom and doom spread by the highly politicised media, as well as the horrendous bomb blasts, does the country manage to survive?
For the answer switch off your television and step outside to see for yourself how people cope in a country that does not provide its citizens even their basic needs. The immense reserves of resilience the people have are striking.
In the forefront are those who lead them. Before you get it wrong, one must add that these leaders are not the ministers and elected representatives who unfortunately lack the mettle that goes into the making of leadership. Our real leaders are the thousands of community activists in our midst — not necessarily well-known. They are heroes in their own right. They deserve our gratitude.
By inspiring their community, sharing its joys and sorrows and constantly striving to uplift it in a spirit of optimism and good cheer, these leaders keep their people going and prevent the country from collapsing into chaos.
There are so many of them that it almost appears a national conspiracy hatched by the media to keep such activists out of the limelight. Have you heard of Tahira Ali, who works for the rights of Karachi’s fisherfolk? Or Majeed Manghrio of Sanghar who became his community’s leader in its struggle against the landlords in their dispute over Chottiari Dam? Or Amir Mohammad from the NWFP who is leading a movement to save the forests of the Frontier?
And what about the theatre group from Lyari which stages street plays to promote harmony in its strife-torn locality. The endeavours of these activists and many others should be celebrated. They are also idealists — some more, some less.
But they all have a “utopian desire to serve others, to solve real problems, to create a better world, more kind, more just and more prosperous” to quote the late Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan. An activist par excellence, who preferred to call himself a social scientist, he had the qualities all successful leaders possess — idealism, a dream, courage to effect change, selflessness and a love for humanity.
Unlike advocacy, activism actually brings about changes in social and physical conditions without waiting for the government or state institutions to act. Activism does not involve philanthropy either.
It is a befitting tribute to Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan that the Orangi Pilot Project or OPP — his legacy — should hold a forum every year in December to mark his death anniversary. The idea of holding this intellectual exercise is to honour the memory of this great man and also carry his message forward by encouraging the networking of activists from all over Pakistan. It was at the 10th forum where I met the aforementioned activists and learnt of their good work.
This activism at the grassroots helps Pakistan survive. For Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, a modest and unassuming man, there could be no bigger sin than the attitude of ‘I know best’ especially vis-à-vis the community with which he worked. His philosophy of research and extension involved studying the problems of a community and learning from its members about how they coped. On the basis of that knowledge he sought to develop a package of technical guidelines that he offered to people as a measure of support.
His initial research involved several months of “wandering around Orangi in a battered jeep” observing the physical environment and talking to people. His basic findings were most interesting.
First, when the government fails, local communities rise to the occasion and work on a self-help basis. Second, people mobilise their own financial and manpower resources if they are provided social and technical guidance. Third, the main concerns of the people are housing and sanitation, healthcare, education and employment.
By adopting a people-centred development strategy that rejected the imposition of an external model from above, OPP’s founder in effect upheld the dignity and esteem of the people. In the introduction of Akhtar Hameed Khan’s book, Orangi Pilot Project: Reminiscences and Reflections, Arif Hasan wrote in 1995, “Akhtar Hameed Khan is now 81. He visits Orangi every day to teach, guide and analyse and in the process, he claims, he maintains his sanity.”
Those who were trained and inspired by him now sustain his legacy. Perween Rahman, the director of the OPP-Research and Training Institute, who joined the project in 1982, and Anwer Rashid, director of the OPP Charitable Trust and head of the micro-credit programme, are two activists whose contribution to the social mobilisation of the people of Orangi is immense. A close look at the Orangi experiment and Akhtar Hameed Khan’s own work confirms that activism to be successful is a dual-tiered operation. It has in its mainstream community leaders who understand the thinking, needs and aspirations of their people.
The second tier comprises equally committed individuals, mainly professionals, who may not be drawn from the community but have strong empathy with it. Their role is what Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan described his own to be — that of a dadi amma (grandmother) who holds the family together while providing each member solace and guidance. This second tier is vital to providing confidence and continuous support for social mobilisation.
All development projects, whether for housing, education or primary healthcare, must have these two tiers of activism closely integrated if they are to succeed. Without the participation of the people at the grassroots, no development strategy can work and the local leadership alone can mobilise people.
A second tier of professionals not drawn from the community is needed until the community reaches that level of education and training where it can produce its own professionals. The second tier must, however, have strong links and identify with the population to enjoy the confidence of indigenous activists.
That is the secret of OPP that has made it feasible and replicable. The expanding network of NGOs and CBOs that have links with the OPP keeps growing vindicating Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s philosophy.