Remembering Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan

The man and his legacy are larger than life

 

A lot has been written about Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan: the man who changed the lives of the millions despite coming from an elite family, and despite being a member of the powerful Indian Civil Service. A lot more will be written about him, probably because the man and his legacy are larger than life. His contribution is marvelous and his ideas will continue inspiring people for a long time.

A number of people would keep writing about him because he lived what he said and he said what needed to be said in the field of development from 1960s to 1990s.

And this is the crux of his ideas: ordinary people are the drivers of history and development and it is the modernly educated people who should actually learn from the ordinary people. His human sensibilities were so amazing that his observations of the lives of the poor in British India and post-colonial Pakistan turned him into a friend of the poor for the rest of his life.

Khan’s family was related to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s. It is with socially aware and selfless families such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s that Akhtar Hameed Khan socialized. But unlike others with whom he socialized, Akhtar Hameed Khan lived a simple life. His persona was a combination of insights from the philosophers of the East and West, from the leaders of the East European communes to the American philosophers, to Gandhi, and not the least to Muslim mystics of medieval times. His wholesome well-rounded personality emerged from imbibing from all of them.

When he came to Orangi in 1980, Dr. Khan developed his model of low-cost, self-help development by observing the lives of people in Orangi. He acknowledged open heartedly that people of Orangi were helping themselves, solving their problems without government support, and had the desire to make their milieu and surroundings better.

The crux of Dr. Khan’s development theory is: If poor people are provided low-cost development models and technical support, they can become own their development. The biggest achievement of Dr. Khan is in his demonstration of the possibility that development is not the property of technical experts but lies very much within the domain of ordinary people’s everyday living.

Observing this, Dr. Khan designed his model of development which can be summarized as this: supporting what people were already doing.

Having remained under Dr. Khan’s tutelage for long, one of his ablest protégés, the slain director of the Orangi Pilot Project late Perween Rahman would often remark: “Go to the communities. Participate in their lives. It is not the communities which have to participate in the development programmes of anyone. It is the development workers who need to participate in the life of the community.”

Tasneem Ahmad Siddiqui, who pioneered the incremental housing scheme, Khuda Ki Basti also practiced the same idea. He often says: “We learned the incremental housing schemes from the dallals. The dallals of informal sector would get a piece of land, legally or illegally, mostly illegally, make subdivisions and sale them to the poor on easy installments. We have formalized this approach in Khuda Ki Basti… The government also needs to formalize this approach in its housing programme.”

In early 1980s, when Akhtar Hameed Khan read Peter Jan Ver Linden’s 1979 book The Bastis of Karachi: Types and Dynamics (Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit), he acknowledged that the expression of urbanization would be informal in Pakistan. Realizing this, Akhtar Hameed Khan would always invite his disciples to understand the informality of the urbanization.

Akhtar Hameed Khan developed a theory of development which was highly different from the development theory taught in universities around the world. The central features of his development theory were self-sufficiency, use of local resources, and eschewing foreign money. Quite remarkably, he identified disconnection between state and society as the source of our problems. Contrary to many other development experts, he would dub Pakistani problems as moral and not as economic.

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan -- 15 July 1914 - 9 October 1999

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan — 15 July 1914 – 9 October 1999

Once explaining what he meant by moral problem, Dr. Khan said to Anwar Rashid, director of Orangi Charitable Trust, the Japanese observed morality by returning post WWII Marshall Plan loans to the US within three years of their receipt whereas the Pakistani rulers continue to ask for more and more dole-outs.

Dr. Khan further said, austerity was the best morality and had the key to solve our development problems.

In the 2000s, the model created by him was replicated across the world. The few countries where OPP is being replicated are: South Africa, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam.

One would be surprised that Dr. Khan’s ideas have been replicated even in developed countries such as Japan and America.

Dr. Khan’s theory is not fixed or static. He did not ask his disciples to follow it. Rather he always stressed the need of observation and reflection based research and extension. His method of learning could be used by highly educated professionals and uneducated people alike.

Muhammad Hafeez Arain, one of his ablest disciples, acquired education only to the primary school. But he expanded Dr. Khan’s model with such wisdom that is difficult to find in contemporary times. Hafeez practiced research and extension in Lodhran and Khanpur. Besides, he trained hundreds of people in Dr. Khan’s model. Hafeez was such a humanist that he took personal care of the workers, and tried to make their lives easy. All this became part of Hafeez’s life as a result of his discipleship of Dr. Khan.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when development elite across the world were obsessed with grand development projects, i.e. big dams, big industries and big roads as the only route to development, Dr. Khan knew that it was not the big but the small projects at small scales such as mohalla, village and urban neighborhoods which promised prospect of development to the poor.

As early as in 1959, Dr. Khan founded Pakistan Academy of Rural Development, Comilla [then East Pakistan] where he organized village cooperatives and initiated micro-credit and micro-savings. The cooperatives formed by him helped hundreds and thousands of peasants change their lives with savings as small as a few rupees on daily and weekly basis.

Explaining what he meant by moral problem, Dr. Khan said, the Japanese observed morality by returning post WWII Marshall Plan loans to the US within three years of their receipt whereas the Pakistani rulers continue to ask for more and more dole-outs.

The Comilla model influenced development theory a great deal by introducing a number of participatory approaches to the development and poverty eradication literature and practice. In fact, Comilla the model became a precursor to the development of microfinance we now have around the world. By 2012, the Bangladesh Rural Development Board (BRDB), which uses the Comilla model, had 63,000 cooperatives, with 2.3 million as its members.

In 1980, Dr. Khan started walking around Karachi’s informal settlement Organi, with the purpose of learning from its people to enrich his theory of development. The same year he found OPP to provide technical support to what people of Orangi were engaged in to solve their everyday problems. Under his guidance, the OPP helped more than 100,000 homes in 7,000 streets to construct latrines and sewerage lines. More than a million people are now benefitting from the OPP’s self-help programme.

In fact, he made the construction of sewerage so affordable and so easy that anyone could build it without any difficulty. This model of development, which is termed as low-cost, self-help model is being replicated across Pakistan.

The crux of Dr. Khan’s development theory is: If poor people are provided low-cost development models and technical support, they can become own their development. The biggest achievement of Dr. Khan is in his demonstration of the possibility that development is not the property of technical experts but lies very much within the domain of ordinary people’s everyday living.

Dr Imdad Hussain

The writer is Assistant Professor at Centre for Public Policy and Governance, Forman Christian College University Lahore. He also works with Punjab Urban Resource Centre.



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