Shoaib Sultan Khan: Fighting poverty through organized communities

Society Contributor
Shoiab Sultan Khan
Photo Courtesy: Writer

Shoiab Sultan Khan’s vision of reaching the poor has transcended all boundaries and got millions of people out of the vicious circle of poverty in South Asia. Shoaib Sultan Khan who is currently leading Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) Islamabad, as a chairman which is a consortium that involves 11 implementing rural support programs within Pakistan. Through his prudence and experience khan also assisted the governments of India, and Bangladesh to develop participatory development strategies for their rural areas.

Shoiab Sultan Khan’s attachment with his mentor Akhtar Hameed khan

His unshakable conceptual loyalty to his mentor Akhtar Hameed khan (1914 – 1999) an Indian civil servant turned social scientist, deepened his belief in the theory of poverty reduction over the years which he borrowed from him. The theory was originally conceived and practiced in 1849 by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen (1818 – 1888) a mayor of Flammersfeld municipality in Germany.

Friedrich Raiiffeissen used to bring together peasants, laborers and poor people. H would tell them that how they could escape being trapped by money lenders, landlords and shopkeepers through, self-help, self-governance, and self-responsibility.

This was exactly what Akhter Hameed khan instructed Shoiab Sultan Khan to get people organized and identify honest leadership. Let them gain capital through savings and utilize their potential as members of their community organization.

This was the time when Akhtar Hameed khan had already resigned from the civil services. It was due to the British’s failure to overcome the Bengal famine of 1943 and to help the poor. And he was heading Pakistan Academy for Rural Development in Comilla District, East Pakistan in 1959. While Shoiab Sultan khan was also an assistant commissioner in Brahmanbaria, a subdivision of the same district.

His Personal and Professional life

Shoiab Sultan Khan born in 1933, in Uttar Pardesh India. He lost his mother when three years old, was raised by his grandfather who himself was in Indian civil services. He did his master’s in English literature. Shoaib started his career as a lecturer for a short period before joining Civil Services of Pakistan in 1955. He married Mussarat Rahim, a girl of his choice who gave him four daughters. He remained deputy commissioner Kohat, Peshawar. At the same time he was also the Commissioner of Karachi, Secretary Department of Health, Education and Social Welfare and Director for the Pakistan Academy of Rural Development.

Journeying in rural development from his mentor’s Comilla Project in 1959, to the establishment of the Daudzai Pilot Project in 1972 and working as a consultant to the United Nations Centre for Regional Development till 1982, khan achieved many development milestones.

His real challenge

But his real test started in 1982 when he was asked to lead the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP). He was the general manager of the project. It was established by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) for the people of Northern Areas and Chitral (NAC)district of Pakistan.

Initiating his activities from a small remote village Japuka in the Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan Shoiab Sultan khan brought a positive change to the livelihood of a million people in (NAC) district of Pakistan.

The World Bank’s evaluations of AKRSP reflected more than doubled income of NAC’s households in ten years. This crowned Shoib Sultan khan as the unparalleled hero of rural development in the whole of South Asia.

Shoiab sultan khan was appointed as a Senior Advisor, South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme (SAPAP) in 1994. During that period till 2005, besides Pakistan, he replicated the success of AKRSP in other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Inspired by Shoiab Sultan Khan India started many programs like Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), The Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP) National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), to reach millions of poor people. Unfortunately, the government of Pakistan has not adopted the same programs with RSPs on such a large scale.

Shoiab Sultan Khan’s view of combating poverty

According to Shoaib Sultan Khan, poverty lies at the household level. Therefore, it is essential to develop a strategy to reach the poor households and find solutions that affect the household economy. Then scaling it up across the country. He believes that Rural Support Programs (RSPs) can better function in addressing rural poverty. It can be done by reaching every household while the government has neither such capacity nor institutional provisions.

Khan is of the opinion that the government has two functional pillars. The administrative pillar for ensuring the writ of the state and the governance pillar for maintaining a state citizen’s relationship. But Shoaib Sultan Khan calls for a third one. He calls the socio-economic pillar to address social development issues. RSPs can complement the function of the government by playing the role of the socio-economic pillar to help reach its development goals.

The critical function of RSPs is firstly to facilitate the formation of inclusive, accountable, transparent and sustainable institutions. Those will be run and managed by poor communities of rural areas to transform their lives through their willingness.

Need for organization

“The poor people of the villages have no other option but to form their own local organizations to harness their collective potential to combat poverty collectively,” Shoiab Sultan khan would often say. And it has been observed that this process of organizing people at the local level has nurtured local leadership over the years.

Secondly, organized communities need to generate capital through their own savings. It might be a very small amount but necessary. So that they can lessen their dependence on external aid. Shoiab Sultan khan always explains, “Capital is power and money attracts money, “. He had thousands of instances of how communities have changed their economic conditions through savings.

Thirdly, he thinks that everyone has some potential that normally remains hidden. That must be polished through technical inputs and skill development. Which in turn, is very significant to get full benefits of local institutions and escape poverty.

Awards, honours and Publications

In recognition of his exceptional and noble services, Shoiab sultan khan was awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 1990. He received Sitara-i-Eisaar in 2006. Hilal-i-Imtiaz in 2019 by the President of Pakistan. He was awarded the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Award in 1989. The Magsaysay Award in 1992. He won the World Conservation Medal by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1994. The Rotary International (Pakistan) awarded him Man of the Year, Gold Medal in 2005. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, for “Unleashing the power and potential of the poor”. Shoaib was also elected as Senior Ashoka Fellow.

Shoiab Sultan khan has been a prolific writer and his Note for Records (NFR) are very popular among RSPs professionals. Just to name a few of his books and papers include, The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme – A Journey Through Grassroots Development. Rural Change in the Third World: Pakistan and the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, Andhra Pradesh revisited and meetings at Delhi, Advocacy and replication of AKRSP strategy, The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, Gilgit, Andhra really shining, RSPs at the United Nations etc.

He Still Inspires Us

Shoiab Sultan khan has always found true happiness in working for the poor people. He says, “a certain happiness is to live a life for others”

Today at the age of 87, as a towering leader of Rural development Shoiab Sultan khan still inspires us with the same conviction, enthusiasm and hope. He still confidently believes that people can change their condition by themselves provided they have the required willingness to get organized, save and unleash their potential for which he has given 47 precious years of his life.


(Written by Ijaz Ali, a freelance journalist from Pakistan. He holds a Master’s Degree in European Studies from Germany and can be reached at [email protected])

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