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Pakistan's Journey Towards Rural Development Against a Backdrop of Urban Revolt

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With the Pakistani coalition government in talks with cleric Tahirul Qadri, after he led busloads of 50,000 protestors into Islamabad demanding political reform, the country's future is as uncertain as ever. Speculation has been rife about Qadri's true motive. Although he accuses the government of corruption, Qadri supported a 1999 military coup - fuelling concern among some that his demands to install a caretaker government is a military ploy to derail elections.

But deeper questions remain. Qadri's capacity to pull off mass protests with little notice should not come as such a surprise. A study by Pakistan Economy Watch (PEW) late last year found that almost half the population - and 80 per cent of men -are unemployed. Youth unemployment may be as high as 35 per cent.

With a booming population and a consistent lack of services and employment opportunities, this has driven rising rates of poverty and inequality. Yet Qadri's proposals for reform have focused almost exclusively on electoral issues, rather than addressing the deeper challenges facing the Pakistani economy. While his stated concerns about the effective 'electoral lock' feudal landlords exert over the Pakistani countryside are welcome, the primary reason this problem exists is the persistence of rural poverty.

This is not, however, for lack of potential solutions. While many in the international community are waiting, often with exasperation, for governance improvements to increase funding in service provision, they have overlooked the latent potential in local organizations already working within Pakistan to combat these problems from the ground up. Qadri is right to demand reforms to challenge electoral deadlock, but these cannot simply be in the form of token changes in top-down political policy - they must begin by empowering the rural poor themselves.

The Institute of Rural Management (IRM), despite its seemingly austere title, is one of Pakistan's oldest, largest and most active skills development organisations in Pakistan. Focused on building the capacity of rural communities, IRM operates according to a simple but compelling belief that Pakistan's biggest returns in socio-economic development will come from investing in its biggest asset - the people.

Since 1993, IRM has quietly but tirelessly worked to up-skill Pakistan's rural poor through grassroots training programmes - with an overwhelming success rate. Running around 500 different training schemes altogether, IRM annually empowers 50,000 Pakistanis to break the poverty cycle, and to date have trained over 1 million rural poor in vocational skills, education, health, as well as water and sanitation training.

There is, however, a bigger picture to IRM's work in addressing rural Pakistan's skills deficit. In a country where only 63 per cent of Pakistani children finish primary school, the poor and uneducated are, more often than not, left with the option of undertaking physical labour invariably limiting them to a life of poverty, either in feudal Pakistan, or through low paid work elsewhere. Falling into a vicious cycle of indebtedness is all too easy. Should loans ever be taken out to cover emergency medical care then they are almost always accompanied by draconian terms. Lacking specialized skills, knowledge or property ownership condemns the poor to perpetual poverty and helps maintain the deeply ingrained feudal traditions of rural Pakistan that allow entrenched land owners to enforce rural communities to abide by elite voting preferences.

Organizations like the IRM have already started this process by imparting business, entrepreneurial and vocational skills to those who would otherwise be trapped in a cycle of poverty. From vocational training offering men and women the skills to create a productive workforce, to the Centre for Executive Education where graduates gain the knowledge to run and join effective enterprises, IRM is already unlocking the potential of the rural populations in Pakistan. By granting the disempowered in rural Pakistan the tools to become economically independent, IRM has subtly but effectively begun to challenge rural Pakistan's staunchly feudal hierarchical structures from the bottom up.

There is a generally accepted view that Pakistan's growth potential could be unleashed if the country saw governance change from the top down. This is only partly true. Qadri's emerging movement for political change may well be a sign of the hunger for change, but the key to unlocking Pakistan's hidden potential is precisely in up-skilling these traditionally marginalized communities - including women and young people. The failure to do so will seriously jeopardize future generations, if not the nation as a whole.