Published on April 11th, 2011
Power to Change
More than twenty-five years ago, in a village high in the Hindukush Mountains, a young girl named Safida, was enrolled in a new school – a first for the isolated, tradition-bound region of Hunza in northern Pakistan. The former princely state had recently been freed from feudal control. Power had shifted to a distant capital in Islamabad, and a new highway was opening up the once inaccessible mountain pass.
However, the most profound change came from within the communities. In a place, where for generations families lived in poverty and subservience, men and women were now coming together in democratically-elected village and women’s organizations to determine their own future. Under the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) started in 1982, these remote communities, where literacy rates were near zero for women and infant mortality rates were among the highest in the world, were now pioneers of a model of self- governance that radically changed thinking about sustainable development worldwide.
In time, through partnerships with government and other civil society organizations, and with the support of Canada, incomes would increase by 300 percent, literacy rates would soar and thousands of democratic village organizations would give local people a voice in the development of their region. According to Safida Begum, who now works for the Aga Khan Foundation – Afghanistan in rural communities much like the one she grew up in, the key to success was to let communities lead the way rather than to impose a solution from the outside.
Working in Communities
“When we work with communities, we must make them part of the change process, part of development, so they will feel some ownership,” said Begum.
Similar community-driven programs are underway in some of the poorest parts of Asia and Africa. Transparent, accountable village-level organizations provide a forum in which citizens can pool their limited resources and skills to create more stability in their families and communities.
No where are the challenges more daunting than in Afghanistan: communities mired in poverty, compounded by decades of war, and where the greatest obstacle to progress is the innocent-looking opium poppy. Indeed, democratic village development councils are eager to find alternatives, said Steve Mason, a Canadian Program Manager who has worked with Aga Khan Foundation in Northern Afghanistan, once a major poppy-growing region.“The communities themselves identified this need,” he said. “They knew that they were growing opium illegally, but they were unable to give it up because of the income that it provided, so they turned to us for help. “
The Foundation is working with the Canadian and Afghan governments to ensure that communities have access to the funds and expertise they need to plant alternative crops and to develop new sources of income.
Helping the Poorest
In one village, said Mason, the council established a wheat seed bank to help the poorest farmers. The bank was so successful that surplus seeds were sold in the market. The council used the profits to purchase a small hydro power plant that is now generating more revenue.The challenges are daunting, but early results suggest that with the right combination of resources and time, communities in Afghanistan can become self-governing and self-sufficient.
“Change is never an easy process” said Begum. “I know because I was the change in my village.” Indeed, change promises a better and brighter future for all.
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