Interview contributed by Maggie Ronkin, Georgetown University
Q1. Could you share a brief history of the kind of work you did before joining the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center?
In 1968, I joined the struggle for social change in Pakistan as a campus activist at Punjab University, Lahore. I hailed from an extremely conservative religious family in Multan and my father was Ameer of Jamaa’t Islami Multan (an extreme right wing religious political party). He taught me to be rational, disciplined, honest, and hard working. However, my compassion for the downtrodden and sinners urged me to seek new avenues for serving humanity. At the age of 17, I turned into a fire brand communist and organized the largest left wing students’ organization in the Punjab, which was known as the Nationalist Students Organization. I was its Chief Convener in early 1970s. Soon after graduating from the University, I joined the South Asian Institute and chose research and teaching as my career. In 1979, Pakistan’s popular elected Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the military dictator General Zia ul Haq. After Bhutto’s death, several cases were registered against me in different police stations of the Punjab on charges of sedition, inciting people to rebellion, and disturbing law and order. The police raided various places to arrest me, and they locked up my brother when they failed to find me.
I went into self exile in 1980 and lived in North America for the next seven years. During this period, I gradually got disillusioned with Marxist politics. My stay in North America enriched my life and understanding of human potential, but my thirst for finding the truth kept me restless. In spite of my intense and short-lived love affairs with socialism, capitalism, and other contemporary rationalist ideologies I always thought there was something missing in all these ideologies. There was something wrong in their assessment of human potential. In 1986, I happened to meet a Sufi teacher and my life changed forever. Sufism is based on sound understanding of human limitations and brings into play human potential through love, compassion, tolerance, and infinite faith in Allah’s mercy. Sufis kindle the light of hope in the lives of the wretched of earth. Sufi thinking is nicely captured in a statement of the great Sufi Master Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani. Shaikh once was asked that if his good disciples will go to paradise, what will happen to his bad disciples. The Shaikh replied, “My good disciples love me and I love my bad disciples.” Akhter Hameed Khan followed the same thinking in working for social change. Through his love, wisdom, and knowledge, he lit up thousands of hearts with the glow of hope, self confidence, self pride, and passion for change.
Q.2 Can you briefly discuss the Center’s mission and its major accomplishments.
The Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center (AHKRC) in Islamabad is a repository of knowledge on rural development and poverty alleviation. It was established to commemorate the life-long services of the great development activist Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan. The Center’s main objectives are to accumulate, generate, and disseminate research-based knowledge for policy advocacy with the government, influence public opinion, create reading materials for higher education, and assist policy makers and CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) in future programming.
The principal objective of the AHKRC is to promote a macro and micro level understanding of the causes and processes of change in the rural areas of the south in general and in Pakistan in particular. The purposes of stressing this objective are to promote the use of such understanding to develop and/or support rural development initiatives and programmes; to influence government, donor, media, and NGO policies; and to facilitate necessary human resource development to make all this possible.
AHKRC is supporting the International Islamic University (IIU) in running a masters’ degree Programme on Rural Development, and the Director of AHKRC is represented on IIU’s Board of Studies. Recently, AHKRC also formed a unique partnership with Maggie Ronkin at Georgetown University and Nadeem Akbar, Islamabad Director of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, to create a videoconferenced summer course for US-based undergraduates on Justice and Peace in Pakistan in 2010.
AHKRC has started a research group to support the work of leading scholars from local universities who seek to understand and analyze development programmes led by development icons from Pakistan. The goals achieved by the support will include reviewing literature on the programmes; formulating research questions in consultation with practitioners; consolidating and analyzing existing data and collecting additional data in light of the research questions; undertaking comparisons with similar programmes, and anchoring the research process in the field.
AHKRC facilitated the publication of Shoaib Sultan Khan’s book “Aga Khan Rural Support Programme: A Journey through Grass Roots Development” and the Urdu translation of “Rural Development in Pakistan” by Oxford University Press in 2009 and 2010. The Center plans to publish a volume commemorating Dr. Khan’s remarkable intellectual, social, and literary achievements and “RSPs–Growth and Change” by Mahmood Hassan Khan in 2010. The Director and AHKRC-affiliated scholars are widely published in national and international research journals. The Director received UNDP’s award for being one of the ten most prolific contributors to the Global Poverty Reduction Network in 2008 and 2009.
Q3. What prompted you to this kind of work?
Pakistan allocates much less of its GDP to social development than do other countries at the same level of income. A large part of this modest budget is not even spent during each financial year. The amount which is spent produces much lower results than its potential. This low performance is not due to lack of resources. It is caused by the lack of administrative infrastructure below the district level, the disconnect between the socio-economic reality of the poor and technical solutions of the formal sector, and the progressive deterioration of the government’s planning capacity. There is no social infrastructure below the district level to fill the gap caused by the absence of administrative infrastructure.
However, during the past 25 years, some very innovative experiments by CSOs have created the possibility of replicating their successful experiments by government and NGOs on a large scale. This, in turn, has produced the need to create a repository of knowledge on sustainable social development. I believe deeply in the effectiveness of discourses of knowledge in solving human problems, which cannot be handled by discourses of power. AHKRC offered me the opportunity to undertake this work. The opportunity, in fact, is why I resigned from a position with the UN and joined AHKRC.
Q4. Are there any particular experiences that you would like to share with our readers?
From my school days, I grew up with friends who belonged to the working class–sons of street vendors, donkey cart drivers, bicycle mechanics, wood cutters, and domestic servants. Most of them were very bright, hard working, intelligent, and well behaved. As I started moving to higher levels of study, many began to drop out of school because they had to help their parents earn a living. It made me very sad at that time and it makes me sad even now. The motivation to turn life around has been with me since. However, my Sufi teachers as well Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan made me realize that profound and meaningful change begins with self-change. The importance of this teaching is ignored by most revolutionary and political ideologies. All authoritarian and extremist ideologies overlook this truth and use enormous force to “change” others. That gives rise to intolerance, violence, and extremism. I was attracted to the work of Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan because it helps me to be what I am. He taught people humility, simplicity, hard work, patience, love, and care through his personal example.
Q5. How did you get involved in the course on Justice and Peace in Pakistan?
I met Maggie Ronkin through Nadeem Akbar last year, and she shared her vision of starting a course to open channels of communication between undergraduates on North American campuses and Pakistani civil society. This idea touched my heart. The need to do away with stereotyping by means of both Pakistani and American images is equally important. Pakistan is an amazing melting pot like the USA, and both societies need to understand each other well. Pakistan is a very diverse, vibrant, and complex country brimming with talent. It has a rich cultural heritage and has been at the crossroads of many civilizations–Arab, Persian, Chinese, Central Asian, European, and Hindu. Pakistanis’ broad mindedness, hospitality, and enormous capacity to assimilate positive external influences is not widely known in the Western world. The commercialization and sensationalism of the media has largely strengthened and perpetuated negative stereotyping of Pakistanis. This has severely hampered the potential for meaningful interaction between Pakistanis and people in other parts of the world. Not only is this Pakistan’s loss; it is the loss of the entire global community. We must make efforts to change the situation in both nations’ schooling, because reducing human choices for interaction reduces human freedom.
Please visit our website on Justice and Peace in Pakistan at http://www.justpak.com and spread the word about our summer course!