Our conventional perspectives about Balochistan make it a barren land with rampant poverty, violence, insurgency and centrifugal drift. But in reality there is another Balochistan too which finds...
Our conventional perspectives about Balochistan make it a barren land with rampant poverty, violence, insurgency and centrifugal drift. But in reality there is another Balochistan too which finds little mention in our oft-repeated stories about this province. Beyond those stories of violence, lawlessness and civil unrest, Balochistan is home to peaceful, generous, hospitable people.
There is enormous potential in Balochistan, not only in terms of its natural resources but also because of the resilience of its people who have lived through odds for decades without losing hope of the better world that they aptly deserve. The people of Balochistan have been striving to navigate through political, developmental and environmental challenges due to the protracted conflict in the province. Balochistan is the lowest ranked province of Pakistan on the Human Development Index (HDI) and some of its districts are even worse than Sub-Saharan African states in terms of HDI ranking.
Under such a dismal state of affairs if you come across some optimistic, forward looking and well organized communities it gives hope that Balochistan is not a lost case. It is not a distant possibility to establish peace in the province if the government addresses the fundamental problem of political and economic exclusion. Development policy must resonate well with local needs, and people must be empowered to articulate their own development needs. It only takes political will to create a conducive policy environment for participatory development to take place in Balochistan.
There are some well-established rural development programmes like the Balochistan Rural Support Program (BRSP) in the province, whose role has been critical in organizing the rural poor. The BRSP is poised to function as a key development player with a roadmap of socioeconomic transformation for Balochistan. It has organized 514,395 households into 34,293 community institutions at the village level in 422 union councils across 26 districts of Balochistan. The BRSP has pioneered the concept of participatory rural development by fostering community-based inclusive, accountable and sustainable institutions for the poor across the province.
The BRSP has demonstrated that development in Balochistan is all about investing to address the fundamental issue of lack of access to the means of social and economic functioning of the poor. This needs devising local development planning by letting the communities identify their own development priorities and by organizing them to become a formidable voice for change.
During my interaction with communities in various districts of Balochistan, I posed some basic questions to community members. I asked some rural men and woman whether they felt empowered being enrolled with the rural support programmes offered by the BRSP in their area. The community members surprised me with their wit and confidence and in how they outsmarted me with their pertinent responses. The Q&A sessions soon transformed into a dialogue which underlined the significance of being organized so as to unleash the collective potential of the poor to speak with incredible vigor.
‘Our generations have been living here for centuries but they could not realize the strength of their voice and never raised it, and hence they were not able to bring about change in their quality of life. But we have a voice and we can speak for ourselves. The BRSP staff continued to engage with us to help organize the people of the whole village and that is the secret of success. We are organized and we feel that we have the capacity to fight our poverty by this simple principle of getting organized’ – so spoke a villager.
Some of the community members reciprocated with questions rather than responding to my questions on their experiences of rural development. They asked whether I had a better alternative to rural organization as a means of breaking the poverty trap. Well I was a bit clueless but then what I saw in them convinced me that the journey of change has already set in and this is all about organizing people.
This also reminded me of the famous dictum that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts in social organization. The simple principle of the journey out of poverty is about rural organization, which gives confidence and hope to even the most wretched one to feel the currents of change. Being conscious of one’s potential to become the agent of change is the first necessary step of transformation and it comes with organization.
As one villager puts it: ‘In my village we plan together, we decide together and whenever we meet we talk about the ways to improve our lives and to build a secure future for our children. We never had such discussions before because we were not organized. We have rightly identified reasons for being poor and now we can plan to get rid of poverty. We know where to go for resources, we know what we can do and what others should do for us.’
‘It has not weakened our bonds with local government; it has reshaped our relationship with them as development partners. Local government officials listen to us because they know we are organized and we are serious about our problems. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge the role of [the] BRSP to help us organize and don’t you think that we are now much better placed to fight poverty than before?’
What we as development professionals fail to appreciate is that change is not necessarily a one-time revolution; it is incremental too. It is about engagement, collective imagination, hope, optimism and the skills to utilize the social capital of community organization. But this requires continued support and strategic investment and it must be formalized as a necessary precondition of local development funding by the government. The government in itself cannot reach out to each household but local organization makes it possible to address household poverty.
I asked from the communities about those key principles of change. The answer was amazingly clear: organization of the poor, requisite skills, capital formation and perseverance. “We followed all these and now we are empowered, transformed but our journey does not end here. It is just the beginning.”
This is the untold story of Balochistan beyond the breaking news of lawlessness, violence, murder and insurgency. If we are serious it is time to invest to restore hope and then there will be a Balochistan that is only founded on the principles of transformation. That is exactly why the government and the BRSP have to work together to build a peaceful and progressive Balochistan.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.