Serving the Invisible Valleys

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On 7th December 1982, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Mr. Shoaib Sultan Khan, initiated the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in northern Pakistan as a project of the Agha Khan Foundation (AKF). Since then, the Rural Support Programme (RSP) movement has grown across Pakistan, touching the lives of 32 million people. In 1990 there were only three RSPs working in about ten districts, whereas today there are ten RSPs working in more than 110 of the 131 districts in the country. The RSPs adhere to a specific participatory development model, adopting ‘social mobilization’ to organize the poor into self-governed institutions. It is through these Community Organizations (COs) and their federations that the RSPs and other stakeholders work with the poor. This model has been replicated in development programmes of India, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Parallel to their respective core programmes, RSPs have been adjoined with UN agencies for three decades, and during this period, UN interventions have increased in depth and extended outreach through the RSPs’ own organizational infrastructure and their fostered community institutions network across Pakistan. This has resulted in increased synergy, timely service delivery, measureable results in shape of relief during humanitarian emergencies, livelihood reconstruction, development of physical infrastructure, human resource development, improvement in quality of life, and development of social capital through well-structured and organized interventions.

As a member of an implementing RSP and having worked with other UN agencies, I can vividly remember the exciting and overwhelming effort made by the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) immediately after the devastating earthquake of 2005. Due to destruction of road infrastructure, the valleys of Leepa and Neelum were totally disconnected while winter was approaching which is nothing short of devastating for these communities in normal conditions. A mega project of supplying nutritious food was launched where we established our emergency offices, warehouses, distribution points, and deployed appropriate staff. The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), provided air logistic services to drop WFP’s food in our warehouses situated in the areas with elevations of 6,000-8,200 feet above sea level. The joint operation was a great success in that tough scenario because of the synergetic efforts of RSP and the UN, where the food packages were provided to 244,311 earthquake affected households. It is worth mentioning the secret of success: the indulgence and active participation of young and energetic staff who persisted voluntarily in the life-threatening weather conditions of the snow-bound uplands of Kashmir, and the community activists who were mobilized enough to facilitate every activity of the intervention.

Choppers carried food even in hangers

The intra-organization cooperation continued and the same spirit of work was available after the floods of 2010. AJK Rural Support Programme (AJKRSP) implemented three major projects with WFP in the Muzaffarabad and Neelum districts of AJK covering disaster risk reduction (DRR), Free Food Distribution and restoration of livelihood and physical infrastructure through Food for Work.

Government Girls’ Primary School in Patreend, Muzaffarabad

Under DRR, a pilot project was launched in 100 government primary girls’ schools, in which IEC material was developed and published. The materials included training for kids to stay safe from 9 types of man-made and natural disasters, and safety manuals for teachers. The project was designed keeping in view the loss of around 25,000 youngsters (mostly in educational institutions) in the earthquake of 2005. Upon having meaningful results, the project was replicated in post-flood environments in rest of the country, based on the learning and IEC material developed in the project.

Neelum is a district with a unique geographic landscape, where you observe a single major road on the bank of River Neelum across the district. Habitation is scattered and, winters are snowy with frozen lakes and rivers. Inhabitants’ livelihood depends on meager agriculture and animal keeping, and is threatened by cross Line of Control (LoC) army shelling. And oh yes!!! Precious Diyar wood going in stoves for heating and cooking.

Union Council Halmet of Neelum Valley

Union Council Guraiz of Neelum Valley

In a district like this, besides food distribution, AJKRSP and WFP made other interventions for continuous and long term results. This included the establishment of 862 demonstration plots for kitchen gardening at the household level through the provision of seed and training exclusively for women, and the food related interventions focused on community-based restoration of damaged physical infrastructures (including link roads, irrigation channels, foot paths, foot bridges, protection walls etc.)

Kitchen Gardening at Village Kail Bani of UC Kail, Neelum

Woman Gardening at Village Kail Bani of UC Kail, Neelum

In the recent yearly Livelihood Review Conference of WFP, where more than 15 partner organizations (POs) of WFP were invited, the POs shared their own experiences, lessons learned, challenges and best practices for more efficient and effective interventions in the future. Being a representative of AJKRSP and a ground worker in the field, I emphasized the importance of utilizing the social capital developed through social mobilization and community organizations across the country.

The combination of youth and experienced rural community members, including women who are generally overlooked or neglected, is a magnificent strength and a great asset for the community. AJKRSP is sharing its part by building capacity, and institutionalizing and empowering communities to make decisions and take initiatives. The role of UN agencies like WFP is strengthening our efforts through a strong and credible back up. AJKRSP and WFP realized that efforts to reduce the vulnerable elements Neelum Valley inhabitants should be continued because of four prevailing factors: severe weather conditions, inaccessibility, lack of communication infrastructure, and the Line of Control. These factors have kept the community at large, and youth and women in particular, isolated from the rest of the world, thus causing social and economic stagnancy and vulnerability. Sustainable development in the area requires thinking in another way, i.e. to provide opportunities which enable inhabitants to live and thrive in their own distinct geographic location and realities.

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About Arsalan Kashfi

Arsalan M. Kashfi is a development professional with eight years of experience in research, monitoring, evaluation, microfinance, enterprise development, programme/project & community grants coordination/management, and programme development. He has managed/coordinated different donor funded projects related to microfinance & enterprise development, livelihood, social mobilization, education, nutrition, and food security.
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