By Zubeida Mustafa
ORANGI Pilot Project, the internationally acclaimed development model founded by iconic social scientist Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, is in trouble. Charges of corruption, misappropriation of funds and violations of its by-laws have been levelled against its current management. Some 36 employees, many of them trained by its founder, have been sacked. Most worrisome is the accusation that there is a deliberate attempt to obliterate Dr Sahib’s (as he was reverently called) name as founder and conceptualiser of the OPP. If true, this is no less than a moral crime amounting to the theft of intellectual property.
These charges came to light at a two-day conference of the Community Development Network in Lahore a fortnight ago. Nearly 56 partner organisations attended the moot where Dr Shoaib Sultan, a close associate of Dr Sahib, expressed concern at the state of affairs in OPP.
What was Akhtar Hameed Khan’s development philosophy that made OPP unique? Using the ‘research and extension’ method, Dr Sahib was developing a model to improve the living conditions of impoverished communities. His target area was Orangi, a squatter settlement on Karachi’s outskirts. Soon after its inception in 1980, the OPP’s fast-growing fame attracted many community-based organisations across the country. In 35 years, 272,506 households built their own sanitation system at a cost of Rs412 million, according to the last quarterly report circulated in 2016.
What attracted communities to Dr Sahib was his respect for the dignity of every person — man or woman — that he worked with. He believed that in our times of dislocation a leader emerges in every community, who understands the psyche of his people. To identify him was very important to take the people along with him. He trained social workers from communities that became the backbone of the programme since they enjoyed the confidence of the people and facilitated the transition process.
What made the Orangi Pilot Project so unique?
Housing-cum-sanitation is the first priority of a community. Dr Sahib believed that by organising themselves socially, people could find their own affordable approaches to drain the sewage from their homes. However, some guidance and technical know-how would be needed to make the structures lasting. Hence the induction of outside expertise.
There are five core principles on which the OPP concept rests. First, the programme should have a populist bias. It should be austere, simple, affordable and should shun ostentation. Few understand how important this is to instil a spirit of self-reliance and dignity in a person and sustainability in a project. In this context, Dr Khan insisted on transparency and integrity in account-keeping and meticulous documentation. The first was in the form of annually audited accounts and the second manifested itself in quarterly reports prepared and circulated four times a year. They were posted on the OPP website regularly. Since 2016, no report has been circulated.
Second, in his words, the programme “should have an informed audience”. That meant it had to be kept in the public eye to disseminate an important message through the press and other tools of mass communication. Many students and groups were invited to visit Orangi. In a subtle way, he sought to change the public perception of the poor and also to emphasise the significance of self-reliance and dignity of man.
Third, the programme had to have links with academia as it needed constant stimulation from intellectuals to help it grow. Hence the lectures given by him and his colleagues at colleges and universities. They also wrote in journals and newspapers.
Fourth, the OPP had to be connected to policymakers and government town planners doing similar work as that promoted coordination that is indispensable to such work.
Fifth, the OPP became part of the global debate on development otherwise it would die. ‘Publish or perish’ was Dr Sahib’s advice to his colleagues who followed it faithfully.
Perween Rahman carved a niche for herself in this outstanding project by virtue of her own allegiance to Dr Sahib’s philosophy and her capacity to implement it faithfully and intelligently. Her interpersonal skills were extraordinary and she bonded easily with the community she worked with. And she did it quickly, as a result of which she became a worthy successor to Dr Sahib as the director of OPP-RTI after his death in 1999. Besides, she was capable and efficient. That is why there was continuity in the OPP’s performance. Moreover, her devotion to Dr Sahib’s philosophy has never been in doubt. She continued to hold the Akhtar Hameed Khan Forum every year to keep her mentor’s memory alive. Perween’s murder was a tragedy that was mourned by the whole country.
Today, a vacuum threatens the OPP’s very existence. This should not be allowed to happen. In these times, when the indigent need the OPP, the philosophy of the man who conceptualised it should be kept alive.