The genesis of the Rural Support Programmes Network can be traced back to 1982, when the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) set up the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP). AKF had two objectives for AKRSP: a) to contribute to doubling the incomes of the people of Gilgit, Baltistan and Chitral in mountainous northern Pakistan over a ten year period, and b) to develop replicable approaches for community development. AKF tasked Shoaib Sultan Khan with developing the strategies for achieving these two objectives. After seeking guidance from his mentor, the late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, Shoaib Sultan Khan developed a strategy in which community members were the principal actors. He was of the view that all communities have inherent potential which can be unleashed when people’s own organisations are fostered. These organisations should be participatory, democratic, transparent, accountable and self-directed, and should be supported by an entity which can provide technical and financial assistance to take forward the local development agenda that the community members themselves have prepared.
Within a short period of three years, AKRSP’s operational area expanded from Gilgit region to neighbouring Chitral and Baltistan regions. In all three regions, the response from the communities was overwhelmingly positive. This was the first time that any outside organisation was asking the people to foster their own institutions and to set their own development agenda; this new paradigm was widely appreciated.
Following the success and widespread recognition received by the AKRSP, Shoaib Sultan Khan initiated dialogues with national and provincial stakeholders for potential replication of the AKRSP approach in other parts of the country. The first opportunity came in 1988/89, when the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed to set up the Sarhad Rural Support Programme at Peshawar.
In the early 1990s, the federal government supported the setting up of the National Rural Support Programme at Islamabad with
a mandate to work in selected districts in all provinces and Azad Kashmir. Then in 1998, the Punjab Rural Support Programme was set up at Lahore with support from the provincial government. As the replication of the AKRSP approach began, there was a need to support these nascent organisations, and in this regard a small RSP Resource Group was set up that included senior staff that had extensive experience of working with AKRSP.
The Department for International Development (DFID) had been supporting AKRSP since the mid- 1980s. Therefore, it was not only very familiar with the approach, work and achievements of AKRSP, it was also confident that other parts of the country could also benefit from adopting this approach. In 1999/2000, the RSP Resource Group proposed to DFID that the Rural Support Programmes Network should be set up to support the new RSPs across the country. The proposal was accepted and RSPN was established in July 2000 and registered as a not for profit company under the Companies Ordinance 1984, with the following RSPs as members: AKRSP, SRSP, NRSP, Ghazi Barotha Taraqiati Idara (GBTI), Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), and the Punjab Rural Support Programme (PRSP). Later, the Balochistan Rural Support Programme (BRSP), Sindh Graduates Association (SGA), Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO), Institute of Rural Management (IRM), Azad Jammu and Kashmir Rural Support Programme (AJKRSP) and the Foundation for Integrated Development (FIDA) became members of RSPN. The RSPs are represented on RSPN’s Board and Shoaib Sultan Khan is Chairman of the Board. The presence of RSP Chairpersons and Chief Executive Officers on the RSPN Board not only creates a greater sense of ownership but also enriches the debate about maintaining the relevance of RSPN’s and the RSPs’ mandates, objectives and strategies. RSP leaders also support RSPN’s policy and advocacy efforts. One particular policy and advocacy effort in mid-2000s led to the World Bank and government of Pakistan funding the $US 60 million Participatory Development through Social Mobilisation (PDSM) project granted to the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) for implementation largely by the RSPs.
Today, through its 12 partner RSPs, RSPN has an outreach to 115 districts of the country and five Agencies of FATA, to 5.8 million rular households covering a population of over 38 million, making it the largest civil society network in the country. After the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, many donors approached RSPN / RSPs to access their outreach and expertise to provide emergency relief and early recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction support to the affected families and communities. RSPN has worked with an array of major donors, international organisations and the government.
Apart from the replication of AKRSP’s approach within Pakistan, AKF has taken key lessons from the AKRSP experience and adapted them in the varying contexts of East Africa, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Shoaib Sultan Khan himself led the South Asian Poverty Alleviation Programme (SAPAP) initiative of
the United Nations Development Programme, including in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh through the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty. RSPN maintains a close learning relationship with Bangladesh’s civil society organisations that have further developed and taken to scale, the initial lessons learnt from Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan’s Comila Project.
Building on the conceptual framework of Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan and using his experience of working for the Government of Pakistan, United Nations and the Aga Khan Foundation, Shoaib Sultan Khan is the moving spirit behind the social movement for building people’s own institutions in Pakistan and India, and in supporting this movement in many other parts of the developing world.