Dr Akhter Hameed Khan – philosopher, poet, scholar, Sufi and social scientist – passed away on October 12, 1999. He left behind a remarkable legacy which needs to be shared with all those who believe that change can happen and that people’s lives can be transformed for the better. Throughout his life, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan set an example to others on how to live within one’s own means. He was deeply committed to Sufism’s central principles of simplicity, tolerance and peace. He left the prestigious Indian Civil Service to become a locksmith because he wanted to understand the lives of the poor. Later, as Director of the Comilla Project in East Pakistan in the 1960s (now Bangladesh, where they still revere him), he was able to undertake concrete development work which suited his temperament. He could now apply what he had learnt to mobilize communities and introduce participatory development. Visitors were amazed at what they saw – the condition of the poor had changed beyond recognition thanks to Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s guidance. After the separation of East Pakistan, he returned to Karachi where his finest hour was yet to come, for in his late 60s he was asked to set up the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi’s sprawling low income settlements. Dr Akhter Hameed Khan, modestly clad in a rough cotton shirt and a pajama became a familiar sight among the residents of Orangi Town. This unassuming man transformed Orangi with his philosophy of self-help. A great believer in the power of people, he mobilized and guided the residents with skills and technical assistance to lay a sewerage system to improve their environment. Following this he established a micro-credit system that has made Orangi’s residents self-reliant and active contributors to the country’s economy. The OPP is now used as a model for urban development around the world. Despite the fact that Dr Akhter Hameed Khan brought about such a major change in the community with his ideas and dedication, his recognition at the state level does not match his contribution. His name was even dragged through a false blasphemy case. A befitting tribute to Akhtar Hameed Khan would be to teach his theory of self-reliance in schools and at the university level so that his ideas can find their way into the policies of development. Dr Akhter Hameed Khan was eventually given several awards – the Hilal-e-Pakistan, Sitara-e-Pakistan and the international Magsaysay Award (Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel prize) from the President of the Philippines. Although he is no longer with us, his work lives on in the people he inspired and taught and the communities he organized and developed.In the Orangi Pilot Project, which he founded, and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, with which he was closely affiliated, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan saw “a ray of hope – a willingness of the people to do something”. He saw in people a great resurgence. He was hoping that by making small islands, one day they would cover the entire country.
ISLANDS OF HOPE
Recollections of Dr Akhter Hameed Khan
Compiled by the AHK Resource Centre
In the words of Dr Akther Hameed Khan:
I hope that somehow, idealism is reborn… Idealists don’t live for their own benefit, but want to serve others. Where you have idealism, you have God’s blessings. Where you have good intentions, you have God’s blessings. When you work for others and have good intentions, progress is inevitable. Choose to serve God by doing good, honest work for other people rather than furthering malice by fulfilling your own selfish ambitions and greed.
Sacrifice and hard work
A nation has to be ready to work hard and make sacrifices if it wants to progress. The basic principle of development was summed up by Winston Churchill in his address to the British people, when he said: “I have nothing to promise you except blood, tears and sweat.” This is what our politicians should be telling us because our country is in a very precarious state. Instead they make us false promises…
Role of the government
The role of the people is more important than the role of the government. When Churchill was retired, people told him “you were a lion”. He replied: “No, I was not the lion. It was the nation that had the lion’s heart. My task was only to bring out the roar”. The government can do the big works – treatment plants, nullahs for sewerage, roads etc. – the rest the people will have to do themselves. And they should not take donor money for this work, either.
There is only one way of working amongst the people and that is persistence. It is like a drop of water continuously falling on a stone and making a dent in it. People will cooperate whenever there is a meaningful activity…
NGOs can’t reform the government
NGOs can’t change the government, people can. There is a saying: “Our angels reflect the nature of our spirit”. After all, why is there not as much stealing going on in the government in a country like the USA? It is not that the American government officials are inherently more honest – it is just that the people there won’t let them steal and get away it. They will even kick out their president if he does something wrong. People will fix the government, not the NGOs.
We have the same institutions as other countries – we also have universities, national airlines etc. Lyallpur Agriculture University and Chandigarh University were established at the same time – but look at the difference between them today. We also have the same parliamentary system as England, but their system works. It is not the question of the structure of institutions – it is of the people who run them. It is the people who have ruined the institutions.
If you expect material reward from this kind of work, you will fail. Don’t waste money either on unnecessary expenses. But if your approach is that of building an ashram or khanqua where one has to live simply and bear much suffering, but one is still determined not to lose hope, then you will succeed. You will attain your goals.
Publisher: VANGUARD BOOKS