An Inspirational Social Scientist
By Nasim Yousaf
“Of all the many outstanding personalities with whom I have worked abroad during the international program years at Michigan State [University], Akhtar Hameed Khan was the most impressive. He combined Gandhi-like sensitivity and dedication to the plight of the common man with the profound vision of a poet-philosopher; and he blended the considerable administrative skills of the elite Indian Civil Service (ICS) with the insights of an applied social scientist and historian…His Scandinavian colleagues and other advisors had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
— Scholar & Professor Ralph H. Smuckler
Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan was a pioneer in the disciplines of rural development and poverty alleviation as well as microfinance. According to Yasmeen Niaz Mohiuddin (Ralph Owen Distinguished Professor of Economics), his “‘research and extension’ methods of community development is followed today by numerous development agencies and NGOs around the world…His Comilla project is considered by many to be the precursor of world-renowned microfinance institutions.”
His contributions to rural development and poverty alleviation certainly rank him among the top social scientists of the twentieth century. But how did Dr. Khan grow to become a legend in the field and what lessons can be learned from his work?
Dr. Khan’s early professional career was primarily in Government service. In 1936, he joined the Indian Civil Service (ICS), a high status profession bestowed with virtually unlimited power by the colonial government. As an ICS officer, Dr. Khan could have easily made a fortune for himself and attained a high social standing. However, he instead chose to pursue a life of public service. In 1959, the Pakistan (now Bangladesh) Academy for Rural Development (BARD) was established at Comilla. It was here that Dr. Khan, as the Founding Director, launched his Comilla Cooperative Scheme, which sought to uplift the impoverished through individual empowerment and grassroots involvement in the areas of agricultural and rural development. In implementing his program, Dr. Khan introduced a number of innovative methods for poverty alleviation, including micro-credit, a novel concept predicated on providing small loans to the poor.
His approach was not without opposition, however. When Dr. Khan first introduced his micro-credit and micro-savings schemes at BARD, a number of influential moneylenders opposed the scheme. Ralph Smuckler wrote in his book, A University Turns To The World, “…the Comilla Project did have serious enemies, among them the moneylenders, whose income was cut substantially by the cooperative system and the increased productivity.” But Dr. Khan was determined to achieve his objectives, and ultimately his critics could not argue with the success of his methods. The Academy soon became a model for rural development, and other initiatives sought to replicate Dr. Khan’s approach.
Witnessing Dr. Khan’s outstanding work at Comilla, President Ayub Khan offered him the positions of Governorship of East Pakistan, Vice Chancellor of Dacca University, and Advisor to the President (Dr. Khan declined the positions). Additionally, Dr. Khan’s work at Comilla earned him the admiration of the Bengali people. I personally witnessed the affection for Dr. Khan during my stay at his house in 1969. While there, I could sense the people’s profound respect for him, as reflected by the photos of Dr. Khan in houses and shops throughout Comilla and other areas.
The importance of Dr. Khan’s pioneering work at Comilla continues to be recognized today. According to the book Foreign Aid and Foreign Policy: Lessons for the Next Half-Century, “The village small cooperative loan system set up through Comilla was a forerunner of the Grameen Bank, now considered a major breakthrough in terms micro-credit.” The current Joint Director of BARD, Milan Kanti Bhattacharje also wrote to me, “Dr. Khan is…often quoted here at BARD in different training courses, seminars, workshops and academic dialogues as the forerunner of micro-credit.” Additionally, he stated:
“The library of BARD is named as Akhter Hameed Khan Library…Comilla town fosters the memory of Dr Khan by naming one of its establishments as Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan Training Hall and another one as Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan Vocational Training Centre. Both are at the KTCCA [Kotwali Thana Central Cooperative Association] premises. The road connecting KTCCA Ltd., Comilla Export Processing Zone and some other important places of Comilla is named as Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan Sharak [Road]… some among the well-wishers of Khan established Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan Foundation... An old cottage at Comilla town also bearing memories of Khan is named as Akhter Hameed Khan Memorial House.
“BARD, KTCCA and Foundation observe late Khan’s birth and death anniversaries [anniversaries] and participate in each other’s programs…Khan’s photos are displayed at several places at BARD premises…quotations from his writings/speeches at different corners, class rooms, conference rooms and library at the campus. KTCCA also does the same. Cooperative societies in many villages also display his photo and pieces of advice. BARD translated the three volumes of the Works of Akhter Hameed Khan in Bangla…The Golden Jubilee publications of BARD contain some articles on Dr Khan. All these carry the sweet and inspiring memories of Dr Akhter Hameed Khan...”
Dr. Khan’s success did not end with BARD. In 1980, he started another grassroots movement in Karachi under the name of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). Like BARD, it was established on Dr. Khan’s belief that self-help and self-reliance were key to development. According to Arif Hasan (writer and consultant to the United Nations), “Akhtar Hameed Khan established the OPP to develop sustainable models for the upgrading of low-income settlements, mobilizing local resources. He was a scientist and Orangi was his laboratory…”
Once again, Dr. Khan’s methods proved to be highly successful. Hasan further wrote in his book, “The OPP-RTI programs have made an impact at various levels. There is the impact in Orangi, in the OPP-RTI replication areas, on civil society and NGOs, on government projects and policies, on and donar-funded programs, and on academia. The impact of the OPP-RTI programs in Orangi has been stated in many publications.”
Dr. Khan’s model at Orangi continues to be replicated not only in Pakistan, but in many parts of the world. A large number of visitors from within and outside the country regularly visit OPP to apply the lessons learned from Dr. Khan.
Through his decades of work on behalf of the impoverished, Dr. Khan made a tremendous impact. Deepa Narayan and Elena E. Glinskaya wrote in their book (published by the World Bank), “Over five decades, Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan, inspired and motivated thousands of development professionals in South Asia, winning a reputation as a visionary and teacher.” Many prestigious honors — including the Sitara-i-Pakistan (1961), the Magsaysay Award (Asia’s Nobel Prize, 1963), an Honorary Doctorate from Michigan State University (1964), and the Hilal-e-Imtiaz (2001) — were bestowed upon Dr. Khan in recognition of his unprecedented and pioneering work in rural development and poverty alleviation.
Dr. Khan passed away on October 9, 1999. Though he is no longer with us, his legacy lives on through his work. BARD and OPP applied techniques that were unprecedented in their time, and represent truly unique contributions from a Muslim social scientist to the world. They have become world-famous centers of excellence and have inspired prominent disciples, who continue to carry forward Dr. Khan’s mission.
For instance, Professor Muhammad Yunus, who applied micro-credit at Grameen Bank, earned the Nobel Prize. Other notable disciples of Dr. Khan include Shoaib Sultan Khan (Magsaysay Award), Tasneem Ahmad Siddiqui (Magsaysay Award), Tahrunnesa Ahmed Abdullah (Magsaysay Award), and Mohammad Yeasin (Magsaysay Award). Thus, Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, the unsung hero of the East and West, quietly changed the world.
For his unparalleled work and services to the nation, the Government of Pakistan should rename Orangi Town (and the road leading to it) as Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan Town. We must also continue to learn and spread Dr. Khan’s methods, to inspire more great men like him. In this regard, it is imperative that his techniques of self-help development and poverty alleviation are included in the educational curriculum at all levels.
In addition, research chair positions in various universities must be established to further explore and publish his groundbreaking methods, structures, and schemes. While Dr. Khan may have left us, such steps would help to ensure that his innovative methods for rural development, micro-credit, and self-reliance continue to benefit the impoverished around the world for generations to come.
(Nasim Yousaf is an independent scholar and author of numerous books and research pieces)