It Takes (A Little More Than) A Village

In a cramped shop in Orangi, a sprawling squatter settlement in Karachi, a weaver adds sequin designs to a shawl. Photo: David Lepeska

By David Lepeska

KARACHI, Pakistan – Akhtar Hameed Khan arrived in Orangi, Karachi's sprawling squatter settlement, with no expectations. The year was 1980 and, after working with farmers in Bangladesh, he had come at the request of his friend, a bank president, who wanted Khan to build a charitable school or hospital. Unconvinced that was the best way to improve lives, Khan asked for more time.

He strolled the lanes of Asia's largest slum for six months, observing the lives of its one million residents up close.

"The crucial problem was sewage disposal," recounted Perween Rahman, who worked with Khan for 16 years until his death in 1999. "The entire place was full of filth and excreta, people's houses were being damaged, the children's health affected, property values going down."

Khan suggested the residents do something about the sewage problem but many refused, claiming it was the government's responsibility.

Then Khan had an epiphany.

"He noticed that in some lanes people were doing the sewage disposal for themselves," said Rahman. "He saw that a house owner, if given proper guidance - his house and his neighborhood will improve."

Thus was born the Orangi Pilot Project, which started with sewage and sanitation and nearly three decades later oversees a miniature empire of empowerment and urban planning. First OPP helped over half a million Orangi residents clean up their lives. In the years since the organization has loaned tens of thousands of dollars, helped institute low-cost housing and assisted with the maintenance of 650 schools and the creation of hundreds of small businesses and dozens of clinics.

OPP's ascendance is timely. Pakistan's population recently became more urban than rural, and about a third of those city dwellers live in katchi abadis, or squatter housing, and lack basic infrastructure such as drinking water and sewage disposal.

Despite the urgent need, it took Khan six months to motivate 20 families to connect their homes to his new sewage system.

"Within that same week five more lanes got mobilized," recalled Rahman, Khan's successor as director of OPP. "That's the power of demonstration."

The organization began working outside Karachi in 1990, and now disburses microloans across the country and designs sewage systems, nurtures sanitation and drinking water initiatives and provides city planning in 15 Pakistani metros.

A model approach

Self-help is a term heard often in the halls of the OPP's small warren of offices, and it's not an empty catch phrase. An afternoon stroll through Orangi in mid-April found a man digging sewage trenches with his sons - he was connecting his home to the township drainage system. A couple dozen youths gathered in a sweltering living room to learn math. Up and down the lanes were small businesses and residents working on new home construction.

Many of these projects were initially funded or have been supported by OPP. Yet nowhere could a visitor find a logo or stamp, or any sign of the group's helping hand.

"OPP is only a facilitator of the people's agenda," said Rahman, explaining that the initiative should come from the people and OPP's work should remain invisible.

"It's the people's work," he explained. "We are only a little actor in between who provides a little social and technical guidance."

OPP aims to support community initiatives with social and technical guidance and encourage partnerships between people and governments. To be sustainable, projects must involve local resources and funds.

"We say the government, instead of partnering with the World Bank and ADB [the Asian Development Bank], should partner with the people because that is where it's sustainable," said Rahman. "The people's work provides a model of decentralized privation."

Development theorists and practitioners from across the world come to Orangi to study that model. A recent glance at the visitor's book found the signatures of representatives from the ADB and doctoral candidates in development from the Frankfurt School of Economics.

"The OPP is seen widely to be a success," said development analyst Syed Mohammed Ali, a former fellow at the Open Society Institute, a think tank based in New York City. "The component sharing approach of the OPP has been supported by the World Bank and the Lodhran Pilot Project, also funded by the World Bank, has subsequently adapted the OPP model of providing sewage in dense urban settings to the rural areas of southern Punjab."

The fruits of their labor

Education has been one of the Orangi residents' more impressive initiatives. Fed up with Karachi's useless public schools and too poor to pay for private schools or tutors, hundreds of Orangi youths set up small schools in their cramped living rooms throughout the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Without funding from the government, or even from their parents, most barely stayed afloat.

Starting in 1996 OPP distributed Rs 3,000 (US$45) grants to extend verandas, purchase books or provide a cooler and fan. OPP initially supported 350 schools. Some 50 failed, but the rest survive to this day, with many more coming on board. In early 2008, OPP helped several schools create joint savings accounts. After only a few months one of the accounts had a balance of Rs 180,000 (US$2,800).

"Now many of the schools are self-sustaining or dig into their savings whenever they need funds," said Rahman.

Those savings accounts will soon be linked to OPP's microfinance program, which is run by the Orangi Charitable Trust. Begun in 1986, the program has handed out 21,000 loans to some 68,000 clients. Loans support ongoing businesses and average around Rs 12,000 (US$190).

"We work not just in Orangi, but across Pakistan," said Nylah Ghias, the program's co-director. "We've supported a wide variety of businesses and created hundreds of jobs."

Nearly every other Orangi home hosts a small business: A mother of eight may string together fake flowers into garlands to sell in the market. Boys as young as 10 embroider silk shawls with sequins and intricate designs. Young men pound and stitch faux leather into wallets.

As it grew and succeeded - with a 97.5 percent recovery rate - the microlending program attracted considerable attention. The Sindh Microfinance Bank and the Pakistan Poverty Elevation Fund have become contributors.

Still, OPP manages a slim budget of PRs 6 million (about US$92,000). Initially funded wholly by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International - the very bank run by the friend who brought Khan to Orangi - OPP's financial backing now comes mainly from two European charity organizations.

The government lends an ear

From the beginning, OPP's relations with Islamabad were hardly cozy.

"At first they thought we were real fools, working here," Rahman recalled. "We'd come and visit and they'd offer respect to Dr. Khan and give us tea and feed us but they would never listen to us; they thought this was the work of great consultants."

The World Bank and the ADB designed and managed the majority of major development projects across Pakistan throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Then, the Islamabad government appeared to believe developers and planners had to be born and educated abroad. Times have changed.

"Now it's a case that they need us," Rahman said.

The Pakistan government recently adopted OPP's S3 sewage plan for all of Karachi, a bustling Arabian Sea port of some 15 million. In a first, the entire project cost of $1.2 million will be provided by the government - no donor funds will be needed.

Further, the government is implementing OPP sewage and urban planning ideas in cities across the country, and regularly turns to OPP engineers for advice and input.

Pushing the people's agenda further

Rahman is already looking ahead to a new challenge.

"We are seeking expansion, but our strategy is different," she said. Rahman wants to strengthen non-governmental organizations and build stronger relationships between the people, NGOs and government. "In the future we'd like to be less us-oriented, more partner-oriented," she said.

The director was asked if OPP represented a replicable model.

"Our work in itself is based on what people are doing," Rahman said. "You have to respect it, learn from it; the work tells us where to go, and we're always talking and listening."

She recently visited Namibia to observe a project modelled on OPP. The major difference was that the Namibian government controlled the design and the cost estimates.

"Who funds and who designs the work is the make or break factor," Rahman explained, shaking her head. "People do it better, all the time."

-- posted on devex.com on 18 July 2008

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