Abdul Wadood is reaching the poorest third of Pakistan's population with nonfinancial services that he has adapted from existing poverty alleviation models. His aggressive expansion plan relies on engaged young people in poor communities. Eventually, he plans to link them in a national effort that will change the way donor agencies and the government go about designing and implementing poverty-reduction schemes.
The New Idea
Abdul has designed a communications strategy that is effective in reaching the poorest third of the population with nonfinancial services that encourage self-sufficiency and money and asset management. He trains community groups to track living expenses, build assets, and resist exploitative practices of some lenders. To make the discussions at the community level effective, Abdul has revived a traditional form of public discussion and debate familiar to these people–many of whom live in isolated, rural villages much like the one in which he grew up. The facilitation style he uses builds the confidence of participants by bringing only the poorest together to identify exploitation and inefficiencies in earning. This helps participants build assets using their own savings, thereby mitigating external exploitative influences. Abdul plans to spread and sustain the poverty alleviation process by recruiting youth from all over Pakistan, training them in the process as a step toward addressing widespread poverty and linking them in a national federation. He has also begun drawing in donors as well, advising them to fund nonfinancial services rather than provide direct financial support, which he claims favors the elite among the poor at the expense of the poorest among them.
Around one-third of Pakistan's population lives in extreme poverty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Balochistan, a rural province with a largely subsistence economy. In Balochistan, annual per capita income is estimated at Rs. 9144 (US$158), with the poorest earning less than Rs. 6876 (approximately US$119) per capita. The incidence of poverty is estimated at 49 percent.
Two factors help keep the poor from breaking the poverty cycle: exploitation and inefficient money management. Powerful and influential groups exploit the poor in many forms, often with villagers unaware of the predatory nature of their practices. For example, a local shopkeeper who sells and lends goods at lower prices than his competitors might only accept payment in kind (wheat), convincing those who want to pay in cash to keep the money for other uses. He asks his customers to keep the wheat with them, saying he will ask for it when he needs it. He will then wait until the dead of winter, when wheat is in short supply, to demand payment. With villagers unable to pay, he sells the wheat back to them at a substantially higher cost. Poor expense management–ranging from extravagant outlays during festivals to unrealistic budgeting–only exacerbates the hemorrhaging of scarce funds.
However, most conventional development approaches to poverty alleviation do not address this loss of resources, focusing instead on increasing income. As a result, the development process is often unaffordable by and socially incompatible with the poorest, leading those already well positioned in a village to capture the benefits. In effect, development work can make those capable of exploiting their poorer peers even stronger. As government and donor agencies do not understand this drawback in their poverty-alleviation strategies, they continue to spread ineffective programs.
Realizing that nonfinancial services to curb resource depletion could be the key to helping the poorest break free from poverty, Abdul established a small pilot project in the Kalat district of Balochistan. Working with the poorest families–those that regularly went without food for some five days a month–he trained them to track living expenses, identify and stem losses of resources, and then build assets using their savings, employing a communications strategy based on the traditional group discussion practices of the community. The families involved went on to join together, save, and buy mutual property (goats), thereby improving their overall finances. Having demonstrated through this successful effort the ability of the poorest to reverse the downward spiral of poverty without financial aid, Abdul started Seher, a nonprofit organization that aims to test, demonstrate, and spread his poverty alleviation strategy of focusing on nonfinancial services delivery.
As his approach offers a different emphasis than prevailing models, Abdul understands he needs to demonstrate the viability of his strategy, both in terms of scale and ability to replicate in other areas. To this end Seher is establishing a demonstration area in 50 villages in the Khuzdar district of Balochistan to prove his model at the larger, district level. Working on a growing number of villages will not only increase the number of direct beneficiaries but also establish a local base of supporters. Abdul expects the viability of the model to be demonstrated in about seven or eight years.
Abdul is simultaneously tapping into the potential of youth in poor communities to serve as agents of change and replication. After office hours, Abdul goes to bus stops, restaurants, and public gathering spaces in Quetta to find and recruit Balochi youth to help him spread his idea. He discusses with them poverty issues and engages them in debate, thereby testing their inclination to take action. He invites those whom he finds motivated to his office where he continues the discussion and helps them set up a core group for poverty alleviation in their village. The core group is then given training to reach out to the poorest and help them form into groups. Abdul guides the youth groups and monitors them to keep them from straying away from the strategy. So far, Adbul has formed volunteer youth groups in Noshki, Loralai, and Kalat (all in Balochistan).
To tap into engaged youth from other provinces, Abdul is documenting and publishing his experiences, and widely distributing his literature to attract the participation of local community organizations and youth groups in Pakistan. Two youth groups outside Balochistan (one in Khairpur, Sindh and others in Swat, in the Northwest Frontier Province) have agreed to test out the poverty-alleviation strategy and have received training.
By spreading his strategy through youth and community groups on the grassroots level, Abdul is creating the momentum necessary to change government and donor agency policies regarding poverty reduction schemes. By making presentations to various NGOs and government departments to encourage nonfinancial services delivery as a starting point for poverty-alleviation projects, Abdul has convinced four prominent international NGOs–Action Aid, NOVIB, the Asia Foundation, and OXFAM–to support him in establishing his demonstration area. Abdul has also prepared a list of donors and is actively seeking to bring about a reform in their poverty alleviation strategies.
In the next three years, Abdul aims to establish volunteer youth groups across Balochistan and convince a sizable number of community groups in different areas of Pakistan to implement his poverty-alleviation strategy, thereby demonstrating its overall viability. He also expects to convince major donors both to support this spread and to include the strategy in their development model. He believes that, in three years time, his work in Khuzdar will create sufficient demonstration to attract policymakers' attention and take the debate to the national level.
Abdul comes from a poor family of Balochistan. He was educated in Quetta and studied social work at the University of Balochistan. During his early childhood and youth, he survived difficult times. For example, his family was too poor to afford shoes for all the children, and during the winter, Abdul and his brother would share a pair of shoes on their way to the ration depot to retrieve coal for fuel. His brother would wear the pair until Abdul's feet got numb, then they would switch. Abdul's elder brother started working at an early age and managed to finance a decent education for his younger brothers.
As a student, Abdul was involved in politics and after graduation joined government services as a junior teacher in a primary school. Soon disillusioned by politics and by working for the government, he found an opportunity to use his social work skills in the Balochistan Primary Education Project. During the promotion of primary education, he realized that the enrollment was not going beyond 60 to 70 percent. A more in-depth study of the communities revealed that the poorest were unable to send their children to school for a variety of reasons. A chance opportunity to attend a workshop introduced him to the core methodology for reaching out to this group and mitigating the exploitative influences that kept them poor. Convinced of the need to apply what he had learned, Abdul tried to establish an adaptation of the strategy into the Education Project. A management change in the organization discouraged him from continuing within the existing framework and led him to establish a nonprofit called Seher to implement his idea.