Defending the Defenceless: Pakistan’s Rural Support Network takes the lead

Shandana Humayun Khan, CEO of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), urges the EU to join the battle against COVID-19 and support the most vulnerable communities in Pakistan.
Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN)

By Shandana Humayun Khan

Shandana Humayun Khan is the CEO of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), Pakistan’s leading NGO in combatting poverty in rural communities. Having over twenty years of extensive grassroots and policy level experience in rural development, Shandana is at the forefront of helping Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities to fight against COVID-19.

28 Jul 2020

Although Pakistan appeared to have escaped relatively unscathed, the coronavirus has now begun to spread throughout the country. This is an especially frightening development so far as rural communities are concerned; the country’s health facilities are already overtaxed, but outside of urban areas they are often remarkably insufficient.

This does not simply mean that the rural population has nowhere to turn should people become ill or that poor people in rural Pakistan do not have access to the kind of information that would protect them from COVID-19. In this regard, the work of the Rural Support Programmes Network and its implementing partner Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) is especially necessary. RSP frontline workers are empowering Pakistan’s most vulnerable against coronavirus and working closely with the Pakistan government on this.

The RSP Network is a movement that was started by Mr. Shoaib Sultan Khan, a recipient of many international awards including Pakistan’s Nishan-i-Imtiaz. Through his effort and the efforts of numerous supporters, the RSPs have developed a vast web of community organisations that stretch across Pakistan, working with over 50 million people.

As a partner to the Pakistani government, the RSP network provides the largest outreach to poor, rural communities, through community organisations that it has formed in villages. In recognition of this, in May 2020, the Pakistani government’s National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC), set up to deal with the COVID-19 emergency, requested the RSP Network’ assistance in the implementation of a government strategy aimed at mobilising communities in the fight against COVID-19.

The RSP Network is making this happen through the thousands of community organisations and village activists that get trained by the Health Department in awareness raising against the disease and preventative measures. Measures such as physical distancing, face covering (masks), handwashing with soap, and test, track and trace efforts can be a challenge in a thickly populated country and in poor households where an average of about seven family members often share a single living space. However, communities have had a remarkable reaction, as they slowly adopt these measures and assist government in identifying suspected COVID-19 cases and trace those who have been in touch with infected persons (that is to say that communities will assist government in contact tracing where required).

We believe this approach is critical to Pakistan’s success in combating the coronavirus. Moreover, we believe the RSP Network can scale this approach to include over 100 million people; making a serious impact on Pakistani society. Already, we have partnered with the government to start our preventative measures’ awareness programs in 66 districts, covering about 20 million people.

“A partnership between our organisation and other like-minded ones, such as the European Union, would save lives, change minds and transform the relationship between people and government for years to come”

Beginning with the Islamabad Capital Territory’s rural areas, the National Rural Support Programme, the largest of the RSPs, has facilitated community organisations and linked up hundreds of activists to the government for training in these areas. These ‘activists’ are mobile within their villages, spreading awareness. Two female activists even got an award for this work from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, celebrating 100 days of the NCOC on 4 July 2020. As these activists are from the local community, they are trusted by the people and have success in convincing them.

To date, we have trained 6,800 community activists, including 4,000 women who have reached out to a population of over a million with their messages. This is not only important insofar as we make sure women and men are equally engaged in this important work, but because in some rural districts it is impossible for men to engage women or women to engage men in a way that is meaningful and likely to be accepted.

There are seven RSPs engaged in this work, many of whom have received support from the European Union. These include RSPs (Sarhad and Balochistan RSPs) working in the challenging and remote border areas of Balochistan and the Khyber-Pakhunkhwa provinces, and RSPs (Sindh and Thardeep) working in the rural Sindh province where only 20 percent of women are literate. With EU support, community organisations have been formed that are now linked to the government for this important work, strengthening the citizen-state relationship. This is vital work and can help determine the fate of Pakistan’s coronavirus response.

I believe Pakistani civil society not only must work with government to activate any meaningful and robust response, but that the RSPs and Pakistani civil society can activate any such response. We have the will and we have the outreach to implement on a large national scale. What we need is support, in turn, to carry this message and do this work in a country of over 200 million people, where 63 percent of the population lives in villages. With the RSP reaching out to 54 million people in rural Pakistan, organised into almost 500,000 community organisations, we have the ability to work closely with government to strengthen the response to COVID-19 and on a larger scale.

What we need to move forward is the kind of support the EU and EU Member-States can provide: bolstering our resources, supporting our training and empowering our activists. A partnership between our organisation and other like-minded ones, such as the European Union, would save lives, change minds and transform the relationship between people and government for years to come.