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Pakistani prince does it his way

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Life on the Edge: The Prince of Ratrian

By Steve Bradshaw
Executive Producer, Life on the Edge

The prince reclines on the couch. He addresses the silent villagers.

"A group of the world's nations," he says, "have come together and agreed on eight basic targets for development that all countries should achieve. We can achieve these targets."

Familiar? Yes it is another sonorous and well-meaning statement about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

What is different is that the prince, Rafeh Malik, has decided to try to achieve the MDGs in one Pakistani village. He has taken the lead himself, and right now, nothing is going to stop him.

Rafeh Malik with village elders
Life in Rafeh Malik's village has not changed much for centuries

It does help that he owns Ratrian, a poverty-ridden village in the north of Pakistan. On his 18th birthday he inherited the village from his vast family estate. It has been in their keeping for generations.

The villagers have never heard anything like this before. How did their Prince come to make this startling announcement?

Like many weird, revolutionary ideas, it began in a cafe. Not in Paris, or Vienna but this time in Islamabad - where Rafeh and his old friend Shehryar Mufti, a Dawn TV journalist, often discuss the big political and social issues.

In an age of globalisation, Shehryar reckons, Pakistan's old landowning classes need to change their game. They cannot go on presiding over villages like Ratrian without improving the lives of the villagers, he says.

One night they started discussing the MDGs, and Rafeh had the idea he could try to implement them in Ratrian. He would need some outside resources, ideally from the government, maybe even from NGOs, and they might not be willing to help.

But why not try?

When Shehryar told me this story at a meeting about the MDGs in Amsterdam in 2007, I asked if he would persuade Rafeh to let him film what happened next. And so when they met earlier this year, Shehryar had brought a camera crew along.

THE EIGHT GOALS
1 Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2 Achieve universal primary education
3 Promote gender equality and empower women
4 Reduce child mortality
5 Improve maternal health
6 Combat HIV/Aids, malaria, and other diseases
7 Ensure environmental sustainability
8 Develop a global partnership for development

"I am scared," Rafeh told Shehryar, "but I'm willing to take the risk."

"First you've got to get past your dad," Shehryar pointed out. "How do you think that's going to happen?"

"Well, I'll sell him the idea, tell him how it is. It'll be quite difficult."

At a meeting of local leaders organised by his father, Malik Atta Mohammad, Rafeh does indeed find the MDGs a hard sell. His father is a fair-minded man, but still there is suspicion that the Goals - not to mention our film - are alien and intrusive.

"What the West is projecting," Malik Ata Mohammad says, "I don't know what they have in their mind when they are trying to propagate this policy."

And he has a specific example:

"I met a lot of NGOs, so they say: 'We have told them how to wash hands, and how to…'. In Islam, you see, we are supposed to wash hands five times a day! We call it ablution, 'wuzu'. So we do it five times. So who the hell are they to tell us how we should keep ourselves clean? We know how to keep ourselves clean!"

It is easy to imagine conversations like this across the world - local sensitivities inflamed by assumptions that the MDGs are a contention-free zone.

After discussion, Rafeh has the go-ahead from his family.

But there are still the villagers themselves to convince.

Basic needs

Apart from an erratic electricity supply, life has not changed much in Ratrian for centuries. Occasionally, there is water from a hand-pump. But some prefer to ride a donkey cart for three hours, filling old chemical containers with slightly less murky water.

A young man strolls around in the middle of the school day: there is a school, but the teacher, an older man who was crippled after a fall, is unable to teach and cannot afford the two-hour drive to a local clinic for treatment.

They do not blame Rafeh's family for their poverty - at least not on camera. And they don't complain.

Rafeh Malik of Ratrian village
Rafeh Malik has set himself a daunting task

"Why cry before someone who can't dry your tears?" one villager says. "Malik Atta Mohammad is our king, yes. But it's not his job to solve our problems. It's the people in the government who are paid to do it."

At first even the villagers are wary of Rafeh's plan. But soon they open up.

"We need a hospital," one man says, "and a school for girls. If something could be done about the drinking water, we'd be grateful."

Women speak openly of their worries for their children.

"One day it's diarrhoea, the next day it's fever, the next day, vomiting."

Encouraged but still hesitant, Rafeh gives a lot of thought to involving NGOs. The last thing he wants is a bunch of intrusive Westerners telling everyone what to do.

Finally, he is persuaded to accept help from an Islamabad-based group. As a start they are helping him "map" the village - drawing up a grid of houses, water, services - the first time it has been done.

Later, it'll be possible to see how life in Ratrian compares with the MDG targets - and which of the goals Rafeh can realistically hope to fulfil here.

And there may of course be cultural sensitivities he does not want to breach.

Getting on with it

The MDGs are often written up as unilateral promises made by the rich countries to increase aid. In fact, they were commitments made by all the nations who signed up - rich and poor - to eradicate extreme poverty.

Both wealthy and developed nations have to work together to meet certain clearly defined targets. The commitments were made by world leaders - the UN is there to assist and monitor and progress.

So folks like Rafeh do not have to wait before they do something. But in years of reporting what is actually happening on the MDGs, Rafeh is the first person I have heard of who has simply got on with it.

It is a long haul, and his father may be right to be a little sceptical.

"Unless you see something happen before you - something concrete - only then will you believe it," he says. "At present, it is all in the air."

Rafeh has plenty of work still to do.

This story has always had a fairy tale quality. Let's hope it ends like one.

Life on the Edge is broadcast on BBC World News on Tuesdays at 1930 GMT. The films were made for the BBC by TVE.

A selection of your comments:

The crux of the problem is that Rafeh actually owns the village. If he really wanted to implement the MDG goals, he could start by making the farmers self-sufficient by giving them land grants to the land they have tended for years that he owns.
ak, new york city

This could be a good story but lacks knowledge of what the MDGs are and substance in terms of what Mr. Malik is doing. If Mr. Rafeh Malik wants to do something about the MDGs, there is certainly a lot of work to do. Many individuals, women and men are doing so individually and as small NGOs to bring about a change and make a difference in people's lives.

He could start by developing community organizations in his village and self-help groups encouraging villagers to support each other. They could start by making a village group of both women and children, which could select a chairperson that they trust, find out the skill sets of this group (farming, rearing sheep/cows) poultry, clothes weaving/dying,. mushroom growing etc) build on the strengths, encourage the community to save small amounts to be deposited in the post office (could be a rupee per week), connect the group to the local bank to set up small loans without collateral based on the community organization providing the collateral, and help set up small home businesses initially to supply local needs and later towns outside the village. His family could help set up home schools for girls and boys (they donot have to be huge building) and start with basic education.

There are always government departments in the vicinity. They should be contacted and connected with the village organization to provide health related training. This is their job. This type of work has been done before and now. We need more of it and at all levels. Only we can help ourselves. Those in key positions like Mr. Malik and his family should start thinking seriously how they can respond to the needs of their village people.
Samina Kamal, Berlin Germany

Well Done Rafeh. This is the education which we need for our next generation and especially for those who are landlords, industrialists or politicians. We need ours sons to think in innovative way and to be enlightened landlords or industrialists or politicians. We do not need our children to be like Zardari's children who have the aim of life to increase their wealth and let the poor die of hunger.
Hassan, Peshawar, Pakistan

Rafeh Malik is doing something what everyone Pakistani landlord should do. We need to increase awareness before its to late.We cannot let this process of landlords taking control of the villagers which dates back to centuries to continue. The landlord have a responsibility towards them. The MDG goals are possible and would be easier to implement in villages before going to the cities. I am very happy that Rafeh is doing this.
Zaeem, Boston USA

Yes, targets like MGDs are useful tool to help development; because it keeps one centered on what is more important and to be done at its best.

I think that local people themselves need to realize the demand for change. But unfortunately in developing countries, specially in Pakistan, state governments have never realized the right of their people and so do the people. How many people are aware of the fact that there are ten fundamental rights of every single children living in a country.

Here in developing countries, both locals and government should take action for development because in decision making those are involved that are not much aware of the problems of poor. In developing countries, poor and villagers are always neglected, I mean after 60 years, we still have villages with population of thousands of people that are not yet equppied with hospitals, schools, electricity, drinking water facility etc. And I believe this is because of lack of understanding between the government and locals. Because in developing countries, the need for better then before is not determined by policy makers but is unfortunately acknowledged when it is available to the ears of policy makers. So, local people should stand up, know their rights and demand for CHANGE.
Vijay Kumar Khatri, Dhoronaro Village Town, Pakistan

The MDGs are very useful tool for development in any region. But the question is how to implement them? We have always been discussing about the implementation and always the result was "Any NGO or a foreign agency cannot bring change in any particular region". The thinking of landlords and the political system should be changed to get appropriate results. This is same the Rafeh and the shehrayar had done in Ratrian.
Imtiaz Ali Laghari, Khipro- Pakistan

I think it is admirable that Prince Rateh Malik is tackling the existing problems head on. The MDGs are a useful tool only if implemented by courages positive people concerned about humanity. Government and non-govermental agencies should b be invoved in educating local people to govern themselves with knowledge and training. I have worked in South Africa, Central America, India and Pakistan teaching and training with great success. I personally would be honoured to be part of the challenge facing Prince Rateh.
Darrel Stuart-Walker, Lone Butte BC Canada

Please! Please! Please!! Can we have Ratrian village as a basis of a case study upon which the MDGs are modified for other Asian communities that are cut off from proper infrastructure! This is good. really good!!
Sarika Gurpur, Sydney, Australia

Pakistani fedual lords have been blamed for many evils in the society. Some of these blames are exagurated but mostly they are true; as how can a society have growth without a proper model of distribution of wealth. how can people change their condition if they have no power to make important decisions of their lives.

The fundamental problem with pakistan is lack of leadership. expecting leadership from the fedul class has been disappointing at best. this article it a fresh breath of hope. it is a social experiment i would like to see succeed. Even if it means donating money. i request the author to provide more information to help.
qasim, edmonton, alberta, canada

Stories highlighting such charactors like 'Prince' do not strengthen the spirit of human equality. This is not an advocacy for MDGs, but a publicity campaign in favour of a feudal lord. This is 21st century. If Rafeh Malik is sincere for the uplift of these villagers and MDGs, he must do two things. First, surrender his self assumed title of 'Prince' and become an ordinary man. Secondly, he should give away half of his land to his tenants who have been actually cultivating these lands. I am not happy with the journalist Mr. Sheharyar Mufti and the BBC on marketing such personalities like the Prince. Why he has used the words like 'Rafeh Malik's village'.

The village must have a name. Actual name of the village should have been given. Rafeh Malik is sitting on a podium, on a cart with the support of Gao Takiaa, like a Raja. He should sit on the floor with others. Journalist has not provided any concrete information on what is actually being done by Rafeh Malik to provide education, medical care, and income generation opportunities to the people, the real targes of MDGs.
Arshad Saeed Khan, Islamabad

Cultural sensitivity is pinnacle. NGOs can be wonderful, but they need to operate with cultural awareness as the basis of their approach to help develop impoverished areas. To bluster into a society with the aim of modernizing it is a deep insult to the people living there unless every modernization is done with an eye to the cultural traditions of the society the NGOs are trying to "help."
Nevada, Portland, USA




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