Pakistan’s key development thinkers

Published: August 16, 2019


PHOTO: AFP The writer is a senior economist. He can be contacted at

Key Thinkers on Development is the title of a book just published by Routledge of London. It has been edited by David Simon. Out of the 74 odd entries, only two are from Pakistan — Akhter Hameed Khan (AHK) and Mahbub ul Haq. David Lewis, Professor at the London School of Economics, has written the piece on AHK. Mahbub has been profiled by Marcus Power, a professor at Durham University. The selection of thinkers and the analysis of their contributions have been carried out from the perspective of the broader domain of development studies, of which development economics is a part.

In Pakistan, we all know about AHK’s life and work and its continuation by his worthy successor, Shoaib Sultan Khan. For the global audience, Lewis admirably brings out his liberal arts education background in UP (India), the ICS career and posting in Comilla (Bengal), the lingering consciousness of being irrelevant to the ordinary people and subsequent resignation, the de-classing into the world of work as a helper to a locksmith, the entry into the field of education by first joining the Jamia Millia in Delhi and then returning to Comilla (then East Pakistan) after the first Partition to head a college by the same name. Soon the USAID arrived with its Village-AID programme and seed-based technology developed by the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug (also included in the thinkers on development). AHK became its director in East Pakistan and eventually the head of the famous Rural Academy in Comilla to train Village-AID workers.

The failure of this top-down programme allowed AHK the opportunity to develop and test the well-known Comilla Model, a bottom-up approach to rural development. The philosophy was that poverty is the outcome of not merely the lack of resources, but also powerlessness. After the second Partition, AHK moved to Peshawar to head the Rural Academy. Its bureaucratic straightjacket made him run again, this time to Karachi to experiment his participatory approach in an urban setting and outside of the public sector. The Orangi Pilot Project was his last and most successful social enterprise. Of course, he was also the main inspiration for the rural support programmes. He was weary of foreign aid and used to contrast Pakistan’s attitude with Japan’s return of reconstruction loans in a matter of three years. I wish Lewis also said something about AHK’s very own type of social science. His maltreatment towards the end of his life has also been ignored.

Mahbub’s Journey began at Cambridge, where classmate Amartya Sen and he learned conventional economics to be able to be heard and not just to know how the price of toothpaste is determined. What else do you expect of an unorthodox teacher like Joan Robinson; also included in the book (I had the honour to make this contribution). From Cambridge, Mahbub went on to Yale for his PhD and returned to the Planning Commission, steeped into conventional wisdom. His was a successful growth project, but to his horror, it created the infamous 22 families of Pakistan. From then on, he questioned the relentless pursuit of GDP growth, influenced the World Bank to focus on poverty, talked about development of the people by the people, in Pakistan’s Sixth Plan. His lasting legacy is the conceptualisation and adoption of the human development system by the UN first, and eventually by the Bretton Woods Sisters and the developing world in general. The journey he began with Sen also ended with Sen laying the analytical foundations of human development. Mahbub had his detractors who, according to him, perhaps believed, “that the evolution of ideas is an unforgivable sin”.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2019.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Khalid Ikram
    Aug 17, 2019 - 6:52PM

    A fine article, showcasing the achievements both of Akhtar Hameed Khan and Mahbub ul Haq. I had the good fortune to know both Mahbub and Sen at Cambridge, of having Joan Robinson as my undergraduate supervisor at that university, of working with Mahbub at the Pakistan Planning Commission, and also having Pervez Tahir as a long-standing friend. Mahbub was not only an outstanding economist, he was also an outstanding institution builder. He was chiefly responsible for many young staff members at the Planning Commission being sent abroad for higher degrees which built up a substantial cadre of highly trained professionals and which contributed to the effectiveness of the Planning Commission in its glorious days of 1960s and 1970s.Recommend

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