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martes, 30 de septiembre de 2008

Pakistani prince does it his way

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.

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