The Comilla Model was a rural development programme launched in 1959 by the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development (renamed in 1971 the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development). The Academy, which is located on the outskirts of Comilla town, was founded by Akhter Hameed Khan, the cooperative pioneer who was responsible for developing and launching the programme.
Origins and purpose
The Comilla Model was Khan's reply to the failure of Village Agricultural and Industrial Development (V-AID) programme, launched in 1953 in East and West Pakistan with technical assistance from the US government. The V-AID was a governmental level attempt to promote citizens participation in the sphere of rural development.
Khan argued that for Comilla to develop rapidly, the farmers in its villages must be able to rapidly expand their production and sales. The main constraint they faced was inadequate local infrastructure – especially roads, drains, embankments and irrigation. But even if the government had the resources to build this infrastructure, Khan argued, the problem would not be solved. Once constructed, infrastructure must be regularly maintained. The benefits of it must be managed effectively based on rules that users could accept and predict. In Khan’s view it was essential to develop ‘vigorous local institutions’ capable of performing this type of local maintenance and management.
For this reason, the Comilla Model piloted a methodology for stimulating agricultural and rural development, based on the principle of grassroots cooperative participation by the people. Dr. Khan found inspiration for the cooperative development aspect of his Model from German cooperative pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, whose rural credit unions had been an early example of institution-building in predominantly non-literate communities.
To simultaneously address problems caused by the inadequacy of both local infrastructure and local institutions, the Model integrated four distinct components in every thana (sub-district) where it was implemented:
1. establishment of a training and development centre,
2. a road-drainage embankment works program,
3. a decentralized, small scale irrigation program, and
4. a two-tiered cooperative system, with primary cooperatives operating in the villages, and federations operating at thana level.
Considerable emphasis was placed on distribution of agricultural inputs and extension services, for example by helping farmers to grow potatoes in the sandy Comilla soil, and using cold storage technology.
Another key implementation challenge, Dr. Khan wrote, was to ensure that the four programs grew stronger at the same time in a mutually supporting way. In particular,
“… the relation between the Rural Works and Irrigation Programmes and the cooperatives is very close and vital. The first two develop the productive capacity of the land and increase the farmer’s income. The cooperatives safeguard the farmers from money lenders and enable them to modernize their farming methods. The cooperatives promote the accumulation of self-owned capital through thrift and they promote managerial and technical skill through training. Their ultimate aim is self-financing and self-management."
In the villages, the Academy introduced a number of pilot projects beginning in 1959. These pilot projects were guided by two goals: first, to provide a real-life learning situation for its trainees; and second, to devise pilot programmes and institutions which could serve as models capable of replication. In guiding and operating the projects, a set of principles and strategies were formulated as the bases for developing the pilot projects, resulting in a unique rural development approach.
The main features of the Comilla Model were:
- The promotion of development and of refining of various institutions, both public and private, and establishing a system of interrelationships between them;
- Involvement of both public and private sectors in the process of rural development;
- Development of leadership in every village, including managers, model farmers, women organizers, youth leaders, and village accountants, to manage and sustain the development efforts;
- Development of three basic infrastructures (administrative, physical and organisational);
- Priority on decentralized and coordinated rural administration in coordination with officials of various government departments and the representatives of public organisations.
- Integration and coordination of the various developing services, institutions and projects;
- Education, organisation and discipline;
- Economic planning and technology;
- Development of a stable and progressive agriculture to improve the conditions of the farmers, and provide employment to rural labour force.
For various reasons the Comilla Model was unable to achieve its goal. It had particular troubles with government relations and efforts to build strong cooperative institutions. According to Dr Khan:
… in actual practice, the four programs suffered from distortion, mismanagement, corruption and subversion. After Independence of Bangladesh, while the First Five Year Plan gave general endorsement, both theoretical criticisms and practical difficulties became more severe.”
Escalating loan defaults became a particularly important concern, undermining the hope that the cooperatives would become self-reliant and develop into strong institutions. Dr. Khan reported that influential local people had secured management positions in the cooperatives. “They are powerful and well informed. They know that the old sanctions (certificates, notices, pressure by officers) are now dead, and they can repudiate their obligations with impunity.” In addition, the new government annulled loans issued by its pre-independence predecessor.
Chowdhury reports that by 1979 only 61 of the 400 cooperatives were still functioning. She attributes this result to four factors: fraud/lack of internal controls, stagnation, diversion of funds, and ineffective external supervision. The central problem of fraud and weak controls "was possible not only because of individual dishonesty, but because the people were not made aware of their rights, and were not in a position to voice their rights ..."
At the same time, there were difficulties with government relations made more difficult by the departure of Khan for Pakistan.
The officers and change agents were not ready to plan with the local people and to report to them directly…. The dynamic personality of Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan helped to mobilize and harmonize diverse groups to work towards a common goal for rural development. Afterwards, the contradictions within the Comilla approach manifested themselves.”
Lessons from the Comilla experience
Comilla Model provided an experience to be profited by later practitioners. In the early years of BRAC (NGO) and Grameen Bank in the 1970s, both Dr. Muhammad Yunus and Fazle Hasan Abed tested cooperative approaches to delivering credit to poor people. They concluded that the cooperative strategy could not work in rural Bangladesh. Instead, both directly targeted the poorest people, while attempting to keep out those who were not poor.
Dowla & Barua recently summarized the thinking at Grameen Bank:
A major reason for the prior failure of credit cooperatives in Bangladesh was that the groups were too big and consisted of people with varied economic backgrounds. These large groups did not work because the more affluent members captured the organizations.
Later cooperative development initiatives in Bangladesh, like RD-12 and the Swanirvar (‘self-reliance’) Movement also adopted a targeting strategy.
Both Yunus and Abed also attempted to catalyze collective enterprises that were locally owned and controlled. However, problems with internal control and elite manipulation continued, and by the 1990s Grameen and BRAC, along with all the main microfinance NGOs in Bangladesh, had abandoned cooperative approaches and developed highly centralized control and service delivery structures.
The merits of poverty-targeting continue to stimulate debate in microfinance. While many microcredit institutions have adopted poverty-targeting, most cooperatives reject it. The 1st principle in the Statement on the Co-operative Identity affirms that cooperatives are open to all persons in a community. Poverty-targeting is seen as ‘reverse discrimination’ on the basis of social or economic status.
In this view, the main problem with the Comilla Model was that it neglected the 4th cooperative principle: independence from government. This neglect is clearly visible in the Khan’s initial design of the Model, since the cooperatives were conceived of as an instrument for maintaining public infrastructure, and were dependent on the delivery of government extension services and credit for their success. Cooperatives however, have fallen prey to elite capture in many oral communities, and in less densely populated nations than Bangladesh, it still proves challenging to deliver microfinance to them.
- "Allama Mashriqi and Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan: Two Legends of Pakistan", by Nasim Yousaf, ISBN 1-4010-9097-4 (2003)http://www.nasimyousaf.info
- Akhter Hameed Khan, Director's Speech in First Annual Report, Comilla, 1960.
- Arthur F Raper, Rural Development in Action: The Comprehensive Experiment at Comilla, East Pakistan, Cornell University Press: Ithaca]
- 2007, Nasim Yousaf,"Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan - The Pioneer of Microcredit"http://www.akhtar-hameed-khan.8m.com/drkhan-microcredit.pdf
- The Works of Akhter Hameed Khan. Volume I-III. Compiled by the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development, Kothbari, Comilla. (1983)
- The Works of Akhter Hameed Khan. Volume II. p. 190.
- Arthur F Raper, Rural Development in Action: The Comprehensive Experiment at Comilla, East Pakistan, Cornell University Press: Ithaca (1970)
- Akhter Hameed Khan, Works of Akhter Hameed Khan, Vol. II, p. 190.
- Chowdhury, Aditee Nag, Let Grassroots Speak: People’s Participation Self-Help Groups and NGO’s in Bangladesh, University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 1989, p. 50.
- Akhter Hameed Khan, Works of Akhter Hameed Khan, Vol. II, p. 127.
- Akhter Hameed Khan, Works of Akhter Hameed Khan, Vol. III.
- http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/C_0309.htm at BANGLAPEDIA webpage
- MA Quddus (ed.) Rural Development in Bangladesh, Comilla, 1993
- The Works of Akhter Hameed Khan. Volume II, pp. 190-91
- The Works of Akhter Hameed Khan. Volume II, pp. 135.
- Aditee Nag Chowdhury, Let Grassroots Speak, p. 54.
- Aditee Nag Chowdhury, Let Grassroots Speak, p. 53
- Asif Dowla & Dipal Barua. The Poor Always Pay Back: The Grameen II Story Kumarian Press Inc., Bloomfield, Connecticut, 2006, p. 18
- Khandker, Shahidur R., Fighting Poverty with Microcredit: Experience in Bangladesh, Bangladesh Edition, The University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 1999, pp. 17-18