IIED mourns long-term partner and friend Perween Rahman

Staff at IIED are reeling from the news that our long-term research partner Perween Rahman was murdered yesterday.

News, 14 March 2013
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Perween Rahman (1957-2013) (Photo: copyright Balazs Gardi)

Perween was director of the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute, a Karachi-based NGO that works with the city’s poorest communities to improve their neighbourhoods. She was an architect-turned activist who devoted her life to improving the lives of people in Karachi’s poorest neighbourhoods. Since the 1980s, the Orangi Pilot Project has provided thousands of people with improved water, sanitation and housing. The project is famous worldwide for both its success and its distinctive approach.

Perween was murdered by masked men who shot at her car as she travelled home from work on the afternoon of 13 March. Recently she had had been documenting land-use around Karachi, and this may have antagonised the city's powerful land-grabbing criminals.

IIED researchers who have long worked with Perween have described her today as: "A very, very remarkable person and a wonderful friend, colleague and teacher." (Dr David Satterthwaite), and: "A brilliant, beautiful and principled person" (Dr Gordon McGranahan). IIED’s thoughts are with Perween’s family and friends and with everyone at the Orangi Pilot Project at this most difficult of times.

Here Dr Diana Mitlin reflects on the impact of Perween Rahman’s life and work.

"I remember the first time I met Perween, many years ago in 1991 or 1992. Immediately she struck me as so different from many development experts. Rather than saying how little time she had to meet with me, she said her only problem was if I did not have long enough to spend with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). She emphasised that I needed to spend long enough with the OPP to understand their approach and the work they were doing.

Under Perween’s leadership the OPP has had a profound impact on an alternative vision for the city of Karachi – a vision based on integrated neighbourhoods that challenged existing practices and enabled different groups to engage with one another. Karachi is a city torn apart by religious conflict but OPP staff were clear that — in their experience — most people did not want to live in ethnic enclaves.

Equally fundamentally, their OPP’s vision of the city was one based on justice – in the last few years they had been working with communities to support their mapping of their homes. These were communities whose longstanding residency was under threat. Powerful groups sought to evict them and take over their land for their own gain. OPP both studied the problem and worked with these communities to improve their mapping skills, enabling them to advance their legitimate claims to their homes with the authorities.

Previously, Perween had been involved in research that showed how people were stealing water from Karachi’s piped network and selling it back to very low-income communities from tankers -- at higher prices and through less safe, less accessible delivery mechanisms. In this, as in other things, the research modality exemplified the qualities that Perween and OPP brought to their work. 

OPP brought the officials responsible for the situation and the people selling the water into the research process. The people experiencing the problems were central to the processes of knowledge creation too. Throughout, OPP respected and included the perspectives and experiences of everyone involved. The research did not identify an enemy or problem to be defeated but considered people responding to a context of constraints and opportunities, determined by structures bigger than themselves, seeking to do the best for themselves and their families but, despite the realities of their activities, wishing to be good and positive citizens.

Perween knew the risks that she was exposed to – of that I am sure. I remember just two years ago visiting OPP and observing how she shielded her face in the car when leaving the office compound.  On that occasion she talked about the conflicts they faced – how OPP staff had been forced to stop work for a month while one warlord occupied the land in the hope of forcing them off the plot (once peripheral but now well-located) and they negotiated with other power brokers who recognised their contribution to improving people’s lives and were willing to intercede to enable them to continue.

In this case they were successful. Perween had worked for years in a city in which land is fought over. She had seen several community leaders threatened and killed for their anti-eviction work. These conflicts have got more rather than less intense over the years. Despite these risks, she never expressed any ambivalence or uncertainty about her activities.

I last saw her just two weeks ago at a meeting of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights in Bangkok. She had brought a team of six or seven community leaders from Pakistan to share their work on planning and mapping the land around Karachi, and the contribution of young people to Pakistan’s future. 

She spoke with such excitement about the savings groups they had recently formed and the ways in which they were making women see new opportunities and have a new energy and creativity. She also talked about the power of the network they had established across Pakistan – many community organizations now able to manage their own sanitation programmes – and the network coming together each quarter to share experiences, problems, success.

We also discussed a forthcoming visit she was willing to make to Uganda and Malawi to support improved sanitation strategies there. Because despite all I have written here about knowledge and power and land, Perween was a sanitation expert with an incredible skill to think through options and opportunities. 

She believed both in the essential contribution of expert professionals to improve infrastructure systems (designs, operational realities) – and the equally essential importance of recognising the modest nature of that contribution. She would be the first to say that while professional contribution is significant and important – it needs to be integrated within a broader programme driven by the energy and knowledge of those living in informal settlements.”