Life on the Edge | The Prince

In Pakistan a feudal prince’s family has been making life hell for local villagers for centuries. Rafeh Malik inherited Ratrian, a village in Northern Punjab, on his 18th birthday, and he now realizes his land-owning caste has been living in the past. His friend has told him about the Millennium Development Goals, and the prince says he’s inspired to try and introduce them to his village. But in the process, he risks alienating his family and even the conservative villagers themselves. After all, they all live close to the edge of the troubled North West Frontier and don’t necessarily want what the West calls “development”. Will the villagers accept the prince’s offer? Will his family stop him? In the face of self-doubt, selfishness and conservatism – will he decide to go on?

Rafeh inherited the village of Ratrian in North Pakistan from his vast family estate on his 18th birthday. Life there hasn’t changed much for centuries. One day his friend Shehryar told Rafeh about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – ambitious targets to eradicate global poverty. Like a Prince in a fairy tale, Rafeh decided to try and achieve the MDGs in his own village. But any attempt by him to change the status quo here will lead to a dilemma: how to modernize without alienating his father, his friends, maybe even the villagers.

RafehHis father, Malik Atta Mohammad, is hosting a meeting of other influential men from nearby villages. This is also a training session of sorts for Rafeh. The guests are uneasy that development agendas like the MDGs may reflect a misplaced sense of superiority in the West.

His father is suspicious: ‘I do not know what they have in their mind when they are trying to propagate this policy. Because 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. 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!’

The standard of living in Ratrian, even in comparison to that of other village-dwelling Pakistanis, is pretty low. Rafeh’s uncle’s political connections paved the way for an erratic electricity supply here a year ago. Life otherwise hasn’t changed much for these people for generations. The only local source of water is an occasional hand-pump. With an estimated ninety per cent of livelihoods here depending on sharecropping, poverty is rampant. The tenants earn enough in food not be malnourished. But having money in their pockets is, for most, a distant fantasy.

Rafeh 2Rafeh calls the men, as well as the women of Ratrian, to talk about life, and how it can be made better. The villagers speak up: ‘We need a hospital, and a school for girls. If something could be done about the drinking water, we’d be grateful.’ They want employment opportunities for the men, and arrangements to set up cottage industries for themselves. Back in the big city Rafeh begins the critical journey from good idea to solid plan. He makes contact with the Omar Asghar Khan Development Association. It’s active in the political and financial empowerment of communities devastated by the October 2005 earthquake. Rafeh understands that he needs their help to get closer to his goal.
The Association staff emphasize the need for the people of Ratrian to be organized into a community-based organization, with Rafeh as their leader. Before any of that could happen, the village would have to be studied closely, by people with no vested interest in it. Ratrian will be profiled. This village profile is a missing piece in the puzzle for Rafeh. He has met with people from the government as well as the World Bank. Both have identified a village profile as a critical document central to the whole plan.

Rafeh is told of a widely implemented development programme. Villages can be rewarded with safe drinking-water hand-pumps. To qualify, they must end the practice of defecating in the outdoors. It sounds achievable enough, but Ratrian will need help. ‘I need patience and perseverance,’ Rafeh says. ‘And I have all the patience; I just need the patience of everyone around me, to understand the ground realities that it takes time.’

Some villagers – including many women – are grateful to Rafeh. But as we follow Rafeh’s progress, he discovers unexpected obstacles which call into question the whole MDG project. There’s suspicion amongst his own people, and those whose help he’s looking for with the MDGs; and even uncertainty about his level of commitment to them.

The prince is caught between two worlds. Should he risk disrupting a society that, for better or for worse, has at least functioned for centuries? It’s a tough choice. It’s too soon to say whether the MDGs will be met globally – or in Ratrian.


Read here about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and take part in the Blog on the recent High-Level UN Meeting on MDGs. The UN Development Programme also runs a Millennium Development Goals Monitor.

Rashida and Ali work for the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation, the NGO which helps to make the village profile.

Read about the World Bank’s programme in Pakistan, and the work of the UN in Pakistan.

The UK Government is a major supporter of development in Pakistan, as is the European Union. Go here to read about the work of Oxfam and Oxfam-Novib in Pakistan.

The EU Delegation to Pakistan has launched a Northern Pakistan education programme.

An earlier Life programme, The Millennium Goals – Dream or Reality? also covered MDGs in Pakistan.

Visit the BBC website pages on this series.


Films in this series

Life on the Edge | Castro or Quit?

Examining the global brain drain, this film highlights the pressure on youn ...
Life on the Edge | Dilemma of the White Ant

Investigates the issues raised by the war crimes justice processes in Ugand ...
Life on the Edge | Edge of Islam

Highlights the dilemma faced by young Muslims on the Kenyan island of Lamu ...
Life on the Edge | Looking for my Gypsy Roots

Explores the place of the Roma within the wider globalised world, as reflec ...
Life on the Edge | No Country for Young Girls

Highlights the continuing practice of sex selection in India, which has res ...
Life on the Edge | Running on Empty

Highlights the problems of two young mothers living in two very different s ...
Life on the Edge | The Pied Piper of Eyasi

The dilemma faced by a young hunter of the Hadza people in Tanzania, decidi ...
Life on the Edge | The Prince

The efforts of a traditional feudal landowner to introduce the principles o ...
Life on the Edge | The Unforgiven

Issues faced by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in investi ...
Life on the Edge | Three Sisters

The problems faced by young women in Eritrea in readjusting to traditional ...