Empowering rural communities through Social Innovation: A journey in Hushe Valley, Pakistan

June 15, 2023

Hushe Valley, Skardu, Pakistan

Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan

Introduction: This is part one of our three-part series on our journey to implement the social innovation platform in the Hushe Valley. In this part, we will explore how it has been developed, and the essential components of the process, such as system mapping, deep listening, sensemaking, and co-creation. Read part 2 and part 3.

Hushe Valley

Sitting in the Ghanche District of the northern Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan, Hushe Valley comprises eight villages. It lies amid the glorious Himalayan peaks, the Karakoram range's surrounding high mountains, and spectacular glaciers. While local tourists scarcely explore it, it is well known in international mountaineering communities and among trekking enthusiasts as it is the gateway to majestic peaks. 

The valley and its population of 15,000 people have long been isolated due to its remoteness and poor communication networks. The region sits at altitudes ranging between 2,500 and 3,000 meters, making it difficult to access. The area has few land connections, contributing to its isolation. Winters in the valley are extremely harsh, with temperatures dropping as low as -15 to -20 centigrade, and sustained snowstorms last from late October to early April. During these months, the local communities rely on stored food.


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


While a broad range of interventions supported by the Government of Pakistan and development organisations have aimed to enhance the region’s well-being and the livelihoods of its communities, the area still lacks basic necessities and struggles due to a lack of systemic development investments. These initiatives lack coherence and connections, preventing the achievement of holistic development. 

Social Innovation Platform

Since 2019, the Local Governance (LG) team at UNDP’s Bangkok Regional Hub (BRH) has been exploring innovative approaches to address complex development challenges at the subnational level. One of them is using the Social Innovation Platform (SIP), developed by Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC) and iterated by UNDP. It is a systems approach that shifts from traditional top-down project design to bottom-up portfolio co-creation, which responds to the challenges and opportunities facing local communities in a more inclusive, participatory, and agile manner. 

The SIP approach underlines the complexity and interconnectedness of development challenges. It infuses a strong focus on the real-time needs of people and the recipients of public goods, into existing development frameworks, and fosters more effective and inclusive collaborations between people, governments, and the private sector. 

One of the main priorities of UNDP’s work in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is to move beyond the traditional linear approaches and to engage with communities in the development planning processes. The AccLab sought to structure a multi-asset financing mechanism and portfolio of integrated solutions that can be scaled across a broad range of identified thematic areas such as food economy, clean energy, and sustainable tourism which can create a larger impact on the livelihoods of the local communities. In the Hushe Valley, SIP worked as an open platform where agencies, local communities, and local governments could organise initiatives, actions, and partnerships under a shared mission for systemic change at the local level.


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan
Deep Listening: A passage to the hidden stories of Hushe Valley

The first and most important step is to ‘Listen’

For any development intervention, the first step is to identify the problem. Developing a Social Innovation Platform begins with the practice of Deep Listening, which aims to cultivate a deeper understanding of the social, economic, cultural, and environmental dynamics underlying the complex and intertwined development issues in a local context. Essentially, Deep Listening is a set of tools to collect real-time and in-depth qualitative data that complements traditional quantitative data and helps pinpoint the challenges and reframe a community's real needs and opportunities. It goes beyond traditional consultation mechanisms and dives deep into the reality of local communities; the reality that not only reflects those who normally have a say in local development planning but more importantly, the reality of those whose voice often goes unheard, and needs go unnoticed, particularly women, the vulnerable, people with disabilities, and the marginalised.

Led by ALC and conducted by the GB Foundation, a set of 200-plus in-person interviews and consultations were conducted in the eight villages prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial batch of 100 in-person interviews from this set helped the AccLab develop an overview of the locals about their daily life, their major challenges, and where potential opportunities lie. Building upon the overview, the second batch of interviews dug deeper into the community narratives, encouraging the locals to think about and share changes that they would like to see in the community. Agriculture, food, tourism, and human resources were constantly cited when people reflected and shared their stories about their past, present, and future. 


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


COVID-19 pandemic hit while the Deep Listening conversations were being analyzed. This called for a change of strategy. The team found it contradictorily challenging to listen to communities from a distance as Deep Listening is revolved around ethnographic research. 

After a few trials and tests, the team swiftly shifted to Digital Deep Listening in response to the pandemic. Over 500 locals in the Hushe Valley were reached out through digital listening tools for deeper inquiries and follow-up interviews. To enable this level of outreach and connection, the digital tools used included Interactive Voice Response (IVR), 300, 750 blast SMS texts, 20,000 robocalls as well as social media platforms. To ensure that more people, particularly those whose voice is often unheard, like women, the old, and the youth, a call centre was brought in to facilitate conversations in the local language to engage the community in in-depth conversations. 

The post-pandemic inquiry also hammered on the many effects that the community was facing. The conversations, questions, and prompts were constructed to highlight barriers, motivations, influences, and concurring challenges and to map any new thematic areas that have emerged. One of these thematic areas was reverse migration, which directly impacts the economy and well-being of Hushe.

Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


The potential of Food Economy

An in-depth analysis of the data from Deep Listening brought to the surface many chronic issues including poor infrastructure, scarce economic capacity, lack of quality education, no access to clean water, lack of market access to local products, and lack of healthcare resources, especially for women. All these challenges added to the hardships of daily life in Hushe Valley. On top of that, the analysis highlighted the potential of the food economy for local community development as people rely on agricultural production for subsistence and income. The food economy was an anchor between development interventions in response to various thematic areas such as local economic development, women’s empowerment, and sustainable production. 


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


Following the Deep Listening exercise, the collected narratives were reviewed and analyzed during Sensemaking sessions. Sensemaking involves presenting and validating these narratives with local stakeholders and members of the community to ensure that they accurately reflect local realities. Through Sensemaking, communities can collectively understand their situation, reflect on their needs and priorities, and identify actionable measures to address them. In the Hushe Valley SIP, Sensemaking sessions were held in the field and were split into two separate sessions. To facilitate the presentation of the identified narratives, we used ethnographic profiles, which we called Personas, as the main tool to: 

  1. Present the findings to stakeholders;

  2. Extend the listening process; and 

  3. Further engage people and stakeholders. 

One important aspect of creating Personas is constantly adjusting them to the results of the listening process, refining and reinterpreting the narratives, challenges, and opportunities identified, highlighting similarities and discrepancies, and proposing possible solutions.


Persona, ALC


The ‘show’ must go on

The Acclab team resumed the Deep Listening process as soon as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in the Hushe Valley. It conducted a field trip in September 2021, in collaboration with the GB Foundation, to reconnect with local communities to enrich the Deep Listening and conduct some co-creation sessions. 

More insights emerged during the fieldwork as the AccLab team continued engaging the community in uncovering in-depth narratives. These insights were profound and humbling, enriching the Deep Listening data. Key findings included:

  • Women are a crucial part of the economic system in Hushe, and they make up a significant portion of the workforce. They are responsible for managing households, farming, and caring for their families. Despite being a gender-supportive community, women still face marginalisation due to a lack of connectivity, including road networks and digital infrastructure. Additionally, there is a lack of awareness and inclusion, which further limits women's voices and opportunities within the community.


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


  • Households share a strong sense of community. During one of the co-creation sessions, the idea of providing clean water to a selected cluster of houses was presented as a pilot. The idea was unanimously rejected on the ground that limited access to clean water is an issue shared by the whole community and thus should be sorted for the whole community. This sense of community is not only reflected in their pristine nature but also in the daily interdependency between households. The families take turns to watch out for each other’s cattle, fields, and houses and support each other in times of need.


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


  • People are motivated to initiate self-support efforts. Despite many development efforts in the region, Hushe Valley faces many systemic challenges. Local households share a strong spirit of self-support and are motivated to develop self-initiated solutions in community development. This spirit facilitated the form of cooperative societies like the Farmers’ Cooperative Society and Women’s Cooperative Society. 

  • Hushe enjoys abundant natural resources that, if put into sustainable use, can be a game changer for the development landscape.


Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan


These narratives are not only important to understand the underlying issues and their complexity in the local context but are also the key to co-creation in the intervention design phase. They lay the groundwork for stakeholders to collaborate on developing solutions that speak to the real-time challenges they are experiencing. 

Based on the rich findings uncovered in the Deep Listening and Sensemaking, local stakeholders including women, farmers, and entrepreneurs, were brought together in co-creation sessions and co-designed a portfolio to leverage the local food systems to propel socio-economic development in Hushe’s communities. As a result, a strategy to run the first phase of portfolio experimentation was developed. From November of 2021 to March 2022, some initiatives, that are part of the portfolio, have been implemented and tested. 

Photo: Shahzad Ahmad/UNDP Pakistan

Authored by:

Javeria Masood, OIC Head of Innovation AccLab-UNDP Pakistan

Fernanda de Barros Pezzatto, SIP Hushe Valley Coordinator- Agirre Lehendakaria Center