AKF is a community-driven, multi-sectoral organisation established by Mawlana Hazar Imam in 1967. It works with disadvantaged people in remote regions in areas including health, nutrition, education, economic opportunities, civil society, food security, and agriculture.
“The overwhelming majority of our staff are from the countries where we're working,” says Michael. "Our priorities are what the communities establish as priorities. We do as best we can to help them realise those things and add value where we can. Our job is to provide technical inputs where relevant, to help resource these initiatives and also to work with them. So these things do become truly sustainable.”
In Afghanistan, for example, AKF works through established community structures, or convenes groups that include women, students, the elderly, farmers, business owners and other stakeholders. In Madagascar, AKF was helping to raise rice crop yields, and when farmers wanted to discuss what higher-value products they could grow, AKF began working with them to grow cocoa, chilli and the medicinal plant artemisia, and to consider things like quality control, market access and using technology to keep up to date with the going market rates. In Northern Pakistan, communities identified their needs and AKF helped them build micro-hydel energy generators, leaving the users to run them.
“[His Highness] was talking about civil society years ago when very few people were, the importance of pluralism, where you are embracing the other and enriched by differences.” Working in areas where different ethnicities and faiths live together or in adjoining villages, Michael constantly sees pluralism in practice. “We engage all of them in a structured way,” he explains. “What does this community need and how can we go about that fairly, equitably and transparently. People should understand what we're doing, why, the resources we have, who is accountable. And you have to get your processes inclusive. We are also very mindful of building a workforce that draws from the different dimensions of a community, and that's critical.”
Equity across genders is another priority. “We take great care to make sure that girls are included in our school improvement efforts, that young female entrepreneurs are supported through our work. We have things called village savings and loan programmes, which are very modest, simple, but effective things where women come together and sort of pool their money. And we've invested very heavily in women in leadership within AKF.”
From events such as the Partnership Walk, which raises money to leverage other grant funding, to the vast resources of national Jamati institutions or to IT-literate volunteers helping set up a human resources information system, Ismaili participation is fundamental.
“I'm unaware of anything quite like the Jamat. And the dedication and commitment and enthusiasm and support that Ismaili murids have for the Network. It really is a unique value add for us. The engagement within the embrace of the Jamat is critical to our work as a Network as a whole, but surely for AKF.”
“I’ve done a lot of things,” concludes Michael. “But every morning I get up feeling energised, inspired, and profoundly privileged to work here, and to do my modest part to bring His Highness’ vision to life.”
To watch the interview in full, and learn more about the Aga Khan Foundation, visit The Ismaili TV On Demand.