His Highness the Aga Khan: a life in the service of development

Reproduced with kind permission from Politique Internationale (English edition of special issue on Agence française de développement), n°134 - Winter 2011-2012

I am thankful for this opportunity to share with your readers some thoughts about development problems in various parts of the world, and in particular about the difficult issues of poverty and inequality.

Allow me to begin with a word of personal and institutional background. I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him and his family). It was fifty-four years ago that I became the 49th Imam — the spiritual leader — of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, succeeding my late grandfather.

The ethics of Islam bridge the realms of Faith and World — what we call Din and Dunya. Accordingly, my institutional responsibilities for interpreting the faith are accompanied by a strong engagement in issues relating to the quality of life, not only for the Ismaili community but also for those with whom they share their lives — locally, nationally and internationally. This principle of universality is expressed uniquely in the Holy Quran where it is written, “O Mankind, be careful of your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul … (and) joined your hearts in love so that by His grace ye became brethren.”

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) consists of a series of specialised agencies that have been brought into existence over the years since 1957 in response to needs that have been identified in many of the developing countries of Asia and Africa. It is rooted in the ethics of our faith, and it serves all the populations we seek to support, without regard to gender, race or faith.

Since 1957, many of those communities have undergone massive political changes, in countries scattered globally, from Pakistan and Bangladesh to Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Kenya; from Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Côte d’Ivoire, to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran and others. The challenge for AKDN is thus to address the development needs not only of countries at peace, but also of nations that have been born from war, or suffer from internal conflict.

Many of these populations have lived through the Cold War, decolonisation, wars of independence, and racial, religious and ethnic division. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of British and French colonial rule in Africa and Asia have resulted in the birth of a number of new nations, struggling with the challenge of nation building, including the integration of ethnic groups, previously undivided, across the newly created political frontiers. Many approaches have been tested, including single-party centralised political systems, nationalised economies where civil society was suffocated, and the imposition of a single national language such as Swahili, Urdu, Arabic and others. Many of these early endeavours have failed — perpetuating poverty and division. They have since been replaced by multi-party political systems, a new space supporting individual initiative, and language policies which have accepted the unavoidability of the English language as the predominant global language of knowledge.

This trend of multiple forms of instability in much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East also had a detrimental impact on the relative values of national currencies, to the point where some countries simply demonetised their currency, thus destroying all forms of institutional and individual wealth. In this regard the corrective role of the International Monetary Fund has been remarkable.

One of the consequences of this instability for Ismailis but also for many others is that the community today lives in many more countries than in the past, with a significant number moving to the industrialised world, including Europe and North America. Situations such as Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda and his expulsion of all Asians simply because they were Asian caused massive unexpected and unjustified emigration. This tragedy was not limited to Uganda, as it undermined confidence for sister Asian communities throughout Eastern Africa.

The Aga Khan Development Network has drawn a number of conclusions from this complex past, helping us respond effectively not only to instabilities rooted in that past, but also to the fragilities of the future.

Predictability: critical for progress

One important lesson we have learnt is that predictability is not only a critical condition for progress but also one of the most difficult objectives to achieve — given the impact both of natural hazards and man-made situations. Because of this reality, AKDN today consists of many entities, such as Focus Humanitarian Assistance, which can respond to natural disasters, and the many other agencies that address human development problems in healthcare, education, access to credit, rural development, and habitat improvement.  

Civil society: the key to development

A second conclusion is our belief that civil society is the single most important factor in the development equation. Because the popular image of civil society is often associated with advocacy or pressure groups, I want to clarify that, by civil society, I mean a realm of activity which is neither governmental nor commercial, composed of institutions designed to advance the public good, but powered by private energies. They include entities such as the Aga Khan Foundation with its branches and affiliates in 19 countries, educational institutions such as the Aga Khan University, the University of Central Asia and the Aga Khan Academies, and healthcare organizations, such as the Aga Khan teaching and service hospitals. Civil society also embraces science and research institutions, professional, commercial, labour, ethnic and arts associations, such as the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and others devoted to religion or to communication, such as the Nation Media Group in East Africa and Roshan Telecommunications in Afghanistan. Other entities deal with the built environment, including our Building and Construction Improvement Programme and the Water and Sanitation Improvement Programme.

Whether in Asia, or Africa, or in the countries of the Arab Spring, or indeed in post-conflict situations such as Afghanistan, it is civil society, which most often is best positioned to ensure developmental progress.   

Civil society organisations are a bulwark against the potential weaknesses of poorly performing, weakly established or young governments. They make a particular contribution when governments are failing, taking responsibility for additional tasks to help sustain improvements in quality of life.  

Investing in the institutions of civil society deserves far greater priority, attention, support and resources than has hitherto been the case, even as investments in building the State’s institutions continue. They are well placed to ensure that progress is both public and transparent and that good governance is observed as the norm, just as they are the best tools for hastening visible socio-economic development.

Towards better governance

A third caveat that AKDN considers central is that social and economic institutions, including civil society, should be governed by the concepts of transparency, meritocracy and competence.

This commitment underpins the Network’s involvement in education — from early childhood programmes on through secondary and tertiary institutions, and post-graduate studies. The Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia (which is planning campuses in inhospitable mountainous areas of three former Soviet Republics) are a part of this effort, as is the newly developing network of Aga Khan Academies. Again, these initiatives reflect long-standing traditions in Islamic life, and indeed in Ismaili history, stretching back to the founding by my own ancestors a thousand years ago of the Azhar University, one of Cairo's oldest universities.

As we work to encourage the development of a stronger human resource base, we also work to discourage practices which impede and distort meritocratic processes. This is vitally important since corruption in health care, education, land management, the application of law and in financial services has damaging consequences which affect the performance of civil society, hence generation after generation of hard-working, honourable families seeking to extract themselves from seemingly irreversible poverty.

The roads to democracy

The fourth conclusion that AKDN can draw concerns the urgent need for new forms of democratic government in the developing world.  

I expect that countries of the Arab Spring — and many others — will, over time, become fully democratic, but this transition will necessarily take time. Should some of these post- revolutionary transformations fail, some commentators will say that democracy is antithetical to Islam. This is wrong. Public consultation about the nature of governance and its accountability has been a central precept of statehood since the revelation of the faith. Today the issue is whether these societies will be able to conceive and sustain well-functioning democratic institutions (1).

Practically no countries in Asia, Africa or the Middle East have a political landscape rooted in a strong two-party system as do many western democracies. The probable consequence is that in many if not most countries of the developing world, coalition government will be omnipresent in the decades ahead. Yet few of these countries have any established experience with coalition governance (this is true of even the most powerful countries of the industrialised world). This critical challenge will become even more complex in countries where functioning compromises must be found between secular and theocratic forces.  

A possible common ground could be found if all the political forces accepted over-arching responsibility to nourish a cosmopolitan ethic among their peoples. This would be an ethic for all peoples, one that offers equitable and measureable opportunities for the improvement of their lives, measured in terms of their own criteria for quality living.

Clearly different peoples will have different visions about a desirable quality of life, in urban versus rural areas, for example.

But a commitment to a universal ethical system that welcomes and respects diversity will be of central importance. AKDN has sought to structure itself through its network of specialised agencies to optimise its contribution to civil society. These agencies are able to design various matrixes for interventions, which can be adapted to as many situations as possible.

Reducing poverty

Our fifth of our conclusions concerns the multi-dimensional character of poverty alleviation. Left alone, poverty will provide a context for special interests to pursue their goals in aggressive terms. While humanitarian assistance is indispensable, it should be conceived as part of a long-term strategy of helping the recipient community develop its own resources. Experience has taught us that any notion of alleviation must begin with an in-depth analysis of the multiple causes that require responses. We have also learned that micro responses are often fragile and short-lived; hence responses must achieve a certain scale to achieve longevity. Where possible, these responses should be simultaneous rather than sequential. Hence, much of AKDN’s work is built around the concept of MIAD: Multi-Input Area Development.

Development initiatives cannot be contemplated exclusively in terms of economics, but rather as an integrated programme that encompasses variables such as education and skills training, health and public services, conservation of cultural heritage, infrastructure development, urban planning and rehabilitation, water and energy management, environmental control, and even policy and legislative development.   

Within this concept of MIAD, infrastructure improvement is a key element. Of course AKDN has been active in this sector, often cooperating in the financing of projects such as power generation, water provision, transport, tourism, and food processing, among others. French institutions have been among our active partners in projects such as the Azito Power project in the Côte d’Ivoire, Frigoken, a Kenyan food processing company, and the Serena Hotels which now are established in the capitals of eight countries in Africa and Asia — and which, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, have established a number of small inns in historic forts and palaces on the Silk Route. We have also worked closely with French institutions on projects in health services, including collaboration involving the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul and our newly launched Heart and Cancer centre at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi.

If a development policy is built around MIAD’s multi-pronged approach, then a fundamental component for success is the creation of an Enabling Environment for private initiative. This includes such conditions as political stability, safety and security, citizen rights, empathetic labour legislation and a legal, fiscal and administrative framework which is streamlined, efficient, impartial and effective. Such an Enabling Environment can be strengthened by the contribution of a wide spectrum of public/private partnerships.

The AKDN works towards these ends in a number of ways, notably through the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) and the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM). The fund does not distribute any form of dividend, but reinvests all its surpluses in further development. AKAM is a not-for-profit foundation. While often these agencies and their projects may seem to involve high risks, they are also labour intensive, market responsive, imaginative, and diversifying in their impact. Both agencies recognise that risk must be measured against forecast outcomes.

An Enabling Environment also extends to creating the conditions for development organisations, like the entire Aga Khan Development Network, to work efficiently. To that end, AKDN has agreements or protocols, often including diplomatic privileges, with the following countries and organisations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, India, Côte d’Ivoire, Kazakhstan, Kenya, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mali, Mozambique, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Russia, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United Nations. Individual agencies also work closely with local, state and national governments, contributing significantly through taxes and other levies to governmental income.   

Cultural development

A sixth conclusion that is worth special mention is the emphasis which the AKDN has placed on cultural development as a contributing factor for both urban and rural development, helping to alleviate poverty while also contributing to a stronger, richer sense of local and national identity.

It is striking in this regard that nearly one-third of internationally recognised World Heritage sites are in the Muslim world, but like most such sites in the developing world they are inhabited by some of the poorest people. Traditional approaches to cultural regeneration — often designed simply to create museums at such sites — fail to address the full potentials of such situations and often become unproductive burdens. The central objective of our work, therefore, is to leverage cultural opportunities in pursuit of poverty alleviation. We do this through a critical mass of programmes — the creation of parks and gardens, heritage conservation, water and sanitation improvements, microfinance resources, open space and infrastructure improvements, and education and health initiatives. It is the MIAD approach which seems to work best.

We have found that local populations can benefit from these efforts in many ways — they can be equipped to assist in the demanding tasks of historic restoration, finding productive new uses for historic buildings while then also taking on major responsibilities for maintaining cultural sites and accommodating a substantially increased flow of visitors. In the process, they can become the key custodians of their own proud cultural heritage.

AKDN efforts in this field have been wide ranging, including projects such as the creation, in the midst of one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods, of the beautiful and historically significant Al Azhar park, which receives over 2 million visitors per year. Similarly, the restoration of the Mughal Emperor Babur’s Tomb in Kabul, known as Bagh-e-Babur, receives over 500,000 visitors per year. And we have also been involved in a series of cultural heritage projects along the Asian Silk Route.

Promoting regional cooperation

As a seventh conclusion, I would like to mention briefly one often neglected element in the development equation which has taken on increasing importance in recent years. It concerns the emergence of new political entities when neighbouring countries come together on a cooperative regional basis. The potential for such cross-border activities is critically important in a number of places. In Central Asia, for example, we have built on the demography of the region and on the common culture that has emerged over an extended period of time — as reflected in the history of the ancient Silk Road. For example the hydroelectric plant in Khorog in Eastern Tajikistan is now supplying energy to North East Afghanistan across the Pyanj River. We have also sponsored the construction of five bridges across the Pyanj River linking two heretofore-separated Badakhshani communities in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Afghans in the North East of their country can now seek easy access to healthcare in Khorog instead of having to travel all the way to Faisabad in their own country.

Many civil society needs are clearly regional, hence also our creation of the University of Central Asia in partnership with the governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic to provide education specialised in high mountain studies on a regional basis.

The difficulty of living together

Finally the experience of the past 50 years in practically all the countries in which AKDN is operating has shown that — whether in times of peace or crisis — one of the recurrent societal characteristics is the difficulty which peoples of different backgrounds experience in living together. Individuals and families identify closely, of course, with the civil structures which they have inherited from birth, but they live invariably in situations which are not monolithic and they must therefore learn to accept, understand and value the pluralism of their societies, rather than seeing diversity as a liability, a threat, or an opportunity to be abused. Because this feature of human life has been so consistently prevalent over so many decades in so many countries, AKDN views this issue as a major societal problem, one that will need to be addressed successfully if the peoples of both industrialised and developing countries are to live together in peace.

Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples' cultures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for development, it is essential for the functioning of civil society. Indeed, it is vital to our existence. Our concern about this matter is reflected in our creation, with the Canadian government, of the Global Centre for Pluralism, which is dedicated to research on pluralism and its successful implementation.

Based in Canada, a country that boasts one of the most pluralist societies of the industrialized world, the Global Centre for Pluralism is committed to the creative study of the factors that have contributed to a healthy pluralism, throughout human history and in many parts of the world. Included in this perspective is an ancient Islamic heritage of conciliation, mediation and tolerance, an ethic which for many centuries fostered successful and progressive pluralistic societies in much of the Muslim world. The AKDN commitment to pluralism and progress over half a century grows out of that heritage.

The group of institutions that constitute the Aga Khan Development Network is one of the largest, perhaps the largest, group of private development agencies currently active. The Network is a model in its own right. We work with international financial institutions, government development agencies, the private sector, both local and international, for-profit and not-for-profit and civil society groups. Our endeavours are united by a single common theme: to improve the perceived quality of life of those people, essentially the poor and the weak, that we serve.

(1) The Aga Khan also spoke on the subject of democracy in a recent acceptance speech during an honorary doctorate ceremony at the University of Ottawa.