Inaugural session of the Enabling Environment Conference, Kenya

His Highness the Aga Khan delivering a speech at the Enabling Environment Conference Opening Ceremony in Nairobi, 21 October 1986, Kenya. AKDN / Aziz Islamshah

Your Excellency the President,
Your Excellency the Vice-President,
Honourable Ministers,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed a great honour to welcome so many distinguished Africans and friends of Africa to this conference. I am particularly grateful to you, Your Excellency, and to the members of your Government for your willingness to sponsor such a gathering in Kenya, a country to which I have been deeply attached since childhood.

You will remember that it was in your presence that I originally proposed the concept of the Enabling Environment, almost exactly four years ago. During the celebrations of the Silver Jubilee marking the 25th Anniversary of my Imamat, I made two speeches here in Nairobi. The first looked at the role of social institutions in national development. The second explored the potential for the private sector to contribute to economic growth. Those speeches signalled the beginning of my ambition to bring together the leaders of government, private business and the voluntary sector to discuss concrete steps to define and improve the Enabling Environment in sub-Saharan Africa. It gives me great pleasure to see this ambition realised here in this room, today.

The papers for the conference spell out many of the tragedies that Africa has suffered in the first half of this decade. Aside from the pictures of famine and drought still vivid in our minds, we cannot ignore the chilling fact that per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa have declined by one quarter over the last five years.

On the other hand, major factors are changing for the better: interest rates have fallen, with beneficial effects on indebtedness. Oil prices have dropped, bringing relief to importing states. Commodity prices, it is generally agreed, are far more likely to improve than to repeat their dismal performance of recent years. The rains in 1986 have brought respite and opportunity, and economic pragmatism is in the air. So let us concentrate on the opportunities for the future.

Nations and continents can emerge from depression. Men and women of good will and solid intellect can change the course of events. My hope is that the participants in this conference will come up with practical, feasible recommendations for ways in which government and the private sector – both profit and non-profit- can work together to build a better future for this continent.

Africa’s genius is her peoples. In their diversity, vitality, creativity and resilience, they represent the greatest of the many resources of this continent. The basic topic of our discussions, therefore, is how to create the conditions of confidence, predictability and mutual trust that will enable people and institutions to realise their full potential.

The conference is focussing on the key interactions between three groups that stimulate, serve and channel the energies of Africa’s people. I find that the papers are particularly enlightening in their discussion of the relationship between government and business. I want to devote my comments today – and more importantly my questions – to the relationship between these two sectors and private development agencies.

I am also, perhaps, one the people here who is most actively involved in both the for-profit and the voluntary sectors. As Imam of the Ismaili Community in twenty five different countries, I am traditionally involved, through the Aga Khan Health and Education Services, in the provision of basic health and education to people of all faiths. And as Chairman of the Aga Khan Foundation, I devote a great deal of time to thinking about ways in which a private development agency can collaborate with government and other international and national agencies to assist the Foundation’s most important partners in development – the people themselves.

Through my role as Chairman of a new organisation – The Aga Khan Fund for Economic and Development – I am seeking to promote productive and profitable business ventures in the Third World. We all assume that the profit-making sector must be highly professional. I strongly believe that the voluntary sector must also adopt standards of quality and principles of good management.

But let us concentrate first on what government itself is doing for Africa. I may be a little unfashionable in this era of self-questioning and outside criticism, but I would like us to think for a moment about just how much African governments have achieved in the social sectors in the face of severe difficulties. For Africa as a whole, total school enrolments have risen from 21 million in 1960 to 87 million in 1982. At independence, only five percent of children of the appropriate age groups attended secondary school. Today, the figure is twenty-five percent, making a qualitatively different society, with different aspirations and increased capabilities. In health, average life expectancy has risen from 42 years in the mid-60s to 49 today. In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of government expenditure devoted to education, heath and social services is startlingly large.

Yet, governments would be the first to recognise that their resources are stretched to the limit – and beyond. They must sprint in order to stand still. The combination of population growth, vast unmet needs and increases in unit costs for the provision of increasingly sophisticated services, puts incredible pressure on the resources of government.

Since government resources for the social sector are unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future, we must search for other approaches. One possibility is to increase the resources from and through the private sector. A second imperative is to improve the management of resources employed. Both are needed. In both, the voluntary sector has a critical role to pay, in conjunction with business and government.

The voluntary ethos has been extraordinarily important among the people of Africa. Perhaps ninety percent of African housing is the result of family and community efforts. In Kenyan education, the Harambee movement has been extremely significant and there is an equivalent in Bostwana. In health, it is now widely recognised that the future lies in community-based systems. People are willing to invest time, effort and scarce resources in systems that communities can call their own and that respond to the problems which they themselves define. Also important is the propensity of voluntary efforts, sustained by both the Muslim and Christian ethic, to help the disadvantaged. No one really knows the extent of the overall voluntary contribution to African society. A rough indication of its importance can be gleaned from a 1984 estimate that international PDAs alone contributed one billion dollars to Africa, against total net official transfers of only three and a half billion.

The potential contribution of the voluntary sector to improving the management of social sector resources needs to be further explored. Frankly, bureaucracies have not proved adept at innovations in management. The more innovative, risk-taking agencies provide numerous opportunities for experimentation, which are producing worthwhile lessons and models for others to emulate. The voluntary sector, operating on a smaller scale and less encumbered by regulations, is particularly well adapted to the needs and spirit of the villages of Africa and Asia. One recent report has noted, “Some of the most remarkable success stories of improved health status have come from non-governmental organisations around the world. To a large extent, these organisations have been responsible for developing the model currently being promoted as the way to achieve “Health for all” by the year 2000”.

In Kisumu district, volunteers and professionals are building upon the desire and ability of local community members to supplement more conventional institutional health care. Individuals and families fill essential roles in the Kisumu Primary Health Care Project. Important, lasting improvements, including community water systems, are affecting the lives of 60,000 people in the location. This small example points to a widening future for the voluntary sector.

As we seek new ways to combine resources more efficiently to meet the needs of people, much can be learned from the experience of some voluntary agencies, just as there is still much for this sector to learn. One challenge facing you as participants in this conference is to find specific ways to nurture – and to draw – lessons from – these private experiments with quality and efficient management. In particular, I think there are four questions that deserve your attention:

First, how can the voluntary sector itself find ways to increase its management capabilities? Some parts of the voluntary sector are already well-managed – with a clear vision of objectives and of the means to achieve them. These parts can help to increase the overall management capacities through example, training and through their active encouragement of participation by local communities. Other parts of the voluntary sector need help to improve their management to ensure that their efforts are both effective and efficient.

Secondly, we need to strive for quality within the resources available. From our experimentation, we know that quality improvements in education can be relatively cheap – improving teachers morale and support services, developing better curriculum, providing more books and teaching teachers themselves how to produce good, inexpensive materials. In the health field, we are searching for that combination of mass campaigns, community-based services and hospital back-up that can provide the quality care to the largest number of people.

My third question concerns ways to improve the process of learning from the experiences of the voluntary sector. Traditionally jealous of their independence, many voluntary agencies are cautious about allowing scrutiny and promoting the replication of successful projects on a larger scale. If the potential of private development agencies is to be realised, and confidence in them is to grow, this must change. How can we improve the process of self-analysis, evaluation and the exchange of experiences without diminishing the autonomy and creative initiative of voluntary agencies? How can they learn from their own experiences in order to improve the management of their programmes?

My fourth and final question concerns the financial strength of the voluntary sector. How can we give PDAs the financial stability to meet simultaneously the very real costs of better management and the swiftly growing demands for their services? Some institutions may be able to build substantial physical plants and endowments to advance their purposes; such social sector investments will warrant the same protection as that needed by business. If governments are constrained from devoting additional resources to the social sector, private business can and should do more. We need to seek imaginative incentives to raise these contributions. Governments can play a part. Fiscal incentives, like the tax policies being adopted by some industrialised countries, can encourage companies to increase their contributions – through direct education and health programmes for their workers and families, through gifting a proportion of profits to voluntary agencies, and through donations of equipment and supplies. The prerequisites, of course, are economic growth, profits and incentives from government for companies and for individuals.

But I am also interested that this conference should explore other, less traditional, contributions from business to the voluntary sector. I believe that the majority of the scarce managerial talent in Africa resides in private business. How can we apply some of that talent to the broader social and economic problems the continent faces? My own network of social service organisations derives a large part of its strength from businessmen and women who volunteer their time and expertise to oversee the management of these organisations. In India, some of the large industrial houses are prepared to second managerial staff to work with rural development and health programmes in the voluntary sector. The donation of employees’ skills can surely in some cases be as valuable as their corporate shillings.

I believe we can go further. The essence of management is combining resources more effectively to produce higher quality products at lower cost. Business has tools and techniques to do this. These are urgently needed in the voluntary sector. Can we not devise ways in which this transfer of experience and skills could take place? The voluntary sector needs effective ways to measure its impact and to identify precisely the costs of alternative ways to achieve that impact. Could business help in designing management systems for this purpose?

Business should also take note that the voluntary sector is increasingly involved in promoting income-generating activities, particularly for women and for the very poor. The potential contribution of private business is enormous. For instance, the Aga Khan Foundation is supporting a project to improve women’s incomes in a Karachi slum. What that project really needs is not so much funds and equipments as access to sub-contracts from textile manufacturers and better quality control. Out grower schemes, sub-contracts, processing facilities, assistance for quality control and marketing are just some of the areas in which business could play a highly positive role, at little cost.

If business is prepared to accept these challenges, I believe it would find more than adequate rewards. Most responsible businessmen now recognise that they benefit, directly and indirectly, from better health, education and housing for their workers and their customers. Improved social conditions contribute to an environment in which private enterprise can thrive. Literacy improves the productivity and income of African farmers; its impact is well documented. We know that the contribution of education to economic growth is higher in Africa than anywhere else. Evidence also exists on the returns on investment in health.

Throughout these remarks, I have repeatedly stressed the theme of voluntarism. Let me conclude with a personal vision of the human energy contained in that idea. We have all seen examples of God’s most wonderful creature, the person – whether in a government bureau, a business, or a private development agency – who is inspired to give generously of himself, to go beyond the mechanical requirements of a task. Such men and women, paid or unpaid, express the spirit of the volunteer – literally the will to make a product better, a school the very best, a clinic more compassionate and effective. Their spirit, generating new ideas, resisting discouragement, and demanding results, animates the heart of every effective society.

I submit that one of our great goals, if we are to create an enabling environment of hope and determination, is to give our volunteers opportunities to become more expert and professional – more rational and skilled – without killing their passion. At the same time, our leaders of government and business must arouse in their professionals the will and conviction of the volunteer. In this way, we must suffuse purpose with structure and structure with purpose.

I have a practical vision of a way that government, business and the voluntary sector might assist in a major initiative to enable Africans and others to contribute to the development of this continent. Although it may take more than four years to see this particular dream realised, I would like to share with you today my idea of a new faculty of the Aga Khan University which would respond to the challenge of “management for quality”. I would like to help build an institution to train managers of social welfare institutions and services as well as managers for business and civil services who would be fully cognisant of the needs of the social sector. Specifically designed to foster development in its largest sense, the new Faculty of Development Policy and Management would be linked directly to particular institutions that could serve as learning laboratories and field training centres. Just as the medical students at the Aga Khan University Faculty of Health Sciences in Karachi are getting first hand experience of community health needs by working in city slums and rural villages, students at the new faculty would be exposed from the beginning to the realities of day-to-day management of social services as well as to business practices and management theory. This could be one contribution of the private sector to the public good. I hope that you will have many other concrete suggestions to put forward.

It gives me a great sense of hope and satisfaction to see gathered here in Nairobi this week, men and women of a calibre and a degree of concern sufficient to take up the challenge of creating an enabling environment. In thanking you heartily for your presence in this room, may I urge you to work hard in the days ahead to come up with practical proposals for ways in which we can – collectively and individually – carry this debate into the reality of Africa.