Plenary Session of the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit

His Highness the Aga Khan delivering his keynote address at the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit. AKDN / Gary Otte

Your Excellency, Prime Minister Tanaev
Your Excellency, Ambassador Gautschi
Distinguished Participants
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is an honour to be one of the participants in this distinguished gathering. I am pleased to be part of a meeting dedicated to the search for new solutions to the problems and potentials of the mountains and mountain people. Looking back over the events of the last decade yields several lessons. One of the most important is that the global community cannot continue to ignore the problems that have been building in most mountain areas of the world.

It is most fitting that this Summit, the culminating event of the United Nations Year of the Mountains, should be held here in Bishkek.

  • The Kyrgyz Republic is a mountainous country, located in a region dominated by some of the world’s mightiest mountain ranges. For this reason President Akaev took the initiative, more than two years ago to move the General Assembly of the United Nations to dedicate the year 2002 as the Year of the Mountains. 
  • He saw it as a means to concentrate attention on the role that mountains and mountain communities play in local economies as well as their global consequences for climate, the supply of critical natural resources, and peace and security. The presence here of representatives from governments, private business, non-government organisations, universities, and international development agencies demonstrates that his objectives are being achieved. 
  • President Akaev, I would like to add my voice to those of the speakers at the opening plenary, in thanking you for the initiative you have taken to bring this meeting to Bishkek, for the warm welcome and the excellent arrangements.

Presentations and discussions over the past two days have detailed the complex problems confronting sustainable development in mountain areas. I will not take your time by repeating what has already been said. Dealing with the problems is particularly difficult for developing countries where resources for investment are always insufficient and subject to intense competition from many sides, often for other worthwhile and pressing needs.

These problems have been especially acute here in Central Asia over the last decade.

  • Most of the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union have experienced rapid and severe stagnation as their economies were cut off from the highly centralised Soviet economic system. 
  • The effects of this change were magnified in mountain areas. Few were self sufficient in basic foodstuffs, and their industries and mines -- already inefficient -- were cut off from their markets. Even educational and health services, which had been accessible and good, collapsed because they had been dependent on high subsidies. 
  • The struggle to survive brought some immediate results – many with more than short-term consequences. I will give just two examples. The-cut off of imported and subsidised fuel led to the massive cutting of trees and shrubs to provide heat during the bitterly cold winters. Herds of livestock, once a major export, were decimated for food in the absence of alternatives. 
  • The years of armed conflict have further exacerbated these conditions, in Tajikistan and even more notably in Afghanistan.

The Aga Khan Development Network (which I will refer to as the AKDN) has developed considerable experience working in mountain communities. It has been active in the Northern Areas of Pakistan for over twenty years, and in parts of Tajikistan for over a decade. This year the Network is bringing this experience to bear in northeastern Afghanistan, and next year plans to begin a programme in the mountainous districts of Osh Oblast here in the Kyrgyz Republic.

A fundamental premise of the AKDN is that development is a multifaceted process that must be approached from multiple perspectives and requires long-term engagement. The structure and approach of the Network is a response to this understanding of development. It is comprised of a number of agencies with specific mandates and expertise. The work of the non-profit entities ranges across the fields of health, education, economic development, rural development, and culture. Activities include the provision of social services, field based development activities and educational programmes and universities that train professionals at the highest level. Building institutions and human resources to operate on a sustained basis is one of AKDN’s most important goals. The for-profit group takes equity positions and management responsibilities in companies that contribute to overall development.

AKDN’s work in mountain communities has shown that attention to a combination of critical elements at the field level can make a powerful difference. These factors include:

  • working with or creating community organisations that can progressively operate on their own, 
  • providing matching funds for community level infrastructure projects, selected and built in large measure by the community, 
  • supplying credit and improved inputs to agriculturalists, and
  • providing technical assistance to support agriculture and construction projects.

In the case of Tajikistan, land reform that gave farmers secure access to their land was an additional, very important element.

These experiences have yielded many valuable lessons.

  • To succeed, programmes have to be grounded in field experience, with trained personnel situated throughout the area. 
  • All factors require support over an extended period of time. Community organisations need to gain experience and develop strength. 
  • It is easier to improve agricultural production, and thereby income and nutritional levels, than it is to create agriculture-related and non-agricultural jobs in rural areas. 
  • Improving access to the quality of health and education services is essential. They support the diversification of the local economy, and equip those looking for work outside the mountains on a seasonal or long-term basis to be considered for new forms of employment. 
  • In many areas it is also possible to revitalise or strengthen cultural assets – be they buildings, musical forms, or crafts -- as potential attractions or products for those tourists interested in mountains and mountain cultures. The point was made in the opening plenary that mountain areas have the highest level of bio-diversity of any ecological zone. It is equally true that mountains have more cultural diversity than any other physical setting. This is a great source of strength and an asset and should be supported as such. 
  • It is clear that improved livelihoods and functional communities are much more attractive to mountain people than armed conflict or criminal activities, including drugs.

But however well-designed community-based, integrated development programmes may be, they need support from strong institutions to evolve and good policies to move beyond what they can cumulatively achieve.

Institutional support is required to provide ongoing inputs explicitly focussed on the problems and potentials of mountains and mountain peoples. The challenge of improving agricultural production and productivity on a sustained basis illustrates this readily. While mountain regions share many problems, the solutions are often very specific to particular micro niches, even within one area. Grains, horticulture and the cultivation of specialised plants for medicinal and other specialised purposes require careful selection in order to succeed.

This requires field-based knowledge and capacity, as well as the means to mobilise the best science that is relevant, wherever it can be found. It will require the ability to undertake highly contextualised research, as well as the delivery capacity to bring that research to the field in a form that can be utilized in field conditions. Unfortunately, as the Director General of UNESCO stated in his plenary address, there are very few universities and research institutions located in mountain areas.

Research and training of this type – applied to the whole range of knowledge and human resources needed to support mountain development, is one of the premises for the creation of the University of Central Asia. The university came into being following the signing of a treaty between the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the Ismaili Imamat two years ago, and ratified by the parliaments of the three countries over the course of last year. From campuses located in mountain towns in the three countries, it will conduct a wide range of activities designed to serve the mountain peoples of the region.

I would like to move to a topic, which I do not think is receiving enough attention here at the Summit and in other Year of the Mountain fora. In Central Asia there are problems and unrealised potentials that can only be addressed by involving two or more countries, or working on a truly regional basis. This, as has already been pointed out, must be due at least in part, to the irrationality of national boundaries.

But tackling regional issues will require effort at political and diplomatic levels in each country involved, and they will in turn require facilitation and support from multilateral organisations to move negotiations forward. Truly regional projects will also require financial assistance that supports such efforts directly – not as an aggregation of individually financed, single country activities. The need to build and improve roads and bridges in sensitive and neglected border areas are particularly critical.

I would be worried if the rational economic theories that support the benefits of regionalisation were only that: theoretical rationalisations. However, at least in the case of AKDN’s high mountain activities I should share one last lesson with you that was recently highlighted in AKDN’s most mature rural support programme.

At what stage does the compound impact of community based projects over a wide area and an extended period of time cumulate into the need for macro economic changes? In our high mountain situations, this equates with new regional dimensions. Even when demonstrably successful, community-based projects seem to reach a development stage at which they no longer produce continuing increments in returns.

It would appear that when that point is attained, much wider forces of change have to be brought into play, such as mobilizing new economic drivers and diversifying the economy at the macro level. New areas and scales of enterprise in fields such as commerce, agro-industry, the leisure industry and others must be developed. There are new needs for regional institutions such as universities, enterprise support agencies, micro-credit banks and the like. Improved communications, better roads and appropriate customs and border regimes take on a new urgency. They in turn must seek out new levels of funding and diplomatic support that only large international funding agencies can offer.

In AKDN’s experience they unfortunately are generally unenthusiastic about funding regional initiatives. But in economic theory, and from the practical experience of AKDN’s high mountain development programmes, the case for regional development initiatives and their institutionalisation is made.

There is of course, more that can be said about building institutions to respond to new needs and constraints but I will stop here. AKDN looks to partner with other institutions to move this process forward. Much remains to be done to stabilise mountain communities, and improve the options and therefore the future for mountain peoples. It will take the best efforts of all of us to make a difference for them

Thank you.