Today is an occasion for celebration for the more than 15 million Ismaili Muslims around the world.
It is the 60th anniversary of Prince Karim al-Hussaini assuming leadership of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and the title of Aga Khan IV. He is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and well-known as a wealthy horse breeder who helped save the historic French horse racing grounds Hippodrome de Chantilly.
Media often compare the Aga Khan to the Pope because of his role of spiritual leader for Ismailis. The multi-billion dollar development network he founded and still directs is rarely mentioned.
The global development projects under his purview are so vast that the comparison would be more accurate only if the Pope ran the World Bank, led agencies of the United Nations — and was the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway at the same time.
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), as it is called, spent more than $925 million last year on social programs, making it as big as well known NGOs like World Vision, Save the Children and Oxfam. And then there are the investments in hotels, electricity companies, financial services, media and tourism promotion that bring in $4.1 billion in annual revenue.
The profits from the investments and the millions of dollars donated by Ismaili Muslims each year all go back into paying for AKDN’s work.
“Social ethic is a strong principle in Islam. I think all us Muslims would be well advised to reflect that as a fundamental part of our faith and to live about that,” the Aga Khan said in a rare interview ahead of the Diamond Jubilee celebration marking his 60 years as leader.
A central point of the Aga Khan’s call during the celebration is for the continued support of the work by the network. He encourages his fellow Ismailis to aid the network as it tries to identify the needs civil society and provide continued support.
“We have to be an empathic society, a welcoming society, a peaceful society and a just society. All of those things are clear. The question is how we put those things in practice in government and civil society.”
To that end, he drew specific attention to two key pillars of the AKDN: pluralism and civil society.
A Bottom-Up Approach
AKDN supports more than 40,000 civil society organizations that are comprised of 1.3 million people. The Aga Khan believes that a robust civil society is an effective tool for enabling pluralism and improving quality of life. It happens when there is downward accountability, meaning government and leaders answer to citizens.
The Aga Khan does not prescribe specific solutions to the problem of poverty. He rejects the top-down approach to development where outsiders or people in power make decisions for people living in poverty. He has directed AKDN staff and volunteers to be guided by the notion that citizens should determine the future of their own country, not outsiders, expats or national elites.
“The community is absolutely shaping what we do and that leads to a more meaningful and sustainable development work,” Michael Kocher, General Manager of the Aga Khan Foundation, said in an interview.
This community-driven economic model is gaining wider acceptance in the broader global development community.
“The end of poverty will come as a result of homegrown political and economic reforms (which are already happening in many poor countries), not through outside aid.” New York University economist Bill Easterly argued in an OpEd for the L.A. Times. “The biggest hope for the world’s poor nations is not Bono, it is the citizens of poor nations themselves.”
In Afghanistan, the AKDN mobilized more than $1 billion since 2002 to support development in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The money went to projects ranging from the completion of nearly 600 infrastructure projects and the founding of three resource centers for girls. It supports 150 health centers and clinics in Badakhshan province, manages the main government provincial hospitals in Bamyan and Badakhshan and supports three midwifery schools.
Most programs focused on civil society and enabling accountability. It is a recognition that answers come from the bottom, not the top.
The Aga Khan Foundation supported 29 public audits in Afghanistan across 25 districts in 2015. It simultaneously organized public forums and town halls where governors spoke directly to their constituents. Social report cards are utilized to appraise district hospitals. All of the programs act to provide feedback to leaders and empower communities to demand what they need.
“We practice community-driven development which if done well means that you are inherently accountable to the community because they are the ones leading the work. If you are doing something wrong then you are going to hear about it,” says Kocher.
Pluralism is a sort of antidote to the divides that cause instability and conflict. It is a tenant that champions a society that embraces differences of faith, culture, gender and more to achieve harmony. The Aga Khan opened the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada this year to promote the idea in a country he says actively embraces the philosophy.
“If society does not accept pluralism as a basic fundamental value, then the stresses and strains at some stage or the other will come out to the forefront. They will create risk,” he said to the CBC, in 2014.
Ongoing fighting in countries like Yemen, South Sudan and Syria are in some part caused by divides between various groups along religious, ethnic, political or social lines. The Aga Khan recalled the artificial divisions caused during the colonial era that pitted groups against each other. Pluralism enables equity, he explained.
“I think most populations around the world aspire to a quality of life,” the Aga Khan said. “It seems to me that there are a lot of situations where there is not sufficient sustenance to enable a quality of life. For us it is about asking what causes these problems and what can be done.”
The Aga Khan’s grandfather Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III moved from India to Europe at the turn of the 20th Century. His son, Prince Aly Khan, was a well-known socialite and horse breeder, and served a diplomat at the United Nations. He had three children, including a son Karim who was born in Geneva and raised in Nairobi, Kenya.
In 1957, the Aga Khan IV, then a 20 year-old student at Harvard University, learned that he was named to succeed his grandfather as leader of the Ismaili Community. He returned to school to complete a degree in Islamic history before taking on his duties full time. Within a decade he built connections to post-colonial leaders in Africa, including Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and formally launched the development network.
“The Islamic ethic is that if God has given you the capacity or good fortune to be a privileged individual in society, you have a moral responsibility to society,” he said, explaining the motivation for the AKDN, to Vanity Fair.
The AKDN initially began as a support system for the Ismaili Community in South Asia and East Africa. It soon expanded to include people of all faiths and now works in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast where there are no Ismailis.
The Aga Khan led the construction of a diverse portfolio that aims to help people escape from poverty. Programs range from combating climate change to maternal health to rehabilitating historic sites. By the numbers, the network supports more than 200 health centers, helps more than 17 million people access financial resources, operates more than 200 schools, plants more than 1 million trees per year and much more.
Programs are organized into three branches: economic development, social development and culture.
The network is in 30 countries and comprised of more than 80,000 staff – the majority of whom are locals. AKDN’s for-profit investments and donations from Ismaili fund most of the work. It also partners with governments, receiving grants from development agencies in the U.K., Canada, Germany and Scandinavian countries.
Long Term Vision
A stable financial foundation allows AKDN to make long-term commitments to the communities where it works, Kocher said. The Aga Khan describes medium-term thinking as a 25-year time horizon, Kocher explained.
Longer-term programming enables community-driven development to take place in practice, not simply in theory.
“What I find appealing about the Aga Khan Foundation is we are working farther upstream and we are working towards root causes of poverty and social tension and try to do something about it before something happens – whether it is the provision of health services or education,” Kocher said. “Many of these problems are not simple issues and are not able to be fixed in the course of a short-term grant cycle.”
The work may be secular, but the religious roots of AKDN provide a kind of organizational stability that enables AKDN to invest using time horizons that are rare in international development.
“Engagement in secular affairs is a mandate of the institution to engage in improving the quality of life of people,” the Aga Khan said. “The issues we are dealing with are important and if my institution and my community can contribute to solving some of the problems ahead we will be very happy to do so.”