Interview Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

Interview at the OAU Summit Conference and UN Energy Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan attended the Conference as Head of the Bellerive Foundation.

(Interviewed by Faridoun Hemani.)

Q: Your Highness, this is a very important Energy Conference. It's the first of its kind in the world, at least the first since 1963, What do you think will be the outcome of this particular Conference?

A: I think the outcome should be more than just declarations of good intentions.We don't want this Conference to generate, like so many other conferences, an exchange of hot air. Many conferences have generated so much hot air that we could keep keep the energy needs of a number of countries supplied with the amount of energy wasted during these conferences. But this one should be different, we should really get on with it, we should get down to business.

I understand that development should not continue to depend on sophisticated technology, on external inputs, on very costly infrastructures which are highly centralized and usually sold by highly-paid foreign tourists, who are always anxious to impose their wares on developing countries. This Conference should really grapple the problems of the grassroots, and provide the poorest areas of the rural parts of the developing world with newer and renewable resources of energy which can help them become self-sufficient and independent, which can help them to save their energy and use their time in a more productive way. There are a lot of available intermediate technologies which are adapted to these needs. These have to be adopted and promoted and spread out by the governments and international organizations that deal with aid.

So the Conference should adopt very meaningful and precise guidelines. The governments should then make sure that these principles and guidelines are implemented. I am most concerned about the implementation. We should not only have statements of principles and wonderful resolutions which pass unanimously. If there is a political consensus, one should have implementation. The Conference should not be politicized; it should put politics aside and focus on the realities of the legitimate claims of the developing countries. But can we avoid not getting it politicized, because reading from the present drafts of the action plan, it appears that there is at least a conflict about financing of these projects.

Q: Who pays for it?

This, of course, is very much linked with the whole problem of North-South dialogue or lack of dialogue which we see in every international forum. We see it in the United Nations, we see it in the regional organizations, we see it also discussed in specialized agencies. I think that this is the main stumbling block. There should be a consensus on what the main priorities are. It's only unrealistic, I think, to go for prestige projects immediately.

Sometimes you know there seems to be a lack of realism. Some Governments wish to jump right from the very backward conditions of many rural areas where people live in squalor, to the 21st century, bridging a gap which in Europe for instance, took centuries to bridge. Well, it shouldn't take centuries to do it here, but none-the-less if you want to avoid the exodus from the rural areas to the cities, you have to avoid people loosing hope in rural areas, you have to start at the grassroots where the people are in the villages, and the prestige projects are not going to do any thing to help those people. If you bring sophisticated highly centralized productions of energy - for instance, a nuclear power station - and you don't have an electricity grid to bring the power to the villages, or people don't have the purchasing power to pay for electricity in these villages, how are you going to benefit from the very costly and very expensive centralized sources of energy production like nuclear energy?

So governments must agree to the priorities, and certainly in a country like Kenya, for instance, the priority is to avoid the ghastly deforestation which is taking place everyday. Now you are not going to solve that by focusing on prestige projects; you are going to stop that by helping people not to cut wood, and the only way you can help people not to cut wood is to give them more efficient stoves. You can't tell them not cook their food, you can't tell them to stop cooking hot meals for their families. You have to provide them immediately, tomorrow if possible, the new stoves with substitute fuels which can burn as well as wood, and at the same time to give them an incentive to adopt this very rapidly. It has to be made accessible to their budgets; so it has to receive at least at the beginning some kind of economic and commercial assistance from the government.

Q: In the Group of 77' particularly, what role does the Middle East or rather the OPEC countries play, particularly as it means that perhaps as a result of this Conference, the dependence on oil and petroleum products is going to be reduced. How are they going to be affected and how are they going to react to this?

A: I think you know that in the short-term they may be perhaps affected, because there is this oil-glut which everyone is talking about, but on the other hand they must also understand that this commodity is a finite commodity, which sooner or later will run out. They have been saying it themselves and certainly in their part of the world, which is mostly desert, they will need other things when the oil runs out. That is why they are focusing so much on the need to develop a planned forestry in climatically-controlled areas. Of course, this requires an enormous amount of capital investment as it's highly capital-incentive. They are focusing on that because they realise that sooner or later they will have to replace these resources themselves, because these are non-renewable sources.

So certainly the OPEC countries in the long run have every interest in co-operating in the work we are doing in Nairobi. They certainly have a head-start because they have enormous amount of resources available and their own experience in trying to diversify their energy resources. They can give advice to countries that don't have the means and have not the experience which they've had. They can also place some of their enormous resources which they seek to invest on the international market, in these new intermediate technologies. Imagine how much could be done with very small, relatively small input from the OPEC countries? This, in turn, would provide a new market for them, because a lot of people benefitting from this initial input would then be able to increase their standards of living sufficiently to purchase things from the richer parts of the world. This is again an indication of how inter-dependent our world has become, and our governments should learn to be less short-sighted about the immediate gains as opposed to long-term benefits.

Q: How long do you think it will be before all these new and renewable sources of energy are used more and more - in terms of a decade, two decades?

A: Well, as you know somebody said that if sun-rays could be used as weapons, we should have had solar energy a long time ago. I am afraid that this is a sad but very realistic assessment of the world we live in. A lot of the scientific and technical progress which we have witnessed has been due to the military uses of new scientific discoveries. We know this, for instance, with atomic power, the arms race, the nuclear arsenal, the over-kill which is built up. Today we know that it's very difficult to separate the peaceful uses from the military uses of nuclear energy. And we know what proliferation is - it is the spreading of plutonium which is produced sometimes in nuclear power stations which were originally conceived for peaceful use. I think that's part of the answer to your question.

Mankind must learn to develop peaceful uses of new renewable sources of energy and not use the sun, for instance, or geothermal energy or wind energy or biomass for military purposes. Therefore, I would say that a lot of these new energy resources are already being utilized and are extremely effective. However, they are still a little too costly. If you look at the solar panels and the photo-voltaic cells which are exhibited in large numbers here at the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre, you will find that the prices are still high. But the price is going down, the competition is increasing; every six months you will notice that the cost of solar and various other new energy resources will go down. And then these will be adopted, they will become economically interesting even for manufacturers and there will be a greater demand as their efficiency is proved. So I think that it's an on-going process - one cannot say in five years' time or ten years time. I think everyday we will see these energy resources more and more adopted. I can tell you that today in Switzerland many of the farmers with whom I am working in my Foundation are using biogas to run their own tractors - and if it's good enough for Switzerland, it should be good enough for the developing countries.

Q: Could you please give a brief insight into the job done by the Bellerive Foundation?

A: Well, we started out because of the great threat to Kenya of deforestation. Kenya is using more than 22,000,000 tons of wood every year, and this figure was given to us by the government itself. This process must be arrested because if these natural resources continue to be deplete faster than they can be replenished, Kenya will be heading towards an ecological disaster of major proportions comparable to that which hit the Sahel some years ago in West Africa. In the year 2000, there won't be a single tree left in Kenya, if this goes on. And you know what that means - It doesn't only mean that people won't have any fire with them, it means that there will be soil erosion through wind and rain, the top soil will be washed away, all the water reservoirs and dams will be silted up; there won't be any kind of agriculture, and as a result of this, people will move more and more into the urban concentrations which are already unable to handle this exodus. This will lead to major economic and social upheavals. In addition, there won't be any tourists anywhere, because the people come to see the wild-life and the game-parks; how will there by any wild-life if there is no life-support system for the wild-life in the game parks because the forest is not there? So everything here is inter-dependent. The Ministries concerned with Tourism, Natural Resources, Environment and Water for instance, are all concerned on this, because if the forests of Kenya disappear, all of them will have problems with which they simply cannot cope.

So we started out with this in mind - how can you stop the deforestation? The only thing you can do is to provide people with more efficient stoves which achieve tremendous results in saving fuel, and to provide them with substitute fuels so that they don't have to use wood or charcoal. This is what the Bellerive Foundation is doing - providing people with a package-deal which includes more efficient stoves, the possibility of burning biogas or palates made of various residue including a lot of things which are wasted today like sawdust, discarded newspapers, sludge from industries, providing them also with hay-boxes which are excellent ways to cook and to keep the water boiling and also, of course, providing people with biogas to light their homes without having to use gas or electricity to do so. So the Foundation's job has been to pioneer these new technologies and to provide them to the government. We are discussing plans with the Ministry of Energy for the implementation of these various projects in the rural areas. The product is there, the question now is of simply promoting it and distributing it.

Q: When our beloved Hazar Imam was in Kenya last in March, He gave great emphasis to careers for young people in the energy field. Can you perhaps identify specific areas in the field and give us an idea as to what sort of careers and what opportunities are available for Ismaili youth in the energy field?

A: I think in all these new and renewable resources of energy, there is a need for valuable human resources; new and renewable resources of energy can not be developed without human resources. It seems to me that Ismailis are in a very privilege position because many of them live in developing countries or, because of imposed circumstances, have re-settled and are living in developed countries. Now they really are privileged because they have a grasp of the problems, having a foot on both sides - the developing countries and the developed countries - and so they are singularly well placed to assess the problems, determine the priorities and then apply themselves to finding suitable solutions. They would, I think, benefit a great deal from field experiences. They should get out of the cities and take a look at what's happening in the rural areas because too many Ismailis are city bound and do not get out of cities enough to see what is really happening there. They should seek the best ways and means to somehow reverse the trend and help these areas of the poor developing countries.

I think through the U N agencies, like UNICEF and UNDP, through non-governmental organizations and voluntary agencies, through our own Ismaili institutions for instance, they can get this experience; and by getting jobs also with agencies that deal with development, that are looking for people who have some idealism and at the same time a good deal of pragmatism, who can really apply themselves usefully to this pursuit. Ismailis have a great future in this and I think that through the Councils and Ismaili educational institutions, they could get information on where they can find these opportunities.

The young people in these Ismaili institutions understand what the problem is and I think that as a result of this new leadership which is coming frequently from the young, from the young people particularly in Canada, the United States and so forth, these problems should be deserving the attention and the interest of young Ismailis. I have constantly encouraged them to take a greater interest in the UN, to seek job-opportunities in the UN and in UN field-operations, not only at UN headquarters in New York, Geneva, Paris, London or Rome, but to seek opportunities in the field in the branch offices of the UN Development Programme, working with the resident representatives to go into the field. This is an essential experience and the Ismailis are very well-suited to carry on these jobs.

Q: Moving on to the Muslim world in general and world events, at present there is turmoil in Iran, problems between Iraq, Egypt and Libya. The Muslim World in general seems very divided. What are your concerns about the results of such conflicts in the Middle East?

A: First of all, these conflicts are, of course, extremely detrimental to peace and stability. Not only in the countries concerned but also in relations between states, they represent a threat to peace. The Middle East, which you mentioned, has already triggered off many wars, many conflicts, many tragedies like the recent tragedy in Lebanon, and certainly they remain a constant threat to peace. They also, I think, unfortunately create a wrong impression about Islam quite frequently and widen the gulf of misunderstanding between the Christian religion and the Muslim faith.

So we need Muslim leaders with vision, with understanding , who can explain what Islam really is to the West, who can emphasise the true qualities of the Islamic philosophy of brotherhood, unity and a completely monotheistic approach to religion. The bond which exists in the Muslim family, which goes beyond the misunderstandings and conflicts of governments, should be explained and one should try to foster an on-going dialogue between Western Christian leadership and Muslim leadership. At the same time, the West should realise that Islam has frequently been misunderstood, has suffered from very counter-productive propaganda and has been pictured in a non-realistic way. The West should realise that this misunderstanding was based on the colonial era - You know the prejudices, the work of over-zealous missionaries who had interest in presenting Islam in a negative way. All these wrongs have to be righted now and the media has to help as well, by explaining the true problems of the Muslim countries, not misrepresenting them to Western public opinion.

So there is a lot to be done, there is room for tremendous improvement, but I think that one has to have a Chinese vision of history and think about centuries, not of the immediate concern of what will happen within the next year or so. Ultimately, I am sure there will be some kind of productive dialogue and better understanding between Islam and the West. This is what we all seek and I am sure that we will achieve it.

Q: So, in other words, you are optimistic that the western view of Islam, especially because of the current situation, will be improved?

A: I am sure it will be. For one thing, we all live in very small world which is shrinking every day because of communications. We're also interdependent in this world and we have to learn to live in peace with each other - otherwise there is no hope. We are now living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. We have for the first time created methods of destruction which man may not be able to control and which could trigger-off a most frightful holocaust, even by mistake - we have come close to it a number of times, as you know through computer error. So we should bear this in mind - the overkill capacity of nuclear arsenal is such, that we can't afford to make any mistakes. And I do not think God means this planet to be destroyed, not yet anyway, so you must remain optimistic.

Q: Do you still hold an Iranian passport?

A: Oh, yes! Of course yes, always have been. Iran is, as you know, our country of origin and since my father's time I haven't acquired another passport. Q: How do you see the future for Iran?

A: I hope that the things will get back to stability and peace which is, I think, something the Iranians very much deserve. They have suffered a lot from the recent upheavals; there has been a lot of suffering, economic and social unrest, civil strife, breakdown of law and order, and insecurity. So we hope that this country will be able to find some stability again very soon. I haven't been there for some time and it's difficult for me to asses the internal domestic situation. Today, one is a little suspicious of what one reads about a situation in a country - sometimes it sounds much worse than it really is. But certainly we are all very much concerned about what has happened and we hope that the Iranian people themselves will find a stable government in due course.

Q: In the future, say next year, how do you see your role with United Nations?' Are you a candidate for the Secretary General's position?

A: I want you to know that there are many candidates for this post, many candidates, and I think there is no need to have another name in to the list of candidates. I have never been a candidate and I am not a candidate. I am also told that Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whom I have served for a number of years, has expressed interest in having his mandate prolonged, his term re-extended, and I am sure that governments will take his experience and willingness to continue into consideration. But I am always ready to serve the UN. I have served in many capacities. I have worked for UNESCO and the UN High Commission for Refugees. I have carried out a number of missions as special adviser and consultant to the Secretary-General. I was his special representative in a number of conferences and I negotiated a number of political situations also on his behalf, and of course, now I am still working, preparing a report on the causes of mass exodus and the refugee problem for the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly. So I am ready to serve the UN in any way that I can, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years.

Q:In 1957, the Associated Press quoted you as saying that you want to be known as Sadri Khan' in your own right and not linked to your family achievements. And no doubt your work with the United Nations, with the world community, has been a tremendous achievement. Is there anything that you still have to fulfil, any ambition that still remains to be completed?

A: Well, you know every man has to really try to identify what his field of activity should be, where he can have the greatest impact. We all have our specializations. If you can find out what you are best at doing, you have already won half the battle. If a man is gifted, for instance, and is an artist or a musician and he can produce something for his contemporaries, something for his own community in the field of art, he can gain great satisfaction from this. If somebody else is, for instance, better at negotiating political and diplomatic problems or dealing with development of exercising a specific profession and he really gets satisfaction from this, he should be doing that. I think I have because of my background, my education, the fact that I have always been an Internationalist, because of my father's influence also and his interest in League of Nations, and his extraordinary gifts as a politician - a man who understood the world, who knew the problems of both East and West.

I have always been somehow involved in International affairs and this is why I am interested in development, in narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, in establishing a re-distribution of wealth and resources in a world which is hopelessly divided for the time being - and this is what I enjoy doing. If I can make a modest and meaningful contribution in this direction, I'll be completely satisfied. This is why I've somehow wanted to be associated with the UN. I think a great deal can be done through this organization - it is not perfect, but it's the only one we have and we should use it well.

So I enjoy being considered in my own right - I think this is important. Individuals are judged because of what they can contribute, not because of their background or their titles or various distinctions which they have earned in their careers. I think one should have a great degree of humility and understanding, because after all what is important is the individual man or woman and human relationships. And in any job, I think you should get away from paperwork bureaucracy and deal with human beings. That is why my experience as High Commissioner for Refugees was so rewarding, because I was dealing with human beings - and this is what I want to continue to do both within and outside the United Nations.

Q : I understand that you are working on a volume of Sultan Muhammad Shah's life and especially his contribution to international affairs?

A: I wish I had the time to really prepare something right now, but the problem is that this is a monumental task. I have an enormous amount of material already and I am still interested in gathering as much material as I possibly can. Certainly for the time being it may be an utopian dream under my present responsibilities and commitments. But certainly this is something that should be done and must be done someday - to pay tribute to a very great man, who still remains to be known and understood by a great many people, particularly in the Western countries where one has to separate the myth and the realities of who my late father really was.

Thank You Very Much.

Source : Africa Ismaili. Dec 1981.