Speech Edmonton 1998 Zahra Aga Khan

Speech by Her Highness Princess Zahra Aga Khan

International Association for Volunteer Effort

Edmonton, Canada August 25th, 1998

Honourable Ralph Klein, Premier of Alberta
Honourable Shirely McClellan, Minister for Community Development
Mr. Krishan Joshee, Chairman of the Wild Rose Foundation
Mr. Kenn Allen, President of the International Association for Volunteer Effort
Delegates and participants in the International Association for Volunteer Effort 1998 Conference
Distinguished Guests:

I feel most honoured to have been asked to present one of the keynote addresses to this Conference. During my remarks, you will see a series of images from South Asia, Central Asia, East Africa, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. I will not speak to them, or even directly about them. Rather they are a collage of people, places, and activities, presented to convey a sense of the range of settings where the work I will discuss, actually takes place. In some cases they are pictures of volunteers at work. In all cases, they represent efforts in which volunteers play an important role.

Volunteerism is a critical and vital dimension of civic society. Sustaining and in some cases creating healthy civic societies is a high priority throughout the developed and developing world as we move into the new millennium. Citizen participation, ownership, and empowerment are all critical to a world of peace and understanding. So too, is the interaction of citizens across groups within a particular society, whether those groups are defined in terms of socio-economic class, or in terms of ethnicity and race.

Organizations such as The Wild Rose Foundation and the International Association for Volunteer Effort make a crucial contribution to fostering voluntary activity in diverse and far-flung settings. Voluntary activity needs promotion, technical assistance, training, and the sharing of experience. Organisations like those that have brought us together today are indispensable to the global quest for volunteer effort.

No one can be anything but very impressed by the organisational effort and energy that has gone into putting a conference of this size and quality together. It seems like an ideal setting to exchange experiences and establish new relationships, both of which can only strengthen the cause of volunteerism in our respective national settings. Mr. Joshee, you, your colleagues at the Wild Rose Foundation and the IAVE leadership deserve our thanks for making all this possible.

Because it is the experience that I know best, I would like to take some time to say a bit about volunteerism within the humanitarian and development efforts connected with the Shia Ismaili Muslim Community under the leadership of its Imam (meaning Spiritual Leader), His Highness the Aga Khan. I do this not as a form of advertisement, or to "blow our own horn", but to set a context for some more general comments on volunteerism in the new millennium that I think can be drawn from our experience.

In the Shia Ismaili Muslim tradition, voluntary service to others is viewed as an integral and positive part of daily life, and never as a burdensome obligation or an elective activity. Service is a means for each individual to actualise Islamís ethics of inclusiveness, of compassion, of sharing, of the respect for life, and of personal responsibility for sustaining a healthy physical, social, and cultural environment.

Generosity is fundamental to this concept of volunteerism: generosity of material resources, of time, of thought and of knowledge. The importance of the donation of time and financial resources is widely recognised. The other two elements are not. Thought helps others to help themselves. Knowledge enables the educated to provide technical information to the less educated on how to meet their own needs better and serve others.

For us, voluntary effort is manifest in two distinct settings. It is central to the governance, functioning and effectiveness of the institutions that serve our own Community, our Jamatkhanas (Community Centres), Social Welfare Boards, Housing Societies, and the like. For example architects, planners, designer and quantity surveyors train members of the Housing Boards in "self-help" construction projects. In rural areas the local population provides labour and raw materials, and the volunteer professionals provide knowledge. In this way, volunteerism in countries with large rural populations, draws professionals from the urban environments to work in rural settings. These and other projects also provide opportunities for young professionals just finished their training to contribute skilled input for a wide range of activities, even though their circumstances do not yet allow them to support such work financially.

In addition, volunteerism is critical to the governance, functioning, and effectiveness of the Aga Khan Development Network, a family of private, international, non-denominational, development agencies. These agencies have been established over the last thirty years as a contemporary endeavour of the Imamat to realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action. The role of volunteers in the work of the Aga Khan Development Network, or in our shorthand, the AKDN, that will be my primary referent this morning.

The agencies of the AKDN have distinct yet complementary mandates. One group of agencies is concerned with economic development, establishing for-profit undertakings in the developing world that create employment, enhance management skills, and support new and existing local industries and the improvement of their output in qualitative and quantitative terms. Another is engaged in social development defined as education, health and rural development. These agencies operate schools, teacher training institutions, rural clinics, major hospitals and a range of rural development programmes. As an example, The Aga Khan Education Service through its local affiliate, is the largest private educator of girls in Pakistan and The Aga Khan Health Services operates major hospitals in Karachi, Mumbai, Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam. The third broad area of work is culture Ė an effort directed at improving the quality of the built environment, by seeking to enhance the appropriateness of new construction, preserving and reusing buildings of historic significance and enriching the training of architectural professionals.

In geographic terms, Network agencies are primarily concerned with improving the welfare and prospects of people in countries in the developing world particularly in Asia and in Africa. But some have affiliates and programs in the West as well. In each of the countries in which they work the agencies address problems experienced by all citizens, irrespective of race, ethnicity or religion.

Although the agencies of the AKDN work in distinct fields of development, their programs share some specific characteristics, a number of which are directly relevant to our deliberations at this Conference.

The first relates to governance. The local operating affiliates of each agency has its own board composed of nationals of the country, with diverse backgrounds, and who serve on a voluntary basis. In addition to providing oversight, the board is a valuable source of contacts and information for the further development of projects. It also functions as a communications bridge to governments, the media and the community at large. In this manner, the Network provides a system in which a core of professionals, especially in the social development sector is supported by groups of trained volunteers. The volunteers give their time and skill to issues as wide-ranging as planning, feasibility studies, fundraising, or even a more basic level, crisis response in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

The second characteristic relates to a philosophy of development. AKDN agencies and their affiliates operate at the grass roots level, and emphasise the participation of local people in the planning, implementation and the operation of projects from which they will benefit. They also build partnerships with local organizations and, non-governmental and governmental alike. Often, AKDN agencies work with communities to foster the creation and development of new, community, and non-government organisations.

In the remote mountainous region of Northern Pakistan, for instance, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme has helped to create more than 3000 Village Organisations and Womenís Organisations involving people of all faiths and backgrounds. These organisations play a central role in the planning and operation of rural development projects: agricultural improvement, animal husbandry, land and water management. They help to form and operate rural primary health centers developed with the assistance of the Aga Khan Health Services. In East Africa, the Aga Khan Foundation is helping communities to create and manage their own pre-schools by assisting communities wishing to participate in the Madrasa Pre-School Programme to establish elected school committees responsible for administration, financial management, maintenance of school building and responding to the needs of the teachers. In some cases, participating communities engaged in the programme have come to realise the benefits of volunteer, community-based and community managed initiatives, and subsequently, have mobilised themselves independently to meet other needs.

The third characteristic shared by many AKDN programmes is their activities depend heavily on volunteers in their daily operations. This is particularly the case in our schools, health clinics, and six major hospitals all of which engage volunteers directly in the delivery of their services. This requires, as most of you are undoubtedly aware, a great deal of planning, training, and management. Persons unfamiliar with good volunteer programmes often make the mistake of thinking the volunteers are a "free good" for the performance of miscellaneous tasks. Experience shows that, in fact, volunteers need a level of preparation, oversight, and recognition that is comparable to that provided to regular employees. When volunteers are taken seriously, the quality of their contribution and their own sense of satisfaction literally soar.

The heavy dependence on volunteers, in the governance, planning and implementation, and the actual delivery of services in the AKDN has important consequences that extend beyond the goals of any particular activity. It encourages initiative at the individual and community level. It contributes to the development of human resources by providing experience and formal training programmes. It helps identify and develop leadership capacity by giving individuals far below the usual seats of power, the opportunity to participate in the making of decisions. Finally, it contributes to the generation of resources, financial and in kind at the community and institutional level. This is the stuff of which healthy civic societies are made, and these are the requirements for sustainable development.

Over a period of almost 20 years, the Aga Khan Development Network has gained valuable experience as a group of international agencies working in social, economic, and cultural development. To each country in which it operates, the AKDN brings an important array of assets developed through this experience. Many of them are those one would expect of a development agency: trained manpower, experience in the design and implementation of innovative projects, relationships with major universities and peer development institutions, partnerships with donor organisation, and access to funding. But others may be quite distinctive.

For example, these is an unqualified commitment to capacity development in each setting in which the agencies work. And, there is the critical role played by volunteer effort at all levels in that process. But, beyond this, there is the reflection of a profound yet simple underlying ethic. In Islam, a necessary aspect of volunteerism is the good management of charitable resources. Those who mismanage or take away from charity are severely condemned. Volunteerism can, and should, ensure sound financial management and reporting, and quality control. Volunteerism can be made part of medium-term planning and course-correction within that planning process. We involve volunteers as auditors and planners to ensure that our organisations reflect ethics and good management principles.

All of this leads to a central question of this conference. How do you mobilise volunteers? I will again turn to Ismaili tradition for an answer. Amongst Ismailis, it starts early and continues throughout an individualís life. Young Ismaili children perform volunteer tasks at Jamatkhanas: serving water, collecting and looking after coats, and the like, tasks which require no professional knowledge, but which introduce, at an early age, the ethos of volunteerism. As she or he grows and develops academically and professionally, so do the complexity and performance of the voluntary tasks. For example, in order to protect people from the astronomical costs of litigation, we ask senior lawyers to volunteer their time on Conciliation and Arbitration Boards, in order to help people obtain professional and fair, yet completely free, judgement in commercial and domestic matters. Nowadays, this service is, in many places, used by Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike. In other instances, professionals volunteer their time and skill to bring the benefits of technology to people who might otherwise never be able to afford, or have access to, it. The ethic of service to others, is thus, inculcated early, and works to broaden the individualís experience in relating harmoniously to the society around him or her.

If I have spent a good deal of time describing the work and characteristics of the Aga Khan Development Network, it is because I believe it provides some interesting examples and lessons that relate directly to the theme of this Conference. The real challenge for all of us is, of course, to find ways to broaden and strengthen voluntary effort into the next century. Socialising young people to see voluntary service as an important part of everyday life is the key, and providing models, opportunities, programmes and appropriate incentives are the means. I trust that our deliberations here in Edmonton will contribute to a better understanding as to how to design them and put them in place.

Thank you.


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