Stepping into fractures

By Pranay Gupte

A very private person who would rather read up on microfinance in East Africa than talk to journalists, the Aga Khan nevertheless talked for more than four hours with FORBES GLOBAL. The venue was Aiglemont, a discreet wooded estate in the small town of Gouvieux, just outside Paris. Works of Islamic and Western art were tastefully displayed. The floors were graced by Persian rugs.

What is the thread that runs through the enterprises your network supports?

The starting premise is what are the inputs that are required in the parts of the world in which we are working that can have a beneficial impact on the quality of life if the people in those areas. Secondly, are those inputs capable of being addressed by one institution, or do you need a number of institutions that have specialized knowledge and that can work together? And the third point concerns the capacity of those institutions to be self-sustaining. Ultimately, sustainability of the process of development is what all of us are concerned about.

Are you satisfied with the progress of the Aga Khan Network for Development?

Essentially the network has been people-driven—not dogma-driven, not driven by material return. The only thing we are concerned about is improvement of the quality of life of people. And insofar as those goals are achieved, then I think that our initiatives would be considered positive.

Now, development is such a multiple process that others will have other approaches. The new area we're looking at is culture as an area of development. That's another issue that's been in the cards for some years. But, these are things that actually come from the field. They don't come from bureaucrats sitting at headquarters and dreaming up projects.

Do you feel your development ideas can be replicated all over the world?

I'm a little bit worried that the stereotype solution is becoming very prominent. I am not convinced yet that the total free-market approach is healthy for all of human society today. I am not totally convinced that democracy without the understanding of the way and the precondition of democracy is a healthy exercise. I think probably it's important to educate people about democracy so they can understand what are its goals. In countries of hundreds of millions of people that have never experienced democracy, I'm not sure how quickly that process can take place. I think it's desirable, but I'm frankly cautious about the speed with which it can be achieved.

That certainly sounds germane for places such as Tajikistan, whose nearly one-million-strong Ismaili population is only now being exposed to the outside world.

The first issue is listening and learning, understanding and trying to come to grips with the realities which they have lived with in the past decades. I try to understand what are their priorities. Because their priorities are the ones that they perceive against their own historical horizons, which are very different from the ones we might be perceiving.

Now in Tajikistan, one of the things one has to accept is historica fractures—it is an historical fracture when an empire like the Soviet Union collapses. You're stepping into that fracture. And you're observing, and then you're trying to address the issues by their priorities. So long as the people themselves have told you their priorities, rather than your trying to tell them what they should be, then I think you will build a relationship of empathy, of trust. And that, I think, is beginning to happen in Tajikistan.

How do you modernize these emerging societies?

These societies entered a system where the historic culture was replaced. Their culture—even their ethic, I suppose—was changed. The nature of the individual within society was changed. And that period of whatever it was—50 to 70 years—has had a massive impact on these people. The interesting thing is that these people do not view it as entirely negative. But they do want to know what it was before. And, therefore, trying to revive and revitalize these pre-Soviet cultures is something of very great importance to these societies. It is part of restoring an identity.

What are your worries?

I would like to feel that there is more stability in the future than I perceive at the moment. We are coming out of an historically extraordinary difficulty. The Cold War impacted development thinking all over Africa and Asia. And now, the Cold War's gone. But what is it being replaced by?

My second concern is the issue of sustainable human development [based on] quality and integrity. Many of these countries are still very fragile economically. The public ethic is not particularly strong in a number of them. Therefore, trying to sustain this is an ongoing problem. It worries everybody.

The third issue I'm worried about is the capacity to build the economic sustenance that we require. The industrialized world is not going to continue indefinitely to support the Third World. I feel time is running out for us.

And yet you've encouraged your children to join your development work.

Insofar as one of my children could be exposed to the future responsibility in the institution—and that will be the case—then I would like the boys and also my daughter to be knowledgeable about what is happening. But there's something much more important than that. I'm 62. I have been in this position for 42 years. Now I learn from the younger generation. They think in different terms than I do. They have different competencies than I do. So bringing my children on board is a very intimate way of accessing the talents of younger people. I don't want to give the impression that this is simply an internal family issue.

Courtesy Forbes, 31 May 1999

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