Feature August-September 2002
Supporting Innovation in Afghanistan the Experience of the Aga Khan Development Network

The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan opened up myriad opportunities to redevelop the social and physical infrastructure of this devastated country. A major player in its rehabilitation is the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN --, an entity so large, multifaceted and influential that in some countries it has its own embassy and diplomatic status. Its mission is straightforward: "To develop and promote creative solutions to problems that impede social development, primarily in Asia and East Africa." Headquartered in Gouvieux, France, and comprising a set of specialized developmental agencies, the AKDN has branches and independent affiliates in 12 countries.

AKDN is headed by Prince Karim Aga Khan, one of the world's most prominent philanthropists. In 1956, when he was just 20, he became the leader of the 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims who live in 25 countries in East Africa and Central and South Asia. While a principal goal of his vast development initiatives is to serve the communities where Ismailis live, the network's programs in education, medical services, economic development and culture reach out to people of all backgrounds and faiths. Prince Karim Aga Khan is also a leader in the movement to preserve great monuments around the world.

Najmi Kanji heads the AKDN's work in Afghanistan. A public health specialist who now calls himself a "generalist," Mr. Kanji worked in Tanzania for AKDN from 1993 to 1996 and then in Tajikistan, where a new program was just starting up. At the beginning of 2002, he was assigned to head the network's program in Afghanistan, where he currently spends most of his time, although he is based in AKDN's London office.

Global Giving Matters interviewed Mr. Kanji about AKDN's work in Afghanistan.

Global Giving Matters: When did AKDN launch the Afghanistan initiative?

Najmi Kanji: AKDN has actually been working in Afghanistan since 1995, mostly providing food aid and other non-food support through an affiliate called Focus Humanitarian Assistance. We now have the opportunity to switch from the humanitarian/rehabilitation mode to long-term development. In January of this year, His Highness the Aga Khan pledged $75 million as an initial investment for our new initiative. Then in March he visited Kabul at the invitation of President Karzai, to sign an agreement of cooperation that provides the AKDN with diplomatic status in Afghanistan, and includes a framework for the AKDN's activities in the country. The Aga Khan also made an additional grant of $2 million for the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) to hold a national meeting for the election of Afghanistan's new leaders. We're there for the long term, so this was just the beginning.

GGM: Why and how did the Aga Khan get the motivation to establish the network? What was learned from that experience that impacts your work in Afghanistan?

NK: I think that the establishment of the Network was always premised in the Aga Khan's belief that the poor of this world need a spark that can help them to improve their lives. More philosophically, compassion and caring for the less fortunate in society is one of Islam's basic tenets

GGM: How many staff do you work with?

NK: We have close to 300 staff, most of them local. Our strength lies in building local capacity. We also have around 15 expatriates. The program is run out of Kabul, with five regional offices and operations covering 10 provinces in northeast Afghanistan. Our work in rural areas revolves around rural development, with emphases on agriculture, engineering, micro-credit, hydro-electric power, health and education.

Of these staff, our regional program managers are generalists, but most staff are engineering or agriculture experts, or organizers who work in villages to set up social organizations.

GGM: Are there particular pitfalls that you've encountered in your role as a funder, and how have you dealt with them?

NK: The AKDN very rarely funds outside agencies partly because of the concern over possible shortcomings, scandals etc, thus, we are extremely careful in the process of selection of potential grantees. We tend to provide a lot of funding for our own programs, and often grants or once off support to government institutions.

GGM: How do you work with the communities?

NK: First, you have to bring people in rural areas together so you can get economies of scale by creating village organizations, women's committees, and so on. But people won't come together unless they have a vested interest. One of our strategies is to offer credit for feed and fertilizer, but instead of paying the loan back to us, the money goes to the village organization, which lends seed and fertilizer to more farmers. This village asset can then be used for other purposes such as teachers' salaries etc. This approach gives people a sense of ownership.

GGM: How do you ensure accountability when you give credit this way?

NK: We monitor payments and expenses very closely. We check every penny that's spent and retain the right to stop payments when they're not used correctly. We want people to feel that the money is theirs, but it mustn't be abused. These approaches are all part of a process to build community skills and to develop democracy and, ultimately, prosperity. We see community development as a process rather a project.

GGM: What are the pitfalls you'e encountered in your organizing attempts?

NK: This is a very conservative society. What we've found in Afghanistan -- and Pakistan, too -- is that traditions do not allow men and women to always participate equally. One has to accept this and look for creative ways to facilitate women's participation -- for example we have women's groups within a village that are involved in a range of economic activities quite distinct from men's activities. And the women often do better than men!

GGM: Can you elaborate on the projects targeting women?

We believe that we need to create an economic demand for the work women do. Legislation and advocacy are important, but they are meaningless without an economic demand. We're trying to ensure that women have a say in policies relating to them, and also that they can access credit, so we're setting up a micro-credit program and hiring women credit officers. Certain trades, including bee-keeping (to make honey) and poultry production, are quick entry points for women. Right now, after three years of drought, the situation has been so difficult that we're focusing on basic food production. Fortunately, things are turning around this year where we're working.

On the national level we're supporting training institutions for teachers and nurses, to be able to train large numbers of teachers and nurses -- the majority will be women -- to be able to not only meet the country's health and education needs, but also to provide employment for large numbers of women.

GGM: We often read about the "lost generation" of women who missed out on education for five years. How is AKDN addressing this problem?

NK: Because of the Taliban's onslaught on women's rights, older Afghan women are more educated than younger women. So we're creating a space where younger women can "catch up" for lost time. Our teacher-training program is going to be a "fast track" six-month course so that girls who had six or seven years of training can begin to teach. There aren't lots of women with ten to 12 years of education!

GGM: We understand that AKDN has a policy of working in partnerships, with the goal of leveraging its investment dollars seven to eight times. Who are the principal partners in Afghanistan?

NK: Sometimes the leveraging is just one to one -- it depends on the project and the partner. In forming partnerships, our main points of reference are the government and the communities within which we work. We have large programs already under way with USAID, the US State Department, the European Commission, the British, Canadian, and German Governments. The fact that we cover all our overhead costs and often put in our own money into these collaborative programs, and our long-term experience makes us attractive partners.

GGM: Why is AKDN working in just ten provinces rather than nationwide?

NK: First, these ten provinces have Ismailies spread out in them. The AKDN has a responsibility to meet the needs of the Ismailies! However, this is never done to the exclusion of others. Indeed, Ismailies are a minority, living amongst many ethnic and religious groups, and it would be folly to work exclusively with them. Secondly, these ten provinces provide a heterogeneous population made up of Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns and Uzbeks. We believe that our programs, as they have done in Pakistan and Tajikistan, can help make bridges between communities through creating common interest around improving livelihoods. Therefore, we have consciously selected these ten provinces for the mix of communities that live there. Everywhere else the communities are quite homogeneous and we believe in and want to promote pluralism.

GGM: A private university for Central Asian students is under way. Can you discuss the Aga Khan's role in this?

NK: In 2000 His Highness the Aga Khan signed an international treaty with the presidents of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to create the University of Central Asia, the first private university in the high mountain areas of this region. There's already a campus in Khorog in southern Tajikistan. The first faculty will focus on continuing education for adults -- training in English, computers, business skills, and so on. We hope to introduce the first modules in 2003. Most courses will be in English and Russian, and when it's ready, Afghanistan will be incorporated into it. You know, Afghanistan is considered the "great gate" to Central Asia. In a project like this, we work closely with the United States, the European Economic Community, Canada and other funders.

GGM: How are the Afghanistan programs different from others undertaken by AKDN?

NK: Each program draws on the circumstances in the country where we work. In Tajikistan, we faced a civil war, near-starvation in some areas and no money in the budget. But you had 99% literacy (as an ex-Soviet state), a network of schools and clinics, and many university graduates. In Afghanistan -- just across the river -- you have feudalism, no electricity, no roads, no clinics -- and social structures that throw you 200 years into the past. Everything, of course, is aggravated by 20 years of war, and the logistics are very difficult because of the topology.

GGM: In addition to the formidable challenges you've just described, what other major challenges do you face in Afghanistan?

NK: So many people are armed. Many areas are run by commanders who are aligned to different groups. And many Afghans do not have many choices at the present time. A lot of people say we shouldn't work with the military commanders, but you don't have a choice if you want to work with communities in Afghanistan. So we try to do this in ways that don't jeopardize our integrity. If a leader -- a commander -- can bring development assets to his people, he can create a new image as someone who's looking after them. It's a fact of life and we can't dismiss it, so we work with the commanders who are forward looking. In the new Afghanistan, building trust -- on all sides -- is critical.

© 2002 The Synergos Institute/World Economic Forum