BISHKEK, KYRGYZ REPUBLIC: Wars, earthquakes, landslides, narcotics, ethnic cleansing, poverty. Are mountains the source of many of today's miseries? Or of much of tomorrow's hope? His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, this week demonstrated the argument for optimism as heads of state, international leaders and mountain experts gathered together to mark the end of the United Nations International Year of the Mountains.
Yesterday, in the 3000-year old city of Osh, where caravans pausing along the Silk Road once discharged their wares, the Aga Khan School was inaugurated as a "centre of excellence" where computers will download the future off the electronic highway.
Students admitted purely on merit, will benefit from an enriched curriculum and enjoy state-of-the art facilities, laboratories, a Learning Resource Centre, and a gymnasium in a complex that integrates Central Asian design with innovative building techniques.
The Aga Khan also outlined an integrated development programme that will address the most urgent need of remote mountain communities scattered across chon Alai and Alai, the two poorest districts in the Osh oblast (province), the country's largest.
Focusing particularly on livestock and potato production, the programme will also cover the health and education sectors, microcredit and microenterprise. Today, at the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit, the Aga Khan challenged global decision-makers to tackle issues such as poverty, critical infrastructure, and agricultural and social development needs through regional policies.
In a keynote address, he called for political and diplomatic efforts and the engagement of multilateral organisations, stating that "truly regional projects will require financial assistance that supports such efforts directly - not as an aggregation of individually financed, single-country activities." Reflecting on decades of experience that the Aga Khan Development Network has accumulated in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the Aga Khan said that when demonstrably successful community-based projects reach a stage where they no longer produce increments in returns, "much wider forces of change have to be brought into play, such as mobilising new economic drivers and diversifying the economy at the macro level."
The Aga Khan and Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev were present at the signing of an Economic Cooperation Agreement which provides the framework within which the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development will look to attract additional foreign investment into priority sectors of the Kyrgyz economy. Tomorrow, in Naryn, a picturesque town not far from the Chinese border, the Aga Khan will review plans for the Kyrgyz campus of the University of Central Asia, the first institution of higher learning in the world created specifically to deal with problems affecting mountain societies and their environments.
Created by an international treaty between the Ismaili Imamat (the office of spiritual leadership represented by the Aga Khan) and the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the University has already begun vocational courses through its Division of Continuing Education and Training.
Offering "living laboratories" through its proposed campuses in Khorog, Tajikistan, Tekeli, Kazakhstan and Naryn, the University will complement a Master's degree. Programme in Mountain Development Studies and a "mountain-oriented" undergraduate liberal arts programme with research opportunities that are expected to benefit societies in mountain ranges as varied as the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas.
Academic disciplines will range from ecology and mining to marketing. Conceived with the potential to reach some 25 million people across Central Asia, both through information technology and campus-based courses, the private, secular university will enforce a merit-based admission policy and seek to form the future leaders of this region.
Suffering from neglect, emigration, scarce resources and plagued by frontier disputes, natural disaster and environmental degradation, mountain communities call out for attention. The Bishkek Global Mountain Summit highlighted the challenges and brought together shared lessons and experiences from across the globe.
The Aga Khan's initiatives seek to respond to these challenges and to take further the process of shared learning by creating model institutions and outlining future policy directions that will enable more solutions to be implemented on a wider basis.