Sunday, April 11, 2004
KABUL - There's a riddle here few people can solve.
What organization controls the country's largest cellphone company, is throwing itself into humanitarian development work in some of the poorest provinces in Afghanistan, is building the city's first five-star hotel, is restoring historic landmarks in Kabul - and is dominated by Canadians?
The correct response is: The Aga Khan Development Network, the one-of-a-kind Ismaili organization that combines business ventures with aid work throughout Asia and Africa, with considerable support from the 75,000-strong Ismaili community in Canada and the Canadian government, with which it has unusually close ties.
"We don't fit the box," says Aly Mawji understatedly.
Mawji himself doesn't fit the box either. He is a central Africa-born Toronto resident with a degree in anthropology, who has spent time working with native groups in Canada to improve children's health.
Now, he is the regional representative for the network here, with diplomatic status that puts him on the same level as Canadian ambassador Chris Alexander, overseeing the multi-tentacled efforts of the network in Afghanistan.
That means ensuring that everything the network undertakes, even business ventures such as the luxury Kabul Serena Hotel designed by Montreal architect Ramesh Khosla or the Roshan cellphone company, is aimed at the overall goal of helping the country develop.
"The importance of investing in Afghanistan today as a secure state is an absolute imperative for future stability and economic growth in this part of the world," says Mawji. With its business ventures, the network, currently the country's largest private investor, plans to convince other countries Afghanistan is a place they can do business with and in.
It appears to be working. Suppliers from other countries didn't want to have anything to do with Roshan when it was scrambling to launch the company last July. Now they're falling over themselves to do business with the company, which now has 105,000 subscribers in six cities and is adding 12,000 new customers a month - in part because of its French-designed advertising campaign that features billboards all over the country with images of traditional-looking men talking to young men in modern dress.
That kind of business success is essential for the economic growth Mawji believes is the only solution to overcoming Afghanistan's current political fragility. If the country doesn't develop industry, it will continue to be reliant on opium production, which now accounts for half of Afghanistan's gross national product and is a major factor in the ongoing eruptions of factional wars.
That long-term development goal is also behind the restoration work the network gets involved in. Currently, it's working with other partners to restore the Bagh-e-Babur Gardens in southwestern Kabul, a beautiful walled garden containing the tomb of the Monghol King Babur that was heavily damaged during the last two decades of war. And the network is overseeing the reconstruction of the Timur Shah mosque and the creation of a market building in the city's central bazaar district.
Then, in the northern provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Bamiyan, it takes on traditional development work, working with local village councils to improve health, education, water quality, and a host of other basic necessities in a comprehensive way.
But the network's unusual structure and mission mean that there is lots of crossover between its corporate and humanitarian sides.
Calgary residents Zabin Jadavji and her husband, Karim, came to Afghanistan last February to work as volunteers with the Focus, the network's humanitarian-aid arm that provides crisis help.
After a few months, the young couple started working with Roshan, whose executive director is Vancouver resident Karim Khoja, but also as volunteers.