July 5, 2004

TAJIKISTAN: Aga Khan to lay cornerstones of Central Asia University

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations

ANKARA, 5 Jul 2004 (IRIN) - The Aga Khan arrived in Tajikistan on Sunday as part of six-day visit to that country and its mountainous neighbour, Kyrgyzstan, where he will lay the cornerstones for two of three campuses for the future University of Central Asia (UCA), the world's first internationally chartered institution of higher education.

"This will be the first university of its kind in the region," Sam Pickens, information officer for the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of development agencies working in health, education, culture and rural and economic development, told IRIN from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, referring to the inaugural event set to take place in the southern Tajik city of Khorog on Tuesday.

Founded by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the Aga Khan, the goal of the UCA is to serve the 40 million people who live in the mountain regions of Central Asia by fostering economic and social development.

The UCA's first three campuses will be in Khorog, Tajikistan; Tekeli, Kazakhstan; and Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, which the Aga Khan is to inaugurate on Thursday.

"There is a growing appreciation of the link between the intellectual resources of major universities and the overall development of cities and nations," the Aga Khan said in an earlier statement. "The three campuses of the UCA will be catalysts for the development of the region."

And while each campus would have its own areas of specialisation, all would be fully developed and of approximately equal scale, with each interacting closely with the others.

"These universities are going to offer three types of programmes: a continuing education programme which has already been in operation for two years; a bachelor programme in the humanities; and a masters programme in the development field, particularly important for mountain societies," Pickens said.

Regarding the uniqueness of the university, he stressed it would have a liberal arts base to it, but would also introduce the notion of a campus setting, in which students and teachers live in close proximity, allowing for an interchange of ideas.

The university would be a needs-blind facility of higher learning, he said, stressing: "No talented students will be turned away for financial reasons."

And while the focus of the visit was undeniably the university, the Aga Khan was also taking the opportunity to survey some of his foundation's other programmes and efforts.

"We just inaugurated the first micro-finance bank of Tajikistan. Just a few minutes ago [on Monday]," Pickens said. "That is going to provide banking services for a lot of marginalised populations - particularly in remote areas and in areas where commercial banks will not lend."

On Tuesday, the Aga Khan will also inaugurate a bridge at Darwaz, spanning a river along the 1,200 km plus frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. "The AKDN is building five bridges to help with the flow of aid and to jump start the economy," Pickens said.

Well known throughout the region, the Aga Khan is particularly active in the eastern Badakhshon region, where the overwhelming majority of Tajikistan's Ismailis (a sect of Muslim Shi'ite) live.

"The programmes in Tajikistan are very large and very broad based. We have one of our largest programmes in the Gorno-Badakhshan region," the AKDN official said, adding that alongside Pakistan and Afghanistan, Tajikistan was one of its largest programmes.

Since 1993 the AKDN has launched a number of successful initiatives in Central Asia in areas ranging from agrarian reform to education, infrastructure, healthcare, micro-credit, small enterprise development and cultural revitalisation.

The AKDN seeks to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities. Established by the Ismaili Imamat (office of spiritual leadership) and working in over 20 countries, the network's underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society, and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion. [ENDS]