Speech by Aly Mawji
Resident Representative in Afghanistan for the Aga Khan Development
Network, at the 16th Annual General Assembly of the European Foundation Centre, Budapest
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I am grateful to the Network of European Foundations Mercator Fund for selecting the Aga Khan Development Network in Afghanistan as the recipient of the 2005 Raymond Georis Prize for Innovative Philanthropy. As its resident representative in Kabul, it is a privilege to accept this recognition on behalf of the AKDN (as we refer to it), its Chairman, His Highness the Aga Khan, and the hundreds of volunteers and employees in Afghanistan on which its work depends.
It is also an honour, and a welcome opportunity, to speak to representatives of so many European foundations. The Aga Khan Development Network, and the vision and leadership of its founder and Chairman, His Highness the Aga Khan are probably not well known to many of you because the AKDNís efforts are overwhelmingly concentrated in some of the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. The Network benefits from the generous support of many European bilateral aid agencies. It also works closely with some private and corporate foundations in Europe, but to date, only with a small subset of this impressive gathering. I will therefore take a bit of time to provide some background on the AKDN and the principles that shape it.
Founded by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam - spiritual leader - of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, and a direct descendant of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the AKDN is an independent, self-governing system of non-denominational institutions, agencies and programmes. Some individual institutions in Africa and Asia are indeed more than 100 years old. The dynamic that drives AKDN is moral. It is the Muslim ethic of compassion and respect for the dignity of each man, woman and child irrespective of their origin, creed, ethnicity, or any factor that denies an individual the opportunity to realize his or her full potential in life. This is the social conscience in Islam, which the Aga Khan Development Network, a contemporary endeavour of the Ismaili Imamat, aims to realize through institutional action.
In each of the thirty-three countries in which it operates, AKDNís institutions and agencies are rooted nationally, but their scope is regional and international. Their main source of support is the Ismaili community with its tradition of philanthropy, voluntary service and self-reliance, and the leadership and material underwriting of the hereditary Imam and Imamat resources. A significant feature of the AKDN institutions is their ability to harness the energy, dedication and skill of volunteers as well as remunerated professionals, drawing upon the talents of people of all faiths, and serving populations on a non-denominational, non-discriminatory basis.
Why, one might reasonably ask, should a spiritual leader engage himself in the world of development? Islam inextricably links Faith and Society. This requires that the Imam not only lead in the interpretation of the faith but also in the effort to improve the quality of life of his followers and of the societies among which they live. Islamís vision of society is inclusive and looks upon humankind as a single family, with its diversity as a source of strength, an expression of Divine mercy and wisdom.
The AKDNís commitment to Afghanistan is not recent. It has been heavily engaged in the region for many years, in Pakistan since the early 1970ís and in Tajikistan since the early 1990ís. At that point Afghanistan was a forgotten place where poverty and extremism were allowed to brew. We watched helplessly as thousands of persecuted families were forced to leave the country after intense religious cleansing by forces who sought hard to eliminate any other interpretation of the Islamic faith. We also witnessed communities which bore the brunt of drought and isolation from traditional trade routes, which during the conflict became front lines. FOCUS, the AKDNís humanitarian assistance affiliate, established, operated and managed large refugee camps in Pakistan, in an effort to preserve the dignity of those who had lost hope, as well as initiated humanitarian aid programmes for impoverished communities that were becoming increasingly unstable in Afghanistan.
After September 11, 2001 the institutions and programmes of the AKDN have taken a stronger shape in Afghanistan to help rebuild the countryís basic social, physical and economic infrastructure and institutional fabric - all of which were devastated through 23 years of war.
The AKDN has supported the repatriation of refugees; rebuilding villages, constructing over 10,000 shelters, and initiating a wide range of development programmes to create opportunities to ease the reintegration of these returnees. It has focused on building social cohesion among different communities in a way that enhances the cultural identity of each. This social cohesion is the basis for AKDNís encompassing, multi-dimensional view of human development. The emphasis from the outset being on local capacity building for sustained social, economic and cultural development, and embedding that capacity in the values and ideals of the communities concerned so that they are able to understand and manage the forces of change.
Within the AKDNís holistic approach to rebuilding and development, the cultural dimension is pivotal in light of the severe stress that Afghanistan has endured. An initial undertaking in Kabul is the rehabilitation of the symbolic monuments of Afghan history and cultural identity, as well as the cityís traditional housing and decayed public spaces. These activities generate, side by side, immediate employment opportunities and rebuild marketable skills. The restoration of the Bagh-e-Babur, the burial site and gardens of the first Moghul King, Babur, not only seek to improve a significant historic site in the heart of Kabul but also engage and affect the social and architectural fabric around the site itself. The AKDN has found that interventions through culture have proven to be a remarkable spring board for social and economic regeneration in urban areas.
The Networkís economic development wing established two companies designed to strengthen infrastructure and support the reconstruction process: these include a completely renovated and fully modern hotel designed for official and business visitors; and a nation-wide mobile telephone company, which is currently the largest private employer in the country. In an extremely difficult environment both companies have managed to create and establish best practices and standards to benchmark quality while heavily investing in capacity building and training of local staff.
The social development agencies have launched major education, health and rural development projects in Kabul and in rural areas. Health and education include training programmes for nurses, midwives and teachers, with special attention to facilitating the participation and development of women professionals. The Aga Khan University, established in Pakistan, has drawn on its strength in nursing and education to build such capacities, introduce and test new curricula while forging regional links.
The rural development programme concentrated first on food security, rebuilding basic small-scale infrastructure, and mobilising communities to take an active role in their development, thereby laying the grounds for the emergence of civil society. It is now focussed on raising and diversifying agricultural production and developing alternative livelihoods to address the challenges in poppy producing areas and the regions susceptible to their spread.
Microfinance is central to all of the agencies efforts. AKDNís new microfinance bank in Kabul, the first in the country, has additional programmes targeting rural areas, returning refugees, farmers exposed to the lure of poppy production and, for the first time, possibilities for the poor to insure their assets.
Together, this diverse array of initiatives makes the AKDN the largest private development network in the country.
However, despite the attention it has received, Afghanistan remains a very fragile state both in terms of the socio-economic and political dynamics within the country as well as instability within the region. The recent events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan exemplify the complexity that affects the region.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to highlight a few critical issues that relate to Afghanistanís immediate future:
Firstly, the political process that was outlined in the Bonn agreement in 2001 has evolved at a much faster pace than that of reconstruction. Yet the latter is a pre-requisite to underpin political success. Afghans continue to question the impact of the significant funds that have been committed and actualised by the International Community.
Secondly, there is the need to create an environment that is conducive for private enterprise and economic investment. Regional linkages, particularly those that encourage trade, improve access, and allow for an exchange of ideas, will accelerate the development of Afghanistan and the wider region. The Afghan peopleís innate entrepreneurial instincts which have allowed them to survive decades of hardship need to be further harnessed and promoted. In tandem, the need to build capacity both at the central and provincial levels of Government remains a sini qua non for development and progress.
Thirdly, Afghanistan is culturally and geographically diverse. Ethnic tensions and a lack of trust continue to divide society and close attention needs to be focussed on building confidence and trust across ethnic groups such that its inherent diversity is seen as a source of strength as opposed to weakness. Interventions to stimulate equitable economic growth, opportunity and education across the country are essential in addressing these concerns. The development process, at its core, is about expanding the range of opportunities and choice available to people which in turn, foster pluralism.
Fourthly, the international community must strengthen its efforts to support the Afghan Government to respond to the challenge of narcotic production, trade and consumption. It is estimated that 50-60% of Afghanistanís GDP is derived from opium production and it remains a cancer that harms Afghanistan and the other Nation States both in the East and West. Narcotics curtail the process of development and invade the structure of society and Government at all levels. Allowing Afghanistan to become a narco-economy will embed instability that threatens the whole region and beyond.
Fifthly, is the need to create and build effective civil society in Afghanistan. It is important to underline the role of civil society in nation building: civil society makes an enormous contribution to human development; it occupies the space between government, the private sector and communities, contributing to nation building. More importantly, civil society underwrites human progress: it acts as a stabilizer or buttress in times of economic slowdown or social stress. When democracies are failing, or have failed, it is the institutions of civil society that can carry an added burden to help sustain improvements in the quality of life. Also, civil society is necessary to keep abuses by government in check.
Finally, the need for security, the capacity to maintain security and to demobilise unofficial militia and narco-commanders is a pre-requisite to any interventions.
There is much left to do in terms of social, economic and political development. In this context, the active involvement of European Foundations in addressing the challenges that face Afghanistan and its surrounding region would not only be a valuable contribution, but in this globalised world, essential.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Now more than ever, there is a need to invest in Afghanistan and the region of which it is a part. We believe that the stakes are very high and that the opportunities to make a difference are significant and varied. There remain large areas in the high mountain communities of the Pamirs and Hindu Khush, where poverty continues in the context of extreme physical, political and economic isolation. The people living there are vulnerable and susceptible to extremism. The Networkís investment in the development of the University of Central Asia, an institution devoted exclusively to exploring the problems and potentials of the mountains and its communities, is dedicated to addressing their needs. It will also play a significant role in developing the human resource base and progressive leadership that are essential for the stability and prosperity of the region. AKDN is ready to share its knowledge and experience, as well as to forge partnerships that facilitate independent initiatives which address the regionís most pressing needs.
Afghansitan needs and seeks partners like yourselves to help transform Afghanistan and the neighbouring region into places of stability, security and prosperity.
It is up to us, institutions and individuals in this room, to take a social and moral responsibility to address the concerns that affect an intricately linked global community. As His Highness the Aga Khan explained when inaugurating a low-cost housing project in Bombay,
ďthe universal ethic behind these endeavours is the refusal of an honest conscience to sit back, oblivious of the plight of those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that sparkĒ.