AKDN in retrospect: 65 years of service

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In 1957, Prince Karim Aga Khan, a 20-year-old student at Harvard, became Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims when his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, passed away, says the Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN).

Prince Karim spent his first year as Imam visiting Ismaili communities around the world. This same year, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him the title of His Highness. As a young Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan witnessed a period of significant political upheaval and instability which had a direct impact on the Ismaili communities and their neighbors. Countries in Africa and Asia were struggling to become independent from colonial rule or adjusting to their newfound independence.

During this time, His Highness built upon the work of his late grandfather, by consolidating and establishing new, contemporary institutions to improve the quality of life of his followers and the societies in which they were living. These institutions would go on to work together to achieve their aims, but would also stand on their own, as recognizable entities in their fields and amongst the communities they served.

Over time, their work began to fall into four distinct yet connected themes: 1) supporting inclusive growth; 2) helping people to flourish; 3) building resilient communities; and 4) honoring cultural heritage.

As far as supporting inclusive growth is concerned, His Highness the Aga Khan in 1963 set up a group of companies under the corporate name Industrial Promotion Services (IPS). Each company was created to provide venture capital, technical assistance and management support to encourage and expand private enterprise in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. At the time, IPS’s investments focused on providing goods and services that these regions lacked, as they began to emerge from a colonial and conflict-stricken past. The aim was to improve livelihoods through the creation of jobs and the inflow of investment. One of IPS’s core sectors became agro-processing, including companies that supply goods for both local and export markets and play a significant role in supporting the rural economy. Beyond agro-processing, IPS also works with governments, financial institutions and donors to devise large-scale solutions to pressing infrastructure needs, including power generation and telecommunications.

These interventions are now part of the wider Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which also works in the areas of Finance, Media and Tourism Promotion.

To help people in Africa and South Asia to flourish, His Highness the Aga Khan in 1967 established the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), the first agency of what would become the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). This was a significant step towards enhancing synergy between the various development activities of the Ismaili Imamat under a single institutional structure.

Governments in developing countries were ill-equipped to prepare their marginalized societies for sustained progress. As such, AKF’s early efforts focused on service provision in the areas of health, nutrition and food security, soon followed by education and early childhood development.

As far as building resilient communities is concerned, in response to a request from the Government of Tajikistan, His Highness the Aga Khan in the early 1990s launched an emergency relief effort, which led to a process of positive change for the newly emerging nation. By the mid-1990s, crisis response had become a dedicated area of activity for AKDN. Implemented by Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), the work would respond to natural and human-made disasters, with a longer-term goal to reduce dependence on humanitarian aid and help communities transition to sustainable, self-reliant and long-term development. Meanwhile, the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services, founded by His Highness in 1980, was working to improve the built environment through housing design and construction, village planning, water and sanitation, and more, in many of the same regions where FOCUS was operating.

In 2016, they would be rolled into a new entity, entitled the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), which would combine the ongoing projects while recognizing the increasingly influential role of climate change on both the built environment and disaster risk. Today, AKAH is helping communities in both dense urban centers and remote mountain villages to combat climate change by rethinking the ways buildings are designed, constructed and operated – putting green building principles at the heart of development. More broadly, these principles are leading AKDN’s efforts to green the built environment across all its institutions and programs and reach net zero carbon by 2030.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000 as a private, not-for-profit, secular university through an International Treaty signed by His Highness, along with the Presidents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The university is also officially registered with the United Nations. Its mission is to promote the social and economic development of Central Asia, particularly its mountain communities, by offering an internationally recognized standard of higher education. It also aims to connect isolated rural communities with the global community and build the human capital needed for modern economies and stable governance. UCA has established three campuses away from major urban centers and attracts two-thirds of its students from secondary cities, small villages and rural areas – evenly split between male and female. The first residential campus was built in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan in 2016; the second in Khorog in 2017; while the third is expected to open in Kazakhstan in the coming years. UCA’s students receive a broad-based liberal arts education that opens their minds to the humanities, arts and sciences before they specialize in their chosen discipline.

As far as honoring cultural heritage is concerned, His Highness the Aga Khan in the 1970s had been thinking about the state of architecture in the Muslim world. Rapid development meant that cheap copies of foreign building designs became prevalent in the Muslim world, along with an increasing loss of Islamic architectural tradition.

In 1977, at a time when few international architectural prizes existed, he took the step of establishing the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, in response to the questions this situation had raised. The Award is given every three years to projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture. It seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies across the world in which Muslims have a significant presence. Over the past 45 years, documentation of over 7,500 building projects located throughout the world has been compiled, of which over a hundred nominated projects have received awards. Today it is regarded as one of the most prestigious architectural prizes in existence.

Since the creation of the Award, His Highness has broadened the scope of the Imamat’s work in culture to also focus on the physical, social and economic revitalization of communities in the developing world. This work was designated under the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).

Under His Highness’s leadership, AKDN has grown and evolved over the decades. Its agencies have won many awards, and its early work in rural development has for decades served as a blueprint for other organizations to follow.

Source: Asia-Plus