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His Highness the Aga Khan

Remarks by His Highness the Aga Khan at the State Banquet (Nairobi, Kenya)

13 August 2007

 

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Your Excellency President Kibaki,
Honourable Ministers,
Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Guests:

Let me say first what a wonderful honour it is - to become a Chief of the Order of the Golden Heart of Kenya, and to do so on one’s Golden Jubilee!

I am most deeply grateful to President Kibaki for this award - and for his very warm and generous words.

It is a pleasure for me to be here tonight, among so many old and new friends.

As I observe this Jubilee year, I plan to use this occasion to do two things: first, to visit places and people that have been particularly important to the Ismaili community and to me throughout this last half century, and, secondly, to discuss issues which have been particularly important to us, with a special effort to put them into historical perspective, and to build for the future.

When I speak of places that have played a major role in my life, no place comes to mind more quickly than Kenya. My ties here go back to my “toto” days - how can I ever forget our childhood house on Caledonian Road, now named the Denis Pritt road and the mega rhubarb I grew up the rain-water drain, or driving down the garden steps in the late Sir Eboo’s car? And how could I forget my brother’s despair when his pet bantam chickens were eaten one night by a visiting leopard? Little did I suspect that the next night my rabbits would suffer the same fate.

But going beyond childhood memories, let me say that the work which has involved me here in more recent years includes many of the most far-reaching and satisfying endeavours of my lifetime.

It is good to be in Kenya for another reason - and that is the great spirit of this country. That spirit was evidenced again just three weeks ago, when a new global opinion survey was published by the Pew Institute and the New York Times. The results came as a surprise to many - particularly when they reported that the peoples of Africa - despite the severe problems, were quite optimistic about the future. Kenyans, in particular, felt not only that their own lives were improving, but that their children’s lives would be better than their own.

The scholars who conducted the survey also described a sense of realism among Africans - an understanding that progress does not come as a steady wave, but rather as a series of surges and setbacks. Out of that realistic spirit has come a strong sense that the African story will have a happy ending.

Those who know Kenya know that there are good reasons for this hopeful spirit. Kenya has achieved impressive economic growth for the last three years, with the GDP expected to end at 6.9 % this year. During this same time, there has been a significant inflow of foreign investment, and a massive investment in education, health care and infrastructure. Kenya has one of the highest per capita literacy rates in Africa and is determined to make democracy work. It has created an enabling environment for vibrant enterprise in fields such as agriculture and horticulture, tourism and finance. In fact, at a recent World Economic Forum, Kenya was ranked among the top three countries in Africa in welcoming investment and innovation.

Kenya has played a role in past Jubilee celebrations of the Ismaili Imamat - during my late Grandfather’s time and my own. Some of our projects here bear names which came from those celebrations - like Diamond Trust and Jubilee Insurance. Some of our proudest accomplishments were launched as Jubilee initiatives. In that same spirit, we are announcing this week a number of new Golden Jubilee projects in Kenya and other parts of East Africa - including new ventures for the Aga Khan University Hospital and the Aga Khan University. The Aga Khan Academies programme will also expand into a new network of world class primary and secondary residential schools teaching the International Baccalaureate curriculum and covering no less than 14 countries in Africa and Asia. Its first school is already functioning in Mombasa, and is about to add new residence buildings for faculty and students.

These investments will build on past AKDN activities here - in the fields of business and finance, the media, health care, education, transport, infrastructure investment - and others. They reflect our respect and affection for the Kenyan people - and for the sense of promise which I recall from my childhood in Kenya, and which I continue to feel on every return visit.

I said a moment ago that I had two objectives as I mark this Jubilee year - the second one was to put into historical perspective some of my experiences over this half century.

As you know, my principal preoccupation has been with the developing world, watching as it has oscillated between hope and disappointment. The disappointments often resulted from the false hope that one theory or one dogma, one person or one party had all the answers to the riddles of development.

Genuine hope, on the other hand, has usually been rooted in a tough sense of realism - a recognition that no one has all the answers, that today’s answers may not work forever, that good people do not all think alike, and that we must constantly learn from one another for an uncharted future.
When this realistic spirit prevails, then the search for economic and social progress can become a shared experience, based on what I would call a “cosmopolitan ethic” and fostering a spirit of partnership and collegiality.

These comments explain why I value so highly what people call “public/private” partnerships. There is much to be gained when governments cooperate with private institutions. Governments can help provide a strong enabling environment for both private enterprise and for civil society. For example, they could create common standards for civil society organizations whose work extends across national frontiers. The Aga Khan University, for instance, is planning extensive new investments in the region and common registration and accreditation policies would help facilitate this effort.

Inter-governmental cooperation in many areas can be a key which unlocks the future in East Africa. This is why both the Imamat and the AKDN support the creation of new federal constructs in the region - including the concept of an East African Community.

A federal concept simply means that governments will forge a united approach on matters which call for unity - and will operate in disparate ways when diverse approaches are better. To work of course, there must be a feeling of predictability as to who does what. And there must be a sense of equitable opportunity for all partners.

Federalism at its best need not be limited to governmental arrangements. Even as I commend the concept of a new East African Community on the political front, I would also encourage new region-wide approaches on the economic front, as well as in the civil society arena. Again, the dominant themes should be diversity, variety and experimentation - and an appropriate sharing of responsibilities.

History endorses the value of what I have called federal approaches - including the history of Islam - where some of the greatest chapters demonstrate how people who share a common faith can also embrace a broad diversity of local cultures.

The desire for unity and the urge to diversify may seem like contradictory forces - but the beauty and power of a partnership approach is that it respects the proper role of each impulse - and works out ways in which both can be respected.

If one of the themes of a Jubilee celebration is the search for historical perspective, then perhaps it will be appropriate for me to stretch that search back to the roots of the Islamic and Ismaili traditions, as I cite the words of the first hereditary Imam of the Shia Muslims, Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Hazrat Ali said: “No honour is like knowledge. No belief is like modesty and patience. No attainment is like humility. No power is like forbearance. And no support is more reliable than consultation.”

Those words seem particularly relevant today. The spirit that Hazrat Ali evokes - the spirit of modesty, humility, forbearance, and consultation - is an approach we might also call the spirit of partnership. It is this spirit which I hope will characterize these Jubilee celebrations - even as it guides leaders in the public, private and civil sectors as they confront the great challenges of our time.

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