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Transcript of a Conversation between His Highness the Aga Khan and Synergos Founder Peggy Dulany at the Synergos University for a Night Event


Please also see:  Press Release

Robert Dunn:
My name is Bob Dunn and I have the privilege of serving as the President of the Synergos Institute.

His Highness the Aga Khan in conversation with Peggy Dulany, Synergos Founder and Chairperson. Photo: AKDN/JMB Photographic Ltd.This is our first University for a Night in Europe, although we have held similar events for more than a decade in New York and quite recently in Johannesburg. It’s really wonderful to see some old friends and some new ones, new faces, and we are, of course, especially honoured to have with us His Highness the Aga Khan and also that we are joined by his daughter and son, Princess Zahra and Prince Rahim.

This is part of the Synergos 25th anniversary celebration and from its creation, Synergos has worked to establish a world that is just and fair and free of poverty. We work collaboratively with philanthropists and foundations, community leaders and corporations, governments and global entities. With them we tackle issues such as education, food security, health, nutrition, chronic isolation, social entrepreneurship and community economic development.

We do this work in every part of the world where we have an invitation to lend a hand. We are not however, subject-matter experts. We are instead a bridging organisation, helping to make it possible for people to come together across divides, build trusting relationships and join together to implement systems changing innovations.

Support for the event this evening makes it possible for us to do this work, and I want to particularly thank our wonderful sponsors this evening. The Hashoo Foundation and the Hashwani family, the Shell Corporation, Kim Samuel Johnson, all of whom are represented here this evening, and David Rockefeller who couldn’t be with us this evening because he is recuperating from a recent surgery and happily doing very well. Special thanks also to the Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation who have really been our hosts in London throughout the course of this week.

University for a Night brings together an extraordinary collection of change makers and provides an opportunity for them to identify common interests, share experiences and discover new partnership possibilities. We also use these occasions to honour individuals who exemplify the values we hold in our hearts and that we believe are vital in achieving the transformation of our global society. We are fortunate to have two previous honourees with us in the room tonight, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Mo Ibrahim. Thank you very much for joining us.

And now I would like to turn this over to Peggy Dulany, our beloved founder. Peggy’s open heartedness and clear headedness have guided Synergos from its very inception and it’s a treat for me to present her to you – my dear friend.

Peggy Dulany:
Thank you Bob. Good evening everyone. It’s very delightful to see you all here.

We’re gathered this evening in the spirit of partnership which is a principle and a practice that Synergos tries to embody in all of our relationships with local groups, all the way up to national and global groups. We hold a shared vision of improving the lives of people in our own communities and countries and around the world.

But tonight, we’re here to recognise and honour the work of an extraordinary leader who has done so much toward those goals: His Highness the Aga Khan, leader of the worldwide Shia Ismaili Community.

The award we are presenting has a long name: The David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award. It’s named after my father, a friend of His Highness and a long-time supporter of Synergos and, at least for me, a model of a business leader using his influence and ideas to address major social and political challenges. As Bob mentioned, my father couldn’t be with us tonight. This is the first time – well this year is the first time – that he hasn’t been at our awards. However, he wrote a letter, that I’m going to present to you that if you don’t mind I’d like to read to the group.

He’s taken advantage of the friendship to address you as Karim.

“It is my privilege to congratulate you on receiving the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award. I am pleased and proud to see the honour bestowed on such an extraordinary individual. Through the Aga Khan Development Network, you have leveraged the social conscience of Islam in ways that benefit people of all faiths, promoting tolerance, pluralism, and broad-based development. From initiatives on the environment to health, food security and economic opportunity, your agencies are having a momentous impact on the lives of people in Africa and Asia. I also want to commend you for your support of education at all levels, from basic education to institutions of higher learning that are helping transform these societies. In the cultural sphere, you are helping to preserve and to share traditional music, architecture and art in both the developing and developed world. Using investments in tourism and other endeavours to create jobs and infrastructure and channelling profits back into development programmes is an invaluable model which I hope might be expanded throughout the world.
Thank you for your leadership and vision.

With great respect and admiration.

Sincerely,
David Rockerfeller.”


So the kinds of bridging actions that we’re talking about: reaching out across divides and differences and outlook and political orientation, sectors of society, religious beliefs and other things that divide us, are what we at Synergos call “bridging leadership” and after which we have named this award.

And as my father said in his letter, His Highness represents all of those things. Pluralism and inclusion underlies these efforts while the motivation for this work comes from the social conscience of Islam, the network that he represents is non-denominational, working with and benefitting people of many faiths and origins. He would have it no other way – that is bridging.

The Aga Khan and his networks are innovative as well, using for profit businesses to fund development programmes and helping kick start broad economic development with critical business investments. The results are tangible improvements in the lives of people in more than 30 countries. For your work and the example that you set, I thank you.

And your Highness would you please join me so that I can present the award.

H.H. the Aga Khan:
Thank you.

Peggy, dear guests, I would like to say how grateful and honoured I am by this prize that you have given me this evening. For many decades I have admired the work that your family has done in sustaining development in the United States and elsewhere. And for many of us in this domain, you and your family have been an example that we have learnt from and that we have tried to emulate.

As I have done my work over the past decades, I have concluded that one of the most important forces in development is civil society. If you think about the countries around the world which have had fragile governments but which have still made progress, there are umpteen examples of countries which have made progress because they have had strong civil society. And civil society means mobilising all the forces that can be mobilised in support of human development, and that is why I am so happy and gratified by the prize that you have given me, because you are bringing these forces together in the most remarkable way.

Thank you.

Peggy Dulany:
So now I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to ask His Highness a few questions that I’m sure are questions that all of us are interested in the answers to and from which we’ll undoubtedly learn a lot.

So I’d like to begin with a question about pluralism and tolerance. In a world that we live in today, those are becoming in some ways increasingly rare, rare, features and I would really love your comments, as a leader in that field, as to how one can promote pluralism and tolerance and your own experience in that sphere.

H.H the Aga Khan:
Well, I should start by saying that when I inherited my grandfather’s role, the Ismaili community was distributed in many different countries around the world. The world was still divided by the Cold War. The Soviet Union was still in place. Many countries were still colonised and therefore the community as an international community of faith, did not have a strong dialogue, a strong international dialogue.

As a result, creating a sense of identity, a sense of common purpose, a sense of common values became a very, very complex exercise. And we started by seeking to know or to learn what we didn’t know. And that was a long exercise in listening.

It was, for example, an exercise in recording oral tradition in rural communities; finding historic documents that had been hidden for years and years and trying to learn what made up the identity of these communities and how the faith had changed in various parts of the world, and to recognise the changes and then bring them together around a common value system.

And that, I think, was possible through a very, very strong effort in education, and we developed an educational system – our primary education curriculum took 7 years to develop. The secondary curriculum will take 15 years to develop, but I hope that at the end of that, there will be a sense of legitimacy of the pluralism of human society.

Now, that was within the community. Then we looked outside, and we found that through much of Africa, through much of Asia there was rejection of pluralism, there was competition, there was no common purpose and it was, I think, anchored in poverty. It was fighting to fight poverty. It was not fighting to fight for hope, for aspiration, for common purpose. It was fighting poverty. I think we were able to turn that around by working on the basis that there is a common human denominator which is the aspiration for a quality life. And if you can find that notion of a cosmopolitan ethic and you can bring people together around the definition of a cosmopolitan ethic, then I think you have the sound foundation on which to build pluralism.

Peggy Dulany:
That’s a wonderful answer, thank you, and I’d just like to call out a couple of qualities that were mentioned and one that wasn’t, which to us, in promoting the style of leadership for which we are honouring you, are fundamental.

So you mentioned the importance of listening. You demonstrated in your response, humility, which we also find essential. And you highlighted the importance of human dignity and the importance in helping people achieve dignity, of reducing poverty, particularly the sort that robs people of their dignity. These are certainly principles which we agree with and feel very strongly about, so thank you for that answer.

I’m going to skip around to different subjects and the next one really has to do with cross-generational transfer of values. This is something that we talk about in my own family with regard to philanthropy and its larger meaning which is really the love of humanity and I wonder if you would be willing to comment in your family tradition, what are some of the ways in which you have also passed on over the generations your values and how you received them from your grandfather?

H.H the Aga Khan:
Well I think the change in our lives has been when my grandfather moved to the western world and so my grandfather established himself in the western world and my brother and I were educated in Switzerland and then the United States.

But we kept a very, very strong family tradition, and in fact my grandfather was very much the senior figure in the family as it was appropriate. And his values, which he had kept very much alive during his life, were evident in every day of his life and therefore he became not only the head of the family but a role model for the family, and in that sense that continuity of tradition has been very, very strong indeed.

Peggy Dulany:
And perhaps it’s awkward to talk about this with two of your children here but would you have any comments or would you like them to comment on how that is now getting passed down?

H.H. the Aga Khan:
I think if they would like to comment that would be very welcome but I would simply say that they have taken on board, I think, the value systems that we have in the family and they are actively engaged in what we are doing and they are bridging the younger generations in the community and elsewhere, and bridging also the gender difference because the gender difference in many parts of our world in 1957 when I succeeded my grandfather was very, very acute indeed.

Peggy Dulany:
I know that in my own family if, as I think back, a lot of the transmission of values happened around the dinner table. Would you say that it was similarly [the case] – in family interactions?

H.H the Aga Khan:
I think that we exchanged ideas and thoughts when we were doing sport together, when we were going to common events, there was no set pattern. Every opportunity was good.

Peggy Dulany:
Yes, thank you. So now I wonder if you would comment a little bit on the relationship between philanthropy and development, which is certainly a principle that I share, and maybe some of the lessons learned through the network [AKDN] and also lessons that some of the people in this room could take advantage of, whether they are business people or philanthropists or NGOs.

H.H. the Aga Khan:
Well I think that this is a really central question for everybody who is engaged in development and I would start by saying that every decade, maybe a little bit less often than that, we talk about new formulae to sustain development, and those new formulae started some decades ago with risk investment.

Then they went to microcredit, now they are going to impact investment, and every decade there’s a new formula that comes up and that you live with and you try to interpret it.

But the fact is that ultimately you are looking at how society changes. What are the forces that enable it to change? And every decade I have found that there has been the absence of financial vehicles which enable you to address the issues that come up on the radar screen.

To me, today the big gap is between enterprise, only for-profit, and social development, only for social development. There is a massive gap in that area which is now being described as impact investment. I believe that impact investment is one of the most important concepts that I can recollect in the last 50 years. And the reason is that it harnesses social ethic to economic purpose.

And the harnessing of social ethic to economic purpose enables you to do things which you could never do otherwise because what you’re talking about is a double dividend. You’re talking about a reasonable dividend on the investment and you are talking about a reasonable dividend in social development.

Both of those can be measured and therefore those who make an investment in the impact domain can know what they’re achieving with that impact investment. How many children go to school? How many poor people have access to tertiary care? How many people can improve their habitat? How many people can flee from fear? Fear is one of the most dominant forces in developing societies that I know.

So these are all aspects of improving the quality of life of people which I consider absolutely essential and it is only achievable I think, through this combination of ethical purpose in economic development and ethical purpose in social development.

To be practical, education is costing more and more every year. Peoples’ incomes are not growing with the increasing cost in education. Therefore families are finding it more and more difficult to pay for their education, particularly if they have numerous children.

In tertiary [health]care; non-communicable disease is becoming the dominant force, the dominant type of sickness in the developing world. It’s expensive. How do people access that? I believe that impact investment can respond to many, many of these issues by giving a new domain of resource that can be harnessed both to the social and economic purpose.

Peggy Dulany:
I wish you had been in the room this afternoon when we hosted a gathering for some people working with large corporations, many of whom are here tonight and the theme was social entrepreneurs and I wonder if you could relate the importance of social entrepreneurship to impact investing.

H.H. the Aga Khan:
Well I think the reality is that because of the fact that the Ismaili community is an international community, we are particularly well placed for what I would call “gap analysis” and therefore we are able to, I think, get a good sense of where there are disequilibria occurring in education, in healthcare, in access to credit, in rural development etc.

And one of the critical things that we are looking at is how you close those gaps. Where things have been miscalculated or where I would call the capacity to project has not been analysed properly, you have major dysfunctions in society. And if you think about what you see in Africa and Asia you see dysfunctional education relations. Not enough investment in early childhood development, tertiary education which is all over the place. You have an incongruous educational system. That’s where social entrepreneurship should come in, I think, and help develop these institutions.

Peggy Dulany:
To introduce it into the education system …

H.H. the Aga Khan:
To introduce it into the education system because governments don’t do it.

Peggy Dulany:
And I believe that’s what your organisation is trying to do in Central Asia in the universities that you are building.

H.H. the Aga Khan:
Exactly, exactly. In Africa, in Central Asia we have sensed a massive insufficiency of commitment to tertiary education and to what I would call a research university, because just giving university degrees is one thing.

Keeping universities alive in the competitive global inter-world of intellect is a completely different exercise.

Peggy Dulany:
Thank you.

Probably some people in this room are very familiar and others might not be as familiar with the traditions of social conscience within Islam and I wonder if you could enlighten us both about the thinking and also how you have translated that into practice.

H.H. the Aga Khan:
What Islam says about supporting people in society is perhaps somewhat different from other communities and other faiths. The premise that Islam works on is not just helping but helping to render the individual capable of governing his or her destiny.

You are not just helping them away from poverty; you are giving them the means to propel themselves and their families into their future, in ways which they control. And therefore when you educate, when you help in healthcare, when you give access to credit, you are not looking at just helping the individual survive, you are trying to reposition the individual and the family in society. That is the basic premise of social support that I believe is the correct interpretation of Islam.

Peggy Dulany:
It’s a great answer and it reminds me of the first time that I came across your network and I think it was about 1991 led by Rajesh Tandon who is over here.

We did a series of case studies of successful partnerships in Asia. They were quite difficult to find in 1991 but one was the Orangi pilot project in Pakistan in which the amazing unique aspect of it was that the community members had decided for themselves how to handle their own sanitation issues and together with the network and UNICEF had made a huge difference in other health and wellbeing of the community. So it goes way back, that value system, I can see.

I have one final question: you mentioned earlier the devastating impact of fear and I think all of us are aware that in today’s world there are many things to be fearful of and in my thinking and, sounds like yours too, fear is almost the opposite of love. What can we all collectively do to begin to reduce the fear and transform the way of being into a way of loving rather than fearing?

H.H. the Aga Khan:
I’ve often asked myself how far interfaith dialogue could carry human development and I concluded that there will always be limits. I have not concluded that there are limits in defining society’s wish to improve its quality of life.

And I think that the common denominator amongst all peoples is to improve the quality of life.
That is a basic fact and I have seen communities that have conflictual relationships over decades change their whole philosophy of life because they had come together around a common purpose that they had defined. Not our agencies. They had defined. They had told us in their societies, in their organisations, what were the priorities they wanted.

Our role was to come in and support them and once that happened, hatred disappeared. So what you call love was a consequence of people coming together and saying, we will share the burden of life in such a way that we make it an opportunity for a new future.

Peggy Dulany:
And would you say that in doing that – because often the communities that you support are very poor and probably somewhat isolated – that the safety that you were able to create, the sense of safety, was an important piece of the giving up some of the fear, beginning to feel a sense of hope and then being able to live out of the heart?

H.H. the Aga Khan:
Absolutely.

People coming together around a common purpose are much stronger, for example, in eliminating corruption. When an individual faces corruption, that’s a problem. When a village community faces corruption it’s a totally different issue.

And in fact, corruption in civil society is probably one of the most damaging forces that we are trying to deal with everyday. It’s not only corruption at the level of government, it’s corruption in education, it’s corruption in healthcare, it’s corruption in financial institutions, it’s corruption in rural support, in distribution of goods.

So the lack of ethics in civil society is one of the really very, very great issues that we have to deal with. And what we’ve found is that community organisations, when they come together, what do they look at? It’s very exciting. Their whole basis of hope is built around best practice. They reject all the things that have damaged them individually and they come together and say we want a new future built around new people whom we choose because we trust them.

Peggy Dulany:
Thank you. That’s a wonderful note on which to end our discussion. 

[Applause]

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