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  • Princess Zahra Aga Khan addresses the gathering at the Alcan Prize for Sustainability ceremony.
    AKDN / Gary Otte
Alcan Award Prize awarded to AKPBS

Distinguished Guests,

I would like to begin by thanking everyone who contributed to the purpose and arrangements for this evening’s event. Particular credit goes to the Directors, Executives and staff of Alcan and the International Business Leadership Forum for the conception and administration of the Alcan Prize for Sustainability. It is truly an innovative and timely award.

I would also like to thank the leadership and staff of the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services, Pakistan - past and present - for their devotion to AKPBS’ mission and the people it serves. Tonight AKPBS is represented by Mr. Hafiz Sherali, who chairs its voluntary board, and Mr. Asif Merchant, its Chief Executive Officer.

At this point it is appropriate that we turn our minds for a few minutes to the South Asian Earthquake, and the millions of people whose lives it changed forever in India and particularly in Pakistan . It is unfortunate that it takes such tragedies to raise awareness about the needs of the multitude of people living in isolated and remote settings which have poor infrastructure and are particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of nature.

Where those areas are also in zones of high seismic instability, the fragility is even greater, and certainly deserve attention. In many cases, simply moving these populations is not an acceptable option for demographic, social and/or cultural reasons. We saw some of this at work in Pakistan where villagers refused to leave their devastated villages in the upper valleys for temporary camps at lower altitudes. However, steps must be taken to help them overcome the devastation and rebuild in a manner that will reduce such severe losses in the future.

The Alcan Prize itself deserves some of our attention this evening. In contrast to many high profile awards, the Alcan Prize is explicitly not for the “Best Project of the Year”, or even for “Lifetime Achievement”. It is about clarity of conception, effectiveness of implementation, and the quality of results: in the present, over a period of time, and - with its focus on sustainability - into the future.

It is about developing and using world class knowledge, and working with local communities to choose and implement what reflects their needs and ability to sustain. The key dimensions are that interventions must be grounded in communities, must integrate social, economic and environmental elements and be undertaken with a long term perspective. All of them are explicitly part of this Prize.

These same considerations are at the core of the work of the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, and are particularly evident in the work of the winner of the Alcan Prize for Sustainability for 2005, the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services, Pakistan. I say particularly evident, because so much of what AKPBS does in the field is tangible, and has such direct and immediate consequence for the communities in which and with which it works.

The public health impact is measurable: in the decline of respiratory and water-borne diseases; in the contribution of the more efficient use of fuel in the regeneration of forest cover; and the contribution to physical safety and security in the construction of homes and public buildings designed to mitigate the worst effects of earthquakes and other calamities.

Though tangible, the activities often go without notice because they take place away from the bright lights of the big modernising cities and do not lend themselves to high profile inaugurations and ribbon cuttings. It is methodical work in which the development of products and the careful laying of plans are essential, but for which implementation and maintenance - and the training that both require - form the central pillars. We are grateful to the Alcan Prize for creating an opportunity to draw attention to it. It is a clear example, to take a phrase from the Alcan brochure, of working “diligently to make the world a better place.”

AKDN’s experience in more than fifteen countries over a period of more than twenty years shows that civil society plays a pivotal role in bringing such improvements to the rural habitat in the developing world. Governments and international development agencies can help, but civil society in the widest definition of the term is crucial to addressing the backlog of needs dispersed over wide areas. Indeed, a crucial aspect of AKPBS’ success has been inviting individual community members to contribute their own labour and money to improving their built environment, frequently providing them with access to micro-credit products to do so. This kind of public engagement gives communities ownership of the changes, thereby underwriting their sustainability.

Let me say a few words about how we intend to use the prize money. I am happy to announce that the Aga Khan Development Network is proposing to leverage the prize money in two ways. First, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada will match the prize money with a one million dollar contribution in recognition of Canada ’s long standing support for the work of AKPBS and of Alcan’s Canadian roots. Secondly, His Highness the Aga Khan will also make available a further one million dollars to match other contributions to this work. In total, these funds will be placed in an endowment, to be called the Fund for the Sustainability of the Built Environment, to extend the work of AKPBS in Pakistan, and into neighbouring countries where circumstances are similar with respect to high risk seismic zones and the need for improvement in rural housing, water and sanitation.

The AKDN will seek to further amplify the impact of the prize by encouraging other donations for the endowment or for outright expenditure. It will do so by guaranteeing that the full amount of each gift will go directly to physical interventions at the village level, without any overheads or other administrative costs. The Network’s goal is to create a sustainable source, and thereby reflect the ethos of the Prize “through ongoing activities and investment to address and progress sustainability and the impact of their activities.”

Thank you again for honouring AKPBS with the Alcan Prize for Sustainability for 2005.