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  • Aga Khan University President Shamsh Kassim-Lakha delivering a speech at the Conference on Indigenous Philanthropy held in Islamabad.
    AKDN / Gary Otte
Welcome address by Dr. S. Kassim-Lakha at the Conference of Indigenous Philanthropy

Bismallah Al-Rehman Al-Rahim 

Your Excellency President Rafiq Tarar, 
Your Highness the Aga Khan, 
Honourable Ministers, 
Your Excellencies, 
Distinguished Guests, 

A Salaam Aleikum.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you, on behalf of the Steering Committee for Indigenous Philanthropy to this historic conference, the first ever on this topic in Pakistan. At the beginning of any feast, the cook should contain his anxiety and say as little as possible by way of introduction. So I will try to be brief.

We are highly honoured that President Rafiq Tarar is among us today and will inaugurate the Conference this morning. The Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf will deliver the concluding address tomorrow. This encouragement from the highest echelon of the Government, plus the valuable support of several ministers and many senior officials, testifies to the importance that the Government places on indigenous philanthropy.

We must also acknowledge the support that the Steering Committee for the Initiative on Indigenous Philanthropy has enjoyed from His Highness the Aga Khan. It was he who first challenged us to explore the potential of indigenous philanthropy as a resource for sustainable national development and a means to reduce dependence on external aid.

As the Steering Committee began its work, it faced a quandary: there was very little relevant data about philanthropy. There was no published analysis. Different stakeholders and interest groups did not pronounce publicly on this subject. We knew from our faith that it is fundamental to who we are, individually and as the Umma, but there were no markers or measures to guide us as we applied our minds to the challenge of enhancing philanthropy. So we began this serious task by undertaking original research and a series of surveys, roundtables and focus groups. The extent of this work became far more than we initially contemplated.

I'd like to recognise especially the serious commitment of the members of the Steering Committee in preparing for this Conference. Their active leadership - through some thirty months of meetings, research studies, stakeholder consultations, and international review of international mechanisms to promote philanthropy, conference planning, fundraising (of course, somebody has to do it!), and all manner of other activities - has been critical to our achievements to date. They are, ladies and gentlemen, not only great promoters of indigenous philanthropy but also - through their voluntary service - great philanthropists themselves.

From its earliest research and outreach activities, the Steering Committee found a broad and deep excitement among all stakeholders about indigenous philanthropy. We are a people who respond to suffering, who give in the way of Allah, and who give generously. In 1998 our aggregate giving totalled Rs 70 billion, of which two-thirds was by way of material resources and one-third by way of volunteer time. This is many fold what is received annually in grant aid from foreign sources and nearly equals Government budgets for health and education. In some ways, even more impressive than the total is the figure that 34 percent of all such giving comes from those in the lowest income strata of our society.

In per capita terms, giving in Pakistan is higher than many industrialised countries. The Steering Committee then came to the conclusion that we can and must build on this great tradition of giving. We can ignite the spark into a great flame, and thereby enhance the quality and quantity of our philanthropy, such that it attacks the causes as well as the symptoms of our many social afflictions.

While the world of organised philanthropy was new to us, and at times we felt like pioneers entering uncharted lands, we soon learned that we were in fact merely rediscovering truths and practices that are literally hundreds of years old. The further out we looked the more we found that all roads lead to us - not to Rome but to home: to our faith, to our Islamic culture. To give you a sense of what I mean by this, let me read to you from the journal of the famous fourteenth-century traveller, Ibn Battuta, who marvelled at the extent of organised philanthropy in Damascus over six hundred years ago. He says:

The variety and expenditure of waqfs [that is, charitable endowments] at Damascus are beyond computation. There are endowments in aid of persons who cannot undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca, out of which are paid the expenses of those who go in their stead. There are other endowments for supplying wedding outfits to girls whose families are unable to provide them, an others for the freeing of prisoners. There are endowments for travellers, out of the revenues of which they are given food, clothing, and the expenses of conveyance to their countries…. The people of Damascus vie with one another in building mosques, religious houses, colleges and mausoleums.

The members of the Steering Committee, like Ibn Battuta before us, were deeply impressed by the philanthropy that we discovered in Pakistan, when we began to look around us. While we may not have the powers of observation and description of Ibn Battuta, we have tried to capture what we have learned in our publications and in this Conference programme. To prevent any risk of indigestion, we have restricted the menu for your consideration to three items.

The first main recommendation of the Steering Committee stems from a vital question: How can our Government encourage citizens to give money and volunteer time to private development organisations? As is the experience everywhere, without such citizen support, and at a massive scale, there can be no sustainable development. It is as simple as that. Our recommendation upon considering this question calls upon Government, business and civil society organisations to come together in a multi-stakeholder consultative process with the goal of building consensus and confidence in a new, more enabling regulatory and fiscal framework.

The second recommendation to the conferees is for a special initiative by the media and other agents of public understanding to raise the level of public awareness of the citizen self-help movement. How is indigenous philanthropy covered in the media today? What lessons can we draw from the dramatic divergence between the English- and Urdu-language coverage? What efforts are required from citizens' organisations to improve media coverage and raise societal understanding of their work?

Thirdly, the Steering Committee believes that a permanent institutional vehicle to enhance philanthropy as social investment could make a significant contribution to the nation. Do the conferees concur that there is such a need? If so, what form should that institution adopt? What should be its programme priorities?

I know that all of you are keen to begin the main meal. But in concluding this introduction to the Conference, may I express on behalf of the Steering Committee our heartfelt gratitude to the sponsors of the Initiative on Indigenous Philanthropy. I wish also to recognise the philanthropists who have so generously pledged support to a Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy, should one come to be established as a result of this Conference. I wish to thank these far-sighted Pakistani benefactors, most of whom are present here today, and assure them that their contributions are reserved for that purpose. Their social investments in a new institution to promote philanthropy in Pakistan will not be applied to the costs of this Conference. Fortunately, these are met through generous support from the Canadian International Development Agency and the United States Agency for International Development, which I would like to particularly acknowledge here today. The Aga Khan Development Network has provided both technical and financial support to the Initiative, mainly through the Foundation.

This Conference is dedicated to the idea that persons of goodwill can come together, breathe life into a spirit of self-reliance, and reduce our dependence on external benevolence. It affirms the notion that we can enhance the experience of philanthropy for Pakistanis in a way that will contribute to sustainable national development.

There are always obstacles in the way of endeavours such as this. We do not yet have a fully enabling regulatory and fiscal environment. We face a crippling lack of trust in our institutions. This became abundantly clear to us when we spoke to potential indigenous philanthropists, who unanimously voiced the need for some mechanism to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly from among those organisations seeking their support. While recognising this need, the Steering Committee took a firm position that it was not its job to make such judgements; instead, it has encouraged civil society organisations to be proactive in raising their standards of accountability and transparency.

Its three recommendations now before you are also crafted to help you understand these obstacles. As you settle down to this dastarkhan I invite you to look around, to appreciate the diversity that is represented here. Within our Steering Committee, we found that the fact that we came from such diverse backgrounds as business, public service, health, education, rural development and law was our greatest asset. When we come together from all three sectors of society - business, civil society and Government - we work to create trust, and in so doing, we work from a basis that can sustain national development over the long haul. When we gather here together in our diversity, as we have today, we may find - Inshallah - that indigenous philanthropy is one of the keys to unlock a better tomorrow for all our people.

In closing, may I return to the greater purpose that has brought us here: to alleviate suffering and to advance sustainable development. As Allah reveals in the Holy Quran, "For those men and women who give in charity and loan to Allah a beautiful loan, it shall be increased, and they shall have besides a liberal reward."

Thank you.