You are here

You are here

  • His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the Leadership and Diversity Conference.
    AKDN / Zahur Ramji
Aga Khan speaks on preventing the failure of democracy

Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, 19 May 2004 - “Democracy can fail anywhere, at any time, in any society …for it is self-evident, in Europe and across the globe, that the existence of political parties and elections do not alone produce stable governments or competent leadership.”

His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary spiritual leader (Imam) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and founder of the Aga Khan Development Network, today outlined the need to recognise both the fragility of democracy as a form of governance as well as its virtues in advancing human development.

“Leadership and Diversity” was the theme of the 2004 Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference at which the Aga Khan made the keynote address to over 200 future leaders from across the country in the presence of Canada’s Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson.

“The new issue that demands the attention of the international community,” said the Aga Khan, “ is the need to create stable states with self-sustainable economies and stable, inclusive forms of governance.” Describing “a world of increasing dissension and conflict,” he attributed the cause in significant measure to “the failure of different ethnic, tribal, religious, or social groups to search for, and agree upon, a common space for harmonious co-existence.”

Noting “the startling fact that nearly forty percent of the UN member nations are failed democracies,” the Aga Khan elaborated on three notions that he saw as essential in “creating, stabilising and strengthening democracy around the world…meritocracy, pluralism and civil society.”

“Even at a very basic level, only a strong civil society can assure isolated rural populations, and the marginalised urban poor of a reasonable prospect of humane treatment, personal security, equity, the absence of discrimination, and access to opportunity,” he said. “Pluralism,” he continued, “means peoples of diverse backgrounds and interests, coming together in organisations of varying types and goals, for different kinds and forms of creative expression, which are valuable and deserving of support by government and society as a whole.”

Examples of the pervasive rejection of pluralism and its role in breeding destructive conflicts were “scattered across the world’s map” said the Aga Khan. If these high-risk situations were predictable, what, he queried, could be done “to pre-empt the risk that the rejection of pluralism will become the spark that sets human conflict aflame?”

“Is not the onus on leadership in all parts of the world, to build a knowledge base about such situations and consider strategies for preventing them?” he asked.

The Aga Khan said he was optimistic, citing the example of effective and participatory civil society institutions that had been created through the efforts of the Aga Khan Development Network amongst isolated, deprived and at times, mutually antagonistic, populations of different ethnic, linguistic and religious traditions in Northern Pakistan over twenty years. “This micro-experiment with grassroots democracy, civil society and pluralism,” he noted, “has also underlined for everyone involved the enormous importance of competence and advancement by merit.”

“Inherent in the notion of merit,” remarked the Aga Khan, “is the idea of equality of access to opportunities.” “Citizens who posses potential, whatever the community to which they belong, can only realize their potential if they have access to good education, good health and prospects to advance through enterprise. “Without this equity,” he noted, “merit does not develop.”

“Perhaps, the greatest obstacle to pluralism and democracy, however,” said the Aga Khan, “is the lacuna in the general education of the populations involved.” “A secure pluralistic society,” he said, “requires communities that are educated and confident both in the identity and depth of their own traditions and in those of their neighbours”. Commenting on what he called “uninformed speculation about conflict between the Muslim world and others,” the Aga Khan said that “the clash, if there is such a broad civilisational collision,” is not of cultures but of ignorance.”

“Intellectual honesty and greater knowledge,” the Aga Khan said, “are essential if current explosive situations are to be understood as inherited conflicts and – rather than being specific to the Muslim world – driven by ethnic and demographic difference, economic inequity and unresolved political situations.” He gave as examples the root cause of the conflict in the Middle East which was an outcome of the First World War and Kashmir, which was “an unresolved colonial legacy and nothing to do with the faith of Islam.”

“Democracies must be educated if they are to express themselves competently, and their electorates are to reach informed opinions about the great issues at stake.”

Canada, said the Aga Khan, which “has established strong institutions to sustain her democracy ... offers the world an example of meshing, and thereby fortifying, civil society with merit from all segments of its population” and therefore should “take the lead in investing to safeguard and enhance pluralism.”

The Aga Khan took the occasion to announce the establishment by the AKDN in Ottawa of The Global Centre for Pluralism: a secular, non-denominational centre that will engage in education and research and will also examine the experience of pluralism in practice. It will draw upon Canadian expertise and work closely with governments, academia and civil society to foster enabling legislative and policy environments. In addition to strengthening indigenous capacity for research and policy analysis, the Centre will offer educational, professional development and public awareness programmes.

Earlier, the Aga Khan had discussions with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and held separate meetings with other senior government officials in Ottawa.

For further information, please contact: The Information Department
60270 Gouvieux, France
Tel: +
Fax: +

Notes: The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies whose mandates range from the fields of health and education to architecture, rural development and the promotion of private-sector enterprise. They collaborate in working towards a common goal – building institutions and programmes that can respond to the challenges of social, economic and cultural change on an ongoing basis. Active in over 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, the Network’s underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion.