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  • Princess Zahra Aga Khan delivering the keynote address at the International Association for Volunteer Effort World Conference held in Edmonton, Canada, 25 August 1998.
    AKDN / Zahur Ramji
Princess Zahra on volunteerism in the New Millenium

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 25 August 1998 — Her Highness Princess Zahra Aga Khan today outlined a concept of volunteerism that can create and sustain healthy civic societies into the next millennium. "Citizen participation, ownership, and empowerment" she said, "are all critical to a world of peace and understanding" as is "the interaction of citizens across groups…whether those groups are defined in terms of socio-economic class, or in terms of ethnicity and race."

In a keynote address at the conference of the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE), attended by Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Alberta's Premier Ralph Klein, Princess Zahra, who co-ordinates social development activities of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), drew on a centuries-old tradition of service and proven successes in international development to describe how to mobilise voluntary effort into the next century.

Speaking against an electronic collage of images of volunteers and communities from settings in which the AKDN operates around the world, Princess Zahra, daughter of His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, spoke of the concept of service in her tradition of faith. "Voluntary service to others," Princess Zahra explained, "is viewed as an integral part of daily life" in the Ismaili tradition, "never as a burdensome obligation or an elective activity." "Service is a means for each individual to actualise Islam's ethics of inclusiveness, of compassion, of sharing, of the respect for life, and of personal responsibility for sustaining a healthy physical, social and cultural environment." Fundamental to this concept, she continued, was "generosity of material resources, of time, of thought, and of knowledge."

Princess Zahra, who graduated from Harvard in 1994 with an Honours degree in Development Studies, noted that whilst the importance of donations of time and money was widely recognised, the other two elements were not. "Thought helps others to help themselves. Knowledge enables the educated to provide technical information to the less educated on how to meet their own needs better and serve others."

Commending the Wild Rose Foundation and the IAVE for the opportunity to share experiences at the Conference, Princess Zahra cited examples encountered within the AKDN: professional architects and planners volunteering their expertise to help rural populations with "self-help" construction projects; community-based women's organisations in remote South Asian villages operating primary health care centres; and communities in East Africa managing their own pre-schools.

Three characteristics, she felt were instructive: governance structures where professionals are supported by trained volunteers; project planning and implementation by grassroots beneficiaries in partnership with governmental and non-governmental organisations; and a heavy dependence on volunteers in daily operations requiring "a level of preparation, oversight and recognition that is comparable to that provided to regular employees."

"When volunteers are taken seriously," said Princess Zahra, "the quality of their contribution and their own sense of satisfaction literally soar." This dependence on volunteers, she continued, encourages individual and community initiative, and leads to improved human resources, and the identification of leadership capacity "by giving individuals far below the usual seats of power, the opportunity to participate in the making of decisions." It also contributes to generating financial and in-kind resources at the community and institutional level, she observed. Resources which the AKDN has found to demand "sound financial management and reporting, and quality control," said Princess Zahra, referring to an Islamic ethic that stresses the good management of charitable resources as a necessary aspect of volunteerism.

Concluding her speech with a focus on the problem of mobilising volunteers, Princess Zahra pointed to the experience of the Ismaili community where youth introduced to the ethos of volunteerism through simple tasks in Jamatkhanas (community centres) go on to contribute towards more complex endeavours as they advance academically and professionally.

"Socialising young people to see voluntary service as an important part of everyday life is the key," Princess Zahra declared, "and providing models, opportunities, programmes and appropriate incentives are the means."

The Aga Khan Development Network is a family of private, non-denominational development agencies and institutions with specific mandates that range from health and education to rural development, culture, the built environment and the promotion of private sector enterprise. These agencies and institutions, working together, seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially in Africa and Asia.

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