In 1957, Prince Karim Aga Khan, a 20-year-old student at Harvard, became Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims when his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, passed away.
Prince Karim spent his first year as Imam visiting Ismaili communities around the world. This same year, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him the title of His Highness. As a young Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan witnessed a period of significant political upheaval and instability which had a direct impact on the Ismaili communities and their neighbours. Countries in Africa and Asia were struggling to become independent from colonial rule or adjusting to their newfound independence.
During this time, His Highness built upon the work of his late grandfather, by consolidating and establishing new, contemporary institutions to improve the quality of life of his followers and the societies in which they were living. These institutions would go on to work together to achieve their aims, but would also stand on their own, as recognisable entities in their fields and amongst the communities they served.
Over time, their work began to fall into four distinct yet connected themes.
Supporting inclusive growth
As the world entered the 1960s, war-damaged Europe had mostly completed its reconstruction and embarked on a widespread economic boom. For the countries of Africa and Asia, however, issues of economic progress were only beginning to come to the fore.
In 1963, His Highness set up a group of companies under the corporate name Industrial Promotion Services (IPS). Each company was created to provide venture capital, technical assistance and management support to encourage and expand private enterprise in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
At the time, IPS’s investments focused on providing goods and services that these regions lacked, as they began to emerge from a colonial and conflict-stricken past. The aim was to improve livelihoods through the creation of jobs and the inflow of investment.
One of IPS’s core sectors became agro-processing, including companies that supply goods for both local and export markets and play a significant role in supporting the rural economy.
Frigoken, for instance, Kenya’s largest exporter of processed green beans, sought to forge a better future for the country’s small-scale farmers. Today, the company employs over 3,000 people, most of whom are women, and supports more than 70,000 small-scale farmers. The company also implements a comprehensive workplace wellness programme and provides young families with a day-care facility.
Beyond agro-processing, IPS also works with governments, financial institutions and donors to devise large-scale solutions to pressing infrastructure needs, including power generation and telecommunications.
“Rehabilitating economies arising out of civil conflict or internal turmoil has been a challenge we have undertaken in environments as varied as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Tajikistan and Uganda,” said His Highness the Aga Khan in Kenya in 2003. “It is not about short-term commercial gain, but long-term investment in areas of wide human and societal impact.”
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For more than 60 years, various institutions set up by His Highness have also offered microfinance services through integrated development programmes and self-standing microfinance institutions. They organised savings groups and revolving housing loans as early as the 1950s.
These programmes helped start businesses, create jobs, build and improve homes, purchase seed and livestock, smooth over the impact of unforeseen health costs and make higher education possible. Many of these programmes were then housed in and managed by the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM).
AKAM’s mission is to create measurable and lasting improvement in the lives of its clients by delivering relevant financial services to reduce their vulnerability and enable financial, economic and social inclusion.
Deposits provide the poor with a safe and convenient place to save. Credit, savings, transfers and remittance services allow micro entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers to invest in their businesses and farms and have more control over their livelihoods. Services that help create jobs and small- and medium-sized enterprises help form a strong backbone for a stable national economy.
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Helping people to flourish
In the mid-1960s, the transformation from colonialism to independence in Africa began to gather pace, while rural societies in South Asia struggled with droughts and famine.
In 1967, His Highness established the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), the first agency of what would become the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). This was a significant step towards enhancing synergy between the various development activities of the Ismaili Imamat under a single institutional structure.
Governments in developing countries were ill-equipped to prepare their marginalised societies for sustained progress. As such, AKF’s early efforts focussed on service provision in the areas of health, nutrition and food security, soon followed by education and early childhood development.
Strengthening civil society
His Highness’s vision for the Foundation “put a premium on community-driven development and long-term programming – not short-term projects,” said Michael Kocher, General Manager of AKF.
For decades, its programming has employed grassroots democracy as the springboard for a dramatic improvement in living conditions for people in remote mountain ranges, coastal regions and other poor, rural areas.
The careful development of citizen-led village organisations has been at the heart of this transformation. Their inclusive processes allow diverse communities to seek and own joint solutions to common problems. Today, these organisations help over eight million people to attain greater food security, higher household incomes and increased opportunities.
Such village groups are now known as civil society organisations – those that are neither commercial nor governmental, which harness the private energies of citizens for public good. Their ability to drive progress is recognised nowadays, but in the 1970s and 80s, the concept was novel.
“His Highness occupies a very profound space as a global leader,” said Mr Kocher, referring to his vision and early insight. “He was talking about civil society years ago, when very few people were.”
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Nurturing inquisitive minds
In the 1980s, His Highness embarked on a multi-year undertaking to establish what would become the Aga Khan University (AKU). It was founded in 1983 as Pakistan’s first private university, initially taking the form of a nursing school. Over the years, it has expanded to six campuses across three continents, facilitating learning in a wide variety of disciplines.
More recently, the university has initiated programmes in teacher education, the study of Muslim civilisations, journalism, early childhood development and public policy. Over 16,000 AKU alumni, including doctors, nurses, teachers and school managers – two-thirds of whom are women – make up a global community of leaders who are successfully raising standards in their respective fields. Likewise, researchers are generating new knowledge – and setting benchmarks as they do – to solve problems that affect millions of people in the developing world.
“His Highness has been the inspiring founder of universities and colleges – because education is one of the democratic pillars that he recognises,” said Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General of Canada, in 2016. “He emphasises always that there must be scientific problem-solving with a continued openness to new questions.”
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This emphasis on problem-solving and openness to new questions has also informed His Highness’s approach to education for younger students – those in nursery, primary and secondary school.
The first Aga Khan schools were established over 100 years ago in India and East Africa by Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah. These were followed by the Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls in northern Pakistan in the 1940s. His Highness inherited responsibility for this growing network of schools, and with it, a broad concern for the advancement of education, particularly in the developing world.
Over the following years, new schools were established in areas of need. Their objective would be to educate rather than inculcate.
The art and science of thinking is the central focus for the institution known today as Aga Khan Schools (AKS). Its centres of learning equip young students, from toddlers to teens, with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to thrive in a complex and dynamic world. At Aga Khan Schools, learners are taught to make ethical choices, to embrace pluralism and to serve in their communities.
In addition to managing over 200 schools in 13 countries, AKS also prides itself on the innovative model of the Aga Khan Academies (AKA).
In 2000, His Highness established an integrated network of schools of excellence, dedicated to expanding access to education of an international standard. The first Aga Khan Academy opened in Mombasa, Kenya in 2003. The second, in Hyderabad, India, began operating in 2011, and the third opened in Maputo, Mozambique in 2013.
While nurturing these talented students to become homegrown, global-quality leaders, the Academies also work to strengthen national education systems through the continuous professional development of teachers.
Evolving public health
While rural development and education are vital inputs to the development conundrum, health is one more. For this reason, His Highness spent considerable effort establishing a number of hospitals and health centres under what would become the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS).
“Experience has taught us that any notion of alleviation must begin with an in-depth analysis of the multiple causes that require responses,” wrote His Highness in 2011. “We have also learned that micro responses are often fragile and short-lived; hence responses must achieve a certain scale to achieve longevity.”
As with much of its work, AKDN takes a broad, long-range approach to health to address chronic issues in poor communities. It delivers services directly via AKHS, one of the largest non-profit, private healthcare systems in the developing world. The system has many decades of experience and has trained thousands of nurses, midwives and doctors. It also operates community health projects, often in conjunction with other development programmes in some of the poorest and remote areas of the world.
The first such project, the Aga Khan Hospital for Women and Children, Kharadar, was established in 1924 as a maternity home with the support of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, who would set up more health centres over the next two decades. As with the schools, the current Aga Khan inherited these facilities along with a keen appreciation for the integral role of health in developing countries.
Dr Gijs Walraven, AKDN Director for Health, described a visit by His Highness to Pakistan in the early 1980s, to review progress of health projects there. What stood out were his deep interest and attention to detail:
“His Highness already at that time saw the importance of the continuum of care,” said Dr Walraven, “Of the hub-and-spokes model, the importance of education and research, and really making available this total health system based on very good principles, and to make it available everywhere.”
The centre in Kharadar is now a well-equipped 48-bed hospital with a delivery room, operation theatre, laboratory, inpatient ward, nursery and pharmacy. The hospital also has a midwifery school and provides hostel facilities for trainee midwives. This expansion is but one example of the growth experienced by AKHS over the past 65 years.
AKHS today provides primary health care and curative care in Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Pakistan and Tanzania, through more than 230 health centres, dispensaries, hospitals, diagnostic centres and community health outlets to one million beneficiaries, while handling 1.2 million patient visits annually. It also provides technical assistance to governments in health service delivery in Kenya, Syria and Tajikistan. The objective is to complement government health systems, not compete with them.
Aga Khan Hospitals are known in East Africa and parts of South Asia for their high level of ethical practices, innovation and provision of quality, safe and evidence-based care.
While the past two years has focused much attention on communicable disease during the COVID-19 pandemic, AKHS’s approach has continued to evolve in line with the changing nature of disease and new facilities such as the cutting-edge cancer care centre at Aga Khan Hospital, Dar es Salaam are being planned and built with these changes in mind.
“With the change in demographics, change in lifestyles, you see other diseases appearing,” said Dr Walraven. “And we pay a lot of attention now to dealing with hypertension, diabetes and mental health issues.”
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Building resilient communities
In the early 1990s, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, civil war broke out in Tajikistan. The conflict caused severe food and energy shortages in the geographically isolated Badakhshan region in the Pamir mountains. In the winter of 1992, a severe humanitarian crisis arose, putting countless lives and livelihoods at risk.
In response to a request from the Government of Tajikistan, His Highness the Aga Khan launched an emergency relief effort, which led to a process of positive change for the newly emerging nation.
By the mid-1990s, crisis response had become a dedicated area of activity for AKDN. Implemented by Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), the work would respond to natural and human-made disasters, with a longer-term goal to reduce dependence on humanitarian aid and help communities transition to sustainable, self-reliant and long-term development.
Meanwhile, the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services, founded by His Highness in 1980, was working to improve the built environment through housing design and construction, village planning, water and sanitation, and more, in many of the same regions where FOCUS was operating.
In 2016, they would be rolled into a new entity, entitled the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), which would combine the ongoing projects while recognising the increasingly influential role of climate change on both the built environment and disaster risk.
Recent studies have shown that the climate is changing more rapidly in mountainous areas than elsewhere, and those living there are especially vulnerable to earthquakes, avalanches, floods and landslides. These are the areas where AKAH centres its interventions.
“His Highness observed, earlier than most of us, that the risks were getting worse,” said Onno Ruhl, General Manager of AKAH, about communities living in the so-called roof of the world. “He realised that in order to improve the quality of life in rural and mountainous communities, you need to be more ambitious in what you pursue in terms of risk management, in terms of preparedness, so that people survive and thrive, despite the risks.”
Today, AKAH is helping communities in both dense urban centres and remote mountain villages to combat climate change by rethinking the ways buildings are designed, constructed and operated – putting green building principles at the heart of development.
More broadly, these principles are leading AKDN’s efforts to green the built environment across all its institutions and programmes and reach net zero carbon by 2030.
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To fully thrive, communities must feel a sense of belonging, but also need to be connected to their neighbours and the wider world.
The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000 as a private, not-for-profit, secular university through an International Treaty signed by His Highness, along with the Presidents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The university is also officially registered with the United Nations.
Its mission is to promote the social and economic development of Central Asia, particularly its mountain communities, by offering an internationally recognised standard of higher education. It also aims to connect isolated rural communities with the global community and build the human capital needed for modern economies and stable governance.
UCA has established three campuses away from major urban centres and attracts two-thirds of its students from secondary cities, small villages and rural areas – evenly split between male and female. The first residential campus was built in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan in 2016; the second in Khorog in 2017; while the third is expected to open in Kazakhstan in the coming years.
UCA’s students receive a broad-based liberal arts education that opens their minds to the humanities, arts and sciences before they specialise in their chosen discipline.
“This happened because the societies were open to new ideas, open to change, open to scholars and people from many backgrounds,” he added. “That kind of openness can again unlock the doors to the future, and allows us to take on the great questions of our time and place.”
Following years of investment in cross-border research and teaching, UCA is now well positioned to unlock these doors and address these great questions.
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Honouring cultural heritage
In the 1970s, as the post-war economic boom in the West was coming to an end, His Highness the Aga Khan had been thinking about the state of architecture in the Muslim world. Rapid development meant that cheap copies of foreign building designs became prevalent in the Muslim world, along with an increasing loss of Islamic architectural tradition.
In 1977, at a time when few international architectural prizes existed, he took the step of establishing the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, in response to the questions this situation had raised. His Highness has long been fond of the field and practice of architecture, and has commented that architecture is the only artform which has a direct and daily impact on the quality of human life.
The Award is given every three years to projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture. It seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies across the world in which Muslims have a significant presence.
Over the past 45 years, documentation of over 7,500 building projects located throughout the world has been compiled, of which over a hundred nominated projects have received awards. Today it is regarded as one of the most prestigious architectural prizes in existence.
Since the creation of the Award, His Highness has broadened the scope of the Imamat’s work in culture to also focus on the physical, social and economic revitalisation of communities in the developing world. This work was designated under the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).
“When I look at what His Highness has done, and the trajectory of his thinking, I think that he has proceeded incrementally,” said Luis Monreal, General Manager of AKTC.
“Because of the activities of the Award, he also identified the need of dealing with more than individual buildings, and to deal with the urban fabric – the territory where most of humanity now lives.”
Through the 1990s and since, AKTC has been linking cultural heritage work with social and economic development in cities including Cairo, Kabul, Hyderabad, Delhi and Djenné. These projects have demonstrated that an investment in the rehabilitation of cultural assets and public spaces, combined with the introduction of microfinance programmes and health services, has a direct impact not only in improving the quality of life of people, but also their capacity to generate income.
More recently, His Highness established the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, which is home to over 1,000 masterpieces showcasing the arts of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China. Its dynamic collection of manuscripts, scientific instruments, paintings, ceramics and metalwork – first opened to the public in 2014 – continues to evolve through new acquisitions.
Beyond the collection, the Museum also runs education programmes to illuminate connections between eras and cultures. Promoting the value of culture to diverse audiences also has the added benefit of encouraging pluralism – the embrace of difference that can help societies address issues of injustice, inequality and exclusion.
“Experience tells us that people are not born with the innate ability nor the wish to see the Other as an equal individual in society,” His Highness said in 2008. “Pluralism is a value that must be taught.”
And so, it is taught. And celebrated. And awarded.
“The technological forces that are re-shaping our world now mean that neighbours who live on the other side of the planet are as close to us as our neighbours who live across the street,” said His Highness at the inaugural prize-giving ceremony in 2019. “In such a world, peace and progress require that we promote a pluralist agenda, that we invest in a Cosmopolitan ethic. These Music Awards aim to be an investment in that promotion.”
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A visionary leader
Under His Highness’s leadership, AKDN has grown and evolved over the decades. Its agencies have won many awards, and its early work in rural development has for decades served as a blueprint for other organisations to follow.
One of its hallmarks is the long-term, often multi-generational approach to activities. Another is the enduring set of ethics that underpins its work. A third is its focus on quality.
“His Highness will never ever relinquish the importance of quality in what we do, regardless of the context,” said Mr Kocher, General Manager of AKF. “One of the things he said during our first meeting and I’ve heard him repeat is ‘We do what we can, but we do it as best we can.’”
This helps to ensure that AKDN sets the foundation for progress for generations to come, improving the quality of people’s lives, while accounting for gender equity, fostering pluralism and acting in harmony with the natural environment.
Over the course of the last 65 years, His Highness the Aga Khan has received more than 70 international honours, awards and honorary degrees from various governments, universities and civil society organisations, illustrating that his work, through AKDN and otherwise, has been and continues to be valued by a broad collective.
“I’m 63 – I’ve done a lot of things,” concludes Mr Kocher. “But every morning I get up feeling energised, inspired and profoundly privileged to work here, and to do my modest part to bring His Highness’s vision to life.”¨