The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) initially began as a support system for the Ismaili Community in South Asia and East Africa. It soon expanded to include people of all faiths and now works in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.
Prince Karim al-Hussaini, the fourth Aga Khan and leader of the more than 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims around the world, led the construction of a diverse portfolio that aims to help people escape from poverty. Programs range from combating climate change to maternal health to rehabilitating historic sites. By the numbers, the network supports more than 200 health centers, helps more than 17 million people access financial resources, operates more than 200 schools, plants more than 1 million trees per year and much more.
“We practice community-driven development which if done well means that you are inherently accountable to the community because they are the ones leading the work. If you are doing something wrong then you are going to hear about it,” said Michael Kocher, General Manager of the Aga Khan Foundation.
Programs are organized into three branches: economic development, social development and culture. Each are tied to the main concerns of the Aga Khan: pluralism and civil society. He believes that pluralism is a sort of antidote to the divides that cause instability and conflict. It is a tenant that champions a society that embraces differences of faith, culture, gender and more to achieve harmony. “If society does not accept pluralism as a basic fundamental value, then the stresses and strains at some stage or the other will come out to the forefront. They will create risk.”
The work may be secular, but the religious roots of AKDN provide the organizational stability that enables AKDN to make the long-term, community-based investments that are rare in international development. “Engagement in secular affairs is a mandate of the institution to engage in improving the quality of life of people,” the Aga Khan said. “The issues we are dealing with are important and if my institution and my community can contribute to solving some of the problems ahead we will be very happy to do so.”
The AKDN spent more than $925 million in 2016 on social programs, a budget on par with some of the world’s biggest and best-known charities. Investments in hotels, electricity companies, financial services, media and tourism promotion bring in $4.1 billion in annual revenue. The profits from the investments and the millions of dollars donated by Ismaili Muslims each year all go back into paying for AKDN’s work. The network is in 30 countries and comprised of more than 80,000 staff — the majority of whom are locals. AKDN’s for-profit investments and donations from Ismaili fund most of the work. It also partners with governments, receiving grants from development agencies in the U.K., Canada, Germany and Scandinavian countries.
For example, in Afghanistan the AKDN mobilized more than $1 billion since 2002 to support development in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The money went to projects ranging from the completion of nearly 600 infrastructure projects and the founding of three resource centers for girls. It supports 150 health centers and clinics in Badakhshan province, manages the main government provincial hospitals in Bamyan and Badakhshan and supports three midwifery schools.
The Aga Khan Foundation supported 29 public audits in Afghanistan across 25 districts in 2015. It simultaneously organized public forums and town halls where governors spoke directly to their constituents. Social report cards are utilized to appraise district hospitals. All of the programs act to provide feedback to leaders and empower communities to demand what they need. Most programs focused on civil society and enabling accountability. It is a recognition that answers come from the bottom, not the top.
At a time when world appears on the edge of fracturing into populism and nationalist movements, with attendant isolationism, corporatism, and fundamentalism, the AKDN’s approach to development is unique and a potential model of soft confrontation through commitment to global pluralism. AKDN’s secular engagement, with a grounding in the cultural aspects of the Aga Khan’s religion, is a modern and enlightened stance — as is, perhaps even more so, the long-term, community-based and community-led investments the organization commits to.
Learn more: www.akdn.org