Keynote Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the World Bank Infodev Conference
Washington, 10th November 1999
Thank you, Jim, for your kind words of introduction and for inviting me to address this gathering. It is an honour to have this opportunity to speak to an audience that is so distinguished and so accomplished.
The rapid developments in information and communication technology are of immense importance for those of us engaged in promoting positive economic, social, and cultural change. Like Jim Wolfensohn, I believe that they are also critical because development in all those dimensions is a prerequisite for world peace.
My remarks this afternoon are directed to the challenge of developing the human resources required for broad-based, sustainable development in some of the poorest parts of the world. It is my hope that these specific examples will provide a bridge between the complex and important issues involved in creating global information infrastructure and assuring broad access to it, and its application to specific, non-commercial development efforts, particularly those that are non-commercial in character. I will do this by reporting on three projects at various stages of development being undertaken by agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network. But first, I would offer two general observations:
Several sessions have considered the gaps within and between developed and developing countries, and how they may be exacerbated because not all countries and cultures are presently positioned to reap the benefits of new technology. The importance of access was the subject of an entire session this morning. At this point access is the biggest constraint facing the networked economy. I would hope that continued attention to addressing this bottleneck will be one outcome of these meetings. I also those efforts will go beyond conventional programmes of development assistance, and will reflect at least a measure of the ingenuity that has driven the development and applications of this remarkable technology in the last few years.
But it is also important to ask if access is enough-- even the probably impossible dream of universal access. Will it not be equally important to develop capacity in the developing world to enable institutions and individuals to be more than users -- even interactive users -- of the new information technology? We all know that software and some hardware is already being produced in some of these countries. On the basis of my experience in culture and development over the last 30 years, I believe that it is critical to build capacity more generally to position users to be active participants in the advances in the shaping of content and applications. Only then will the full potential of the new information technology begin to be realised. And only then will the concern of some, that the Internet poses a threat to their cultures, be addressed.
My first case study involves culture and development, a field in which I have had an interest of long standing. I should take this opportunity to say publicly how important I think it is that the World Bank has embraced culture as an important dimension of development under Jim Wolfensohn's leadership. For too long, culture was dismissed as either irrelevant, or elitist, or was seen as an obstacle by development specialists.
Since 1957, when my Grandfather appointed me to succeed him as the Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network have been involved in building schools, hospitals, housing estates, and other constructions in the Islamic world. Early in that process, it became clear that while the use of the buildings was usually adequately defined, they had less and less to do with the architectural traditions of the societies that they were to serve. As we expanded our questioning, it became starkly apparent that across almost the entire Muslim world the traditions of architecture, one of its greatest and most distinctive forms of cultural expression, had become irrelevant or had disappeared.
Once the issue had been framed, some of the greatest architects in the world together with men and women from all disciplines and all religious backgrounds -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist -- joined me, to create programmes to help address the crisis in the built environment of the world's one billion Muslims and those among whom they live. The aim was to widen - for people of all backgrounds -- the sources of knowledge and inspiration for the design languages of Islamic cultures.
Now, two decades later, the best buildings and spaces of the Islamic world are exceptional once again. Designed and used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, they address some of the most intractable problems of our age: rapid urbanisation, the "slumification" of the rural built environment, management of historic structures and public spaces, and shelter for the very poor. For me, this is a powerful example of what can be achieved in as little as 20 years when talented and committed individuals can come together and focus their attention. In this instance, they did nothing less than begin the process of reversing the hundreds of years of decay that contributed to the erosion of the physical dimensions of cultural identity in Muslim societies.
Programmatically this has been accomplished through initiatives. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, using an independent jury, selects innovative projects of all types - new constructions, restored buildings, and public spaces to share a $500,000 prize every three years. The results are fully documented and vigorously publicised as examples to stimulate creative thinking about subsequent building projects around the world. The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology is dedicated to research and the training of scholars and practitioners to enrich building in the Islamic world by expanding the pool of knowledgeable professionals and the resources for their work.
Recent developments in information and communication technology, and the rich array of talent at MIT now make it possible to bring the resources developed through these initiatives to students, teachers, scholars, and practitioners throughout the Islamic world. A project team at MIT's School of Architecture and Planning is establishing an on-line community of professionals interested in Islamic architecture. It is being developed in close cooperation with the Graduate School of Design and the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, and with the support of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Geneva. Called ArchNet, it is an ambitious Internet-based network that is intended to serve students, teachers, scholars, and design and planning professionals. Its goal is to provide an extensive, high-quality, globally accessible intellectual resource focused on topics of architecture, urban design, urban development, and related issues such as restoration, conservation, housing, landscape design, and construction in seismic sensitive zones with special reference to the Islamic world. It will be achieved by providing historical and contemporary images and drawings, an extensive bibliography on the art and architecture of the Islamic world, G.I.S. and CAD databases, and a searchable text library. MIT Press, a leader in electronic publishing, will maintain the Website on an accessible server.
ArchNet's structure is being designed to offer each user with a personal workspace tailored to his or her individual needs. From this space, the user will be able to contribute his or her own findings and research to the larger site. The Website will aim to foster close ties between institutions and between users. Through the use of on-line fora, chat rooms, and debates, it is hoped that the site can promote and enrich discussions among participants by providing effective support for research, teaching, and practice in architecture, and related fields for the benefit of all who live within the Islamic world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It will be a bottom-up system, in which information will eventually flow directly from the user to a continually expanding resource base that can be shared by all. The lessons learned will be accessible globally, and of interest to those who are addressing similar problems of the built environment in other parts of the world.
Another feature of the project's design involves the selection of partner schools of architecture on a regional basis around the Muslim world, to participate directly and actively in shaping this initiative. Each partner institution will be provided, as needed, with the hardware, software, training, and infrastructure support necessary for active participation in ArchNet. The partner institutions will not only benefit by assured access to the contents of the Website, they will contribute to the expanding base of knowledge and information on it, and will also be invited to shape its scope and direction. Each school will coordinate with the other departments of architecture and planning in their respective regions to gather resources for which they have a particular expertise.
I believe that ArchNet will demonstrate the enormous potential of the global information system for supporting communication and collaboration among architectural and planning students, faculty, scholars, and practitioners throughout the world. It is particularly important that this can occur across countries in regions that share cultures, economic circumstances, and climatic and geographic characteristics. I anticipate that once ArchNet is up and running, it may prove to be an important model for other subjects and professional groups.
My second case is a new programme designed to develop human resources for the improvement of health services in East Africa. It is being undertaken by the School of Nursing of the Aga Khan University in Karachi. AKU is Pakistan's first, private, autonomous university and its charter, promulgated by the Government of Pakistan, allows it to operate academic programmes anywhere in the world.
The Trustees of the University decided that the provision of health care in Pakistan had been insufficient for so long, both in terms of quality and coverage, that one of the earliest contributions the University could make was to found a Faculty of Health Sciences. A Medical School and a teaching hospital were central to the programme. But because Pakistan has one of the lowest ratios in the world of nurses to doctors, AKU decided that the first component of its Faculty of Health Sciences had to be a School Nursing. This was created in 1980 with substantial support from McMaster University in Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency.
The programmes carried out by AKU's School of Nursing over the last two decades have clearly demonstrated that a focus on nursing advancement enhances the status of women by making them indispensable partners in societal advancement. Nursing, primarily a women's profession in Pakistan, empowers women and improves their status in their communities. It provides positive role models for other women, strengthens their decision-making and problem-solving capabilities in the eyes of others, and promotes their personal, professional, and financial autonomy. When AKU began operations in Pakistan, nursing was a very low status profession, and nursing studies were a neglected discipline in health education.
Since its founding, the School of Nursing has graduated almost 1100 diploma students and nearly 200 Baccalaureate graduates, and has launched a post-graduate Masters Degree programme. It has become a leading resource for nursing education, not only in Pakistan, but also for other developing countries. It is on this basis that the Ministries of Health in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have invited the School of Nursing to launch its regional programme for upgrading nursing education in Eastern Africa.
The health status of the populations of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, is among the poorest in the world. Twice as many women in Kenya and Tanzania die in childbirth as the average for low-income countries, and more than four times the average die in Uganda. In addition to facing the traditional causes of high rates of morbidity, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania bear the heavy and tragic burden of HIV and AIDS.
In the face of these challenges East African governments have adopted programmes to restructure the health sector to make services more effective, accessible, and affordable. The strategies call on governments to focus on financing and providing primary and essential health care packages at the community level, rehabilitating and better equipping provincial and district-level health facilities, and introducing cost-effective delivery of care at tertiary facilities.
Only recently has it become apparent that effective reform requires a significant investment in the personnel responsible for managing health services and providing care. While some programmes have been implemented to improve the capacities of those charged with managing the reformed health system, little systematic attention has been given to enhancing the clinical and managerial competence of nurses at all levels of the system. Nurses in service are a logical focus for a new programme because they are less expensive to train, are widely present in rural areas, and are usually the first point of contact for a patient seeking care. They are also essential to the competent provision of hospital based tertiary care.
At the outset, instructional programmes will employ conventional distance education technologies. Distance education is particularly suited to the initiative because it is cost efficient, allows participants to remain on the job while they improve their skills, and because it makes professional advancement available to women who generally cannot leave to pursue studies elsewhere. As the programme matures, and infrastructure develops, computer based information technologies will be employed to link the East African centres to resources at the School of Nursing in Karachi, and to provide enriched access for nursing professionals in more isolated parts of the region. If successful, the Advanced Nursing Studies programme should serve as a model of effective educational cooperation between two parts of the developing world.
My third and last case study is, in some senses, the most ambitious of all. It involves the creation of a new university, located in Central Asia in south-eastern Tajikistan, near the convergence of some of the highest mountain ranges in the world - the Pamirs, the Hindu Kush and the Karakorum -- and the border with north-eastern Afghanistan. The mission of the university is to develop research and educational programmes focussed on the mountain regions and peoples of Central Asia, and mountain regions more generally. The Commission that was charged with analysing the need for such an institution and developing a conceptual plan has completed its work, and steps are underway to develop the agreements and understandings with the governments of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic to establish it as a truly international university.
The location and nature of the proposed university is such that it cannot succeed without an aggressive use of computer based information technologies. The university would have three units:
The first would be an undergraduate, residential, liberal arts programme with a special focus on the technical and managerial subjects required for development of mountain regions and peoples. These would include forestry, high mountain agriculture, engineering and natural resource management, and business, economics, and public administration. There would also be special attention given to the cultures of high mountain communities.
The second would be an interdisciplinary masters degree for development specialists in the government, non-government, and commercial sectors.
English, now recognised as an international language by the governments of the region, would be the medium of instruction for both degree programmes to ensure that graduates are able to participate in global systems of all sorts.
The third division will offer non-degree programmes for people in isolated settings, and for mid career professionals in Central Asia. It will be offered in Russian and regional languages.
To accomplish this ambitious set of goals, the university will require a sophisticated learning resources centre that will constitute the technological core of the institution, and which is critical to overcoming the physical isolation of its campus. Together with the use of English as a medium of instruction, it will constitute one of the university's most distinctive features and should play an important part in attracting prospective students, faculty, and donor support.
This is a very ambitious undertaking. It calls for a substantial initial investment in Internet access, a fibre optic-wired campus, and computing equipment, as well as regular investments thereafter to keep abreast of new developments. It calls for a faculty whose members are not only computer literate but, more importantly, prepared to change their methods of teaching and conducting research to take advantage of innovations in the rapidly changing field of communications. It calls for a rector and deans who arrive on the job with experience in and openness to, the new learning technologies. It calls for the inclusion of technology training into the preparation (and eventually recruitment) of incoming students.
It will also require the establishment of satellite learning centres in mountain communities across the region and certainly in Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic and other countries from which the university will draw students. For the master's programme, it means opening distance learning links with leading institutions and scholars elsewhere who might develop special courseware for students on the home campus.
Why is a distance education initiative included in what otherwise is a residential research and teaching institution?
First, because there are thousands of persons who were trained to fill posts in the Soviet system whose skills must be updated if they are to survive professionally in the post-Soviet era. These include teachers, civil servants, and those responsible for nearly every sector of the economy. Graduates of the new university will themselves require in-service training and professional updating over the years. The kind of life-long learning this entails is rare or non-existent in Central Asia. The proposed division could provide it in such a way as to become a model for other institutions in the region.
Second, a market economy and civil society call for many new skills. Unless those beyond university age are simply to be abandoned, they too must have an opportunity to acquire such skills.
And third, millions of non-university graduates, formerly employed in Soviet enterprises, must now acquire trades or professions that will enable them to exist independently.Outside the former Soviet territories, a different set of circumstances creates similar needs. In Xinjiang, Western China, many of these skills exist, but are concentrated in the large urban centres. Many traditional trades and crafts survive in Pakistan's Northern Areas but they need to be updated and supplemented with the skills which modern economies require. Afghanistan, by contrast, has seen the loss of most of its traditional capacities without the introduction of more modern skills. As a consequence, millions of people there have no means of sustaining themselves and the society as a whole lacks many of the trades that are essential for the merest survival. The scale of demand in Afghanistan is likely to be enormous and beyond the capacity of any one institution to meet. But, an effective Continuing Education programme operating at one or more satellite campuses there can serve as a model for others.
Here then are the three major projects that the Aga Khan Development Network is presently advancing that rely in different ways and to different degrees on information and communications technology.
The ArchNet Website will directly address the vitality and understanding of architecture in the Islamic world and its contribution to the quality of life, subjects that are central to the identity of a billion people and their cultures.
The Aga Khan University's School of Nursing's Advanced Nursing Programme in East Africa will build on twenty years experience to address the needs of a health system struggling to meet long existing challenges of health maintenance in a tropical region, and the more recent scourge of HIV and AIDS. By focussing on nurses, it will reach all the way from primary to tertiary health providers, and also contribute to the improved status of women in those societies just as it has in Pakistan.
The Central Asian University at Khorog, will be the first teaching and research institution exclusively focussed on the needs and potentials of the 20 million people living marginal existences in poor isolated mountain communities. The aggressive use of information and communication technology will allow undergraduate and graduate students from the countries of Central Asia to have access to a world of knowledge and information without leaving the settings that are familiar, and which they will study and apply the results of their education. The same technology will enable the University to provide training in subjects to participants spread across the region, with a specific emphasis on skills needed for meeting the challenges of functioning in post Soviet societies and economies.
Each of these ventures is experimental and challenging. Each addresses the critical problem of human capital, as well as a specific development objective. We have a clear vision of what we hope to achieve and why, but we realise we will need help to bring it to fruition.
Aga Khan interviewed by Mildred Schmertz
His Highness the Aga Khan
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