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Interview of His Highness the Aga Khan


by Talat Hussain

13th March 2002

We are delighted and honoured to have as our guest tonight, His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, who is currently visiting Pakistan. Thank you for joining us.

PTV: Let me begin by asking you about the projects you inaugurated here in Pakistan, the Micro Credit Bank and the Serena Hotel. What is the particular significance of these projects?

AK: The objective of these projects and others, has been to support the economic development of Pakistan to try to identify niche needs that have not been responded to in the past, and if you take the micro-finance, this actually has been an area of involvement of Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in the North since a number of years, but it was important to institutionalise that activity and to make it available across the country. New legislation brought in by the Government has enabled non-governmental organisations to enter into the micro finance field and, it is, without any doubt, one of the most important support systems to fight particularly poverty, because in effect, what you're doing is that you are providing banking to segments of the population that cannot access commercial banking.

In the other area, Islamabad needed a new hotel, the economy of Pakistan needs to be further diversified, the leisure industry is an important industry and this is another hotel amongst the six I think which are in this country.

PTV: That sums up these two projects, but these are not the only ones that your Network and Foundation are supporting. The viewers would be interested in knowing your insights on how this model that you have been able to put forward, is so successful. What goes into this model actually?

AK: Well, I think a number of issues, and I feel very flattered by your comments, but essentially the notion is that the Aga Khan Development Network is a support system to national initiative in the countries where we work, to enhance developmental processes, to speed them up, to add quality. So the first thing is to identify the needs. Aga Khan University identified the need of quality higher education in Pakistan. This is not a specific issue for Pakistan, many countries in the developing world need much, much more sophisticated higher level education.

The next point is that, if you create new capacity, its important to bring to that field, whatever it is, a centre quality. So what we have tried to achieve is the notion of 'best practice'. In the 60s, the 70s there was a long debate - a political debate - as to whether developing countries could afford quality. I think that argument doesn't exist anymore, in the sense that the developing countries, like all countries, need quality institutions. So our objective is going to try to establish as a goal, best practice in what we are doing.

PTV: How do you do your networking with other organizations, because you know your Network does not work in isolation, there are imports and networking with other organizations. How does this aspect of the model work?

AK: Once we have identified what we think is a niche requirement or a specific requirement in a developing country, we will then analyse that, and that's perhaps a point which I should have made earlier, the quality of the diagnostic of the issue and of the design of the response, takes time and work and reflection. Once we are satisfied that we have more or less addressed the problem, then we will seek partners, either within the country or outside, to work with us. A third aspect is the replication of the knowledge we have developed. We try to develop capacity, which can be reutilised, either in the public sector or the private sector in the country concerned or outside.

PTV: Monitoring, that's a very important issue. There has been no dearth of projects conceived and designed to address these basic issues that your Network addresses, but somehow because of faulty monitoring, they just fall on the wayside and then nobody talks about them. How does your monitoring system work?

AK: We have a rigorous monitoring system, and I think that what I have tried to encourage, is to have people move away from a sense of shame if mistakes are made. If mistakes are made, the question is, can they be corrected, how can they be corrected? But if failures of any sort are just pushed under the carpet, in the end, they eat into the carpet and that's the carpet that's gone.

PTV: So its not just a question of having enough finances, it is also a whole lot of other things. Talk about also, if you please your Highness, the efficient use of resources, because there is a debate raging in Pakistan, that, well perhaps in the education system for example, a lot of money is coming in, but its not a problem of money, it's the way you utilise it. Tell us also of that aspect of your work.

AK: You know in the last decades, one of the things that has come across in the development work has been strategising public service, social service delivery. And countries need to re-look at their objectives in education, in health care, they need to make sure that they correspond to demographic needs, to changes in demand. And my sense is that, that process of strategising is one which needs more time and effort and it really should not be a political debate; its actually a highly technical debate as to how you educate the future generations of a given country for their future, and I think that is in the process of happening now, but its an on-going exercise lets be quite frank about it. As the economy of a country changes, the education for future generations has to adapt to those projection of need.

PTV: You are talking about economy of the country; let me have your insights on that subject as well. How do you view the current state of Pakistan's economy, because there has been some concern in the past that perhaps we have not done as well, to put it very charitably, as we ought to have done, now we are turning the corner. What is your assessment?

AK: M y feeling is that real progress has been made. Real progress is in relation to the Bretan Woods Organization, World Bank, IMF, bilateral donors also, there is a greater sense of confidence. What will be important is to have disposable incomes grow in Pakistan, so that the population moves forward with enhancing the development process. Development simply cannot occur if people don't make it happen.

PTV: So it has to be a people-centred, people-supported development? But the economic indicators, as you look at them and compare them with the previous indicators, do they look marginally better, do they look substantively better?

AK: They look significantly better and my belief is that they will continue to improve. The question is, when macro economic progress is made, how does it filter down to the micro situation - in individual families, and that is going to be an area that needs watching.

PTV: We know you are not in the habit of prescribing things, but we still would want your wisdom on this count. What are the things - the major things - that the country's economy and economic managers ought to avoid, things that should not be allowed to happen?

AK: I would prefer to put it in terms of things that should happen rather than things that shouldn't happen. I think first of all, Pakistan should seek to diversify its economy further, because at a certain stage, whether it is Pakistan or any other country in the world, agricultural productivity as base of the economy is insufficient; you need to have other sources. So that's the first issue. The second issue is the relation between the public sector and the private sector; both sectors have to work with each other instead of competing with each other or sometimes being in conflict. Thirdly, both have to be productive and they have to be effective and therefore, the measuring criteria in both have to be very clear, overt, and targets set. My sense is that all those issues are very well understood and they are being dealt with.

PTV: Let us talk about other issues that are agitating the people's minds. The larger issue these days is the great debate between the Muslim World and the West. Despite the efforts that have been made from either side, the wide river of division still runs between them. How do you see the situation? Do you think its worse than before or is there any way we could bridge the gap?

AK: I think the inherent issues have been there for a long time. The basic premise, the basic problem is the enormous lack of knowledge of the Islamic world in the general world-culture. It's a rather remarkable thing and a very sad thing to me, that over a billion people, their 1400 year history, of civilizations, are simply not part of general education in the general Western world. It's a remarkable knowledge gap, and its extremely difficult for the Muslim world, with all its pluralism, etc. to fill that gap. And because of that vacuum, anything that tends to be a bush fire or worse, takes on the dimension of being a reflection of the whole of the Islamic world, which of course it isn't. Also, many of the issues which are political, tend to be associated with the faith of Islam when in reality they are not, they are basically political problems, many of them inherited since many decades. One of the problems is the length of, duration of these issues which have remained unresolved.

PTV: Let me ask you a cliched question, but related to this: Are we headed towards a clash of civilisations?

AK: In my view, no. Because, first of all, there isn't one Islamic civilisation, there are multiple Islamic civilisations. Secondly, the ethics of our Faith, our ethics which is shared by many other Faiths, so I don't think there is an issue of ethics there. I think there is a deep issue of communication and knowledge and unless both parties make a serious effort to close that vacuum, these misunderstandings will continue to exist and they will be amplified in this vacuum.

PTV: How do we get out of this?

AK: That is a difficult and long question, but I think it probably comes down to a multiple process of education. Educating the communicators, educating the intelligentsia of the various societies, educating in institutional capacity; I think it is a multiple and long-term exercise, but it needs to be addressed.

PTV: What should the Muslim world do for itself? Of course, what we have discussed is only one part of the problem of how West has not been able to understand the multiplicity of the Muslim world and the multiple issues confronting the Muslim world, but the Muslim world too has not exactly been upto the task - has not done what it ought to have done. How does it respond to the new challenges?

AK: That is again a very complex question, but I think the Islamic world generally speaking, can communicate more on the issues that it has to address, in terms of quality of life for the population concerned, in terms of issues of good governance. Pretending that problems don't exist doesn't address them. The question is, let's say "yes there are a number of issues that need to be addressed." Identify them, respond to them and I think that can be achieved. I am not despondent by any means, I am frustrated by the inability that others and I myself have had, to make this happen.

PTV: Let's change the subject a bit and talk about lighter things, as it were. How do you divide your time, the viewers would be immensely interested in finding out. You are a spiritual leader, you're a celebrity, you're a man wanted by communities, people, governments, and there are only 24 hours in a day!

AK: That is true. My time is frankly in heavy demand, perhaps more so today then in the past. I am fortunate to have excellent colleagues who work with me, I've excellent collaborators around the world, many of whom work voluntarily, and who are very highly placed in their own professional lives, so I benefit from the support of a wide spectrum of intelligentsia. Generally speaking, we have made big investments since my grandfather's time in education, so there is a big spectrum of educated people in various parts of the world. And I think one of the important things is to share goals, is to explain to people what we want to achieve and why we want to achieve them. And I have been amazed and thrilled frankly, at the capacities of even the completely illiterate populations, to express themselves about the correct priority that should be addressed. And if you follow their agenda, nine times out of ten, you'll get it right!

PTV: Your Highness the Aga Khan, thank you very much for sharing your wisdom and insights wit us. We wish you the best of luck with all that you pursue in your life.

AK: Thank you very much indeed.

  Mowlana Hazar Imam's Speech at the at the Opening of the Islamabad Serena Hotel - March 11, 2002
  Mowlana Hazar Imam's Speech at the Inauguration of the First MicroFinance Bank Ltd. - March 11, 2002
  Mowlana Hazar Imam Interview by Pakistan TV - March 9, 2002
  Mowlana Hazar Imam Visits Islamabad, Pakistan - March 9, 2002

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