Apr 25, 2007

The Imamat and the AKDN

The Imamat and the The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN)

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a contemporary endeavour of the Ismaili Imamat to realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action. Themandate of the eight AKDN agencies is to improve living conditions and opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of ignorance, disease, and deprivation.

Imamat and the AKDN

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a contemporary endeavour of the Ismaili Imamat to realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action. The Network brings together a number of agencies, institutions, and programmes that have been built up over the past forty years by the Aga Khan, and in some instances by his predecessor, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III.

Their combined mandate is to improve living conditions and opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of ignorance, disease, and deprivation. AKDN agencies conduct their programmes without regard to the faith, origin or gender of the people they serve. Their primary focus of activity includes some of the poorest peoples of Asia and Africa. The impulses that underpin the Network are the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and the duty, guided by the ethics of the Islam, to contribute to improving the quality of all human life. The pivotal notion in the ethical ideal of Islam is human dignity, and thus, the duty to respect and support God's greatest creation, Man himself.

At the heart of Islam's social vision is the ethic of care of the weak and restraint in their sway by the rich and powerful. The pious are the socially conscious who recognise in their wealth, whether personal talent or material resources, an element of trust for the indigent and deprived. But while those at the margin of existence have a moral right to society's compassion, the Muslim ethic discourages a culture of dependency since it undermines a person's dignity, the preservation of which is emphatically urged in the Quran. From the time of the Prophet, therefore, the emphasis in the charitable impulse has been to help the needy to help themselves.

The key to the dignified life that Islam espouses is an enlightened mind symbolised in the Quran's metaphor of creation, including one's self, as an object of rational quest. "My Lord! Increase me in knowledge," is a cherished prayer that the Quran urges upon all believers, men and women alike. Like education, good health is also a precious asset for a life of dignity since the body is the repository of the divine spark. This spark of divinity, which bestows individuality and true nobility on the human soul, also bonds individuals in a common humanity. Humankind, says the Quran, has been created from a single soul, as male and female, communities and nations, so that people may know one another. It invites people of all faiths, men and women, to strive for goodness.

AKDN Agencies: Characteristics of Their Work

AKDN agencies operate in social and economic development as well as in the field of culture. Many have been created within the last two to three decades, reflecting, and responding to, the present complexity of the development process. The Aga Khan Foundation, including the Aga Khan Rural Support Programmes and the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, the Aga Khan University, Aga Khan Heath Services, Aga Khan Education Services and the Aga Khan Building and Planning Services operate in social development. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development with its affiliates the Tourism Promotion Services, Industrial Promotion Service, Financial Services, Aviation and Media, seeks to strengthen the role of the private sector in developing countries by supporting private sector initiatives in the development process. The Fund also encourages government policies that foster what the Aga Khan first called an "enabling environment" of favourable legislative and fiscal structures. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture co-ordinates the Imamat's cultural activities. Its programmes include The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Historic Cities Support Programme, and the Education and Culture Programme. The Trust also provides financial support for the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

While each agency pursues its own mandate, all of them work together within the overarching framework of the Aga Khan Development Network so that their different pursuits can interact and reinforce one another. Their common goal is to help the poor achieve a level of self-reliance where they are able to plan their own livelihoods and help those even more needy than themselves. A central feature of the AKDN development strategy is, thus, to design and implement strategies in which its different agencies participate in particular settings. To pursue their mandates, AKDN institutions rely on the energy, dedication, and skill of volunteers as well as remunerated professionals, and draw upon the talents of people of all faiths.

Underlying AKDN's development philosophy is the recognition that the satisfaction of the needs for food, housing, education, and health is not sufficient to ensure the vitality of any community or society. Values and ideals, which shape and reflect people's identities, give direction and points of reference in the face of rapid global change. Successful development that requires community engagement and mobilisation also needs to occur in a cultural context which preserves and nurtures individual and community values and ideals.

AKDN institutions work in close partnership with the world's major national and international aid and development agencies. The AKDN itself is an independent self-governing system of agencies, institutions, and programmes under the leadership of the Ismaili Imamat. Their main source of support is the Ismaili community with its tradition of philanthropy, voluntary service and self-reliance, and the leadership and material underwriting of the hereditary Imam and Imamat resources.

The experience of the past three decades of development effort shows that even when government, non-government and commercial organisations as well as international agencies work together, they are not able to meet most, let alone all, of the needs for shelter, health, and sustenance of the world's populations. Developing this theme at the inauguration of the restored Baltit Fort in northern Pakistan in 1996, the Aga Khan put forward the proposition that only when these organisations come together in, and especially, with a community, that the necessary resources can be generated and change can be sustained. "This is a guiding principle for the work of the institutions which make up the Aga Khan Development Network…. Sustainable development requires village [or community] organisations, the empowerment of those organisations, and the creation of partnerships between them and the government, local and international non-governmental organisations, and experts from the leading centres of research and teaching around the world."

Long-term Commitment

Development models require time to demonstrate their effectiveness and to enable local communities to take on full responsibility for their own future development. The AKDN agencies, therefore, make a long-term commitment to the areas in which they work, guided by the philosophy that a humane, sustainable environment must reflect the choices made by people themselves of how they live and wish to improve their prospects in harmony with their environment. Sustainability is, thus, a central consideration from the outset. It involves promoting individual activities that deliver lasting benefits to the target communities; enhancing the capacity of communities to sustain the processes and trends initiated in concert with local government, the private sector and local development organisations; and embedding that capability in values and ideals which relate to, and shape, the identities of the communities concerned so that they are able to understand and manage forces of change. It also requires building community organisations, non-government development institutions, and for-profit institutions that have a basis for organisational and financial stability beyond the involvement of AKDN agencies. The evidence shows that this patient, participatory philosophy is beginning to yield its fruits. Efforts of participating communities to improve services and incomes have enabled them in some of these regions to accumulate unprecedented cash savings to provide the capital and knowledge for their own development. They can now take measures to protect their environment, to establish schools and operate medical facilities largely paid for by themselves. Local communities in different parts of the world are also beginning to appreciate and safeguard their cultural heritage and values as irreplaceable assets, which must not be allowed to be eroded by elusive notions of modern progress.

The universal impulse behind these endeavours, as the Aga Khan explained when inaugurating a low-cost housing project in Bombay, is the refusal of an honest conscience to sit back, oblivious to the plight of those "who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will sink back into renewed apathy, degradation, and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark."

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