May 10, 2007

Aga Khan Foundation's Areas of Focus

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Tajikistan - Health workers examine a school child for sign of goitre. Click to enlarge. (Photo: Pierre Claquin/AKF)

Aga Khan Foundation's Areas of Focus

Cross-cutting Concerns


The goal of the Foundation's health programme is to achieve sustainable improvements in health status among vulnerable groups, especially the geographically remote, women of childbearing age and children under five.

The Foundation promotes improvements in health policies, financing mechanisms and basic services while enabling communities to adopt effective health practices.

In the past, deficiencies in health policy, financing and service availability undermined attempts to achieve lasting improvements in health status among poor communities. Free-standing, community-based health programmes supported by the Foundation and other donors succeeded in achieving health improvements for a limited time at a relatively low cost. However, communities often did not have the financial resources to sustain improvements, the quality of care and patient referral were not assured, and basic services were often inaccessible and rarely equitable or lasting.

The Foundation now supports interventions that build the institutional capacity of health systems by:

  • Strengthening and developing partnerships between all stakeholders from the state to the community;

  • Promoting policy dialogue and mechanisms to develop and sustain health systems and services;

  • Documenting and disseminating best practices.

Health is more than health care. While the Foundation works to strengthen health systems and services, it also promotes initiatives that offer people the knowledge and skills to avoid illness. These measures include educating women and girls and enabling families to adopt appropriate hygiene practices. In addition, the Foundation supports testing and implementation of income-generating strategies that allow households and communities to acquire better nutrition and health status. Increased income enables communities to improve nutritional status, particularly that of women and children, and to build and maintain water and sanitation systems.


A major goal of the Foundation is to improve the quality of basic education by a programme of grants to governments and NGOs. Four objectives set the wider agenda: ensuring better early caring and learning environments for young children; increasing access to education; keeping children in school longer; and raising levels of academic achievement. In common with other donor agencies, the Foundation intends that girls, the very poor, and geographically remote populations should receive special attention. Of the many factors that influence the quality of basic education, four in particular are the focus of current grants:

  • The location, timing and content of teacher training;

  • Professional development for all categories of educators and caregivers;

  • The role of governments, NGOs, communities and parents in financing and managing education;

  • The cultural and economic relevance of the curriculum.

AKF's education portfolio is distinctive in one other respect. It interprets 'basic education' as the continuation of learning which stretches from birth to adolescence. Thus roughly half the education projects it supports and half the financial investment is concentrated on stimulating the development of the young child. In developing countries, the Young Children and the Family portfolio is experimenting in both rural and urban settings with various community-based approaches that enhance early childcare and education opportunities, while work in Europe and the USA focuses on newly immigrant or economically marginalised families. A common concern across most of these projects is the quality of experience received as a child moves from home to early childhood development settings to primary school.

Research in western countries indicates that successful educational change is achieved by treating the individual school as a unit and ensuring that the school principal is a key player who mentors teachers repeatedly as they deploy new skills in their classrooms. Foundation projects are testing how far this formula holds true in contexts where many teachers have no more than primary-level education themselves and where the extreme shortage of funds dictates that materials and training have to be concentrated in Resource Centres to which individual schools and teachers have access.

The increasing inability of governments to fund even the primary cycle of schooling from tax revenue is producing an ad hoc set of 'cost-sharing' arrangements. The Foundation is attempting to turn this unsatisfactory situation to advantage by experimenting with mechanisms, such as mini-endowments, which allow parents and communities a wider role in managing and co-financing their children's education within specific cultural, social and economic contexts. The rapid growth of the private education sector in Africa and Asia, as well as in the former Soviet Union and western countries, calls for projects which reassess and redefine the respective roles and responsibilities of government and other stakeholders.

Rural Development

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The Aga Khan Foundation is committed to reducing rural poverty, particularly in resource-poor, degraded or remote environments. It concentrates on a small number of programmes of significant scale. The model of participatory rural development it has pioneered combines a set of common development principles with the flexibility to respond to specific contexts and needs.

Programmes typically link elements such as rural savings and credit, natural resource management, productive infrastructure development, increased agricultural productivity and human skills development with a central concern for community-level participation and decision-making. The ultimate goal is to enable community members to make informed choices from a range of appropriate options for sustainable and equitable development

A central strategy has been to create or strengthen an institutional structure at the village level through which people can determine priority needs and decide how best to manage common resources in the interests of the community as a whole. Whether broad-based or task-specific, these village organisations also serve to represent the community to the government and to other development partners, including NGOs and the private sector.

Social capital built at the local level provides a supportive environment for enlarging the economic assets of a community and for harnessing individual self-interest to generate income growth in an equitable and sustainable manner.

Assets are typically built through community management of natural resources - water storage, irrigation infrastructure, soil conservation or forestry - or the construction of basic economic infrastructure, such as rural roads or agricultural storage facilities.

Income growth is promoted by increasing agricultural productivity through improved farming methods, input supply, marketing, land development and management reform or by increasing off-farm incomes and supporting enterprise development.

Local capital is mobilised by promoting savings and developing financial services to enable broad access to credit on a sustainable basis.

Training programmes support the effectiveness and sustainability of the village-level institutions by providing the management and technical skills needed to plan, implement and maintain local development activities.

The Foundation is committed to building the knowledge base in rural development through learning, analysing and disseminating lessons learned from field experience. Models it has promoted have already been adapted and replicated by governments and international donors in a wide spectrum of environments and economies.


Strategies for Development and Food Security in Mountainous Areas of Central Asia, a conference held 6-10 June 2005 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, was sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation, Capacity Building International, Germany (InWEnt), and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH.

Civil Society

For the latest developments in this thematic area, please click here.

This newest theme draws together two long-standing Foundation concerns. First, it provides an umbrella for the Foundation's response to the oft-expressed needs of many of its partners for advice and related institutional strengthening services. It also seeks to promote an "enabling environment" for the emerging non-profit citizen sector in countries where the Foundation works.

His Highness the Aga Khan first used the term "enabling environment" in 1983 in Kenya, initiating dialogue that led to an Africa-wide Enabling Environment Conference in 1986. Since then, the Foundation has monitored those aspects of the wider environment that most directly shape the attitudes and behaviour of governments and business toward citizen organisations. It seeks to promote laws and corporate policies that favour indigenous philanthropic giving, thereby facilitating a break from dependency on foreign aid. It also actively promotes volunteerism as a vital way for local organisations to root themselves in a renewable "citizen base".

The Foundation is keenly interested in forging new models for partnerships involving government, business and citizen organisations to extend, improve and sustain health, education and welfare services for the poor.

From its earliest work in rural development, the Foundation has emphasised the crucial role of strong grassroots organisations. Its rural support programmes became successful intermediary vehicles to facilitate a village-driven approach to increasing rural incomes. The Foundation found in them an institutional mechanism that enabled it to channel effective support to resource-poor settings. The original model of social organisation developed in northern Pakistan has been replicated by a host of actors in diverse national settings. The diffusion process continues as the Foundation in East Africa, for instance, promotes the concept of community-generated "mini-endowments". It is encouraging community members to adapt and apply traditional savings and social investment practices to create a sustaining financial base for early childhood programmes.

The independent citizen sector is composed of a great variety of such community groups. Because nearly all of them require support services, the Foundation helps establish "resource centres" to promote their sustainable and equitable growth.

The first two NGO Resource Centres, launched in Pakistan in 1993 and Zanzibar in 1996, have four inter-related functions: capacity building for development-oriented groups; management training to increase their efficiency; information and communications activities to arm them with needed information and to raise public awareness of their vital role in society; and stimulation of an enabling legal, fiscal and regulatory environment.

A third grantee in Kenya combines the objective of capacity building with a brief to introduce national philanthropy for development. Systematic capacity building has also been integrated into multi-million dollar sectoral development programmes in India, Pakistan and Kenya. All these efforts are designed to enhance the capacity of citizens to effect meaningful, dignified and sustainable change in the quality of their lives.

Cross-Cutting Issues

The Civil Society programme inherited the Foundation's long-standing concern for the organisational well-being of its grantees, but four major cross-cutting issues remain. The following are so important to all Foundation programmes that they cannot be addressed in isolation.

Human Resource Development

The Foundation supports a great variety of education and training activities for its partners. These range from upgrading technical skills to providing scholarships for degree programmes, from instructing managers of women's organisations in accounting to providing internships to young development professionals in certain countries. Human capacity to make a difference can indeed be nurtured and taught, and "can do" attitudes are needed everywhere.

Community Participation

The benefits of community participation in development programmes have been richly demonstrated. Local people can acquire the organised capacity to define and meet common needs on a sustainable basis.

Each year the range of problems poor communities address through participatory efforts grows - as does the Foundation's understanding of what is needed to champion local initiative.

Full participation comes most quickly when there are immediate, tangible benefits from community action. Projects that bring economic rewards, for instance, move forward faster than those aimed solely at preventing health problems. As community organisations created for economic benefit mature, however, they gain the confidence and vision to address longer-term social needs successfully. The potential of these groups is vast.

Support organisations need to listen carefully. Community groups want to be heard, to be offered choices, to have central roles in project management and a genuine stake in the outcome. As the Foundation monitors community initiatives in different cultural and geographical settings, it is learning what combinations of these factors bring maximum social and economic benefits over time.

It is also learning the limits to the effectiveness of community participation. Experience shows, for example, that small enterprises are best run by individuals or partners rather than by community organisations.

Gender and Development

The Foundation is committed to highlighting the key role of women in the development process and to facilitating their participation. Research and experience have shown that taking gender considerations into account in planning economic and social interventions greatly increases the probability of their success. In most countries and communities, gender determines both domestic and productive roles. Women generally have responsibilities for both, but their ability to contribute to society is constrained by social, cultural and political traditions. Compared to men, they tend to be less educated, more limited in their options and paid less.

Yet women manage households, raise children, pass knowledge to the next generation, tend livestock, grow and process crops and often run businesses to supplement family income.

Families and communities benefit exponentially when women reap greater rewards for their own efforts and labour. Once sustenance needs are covered, women quickly address the health and education needs of other generations. To raise the competence and confidence of women - and, correspondingly, to open up the thinking of men - is a long-term commitment of the Foundation. In addition to supporting research and action aimed at making women's participation a reality, the Foundation supports women with village credit schemes, training in forestry, masonry, crop and livestock management, accounting and marketing. It encourages education and careers for women.

It looks for ways to engage with men around the attitudinal and structural changes that flow from programmes that benefit women.

The Environment

In resource-poor areas, people and the environment are often trapped together in a downward spiral. Penury of natural resources forces the less privileged to consume the few resources available to them. The result is deeper poverty, depleted soils, deforested hills, polluted water, disease and despair. The Foundation's rural development programmes combine local organisation, appropriate technology and investment in efforts to reverse this destructive course.

Health, education and capacity development programmes also help to raise awareness of environmental issues and encourage people to manage change in the best interests of the community.

The environment includes natural, built, and cultural factors that cut across virtually all development programmes. Each profoundly affects the human condition, and all are interrelated. The Foundation cooperates with the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services to help poor communities overcome environmental problems and to plan growth even in remote villages and towns.

Environmental problems are complex and often extremely difficult to solve. Even the smallest steps in the right direction have positive implications for rich and poor alike.

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