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INTERVIEW: The Aga Khan

Published by Newsweek on 1996-01-01

Prince Karim, Aga Khan IV, is the spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims. His grandfather named him to the Imamate in 1957- when Karim, then 20, was an undergraduate at Harvard University- passing over Karim's father, the flamboyant Prince Aly Khan, and also Aly's brother, Prince Sadruddin. The Aga Khan's philanthropy--through the Aga Khan Development Network, among other enterprises--has helped millions in Asia and Africa. He rarely grants interviews, and the following session with Newsweek's Pranay Gupte at his home in Gouvieux, France, represents one of the few extensive ones given by the Aga Khan in recent years. Excerpts:

GUPTE: How has your world changed in the 42 years that you have been the Aga Khan?
AGA KHAN: When my grandfather died 42 years ago, I had no expectation of being in a position to fulfill his responsibilities either in the Ismaili community or in development work. The world's development environment was totally disabling. The notion of "enabling environment" has since become a fundamental premise for sustainable development, especially in emerging societies. The notion of pluralism--and the legitimacy of pluralism in human society--is also an important issue for us in development. The notion of regionalism where there is an attempt to optimize the use of resources for people in a way which goes past frontiers, and gives them the capacity to function more effectively in a wider context--that's another issue. Sustainability is another fundamental issue because getting the process of development under way is one thing. But then ensuring that it continues under its own momentum with the people primarily involved leading and making decisions on their own destinies is really the goal.

Are you satisfied with the progress of the Aga Khan Network for Development?
If you are open to listening, then you can respond better to local concerns. Essentially the network has been people driven--not dogma driven, not driven by material return. The only thing the we are concerned within the network is improvement of the quality of life of people. And in so far as those goals are achieved, then I think that our initiatives would be considered positive. Now, development is such a multiple process that others will have other approaches to this. The new area we're looking at now is culture as an area of development. That's another issue that's been in the cards for some years. But, these are things which actually come from the field. They don't come from bureaucrats sitting at headquarters and dreaming up projects. We have been extremely sensitive to differences--differences between people, differences within countries, differences within economic levels. And the development process cannot--and it should not--ignore those differences.

Do you feel your development ideas can be replicated all over the world?
I simply don't believe that the development process can be replicated 100 percent in any part of the world. It is an ongoing running process. Of course, you can replicate ideas -but you have to make sure that they will actually become the seed of development when you move them across the frontier or to other people. And I'm a little bit worried that the stereotype solution is becoming very prominent. I am not convinced yet that the total free market approach is healthy for all of human society today as it is. I am not totally convinced that democracy without the understanding of the way and the precondition of democracy is a healthy exercise. I think probably it's important to educate about democracy so that people can understand what are its goals. In countries of hundreds of millions of people that have never experienced democracy, I'm not sure how quickly that process can take place. I think it's desirable, but I'm frankly cautious about the speed with which it can be achieved.

What about places such as Tajikistan, whose Ismaili population is only now being exposed to the outside world?
Again, the first issue is listening and learning, understanding and trying to come to grips with the realities which they have lived with in the past decades. I try to understand what are their priorities. Because their priorities are the ones that they perceive against their own historical horizons which are very different from the ones we might be perceiving. In Tajikistan, one of the things that I think one has to accept is the these historical, how would I call them, fractures, because this is a historical fracture when an empire like the Soviet Union collapses. You're stepping into that fracture. And, you're observing, and then you're trying to address the issues by their priorities. So long as the people themselves have told you their priorities, rather than you trying to tell them what they should be. Then I think you will build a relationship of empathy, of trust. Then, of course, the next issue is, is the response credible for those people? And if it is, then you have a new relationship between a people and an institution. And that starts building a notion of relationship, on an ongoing context. And that, I think, what is beginning to happen in Tajikistan, and I would hope the relationship would go further than just the Ismaili community, because it's got encompass the societies in which the dispossessed and underprivileged are living. Clearly the institution which I represent does not have indefinite resources. We cannot try to be more present than our resources enable us to be. But, certainly in the case of places such as Tajikistan, we have been able to respond. And, in fact, the programs now cover more than half the land area of the country.

What are your worries?
I would like to feel that there more stability in the future than I perceive at the moment. We are coming out of a historically extraordinary difficulty. The Cold War impacted development thinking all over Africa and Asia. And now, the Cold War's gone. But what is it being replaced by? So one of my concerns is that. The second one is the issue of continuation on course of sustainable human development of quality and integrity; many of these countries are still very fragile economically. Public ethic is not particularly strong in a number of situations. Therefore trying to sustain this is an ongoing problem. It worries everybody. The third issue that I'm worry about is the capacity to build the economic sustenance that we require. The industrialized world is not going to continue indefinitely to support the Third World. And I feel that time is running out for us. There are fragilities that worry me every day, frankly. And they do, from time to time, turn around and hit us in the face. I am far from a confident person in terms of the overall activity of what we are doing. We are really talking about building capacity of societies so that govern themselves in a proper manner.

Why have you encouraged your two sons and daughter to join your development work?
When you're 20 and in university, you don't expect to find yourself overnight in the situation that I inherited in 1957. Insofar as any one of my children, you know, could be exposed to the future responsibility in the institution, and that will be the case. I would like the boys, but also my daughter, to be knowledgeable about what is happening. But there's something much more important than that. I'm 62. I have been in this position for 42 years. Now I learn from the younger generation. They think in different terms than I do. They have different competencies than I do. They have a different vision of how new technologies can work for us. So bringing my children on board is a very intimate way of accessing the talents of younger people. And in so far as the Aga Khan network, you know, it's an ongoing institution, I would like to continue to be able to mobilize young people and benefit from their knowledge and competencies. So I don't want to give the impression that this is simply an internal family issue. I have learned a lot and continue to learn. And I'm sure that will be the case in the future--learning from other young people not just my own children.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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