On working in fragile contexts – perspective and experiences from the Aga Khan Foundation

2 October 2018
Michael Kocher, General Manager, Aga Khan Foundation

About the Aga Khan Development Network and our approach to development

AKDN is a collection of 10 development agencies . Collectively, our agencies seek to achieve three things:

  1. First, to improve the quality of life in almost every respect – education, health, livelihoods and other key opportunities for the future.
  1. Second, to promote pluralism. We work with everyone in the communities where we’re present, regardless of faith, creed, background, or gender. This is a fundamental, non-negotiable principle that underpins our entire approach to development. Without that commitment to everyone, to all faiths and creeds, we would not be able to work in the fragile contexts we do.
  1. And third, we try to enhance self-reliance. We want to build the resources and reflexes of local civil society so communities take charge of their own development. Across everything we do, in every sector, we insist on community participation or ownership in some way. It’s essential communities themselves have a determining say in the development projects or institutions we run, and that they are involved in identifying and prioritising those needs to begin with.

Whatever country we’re in, we’re characterised by our long-term commitment and our multi-sector approach. Since we want to address the inter-related causes of poverty, that takes time. It’s also why we have several different agencies specialising in different aspects of development.

When we say “long-term,” we mean it. Our agencies were founded by His Highness the Aga Khan, who assumed his office from his grandfather now 61 years ago. Some of our schools for example have been active in these places for over a century, and the Aga Khan Foundation just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Therefore, our intention is to build permanent institutions with deep local participation and ownership, working with communities over generations to improve their prospects and opportunities.

Working in areas of crisis and fragility

His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. His Highness founded AKDN, including AKF  50 years ago, to support the commitment to improving the quality of life of their community and of all humanity.

This brings me to my topic: working in areas of crisis and fragility.

It so happens several of the countries where Ismailis live are areas of significant isolation, poverty and deprivation, and social tension, insecurity, or fragility. These are also many of the places where AKDN is present and active.

I’m often asked whether we only work with Ismailis. It’s a natural question, since our geographies often overlap with places where Ismailis either live today or were present.

The answer is clear and categorical: absolutely not. In development, to focus only on one community to the detriment or exclusion of others would undermine everything we and our agencies are trying to achieve. A large percentage of our beneficiaries are in fact not Ismaili.

We take a community-based approach. In a fragile or conflict-prone area, and in development generally, the worst possible thing you could do is focus your activities on a subset of the population to the exclusion of others. That is the surest way to generate resentment, division and further conflict.

We are inclusive in what we do. Our ethics require it.

And so at AKDN, we’ve made it a founding principle to work with all people, of whatever background, wherever we’re present.

Before joining AKDN, I spent most of my career working for the International Rescue Committee – now headed by the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband – in places of extreme fragility.

I joined the Aga Khan Foundation six years ago because I knew it took a long-term approach, focused on high-quality and on results, and had a deep reservoir of local legitimacy. I wanted to address the root causes of poverty, inequality, intolerance and strife.

As I think about the lessons we’ve learned in places of fragility, it is vital that I start with that – local roots, local legitimacy. It’s the heart of what we do, and critical to our success in difficult places.


Some examples of our work in fragile contexts

So what does that really mean and what does it look like on the ground? Let me give you a few examples and then distil some of the lessons I think we have learned.

I start my examples with Northern Pakistan: This is where AKDN’s first schools were started over a century ago, and where the Foundation and other agencies have worked for decades. Although we work in almost every part of Pakistan, and have a number of national programmes, our work in the North has been going the longest.

Northern Pakistan is extremely remote and mountainous, prone to earthquakes, floods and avalanches. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, but life is hard for the people who live there.

When we started our work, more than 80 percent of the population was living in extreme poverty; the literacy rate was around 20%; just 25% had access to electricity; only 5% drank clean water or had access to sanitation. It had the worst maternal mortality rate in Pakistan – 55 of every thousand mothers died in childbirth.

In a context of extreme deprivation, people are often more likely to compete than cooperate, especially when religious or communal tensions are layered onto resource constraints. Tensions there could erupt between Sunni and Shia, Ismailis and non-Ismailis, or simply between villages in competition.

Two things were fundamental from the start: First, that the communities themselves should identify their own problems and participate in their solutions; and second, that everyone in the communities should be consulted and that all groups must benefit. Those principles of development have guided our work ever since.

As a result, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, or AKRSP, was created in Northern Pakistan in 1983. AKRSP was founded on the principle communities can take ownership of their own development by establishing and working through village organisations they maintain and run themselves. Today, there are 4,700 of these groups formed and active, with and without our help. Over half of them are run by and for women, another key aspect of inclusive programming that promotes pluralism and respect.

These groups have made an impressive impact. 35 years on, extreme poverty has fallen to about 30 percent. In many places, incomes have doubled. Literacy rates have more than tripled, to 65%.

Thanks to the support of many individual and institutional donors to improve access to water and sanitation, local hydropower, and health services, much has been done:

  • 72% of people have access to clean water;
  • 59% can access sanitation;
  • In some places, more than 90% of villages have basic electricity;
  • Infant mortality has dropped from 158 per thousand to 20; and
  • Maternal mortality has dropped from 55 per thousand to five.

The job is by no means done. It indeed is inter-generational and multi-faceted. Notably, too many children are stunted, too many life on very low incomes, or don’t have toilets or clean water. Sectarian tensions often persist. We continue to strive to tackle these issues.

However, all this work has helped put in place institutions and processes at the community and district levels that can help the region absorb shocks and resolve tensions before they spin out of control.

Read full and view more on: Aga Khan Foundation org UK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.