“[Good government] is absolutely essential. I cannot think of anything more central to development than good government. I don’t think you can through external forces impose good government. Good government comes from within, not from outside — and I would tend to say ‘good governance’ rather than ‘good government’.”

By “governance” he means the competence with which both public and private sector entities are run, “from higher education to the management of resources to intelligent and honest planning”, with “clearly-stated objectives” and “answerability for the people who are responsible for running things”

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Interviewers: William Dawkins and Edward Mortimer in Chantilly

The Aga Khan speaks to William Dawkins and Edward Mortimer.

Most people know at least some of what the Aga Khan does for a living, even if they think — wrongly — that he spends his whole time horse racing. But what makes him tick? …

Today, the spotlight is on the Imam’s development aid work, rewarded recently with a Pound 4.7m grant from the Britain’s Overseas Development Administration, one of the largest it has ever given to a non-governmental organisation. This was followed a few weeks later with Ecu 8m from the European Community, which, like the ODA money, was for rural development projects in Chitral, northern Pakistan.

The grants partly recognise the extent to which the Aga Khan network’s projects extend beyond his own flock. “We bend over backwards not to be seen just as an Ismaili benefit society,” says one of his aid staff. But they also mark recognition of the effectiveness of the Aga Khan’s general aid strategy. His rule is that receivers of aid must make some financial contribution and have an ownership stake in the projects concerned.

So it is that the Aga Khan is in a reasonably optimistic mood, as he chats amiably over coffee at his headquarters in wooded park near Chantilly, the capital of equestrian France and home to some of his race horses.

He is pleased to see some developing countries gradually abandoning their old political dogma, which reflected the former rift between the communist and non-communist world and had paralysed the aid business for decades.

It is genuinely exciting to see things beginning to happen. New ideas are not being thrown out because they don’t fit a pre-established external philosophy. We are bottoming out of 30 to 40 years of horrible blockage which had a terrible impact on the Third World.

To take one example, the Aga Khan professes to be deeply cheered by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to hand back Ismaili property confiscated in the 1970s by Idi Amin. As a result, the Aga Khan plans to restart development work in Uganda to try to entice back Ismailis thrown out by the old regime.

He does see one serious problem for his aid business in coming years; shortage of cash. As the schools and hospitals he funds grow in size and number, so do their operating costs. One solution, he argues, would be to offer tax incentives for businesses in the Third World to invest in charitable endowment funds, rather than hiding their spare cash.

Extraordinary though it is for a spiritual leader to advocate harnessing the black economy, a great deal is at stake.

What percentage of the national economies of the Third World are below the table? It would be completely wrong to say that these captains of entrepreneurship have no social conscience. Rather than keeping it outside the balance sheet, they would be willing to put it back on to the balance sheet if they could use it in accordance with something desirable. Unless this sort of thinking is more prominent in the developing world than it is there will be a continuing falling away in the provision of health care and education.

He denies that he was over-reached himself in the aid business, but admits freely that his public operations have only partly reached their target of becoming self-sustaining, or achieving the right balance between cash-earning economic development projects and cash-using aid programmes.

Frankly, up till now, it has not worked,

mainly for reasons outside the organisation’s control, such as the instability of the countries in which the network is active.

The Aga Khan has spent most of his professional life trying to weave a rational and businesslike pattern into the patchwork of aid and economic projects inherited from his grandfather, the previous Imam. The result is a network with three main strands in the Third World, employing nearly 14,000 people, excluding the more than 6,600 who work for the Aga Khan privately.

There is an economic development arm, which is run like a venture-capital fund with assets of $400m and demands a profit from the businesses it backs …

These profits contribute to the social development arm, which spends $150m annually from this and other sources on health, education, housing and agricultural development. Finally, there is the Geneva-based trust for culture, offering awards for Islamic architecture and sponsoring a range of activities to improve understanding of Islamic civilisation….

The Aga Khan sees the Ismaili community as more like a state than a non-governmental organisation,

In terms of the number of people that it affects, the size, nature and multiplicity of its activities, (though it has not even a Vatican-size sovereign territory).

As a quasi-head of state he admits to having an aid policy, “on a country-by-country basis”, and he shares the current enthusiasm of other aid donors for “good government”.

It’s absolutely essential. I cannot think of anything more central to development than good government. I don’t think you can through external forces impose good government. Good government comes from within, not from outside — and I would tend to say ‘good governance’ rather than ‘good government’.

By “governance” he means the competence with which both public and private sector entities are run,

from higher education to the management of resources to intelligent and honest planning (with) clearly-stated objectives (and) answerability for the people who are responsible for running things.

As for the upheavals created by the Gulf crisis and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the Aga Khan feels that his main role is to counsel his own people rather than preach to governments.

(Fundamentalism is) divisive of society and damaging to the Islamic world’s ability to deal with the modern world, (he mourns).

But he is confident that Islamic radicalism, almost unknown among the Ismailis themselves, will die away.

(The Gulf crisis, was) a historic period, but probably not a permanent one.

SOURCES

  • Financial Times, Monday Interview, August 12, 1991
  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net

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