Nation-building may require centralised authority, but if that authority is not trusted by rural communities, then instability is inevitable. The building of successful nation states in many of the countries in which I work will depend — as it did in the West — on providing significantly greater access for rural populations, who are generally in the majority.

If these reflections are well-founded, then what is urgently needed is a massive, creative new development effort aimed at rural populations. Informed strategic thinking at the national level must be matched by a profound engagement at the local level…. The very definition of poverty is the absence of such quality of life indicators in civil society among rural populations.

It is in this context that I must share my concern that too much of the developmental effort — especially in the fields of health and education — has been focused on urban environments. I wholeheartedly support, for example, the goal of free and universal access to primary education. But I would just as wholeheartedly challenge this objective if it comes at the expense of secondary and higher education. How can credible leadership be nurtured in rural environments when rural children have nowhere to go after primary school? The experience of the Aga Khan Development Network is that secondary education for rural youth is a condition for sustainable progress.

The essential goal of global development has been to create and sustain effective nation states — coherent societies that are well-governed, economically self-sustaining, equitable in treating their peoples, peaceful amongst themselves, and sensitive to their impact on planetary sustainability.

This is a complex objective, a moving target, and a humbling challenge. Sadly, the response in the places I know best has often been “one step forward and two steps back”. Today, some 40 per cent of UN member nations are categorised as “failed democracies” — unable to meet popular aspirations for a better quality of life. The recent global economic crisis — along with the world food crisis — has sharply accentuated these problems.

But why have our efforts to change that picture over five decades not borne greater fruit? Measured against history, where have things gone wrong? Given the progress we have made in so many fields, why have we been so relatively ineffective in sharing that progress more equitably, and in making it more permanent?

My response centres on one principal observation: I believe the industrialised world has often expected developing societies to behave as if they were similar to the established nation states of the West, forgetting, for one thing, the fact that economic development in Western nations was accompanied by massive urbanisation. Yet today, in the countries of Asia and Africa where we work, over 70 per cent of the population is rural. If you compare the two situations, they are one and a half to two and half centuries apart. Similarly, the profound diversity of these impoverished societies, infinitely greater than that among nascent European nation states, for example, is too often unrecognised, or underestimated, or misunderstood. Ethnic, religious, social, regional, economic, linguistic and political diversities are like a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.

One symptom of this problem has been the high failure rate of constitutional structures in many developing countries, often because minority groups — who tend to make up the bulk of the population — fear they will be marginalised by any centralised authority. And so we have what I would call the dominant player fallacy — a tendency to place too much reliance in national governments and other institutions that may have relatively superficial connections to life at the grassroots level.

Urban-based outsiders often view these situations from the perspective of the city centre looking out to a distant countryside, searching for quick and convenient levers of influence. looking out to a distant countryside, searching for quick and convenient levers of influence.

Urban-based outsiders often view these situations from the perspective of the city centre looking out to a distant countryside, searching for quick and convenient levers of influence. looking out to a distant countryside, searching for quick and convenient levers of influence. Those who look from the bottom-up, however, see a much more complex picture. The lines of force in these rural societies are often profoundly centrifugal, reflecting a highly fragmented array of influences.

Age-old systems of religious, tribal or inherited family authority still have enormous influence in these societies. Local identities that often cross the artificial frontiers of the colonial past are more powerful than outsiders may assume. These values and traditions must be understood, embraced, and related to modern life, so that development can build on them. We have found that these age-old forces are among the best levers we have for improving the quality of life of rural peoples, even in cross-frontier situations.

Nation-building may require centralised authority, but if that authority is not trusted by rural communities, then instability is inevitable. The building of successful nation states in many of the countries in which I work will depend — as it did in the West — on providing significantly greater access for rural populations, who are generally in the majority.

If these reflections are well-founded, then what is urgently needed is a massive, creative new development effort aimed at rural populations. Informed strategic thinking at the national level must be matched by a profound engagement at the local level. Global philanthropy, public-private partnerships and the best of human knowledge must be harnessed. As the World Bank recognised in its recent poverty study, local concerns must be targeted, providing roads and markets, sharpening the capacities of village governments, working to smooth social inequalities, and improving access to health and education services. The very definition of poverty is the absence of such quality of life indicators in civil society among rural populations.

It is in this context that I must share my concern that too much of the developmental effort — especially in the fields of health and education — has been focused on urban environments. I wholeheartedly support, for example, the goal of free and universal access to primary education. But I would just as wholeheartedly challenge this objective if it comes at the expense of secondary and higher education. How can credible leadership be nurtured in rural environments when rural children have nowhere to go after primary school? The experience of the Aga Khan Development Network is that secondary education for rural youth is a condition for sustainable progress.

Ideally, national progress should be as effective, as equitable, and as visible, over similar time-frames, in rural areas as in urban ones. Amongst other considerations, how else will we be able to slow, if not stop, the increasing trend among major cities of Asia and Africa to become ungovernable human slums?

Similarly, despite various advances in preventive medicine, rural peoples — often 70% of the population — are badly served in the area of curative care. Comparisons show sharp rural disadvantages in fields such as trauma care and emergency medicine, curbing infant mortality, or diagnosing correctly the need for tertiary care. Building an effective nation state, today as in earlier centuries, requires that the quality of rural life must be a daily concern of government. Ideally, national progress should be as effective, as equitable, and as visible, over similar time-frames, in rural areas as in urban ones. Amongst other considerations, how else will we be able to slow, if not stop, the increasing trend among major cities of Asia and Africa to become ungovernable human slums?

If we are to succeed we will need, first, to readjust our orientation by focusing on the immense size and diversity of rural populations whether they are in peri-urban or rural environments. For no one can dispute, I think, that a large number of the world’s recent environments. For no one can dispute, I think, that a large number of the world’s recent problems have been born in the country sides of the poorest continents.

Finally, we will need to address these problems with a much stronger sense of urgency. What we may have been content to achieve in 25 years, we must now aim to do in 10 years. A mighty challenge, no doubt.

His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary imam of the Ismaili Muslims. This is adapted from a speech he delivered April 23 at the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington, D.C.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

SOURCES

POSSIBLY RELATED READINGS (GENERATED AUTOMATICALLY)