We are facing years and even decades of continued testing among various forms of democratic governance. At the present moment, we may well be seeing more failures than successes. I feel strongly that students of government from across the world can help address this situation, suggesting a creative range of constitutional options and best practices in places where governmental systems have not yet had time to mature. And educational institutions at all levels should give more attention to the disciplines of comparative government.

This does not mean the imposition of political systems from outside. But it is not enough to replace coercion from beyond one’s borders with coercions from one’s own capital city. Governments everywhere should reflect the will and the aspirations of all their peoples.

As I have thought about the challenge of international development and its relationship to education, I have come to identify four key areas of concern. These are issues which have engaged the Aga Khan Development Network for over two decades, including the innovative curricular planning of our schools and universities.

Governance

The first of these themes concerns the faltering instruments of government in many countries of Asia and Africa. Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kenya and Uganda, for example, are plagued by dysfunctional constitutional frameworks which ignore inherited traditions, poorly apportion responsibilities among central versus provincial authorities, fail to ensure equity and liberty for minority and tribal communities, and are unresponsive to their vast rural populations.

We are facing years and even decades of continued testing among various forms of democratic governance. At the present moment, we may well be seeing more failures than successes. I feel strongly that students of government from across the world can help address this situation, suggesting a creative range of constitutional options and best practices in places where governmental systems have not yet had time to mature. And educational institutions at all levels should give more attention to the disciplines of comparative government.

This does not mean the imposition of political systems from outside. But it is not enough to replace coercion from beyond one’s borders with coercions from one’s own capital city. Governments everywhere should reflect the will and the aspirations of all their peoples.

One central challenge here is that age-old traditions of the countryside often seem unrelated to the challenges of running a modern nation-state — and plugging it into a changing global economy. Reconciling the global and the local, the urban and the rural, the regional and the national, is one of the great political challenges of our times.

We have also learnt that simplistic systems don’t work; whether built around the arrogance of colonialism, the rigidities of communism, the romantic dreams of nationalism, or the naive promises of untrammelled capitalism. But I do believe old governing methods can be improved, and that appropriate, effective new models can be created.

By civil society I mean an array of institutions which operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are driven by public motivations.

Civil Society

The second topic is the role of civil society in development. By civil society I mean an array of institutions which operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are driven by public motivations. They include institutions dedicated to education, to culture, to health, and to environmental improvement; they embrace commercial, labour, professional and ethnic associations, as well as institutions of religion and the media.

Even when governments are fragile, or even nearly paralysed in their functioning, strong civil society organisations can advance the social and economic order as they have done in Kenya and Bangladesh. Civil society is a complex matrix of influences, but its impact can be enormous, especially in rural environments, where, for example, the need for stronger secondary as well as primary schools is dramatically evident. We have also learned that effective civil progress involves a multiplicity of inputs and a variety of partners — including universities.

Ethics

My third theme is ethics. Neither the political nor the civil sector can accomplish anything of value unless those who steer those institutions are motivated and directed by demanding moral standards. When we talk about the ethical realm, when we attack corruption, we are inclined to think primarily about government and politics. I am one, however, who believes that corruption is just as acute, and perhaps even more damaging, when the ethics of the civil and private sectors deteriorate. We know from recent headlines about scoundrels from the American financial scene to the halls of European parliaments, and we can certainly do without either.

But the problem extends into every area of human enterprise. When a construction company cheats on the quality of materials for a school or a bridge, when a teacher skimps on class work in order to sell his time privately, when a doctor recommends a drug because of incentives from a pharmaceutical company, when a bank loan is skewed by kickbacks, or a student paper is plagiarised from the Internet, when the norms of fairness and decency are violated in any way, then the foundations of society are undermined. And the damage is felt most immediately in the most vulnerable societies, where fraud is often neither reported nor corrected, but simply accepted as an inevitable condition of life. Universities are among the institutions which can respond most effectively to such threats.

[I]t is clear that the quality of ethical leadership throughout society can in great measure be shaped by our educational institutions.

It seems to me to be the task of educators everywhere to help develop “ethically literate” people who can reason morally whenever they analyse and resolve problems, who see the world through the lens of ethics, who can articulate their moral reasoning clearly — even in a world of cultural and religious diversity — and have the courage to make tough choices. And it is clear that the quality of ethical leadership throughout society can in great measure be shaped by our educational institutions.

Pluralism

This analysis brings me to my fourth theme: the centrality of pluralism as a way of thinking in a world which is simultaneously becoming more diversified and more interactive. Pluralism means not only accepting, but embracing human difference. It sees the world’s variety as a blessing rather than a burden, regarding encounters with the “Other” as opportunities rather than as threats.

Pluralism does not mean homogenisation — denying what is different to seek superficial accommodation. To the contrary, pluralism respects the role of individual identity in building a richer world. Pluralism means reconciling what is unique in our individual traditions with a profound sense of what connects us to all of humankind.

The Holy Qu’ran says:

O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.

What a unique and profound statement about the Oneness of humanity!

And yet, just recollect the number of situations where pluralism has failed, dramatically and detestably, in just the last 10 years: in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, in Kenya, Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo, in Iraq and in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland — and the list could go on. No continent has been spared.

Crucial objective

A pluralistic attitude is not something with which people are born. An instinctive fear of what is different is perhaps a more common human trait. But such fear is a condition which can be transcended — and that is why teaching about pluralism is such an important objective — at every educational level.

In the final analysis, no nation, no race, no individual has a monopoly of intelligence or virtue. If we are to pursue the ideal of meritocracy in human endeavour, then its most perfect form will grow out of a respect for human pluralism, so that we can harness the very best contributions from whomever and wherever they may come. President Obama cited his own country as a relevant example when he said last week in Cairo, and I quote:

The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known … we are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the earth….

When peoples think pluralistically, there is no limit to what they can do together, joining forces across a wide variety of divides — and even across long distances — so that a university based in the far western reaches of North America can join hands and hearts with institutions which are, quite precisely, on the opposite side of the planet.

As the world shrinks, and as contact among diverse peoples increases, some would argue that we face an inevitable “clash of civilisations.” My own conviction, however, is that we face today “a clash of ignorances.”

It continually amazes me, for example, how little is understood about the Muslim civilisations and cultures in the non-Islamic world and how little is taught.

It continually amazes me, for example, how little is understood about the Muslim civilisations and cultures in the non-Islamic world and how little is taught. When President Obama described the richness of that history in his Cairo speech, he was telling a story which is unfamiliar to many in the West. A pluralistic commitment will call upon educators, everywhere, to address such dangerous “ignorances,’ in this and in other fields.

Knowledge Society

We live today in what has been called the Knowledge Society. But even as our knowledge advances at lightning speed, we also become more vulnerable to gaps in that knowledge, to what we might describe as knowledge deficits.

Each of the four themes I have outlined points to a specific knowledge deficit, and each deficit constitutes a challenging obstacle to progress, justice and stability in many countries and for many decades. The great universities of the world have a special mission — a high calling I believe — to take a leading role in the struggle to narrow and even to eliminate the knowledge deficits.

This article is extracted from a speech by the Aga Khan during the graduation ceremony of the University of Alberta, Canada, on June 9, 2009.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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