CNN Interview, John Defterios, ‘The Healthy Speed of Change’ (Doha, Qatar)

The general goal of the Aga Khan Development Network, as system of agencies, is to assist in the construction of civil society. Over the past 50 years we have come to the conclusion that the strength and quality of civil society is the greatest guarantor of processes of positive change….

I think the issue is not only the differences in quality of life — there are many other criteria and one of the ones we’re most exposed to, as a network of institutions, is what is healthy speed of change? Because you can move to fast. It’s not only addressing a form of paralysis of development and extricating yourself from that frozen situation, it’s also that societies just don’t change that quickly and if you force them to change quickly, you’re going to run into another set of problems.

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Interviewer: John Defterios

Excerpts of interview available on video

John Defterios: I asked [the Aga Khan] about his organisation’s key priorities.

His Highness the Aga Khan: The general goal of the Aga Khan Development Network, as system of agencies, is to assist in the construction of civil society. Over the past 50 years we have come to the conclusion that the strength and quality of civil society is the greatest guarantor of processes of positive change.

JD: … It’s incredible because you look at the highest per-capita income, so if one takes Doha — the highest per-capita income in the world, or nearly such at $90,000 — and then Yemen at around $1200, it’s not realistic to keep a gap that wide and expect trouble at the bottom end.

AK: I think the issue is not only the differences in quality of life — there are many other criteria and one of the ones we’re most exposed to, as a network of institutions, is: What is healthy speed of change? Because you can move to fast. It’s not only addressing a form of paralysis of development and extricating yourself from that frozen situation, it’s also that societies just don’t change that quickly and if you force them to change quickly, you’re going to run into another set of problems.

JD: … This change has been introduced in many parts of the world, in the Islamic world, and as having a fast pace, but we also have the fastest birth rates in the world, so in a sense these governments need to manage this change at a very accelerated pace as a result of the very fast birth rates.

AK: Well population issues are serious issues in much of the Islamic world, but not only in the Islamic world, but I think what we’ve tended to see as economies have modernized, birth rates drop in any event — that’s a global process.

JD: … Do you think in the broader Middle East region that education was not a priority. You see countries like Saudi Arabia or even Qatar spending spending a quarter to a third of their budgets now to play catchup. Were the last two decades lost decades in terms of human capital development?

AK: I don’t think one can generalise on the Islamic world. If you look at countries like Malaysia or Indonesia they have invested heavily in education and they’re seeing the return on that investment. Other countries didn’t move that quickly for various reasons — they didn’t have institutional capacities — and so they’re now more in a catchup mode…. I don’t think it’s too late.

JD: … If you look at it, we have a Muslim market, if you will, of nearly 1.5 billion consumers, but they often don’t trade among themselves and you say that the more progressive economies, like Malaysia, now looking to the Gulf or even looking to China from the Middle East. This is a marked change over even 5 to 10 years ago would you say?

AK: It is indeed….

JD: Can you get accelerated trade to deal with poverty though?

AK: I would tend to differentiate between the countries which are essentially driven by rural or agricultural economies and economies which are driven by other resources….

JD: And so in fact rural development has to be a priority?

AK: Yes. It has to be a priority…. After all 70% of the Muslim population of the world probably lives from the land and on the land…. [Emphasis original]

Published article

It is rare in the world of BlackBerries, iPads, mobile phones and airport lounges that one can pause long enough to think differently about the shape of the world, in particular the Middle East.

Doha is a city that welcomes a slower pace — despite its breakneck pace of development — and it is where I sat down with the Aga Khan, the Imam of the largest branch of the Ismaili followers, for an exclusive interview. The window of time was limited — 10 minutes to be precise — but precious in its outcome.

The Aga Khan was in Qatar to present a handful of awards for architectural excellence — major projects touching the Islamic world that make a difference to the lives of nearly 1.5 billion people. His Highness is a man who backs his words with action. His network is focused on what he calls “the construction of civil society” since he believes it is the “greatest guarantor of positive change.”

The network facilitates economic, housing and tourism development in more than 30 countries and encourages investment to foster employment and advance education. But here is the caveat: change must be calibrated.

I think the issue is not only quality of life. There are many other criteria and one of the ones we are most exposed to as a network of institutions is, ‘What is a healthy speed of change?’ Because you can move too fast.

According to the International Monetary fund, Qatar will grow 16% this year and as much as 20% in 2011. In a world of 2% growth in Europe and the United States, the tiny Middle Eastern state could see 10 times the pace of expansion next year.

His Highness was cautious not to point fingers at any countries in particular: For example, I asked him if Saudi Arabia and Egypt can play catch up on the education and poverty reduction fronts. He chose two positive stalwarts in Southeast Asia with majority Muslim populations, Malaysia and Indonesia.

One cannot generalise when it comes to the Islamic world. If you look at countries like Malaysia or Indonesia they have invested heavily on education and they have seen the benefits of that investment.

Malaysia is a good case study. It has methodically worked on moving from a resource based economy up the value chain to add high technology and financial services to the mix. It has aspirations of joining the ranks of industrialised nations by 2020. But the moves Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and the prime ministers who have followed him in Malaysia have been methodical and required patience to maintain a balance within in society.

However, in the Middle East, a lack of patience with the process of playing catch up, says the Aga Khan, could tear at the fabric of society.

It is not only addressing a form a paralysis of development and extricating yourself from that frozen situation, it is also that societies don’t change that quickly and if you force them to change that quickly you are going to run into another set of problems.

One of the key problems facing regional leaders is the rapid birth rate and its knock-on effect in the problem of double-digit youth unemployment. Policymakers are in agreement that 100 million jobs need to be created by the end of the decade for the jobless rate to stand still. It is a tall order, but adds the Aga Khan, educating the workforce will, over time, lead to a drop in birth rates, while development will do the same for the unemployment rate.

In the meantime, the Aga Khan wants to keep rural development on the radar of leaders throughout the Islamic world, in part to slow down the massive migration to city centres in search of work.

It has to be a priority, after all 70% of the Muslim population around the world lives from the land or on the land.

SOURCES