Working to build a better world
Aga Khan keeps a low profile, letting its work speak for itself
For the Calgary Herald
April 25, 2015
I am standing on the banks of the Panj River looking at the dystopian nightmare of Afghanistan. It is a brilliant spring day in the snow-capped Pamir Mountains, with trees beginning to bud from the warmth of the sun. The citizens of bustling Khorog, on the Tajikistan side of the river, congregate around an outdoor market dressed in a colourful melange of western and traditional clothing.
Trucks and shiny vehicles whiz through town. A palpable mood of prosperity hangs in the clear mountain air of Khorog, fuelled by construction of the University of Central Asia, a daring, seemingly illogical project by the resolute Aga Khan Development Network. On the Afghanistan side it is quiet. I see nobody, only a forlorn collection of drab stone houses set on a rocky moonscape at the base of a snow-capped mountain.
Jim Gray and a small group of Calgary visitors are impressed by the scope of the project. The Khorog campus of University of Central Asia is being built at an elevation of 2,200 metres — about the same altitude as Mount Assiniboine Lodge in the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary, but in a landscape so remote it takes 14 hours to get here by road from the modern Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe. We arrived on a small Russian Antonov AN-28 aircraft through rugged mountain peaks on a 90-minute fight that the Lonely Planet guide book describes as either one of the “most exhilarating or terrifying” experiences of your life.
The Khorog site is one of three high-mountain campuses of the University of Central Asia being built by the
Aga Khan network in remote areas of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan at historical crossroads along the ancient Silk Road. Gray, the legendary Calgary oilman and philanthropist, has been involved with the Aga Khan network for more than a decade after raising $5 million from 125 Calgary donors — funds matched by the Canadian government — to kickstart an Aga Khan teacher training institute in East Africa. Gray has since visited Aga Khan projects in Pakistan and Africa and two weeks ago completed his fifth such trip to see Aga Khan projects in India and Central Asia, including Khorog.
“To me, the Aga Khan sets the gold standard for international development,” says Gray. As he learns more about the organization, he is astounded at its scope and reach. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has tentacles in 30 nations, driven by an ethic to bring education, health and economic development to the poorest regions of the world.
Motivated by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, Gray and key group of Calgarians — businessmen Sherali Saju and Chris Robb and lawyer Brian Felesky — chose to partner with the AKDN after determining it was the best organization to invest in as a means of combating poverty, disease and radical fundamentalism that has given rise to genocidal terrorists like ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram.
While those organizations are razing ancient monuments, killing “infidels,” subjugating women and suppressing culture and music, the Aga Khan’s progressive Shia branch of Islam is restoring archeological sites to United Nations World Heritage site status, partnering with the Smithsonian Institute to record and preserve traditional dance and music, providing non-secular education for thousands, engaging in rural development and investing in everything from hydroelectric projects to brickyards in its mission to support impoverished communities in some of the most difficult regions of the world.
The organization is a beacon against those who condemn Islam because of the actions of extremists who promote terrorism in its name. A small but striking example of the Aga Khan’s intervention to prevent radicalism was evident when the Calgary group visited a marginalized Muslim neighbourhood of Hyderabad, India where the Aga Khan’s education arm is running an outreach program for high school dropouts. I saw young Muslim men being taught not just core subjects, but also learning the Aga Khan’s values of religious tolerance, gender equality and pluralism.
Guided by the ethical principles of the spiritual leader of world’s Ismaili Muslims, the Swiss-born, British-raised billionaire Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the Aga Khan Development Network quietly pursues its principles without regard to faith, origin or gender. It does not run TV ads seeking support to assist its work of eliminating child poverty or building its non-denominational network of 325 schools, two universities, 11 hospitals and 195 health clinics in 30 countries. It relies instead on support from the Ismaili community, grants from donor nations and profits generated by its worldwide business empire.
Due to its low-profile philosophy of letting its work speak for itself, the organization remains an enigma to many despite an average annual budget of $600 million US for its non-profit development activities. Its economic stakes in some 90 companies generated revenues of $3.5 billion US in 2013, with surpluses reinvested in further development activities.
In an empire so vast, the money raised by the Calgary group — known as Awali from the Swahili word for “the beginning” — seems almost insignificant. But as the only group of private donors to the Aga Khan network, the Calgary group’s contribution has not gone unnoticed.
“This is one of the most remarkable groups of men and women I have ever met,” says Shamsh Kassim-Lakah, the Aga Khan diplomatic representative in Central Asia, one of 10 regions where the Aga Khan organization holds diplomatic status. He is amazed that Gray and various group members regularly travel at their own expense to view Aga Khan projects in some of the world’s most remote and challenging places. “They are committed to humanity.”
I have travelled with Gray and other members of the group on three occasions. I have walked with them through the slums of Karachi, Delhi and Nairobi and seen them moved to tears by Aga Khan contributions in the developing world.
The organization employs 80,000 people, more than 90 per cent of whom are non-Ismaili. Among them is Bohdan Krawchenko, former director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. He joined the University of Central Asia as director general a decade ago after seeing an ad in The Economist.
“I thought it was an audacious, mad idea,” he says of the remote mountain university project. “I thought that anybody who can think of such a mad idea must be worth working for.”
If the University of Central Asia can indeed make a difference on the frontiers of radicalism, it can’t come soon enough. A week after the Calgary group visited Khorog, about 30 members of the Afghan National Army were killed in an attack by Taliban and ISIS affiliated militants in the Jurm district of Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan province, about a six-hour drive through the mountains from Khorog. The Afghan army was carrying out counter attacks and was planning a major offensive in the region, according to a statement last week by Afghan Deputy Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri.
Although unaware of the incident when we last spoke, Gray would no doubt say the attack is grim reminder why the Aga Khan’s work is so vital in region.
“Our world is getting more violent. Our world is getting more complicated,” he told me near the end of his trip. “What we need are the fundamental values that are represented by the Aga Khan.”
Robert Remington is a former Herald editorial writer and columnist.
For more on this story, follow his blog at robertremington.wordpress.com/aga-khan/