by TAUFIQ RAHIM & QAHIR DHANANI

If you visited the Darb al-Ahmar district in Old Cairo a few years ago, you would have found a neglected neighborhood replete with economic and social difficulties, dilapidated houses and large-scale unemployment. Adjacent to it, you would have seen a massive landfill, which had been accumulating debris and other waste for five centuries.

Today, in that very same location stands the majestic Al-Azhar Park, a 30 hectare green space decorated by over 600,000 plants and trees. The park has served as a catalyst for development of the old city, revitalizing the area and drawing in over a million domestic and foreign visitors in less than two years.

Constructed by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), Al-Azhar Park is the centerpiece of a larger project of social and economic regeneration. It includes rehabilitation of houses and training of local workers, as well as provision of microcredit, healthcare and vocational education.

Al-Azhar Park is an illustration of a successful development intervention inspired by the vibrant tradition of social conscience in Islam. It represents, however, just one of the many examples blazing a path of sustainable development throughout the Muslim world and beyond.

The Qur’anic Call for Social Consciousness

Islam enjoins upon every Muslim the need to balance din and dunya, spiritual devotion with worldly responsibilities. For each individual the spiritual and material are intertwined in Islam, as faith informs and enlightens interactions within society.

For instance, the Qur’an exhorts: “Be good to parents and near of kin and orphans and the needy and to the neighbor who is related to you and the neighbor who is alien and to the companion by your side and the wayfarer” (4:36). It is important to note that the Qur’anic verse does not differentiate among gender, ethnicity, religion or background.

This empathy is accompanied by an ethic of societal responsibility that Muslims embrace as vicegerents of God to be dutiful stewards of the resources that have been bestowed upon us.

Muslims are thus required to go beyond charity and foster conditions that empower individuals to become equal partners in society. Furthermore, Islam not only prescribes the sharing of material wealth, but also calls upon Muslims to share their time and intellectual resources. Additionally, it encourages the establishment of sustainable institutions and infrastructure that fundamentally alter the forces that generate poverty.

The social conscience of Islam leads to a more nuanced understanding of the notion of “quality of life.” As a result, any endeavor contributing to the wellbeing of people must be holistic, preserve human dignity, and promote self-reliance.

Realizing Muslim Social Conscience

One particular individual who has heeded Islam’s call for social consciousness is the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s Shi’a Ismaili Muslim community, who established AKDN, or the Network. The AKDN is a group of nine agencies with individual mandates in three broad categories: social development, economic development, and culture.

Employing over 70,000 in more than 30 countries in Asia and Africa, its activities benefit tens of millions of people. The Aga Khan has described these activities as “investing in people, in their pluralism, in their intellectual pursuit, and search for new and useful knowledge… inspired by the ethics of Islam.”

Under the leadership of the Aga Khan, AKDN strives to realize the social conscience of Islam through institutional action. The Network’s activities are unique in their approach, which target every level of human enterprise including individuals, communities, and economies, without regard to race, origin, gender or faith.

Enhancing Self-Reliance

Empowering communities to direct their own development while maintaining confidence in their own abilities of creating positive change, is integral to realize the social conscience of Islam. Indeed, the Qur’an (13:11) declares that God does not change peoples’ conditions unless they, themselves, take charge of changing their own condition.

The AKDN takes a participatory approach to development in rural communities. Rather than implement externally-conceived aid programs, each development priority is debated at the village level. The village organization then decides what to address first, and AKDN provides multi-sectoral technical assistance including access to microfinance to enable the development process.

The results of this approach have been significant. For example, the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) in the remote Northern Areas and Chitral regions of Pakistan has empowered local communities, facilitating income growth of over 300 percent and collective savings of over $8 million since its inception in the early 1980s. Literacy rates have also soared. Today, over 900,000 people in 1100 villages benefit from the Program, which also serves as a national model for rural development in Pakistan.

Based on the successes of AKRSP, similar programs were launched in India, Central Asia and Africa, with substantial results. In remote northeastern Tajikistan, for example, AKDN facilitated an increase of food self-sufficiency from 10 percent shortly after the collapse of communism to over 70 percent in recent years.

Building Capacity

In addition to empowering local communities, AKDN seeks to foster the long-term capacity of individuals in a number of ways ranging from conventional education and training to organizational strengthening and development.
In keeping with the ethic of intellectual pursuit, AKDN currently operates over 300 pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools across Asia and Africa. A new initiative is establishing around twenty means-blind, merit-based, Academies of Excellence that will concentrate resources on educating and developing a new cadre of leaders in the developing world.

In higher education, the Aga Khan University (AKU) and University of Central Asia address key professional gaps in the areas of medicine, nursing, teaching, and continuing education. Over the last 25 years, AKU has established programs and campuses in eight countries as far afield as East Africa and Europe. It has emerged as a premier institution of higher learning in the developing world. A faculty of arts and sciences at AKU will soon provide undergraduate and graduate degrees in a broad range of disciplines beyond medicine and education.

Catalyzing Economies

AKDN’s social programs are complemented by economic enterprises which it operates in collaboration with local and international development partners. The Network invests in fragile or post-conflict economies with an eye to development, but project companies are expected to make a profit over time.

In Afghanistan, AKDN established Roshan, a GSM mobile telephone service provider. Now recognized as the premier mobile phone operator in the country, it is the largest employer outside of government. It has over 1.2 million subscribers. Roshan has connected Afghans to one another, facilitated commerce and enabled economic progress.

In West Africa, AKDN helped to create a regional airline, establishing vital air links – a critical component of the transport infrastructure in a region where roads are impassable much of the year. Whereas it once took over 18 hours with a stopover in Paris to travel between Bamako, Mali and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, it now takes only a few hours, and costs much less. These new transport links have facilitated commerce and enabled economic progress across the two countries.

Inspired by the social conscience of Islam and united by a vision to enable people, their communities, and their economies to progress together, AKDN has worked for over fifty years to foster a sustainable legacy of development and is a living example of the transformational power of the social conscience of Islam.

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TAUFIQ RAHIM and QAHIR DHANANI are students in the Graduate Public Policy Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Source: http://www.islamicamagazine.com/Online-Analysis/AKDN-Profile.html

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