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His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to address this inaugural session of the World Mountain Forum.
I am especially happy that the Ismaili Imamat has been given the opportunity to participate in a Forum organised by and for all those concerned with the difficulties facing the populations of mountain regions, and to share lessons that have been learnt, to exchange mutual experience and advice, to better identify the problems that exist, and to try, as part of a joint effort, to propose new and more efficient solutions.
The ethics of Islam enjoin all believers, individually or through institutions such as the Ismaili Imamat, to assist the poor, the isolated, and the marginalised to improve their current circumstances and future prospects.
Through the Imamat, I have tried to respond to this responsibility by creating a group of private, non-denominational agencies the Aga Khan Development Network - to respond to the needs and potential of people living in some of the poorest parts of the world, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, or religion. Through two such agencies, one in Pakistan and the other in Tajikistan, the Imamat has been active for over 20 years in mountain regions.
This activity addresses the developing world, and our efforts are concentrated in the region at the intersect of Central Asia and South Asia, where several ranges of mountains and plateaus meet to create the largest aggregation of highland territory on earth. This specific area consists of the Karakorum Mountains and the Pamir plateau, on the western side of the better-known Himalayan range and the Tibetan plateau.
Here, everything that characterises high mountains and the people residing in them exists in its most extreme form. The physical bulk of these mountains is enormous, and they are amongst the world’s highest; climactic variation is extreme, and natural hazards - earthquakes, avalanches, rockslides, and mudslides - are frequent, endangering human lives, herds of livestock, and roads and infrastructure, as well as houses, schools, hospitals, and all of the built environment. The lives of the impoverished are, by definition, precarious, a precariousness that is even worse in high mountain regions. The populations experience extremes of poverty, and isolation, and constraints on opportunities and choice. At the same time, they sustain great linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and religious pluralism, and show remarkable resilience in the face of extraordinarily harsh circumstances.
Mountainous people also often suffer relative neglect by their national authorities, many of which have limited resources, further aggravating the problems of access, movement, and the development of even minimal infrastructure.
While mountains often act as formidable barriers within and between countries, they also represent a continuous link across national boundaries. This fact underscores the importance of a regional approach to the development of high mountain regions and the management of their resources, including for example water that flows from their glaciers. The necessity of obtaining the cooperation of two or more countries for many mountain-related development efforts is a significant factor confronting their successful initiation, implementation, and administration, a major rationale for a regional approach.
The agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network now have more than twenty years of experience with integrated rural development in the mountains in Northern Pakistan, covering an area that is twice the size of Switzerland. This work has yielded lessons that may be relevant to development efforts in other mountainous areas of the developing world. I will mention some of the more important of them very briefly:
Partnerships are critical. It is essential to work closely with national and local authorities, with international and national development agencies, with nongovernment agencies, and with communities themselves to seek complementarities and to make the best use of available resources and capabilities. This process of consultation and of partnership with all aspects of civil society fortunately is becoming today the most widely supported approach towards development, endorsed at the highest levels, in particular by The World Bank in its Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF).
It is critically important to tackle concrete development problems at the grassroots level while at the same time addressing policy issues. One without the other compromises the quality and sustainability of outcomes.
Third, every effort should be made to bring the best available science to the solution of problems at the grassroots. Building bridges and mediating between the research laboratory and the village is critical in identifying solutions that are relevant and durable.
Finally, no matter how poor or isolated the population, efforts to improve health and education standards are just as important as improvements in agricultural productivity and the economy of other sectors.
Of all of these lessons, the most fundamental is the importance of actively engaging village communities in the development process. In Northern Pakistan, this has led to a doubling of per capita income in the last decade.
In 1986, The World Bank prepared an evaluation of the approach of our programme in Pakistan, in order to encourage similar efforts in other developing countries. In its report, the Bank wrote:
The model is one of organisation and cooperative management at the village level. It is particularly suited to grappling with the preponderance of small-scale, really tiny farms that are a fundamental characteristic of mountain agriculture in many parts of the world. It is based on:
mass participation of villagers with relatively homogeneous resources, private ownership of cultivated land, group management of irrigation water and common grazing land, and cooperation for the purpose of commercial activities, including village level investment in and management of capital works, group access to credit, and organised marketing.
This approach has more recently been extended to Tajikistan, the poorest republic in the former Soviet Union, where 96% of the nations land is classified as mountainous. Many of the extreme geo-physical conditions found in Northern Pakistan also exist in Tajikistan, particularly in the south-eastern province of Gorno-Badakhshan on the Pamir plateau. The social capacities of the Pakistani and Tajik populations, however, could not be more different. A positive dimension of the Soviet system was a high level of investment in education and health, whereas the overwhelming majority of the population in Northern Pakistan was illiterate and without access to health care when the Aga Khan Development Network began to work there.
The situation in Tajikistan was entirely different. In addition, Soviet policy had controlled relations between the various local communities, thus limiting inter-group conflict, whereas in Pakistan, historically rooted and validated identities with long histories of conflict still exist today.
On the negative side, agricultural land in Tajikistan was entirely controlled by state farms, and private initiative in pursuit of economic activity was considered a criminal act. Soviet policy led to a culture of dependency for the basics of existence: in 1992, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 80% of the food and fuel consumed in Gorno-Badakhshan came from outside provinces and was subsidised by the Soviet exchequer.
When the Soviet Union was no longer able to provide aide to Tajikistan, as elsewhere, the rural economy of Gorno-Badakhshan literally collapsed, threatening the population with famine; the situation was worsened due to the low buying power of the roublebased Tajik currency, and civil war made it impossible for the Badakhshanis to produce agricultural staples, or to acquire them from without.
What started as humanitarian relief to avert starvation in 1992 - 150,000 tonnes of wheat were transported by truck from Osh to Khorog in Kyrgyzstan and then distributed in Gorno-Badakhshan - has been supplanted by an agricultural development programme patterned on the Northern Pakistan experience, including the private control of land.
The results are impressive, and have led to a five-fold increase in agricultural production; Gorno-Badakhshan’s agricultural needs should be self-supporting by the end of this year. Elements of the programme have been introduced outside of Gorno-Badakhshan and now cover half of Tajikistan’s land area. In addition, efforts are underway to try to prevent the decline in levels of literacy and health that have prevailed following the collapse of Soviet subsidies.
I visited Tajikistan in 1995, and was struck by the experience gained by our agencies working in two similar yet different settings, the Karakorum and the Pamir mountain areas. Equally apparent was the need for new ideas and solutions for the problems of development, and how to apply them.
The absence of human resources led me to suggest the creation of a new university in Tajikistan that would be a source of unique competence for the people of Tajikistan and all the mountain areas of Central Asia, and even further afield.
My wish is that the university, the first of its kind as far as I am aware, will play a critical role in the acquisition of knowledge and the development of human resources needed to secure the future of the mountains in Central Asia and perhaps other mountain communities around the world.
The main campus will be in Khorog, on the border between south-eastern Tajikistan and north-eastern Afghanistan. Khorog is centrally located in the mountainous regions of Central Asia and South Asia that are home to an estimated 20 million people a number that reaches 30 million if the adjacent lowland areas and plains are included.
The curriculum will emphasize intellectual breadth, and be designed to attract students and faculty from all parts of Central Asia. The latest developments in information and communications technology will be employed to support instruction and research and also as an important area of proficiency required of all students irrespective of their fields of study.
Research will play a major role in the university. Because there is a significant degree of specificity to such research in the study of high mountain areas, a specialised institution is more than justified. At present, considerably more resources are given to other ecosystems (desert, dryland, and marine) than are devoted to the high mountains and their populations. In addition, the mountainous areas of the region contain islands of cultural history and social identity that must not be lost in the face of the globalisation of communications. Their careful study and documentation will ensure their continued contribution to the pluralism of human expression and accomplishment, as well as the search for stability and peace within and between countries of the region.
The new university should directly improve the current economic, social, cultural, and environmental situations of the highlands by training graduates who will contribute to the better management of mountain resources and help address the absence of non-traditional employment opportunities. For those graduates who do not choose to remain in mountain communities, the knowledge they have acquired will allow them to obtain better compensated and more influential positions than at present. Today, most emigrants leave a precarious existence in the mountains for another in the lowlands that is, at best, marginal.
Discussions now underway between the Ismaili Imamat and the governments of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan for the creation of the new university as a single international legal entity are well advanced. The Treaty calls for an institution that will be regional in character, recognising the relationships created by the mountain ranges themselves, as well as the commonality of circumstances experienced by their residents. One of the themes of this Forum, today, is the establishment of new relationships and the importance of partnerships. The success of the new university in Central Asia will depend on the willingness of all interested parties to participate in its creation and to encourage and contribute to its development.
I hope that this conference will be successful in its results, and I am certain that it will help improve the quality of life of the populations of mountainous regions throughout the world.
p.94-98 THE ISMAILI PAKISTAN ISSUE 29 2001