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Text of conversation between H.H. The Aga Khan and Christina Paxson the President of Brown University at Ogden Hall 2014-02-19

Wednesday, 2014, February 19
Mawlana Hazar Imam and Brown University President Christina Paxson meet at President's House. 2014-02-19
Paxson, Christina

FEBRUARY 19, 2014

Christina Paxson: Your Highness, thank you so much for a wonderful talk. And it’s just such a privilege to have you back at Brown again, and with your family and your colleagues and it’s just a real privilege. So thank you very much.

His Highness the Aga Khan: Thank you, President.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: We have structured this part of this event really as a conversation. Before you came we canvased some members of the Brown community. We put together some questions that people might have for you, and I hope we can discuss some of the answers.

AGA KHAN: I will do the best I can.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: OK. So, one broad question. I mean you are a global leader. Your institutions address a broad range of themes - education, healthcare, the built environment, culture, enterprize development. Can you help us understand how this very broad ranging work links to the ethics of Islam? And, I have also heard you talk about quality of life. How do those things relate?

AGA KHAN: Well I think it relates to, first of all, the notion that in Islam, faith and world are not separate. We have a dual level of answerability - to faith and world. And, in fact, my interpretation says that you cannot abandon one for the other. You have to be rigorous in both. And, therefore, if that’s the case, you have to be effective in your material life as well as an honest believer.
I think the second thing is that, in Islam, there is a notion of entrustment — I can’t find the right word. But essentially, the faith says God has given His creation of the world to humankind to better. And, the principle is you live life, having left the world better than it was when you were born into it. So you don’t divorce yourself from real life. You seek to improve it and to leave it to others in a better state.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Thank you. So I would like to ask you a little bit more about the Aga Khan Development Network, which you have put so much effort into and has such an important impact on people all around the globe. How can the Aga Khan Development Network best help fuel stronger economic development and civil society in the nations where it’s had extensive operations? And, I had guess I had really be interested to know, how your approach has changed over time? Are you doing things differently than you were 16 years ago?

AGA KHAN: Right, right. Well, I think we start like any organization by living within the context of individual countries, regions, or whatever it may be. So, absolutely, there has been massive change since 1957. If you go back in your memories, you will recollect how much of Africa and Asia was under colonial rule, the Cold War was still in place, and there were all the difficulties of, let’s say, decolonization, new economic theories being tested in developing countries. This was a very, very difficult time. So yes, that’s changed. And it’s changed massively because, I think, there is new pragmatism in the way people and governments look at their future.
How can AKDN contribute? Well, I think, first of all, is a careful analysis of what each country, each region, is looking at. And you cannot compare Africa with Central Asia, and so and so forth, so you are actually country specific, or region specific. Secondly we are looking at what I would call gaps or planning errors. And I would give you situations such as in Kenya when they decided that the whole of the country would have free primary education, but then didn’t look at the consequences on secondary and tertiary education. These are the sorts of issues. I think the third one, is to look at areas that are characteristically underprivileged. I would give you northern Mali, as a typical case. I would give you north-west Pakistan, as another typical case. These are all areas of extreme risk, extreme poverty. That’s not something we want to live with.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: No, we couldn’t. Can you tell us a little bit, specifically, about the work you have done to improve population health?

AGA KHAN: I think we have observed in the developing world a big change in health threat. And, if you speak to most of the governments in the developing world, of Asia and Africa today, they are particularly unhappy about the cost of non-communicable disease. It has become a major factor. So we have decided, first of all, to concentrate on trying to respond to that, which means hospital based tertiary care. The second thing we are trying to do is to use technology to link the rural, isolated areas to our urban networks. So, for example, in Afghanistan we are looking at the whole of Central Asia. In East Africa, we are looking at the region of East Africa. We are trying to build a system which is compatible with the government. It’s not in competition but it’s bringing private sector healthcare in addition to public sector. That’s the goal.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. One of our faculty members recently returned from a trip to Eldoret in Kenya, and she saw the Aga Khan Hospital there and she was hoping that you could say a little bit more about what you will be doing in building medical infrastructure in the next 10 years.

AGA KHAN: Right. Well as I said, we are trying to do two things - well actually - three things. First of all, we are trying to get tertiary care and education in situations such as Nairobi, Mumbai, Dar es Salaam, Karachi, Kabul, etc. Then we are trying to link provincial hospitals into that system. And then we are trying to link rural units into the system again. So that’s the goal that we have. And we want to do it with partners.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. That’s wonderful. So it’s really building systems of care.

AGA KHAN: It’s building a system.


AGA KHAN: And, in fact, it goes further than just one country. We are looking at East Africa as a region. We are looking at Central Asia as a region. It’s much quicker to get from Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan, or rather the other way, northern Afghanistan into Tajikistan for healthcare, then if you have to go down to Kabul, for example.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. So let us turn a little bit to education, and the Aga Khan Development Network has done so much wonderful work in education. You have spoken a lot about the importance of higher education and continuing education. Could you say a little bit about what you are doing in those areas?

AGA KHAN: First of all, I was fortunate to be able to create the first private sector university in Pakistan, which is the Aga Khan University. That university has a mandate to function within Pakistan but also in other areas of the world. So we are now working in Eastern Africa. The second issue we looked at was the high mountain areas of Central Asia and we discovered that there was no solid institution of higher learning dealing with about 25 million people who live in Central Asia, in the mountain areas. So we decided that we needed a university in that part of the world. So we are trying to create academic hubs which then will draw people from the primary and secondary, and early childhood, into the whole system. We are trying to introduce international quality so the IB will become the standard exam for us, worldwide. And we are trying to teach people in the national language and in the global language of English, so that all the students who come through the system have an international level of education and have language capability.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: And this is in the sciences as well as the humanities?

AGA KHAN: In the sciences, in the humanities, the whole spectrum.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. That’s wonderful. Really good. So this is a question that I think that affects many development organizations, which is, you do wonderful things - how do you know that you are making a difference? How do you measure the impact of what you do?

AGA KHAN: Right. Right. We are not fascinated by mathematics and statistics. So we’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how people in various environments judge their quality of life. So we have first of all been able to bring together quality of life indicators from different parts of the world which tell us how those populations look at their future. So we start with the quality of life indicators, and we measure where we are when we start. And then we put in a program. We measure its outcome. We correct. We run away, sometimes — and that’s not always our fault, I have to tell you. But we actually stay as long as we can in the most difficult environments. So, for example, we are in Syria, we are in Afghanistan, we are in a lot of countries because we are permanently there. So the goal is to create a system which is responsive to peoples own views, not what you think their views are.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. That’s very interesting. So, you mentioned Syria, and not leaving. More generally, you know you work in so many different countries of the world, how have then events such as terrorism, political instability, how do they affect your operations? Do you foresee moving out of regions or staying in regions? How do you deal with that?

AGA KHAN: In most cases we are dealing with populations of those countries. So, as far we can tell, most Syrians do not wish to leave Syria. That’s not the same thing as an ethnic minority. In the case of Uganda, for example, where Idi Amin decided that all the Asians, no matter where they came from, what was their nationality, what was their faith, they all had to leave. So it’s a case by case situation.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. Right. So I want to turn, a little bit, to higher education in the United States, at places like Brown - you were very gracious in your remarks talking about Brown University. One thing you know is that many people in the U.S have a very limited understanding of the culture of Islam, and the question is what can universities do to remedy this lack of understanding? And you know you think about introducing things like Islamic art and architecture and humanistic scholarship. How do you see introducing those in the West and supporting that?

AGA KHAN: Well I have done some work, obviously, with American universities. I have a program of architecture at Harvard and MIT. We have a program here at Brown. So we are working with individual U.S universities and Canadian universities. We are also opening an Aga Khan Museum in Toronto I hope by the end of the year, which will be the first museum entirely dedicated to the arts of Islam.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: That’s wonderful.

AGA KHAN: So that’s going to be important. And we are looking about bridging universities with our own universities, across frontiers, with faculty and students, etc. And the basic goal is to make the civilizations of Islam part of global knowledge. That’s really the most important thing.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Right. Well I’m glad we can participate in that and that we have. It’s been a good partnership. So, more broadly, what role do you see for Brown and other research universities in America in improving the quality of life in the developing world? I mean you are doing so much, what can universities do to improve the quality of life in developing countries? It’s a big question, I know.

AGA KHAN.: That’s asking what I’m going to ask you to do in the future.


AGA KHAN. Joking apart. You know your universities have carried forward a long tradition of concentration of research and knowledge and it’s not a part of Western civilization only — it’s been part of Islamic civilization for centuries and centuries also. But as your world has become more developed, economically more powerful, you have concentrated more knowledge, more research in the West, than we have been able to do elsewhere. And, just as you pinched Plato, from Arabic, so we intend to pinch knowledge from you today.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Fair enough. Very good.

AGA KHAN: So, I think there are two goals. One is, first of all, to gain in knowledge but also to reposition our human capacities so that we are able to compete, and I don’t like the word compete, but function more - more constructively in the world.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Good. So we have time for one final question. And this is a broad one. We have many students in the audience, they are looking forward to making a difference in the world, that’s a very distinctive feature of Brown. So you get to give them advice.

AGA KHAN: (Laughs).

CHRISTINA PAXSON: And, what advice, seriously, would you give them about shaping the futures and their children’s futures?

AGA KHAN: Difficult question.


AGA KHAN: Well I think I would start by saying, something very basic. First of all, what language do you speak? Do you speak one or do you speak several languages? If you speak several languages, your horizons are wider. You can function in a wider number of countries around the world. I think the second thing that I would say, is I would ask them to think about where they want to be when they are 35. What are the goals for their midterm? I think that’s the second thing that I would ask. The third thing I would ask is, do you want to be a global citizen or do you want to be a continental citizen? If you want to be a global citizen, then prepare yourself for that. It’s a different set of goals. So I think the whole issue is a rational issue that well educated children, young people, can address in a very, very rational way. And I think the final thing that I would say is - everybody makes mistakes. Never regret them, but correct them. But there is no such thing as a perfect world or a perfect life.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Very good advice.

AGA KHAN: Thank you.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: Thank you very much.

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