Speech by His Highness Prince Aga Khan at the conference on “Central Asia and Europe: A new Economic Partnership for the 21st Century”

14.11.2007 - Speech

Your Excellencies,
Foreign Minister Steinmeier,
Dr. Belkaand Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner,
State Secretary Erler,
Your Excellencies Ministers from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me, first, acknowledge and thank for their kind words those who have spoken before me this morning -- the Foreign Minister, Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Dr. Marek Belka -- as well as Benita Ferrero Waldner, the EC Commissioner for External Relations.

It has always been special pleasure to return to Berlin -- a city that continues to be synonymous with the word “cosmopolitan”. Berlin is truly a global connecting point -- a fact which has been instrumental in our decision to open an office of the Aga Khan Development Network here.

How appropriate that we should be discussing, in this historic crossroads city, one of the great, inter-cultural projects of our time -- the effort to build a partnership between Central Asia and Europe. I commend the German Government for its leading role in this effort, and the European Union for carrying it forward -- with its endorsement of a “Regional Strategy” for Central Asia a few months ago. Others have also played welcome contributing roles, including The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

As I offer my own comments today, I will draw on the experience of our Aga Khan Development Network in Central Asia. We have come to know much of this region well, particularly Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; not only has it long been home to significant numbers of Ismaili Muslims, but we have also developed a widening range of programs across the region over the past fifteen years.

It is appropriate that the word “Regional” is at the center of our deliberations on Central Asia. The countries are diverse in many ways -- and the development approaches there must be sensitive to divergent requirements. But these countries also have a common historical experience, including several centuries of shared Islamic heritage. Each of them has faced the need to build new political and economic institutions following the breakup of the Soviet Union. And, as the EU Strategy document emphasizes, each of them can only optimise their development through a regional approach.

In this respect, the Central Asian experience parallels the European experience. In Europe, too, the end of the Cold War demanded new political and economic structures and it is striking how quickly Europe is now reaching out to Central Asia -- offering, among other things, the great gift of a powerful regional example.

Among other things, the European example demonstrates that a healthy sense of national identity need not be a barrier to constructive regional engagement. So my first objective today is to tell you how warmly I endorse regional diagnosis for Central Asia. And because that diagnosis begins in the right place, it also extends into a series of wise prescriptions for the future. These prescriptions are validated in large measure by the experiences of the Aga Khan Development Network institutions in Central Asia. We have learned a great deal from those experiences -- both successes and setbacks, but we can learn a great deal more by sharing our lessons.

The problems of Central Asia are remarkably complex -- their causes are multiple and defiantly inter-tangled. Progress requires a multi-faceted and multi-input approach -- a proper “policy mix”-- to cite the language of the EU Report. The learning curve is steep and there should be a sense of urgency -- for all of us -- and all the more so, because solutions can be elusive.

In many ways, the greatest obstacle in the struggle for progress in Central Asia is simple human frustration. In this region the sense is that its development partners talk about progress, and then act, and then talk some more -- but too often, for the people of the region, progress is just “not happening”. When it does happen, it too often is incomplete, or exceptional, or fleeting. This situation is of course by far the most acute in Afghanistan.

What we face in Central Asia is a race against frustration -- which means a race against time and mediocrity. Alternative scenarios, often utopian and extremist, beckon on every hand -- and people will not be patient with pragmatic scenarios unless the work in practice is effective. The EU rightly emphasizes the need for greater “continuity” in these efforts -- so that each experience, successful or unsuccessful, becomes a building block for the future.

It is a daunting challenge indeed to move in a coordinated way on multiple fronts. But as we do, success can become self-generating. Progress on one, or two, or three fronts can often make progress easier on other fronts -- a sense of possibility can also be contagious. I acknowledge the considerable advances that each of the Central Asian countries is making, including recognising the needs of their rural populations.

In a spirit of shared learning and with diffidence -- let me highlight a few of our own experiences.

I would begin with the University of Central Asia, founded in the year 2000 by the Ismaili Imamat -- and the governments of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

I remember the signing ceremonies well. They were the culmination of six years of planning -- an experience which itself illustrated the importance not only of regional cooperation, but also of cooperation among disciplines and among social sectors. Our goal was to address a massive regional problem: how to improve the quality of life of nearly 25 million people who live in the high mountain areas of the region and beyond?

We often talk about Public Private Partnerships -- as the EU Strategy does. But such relationships need not be limited to cooperation between governments and the private business sector. There is also enormous potential for active partnering between governments and the not-for-profit institutions of Civil Society. The University of Central Asia is an example of that potential -- and one worth usefully being replicated. The University has recently graduated its first students from the School of Professional and Continuing Education in three mountain communities: Khorog, Tajikistan ; Naryn, Kyrgyzstan ; and Tekeli, Kazakhstan. We have prepared our graduates for active roles in the world of modern business and finance through programmes benchmarked against international standards. The story of these students illustrates another central precept -- the importance of educating people to meet carefully prioritised needs and specific employment opportunities. In the same way, plans for our forthcoming undergraduate and post-graduate programs will emphasize governance skills -- appropriate for future leaders in the public sector, as well as for Civil Society. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the government of Germany and a number of German institutions for their support.

Closely paralleling these efforts is our engagement with systems of schools for pre-university education in cities ranging from Bishkek and Dushanbe, to Osh and Khorog -- again reflecting our shared confidence that the development of human capital is the foundation stone for effective development. It is also almost impossible to develop quality tertiary university education if its supply system, secondary education, is sub-standard.

Another set of our experiences which illustrate the potential for partnerships between the public sector and Civil Society involve our health institutions’ alliances with local hospitals, including nursing training in Khorog, and other regional referral hospitals in Tajikistan, and the six Institutes of Nursing in Afghanistan, and even a new venture in the use of telecommunications advances to link hospitals in distant cities: Today the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi is connected to the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul.

Among the most difficult of challenges, of course, is connecting any progress we may achieve at a national level with more remote, rural areas -- where poverty often seems most intractable. Mountain peoples, in particular, have endured economic hardship, civil strife, arms and narcotics trafficking, an insecure food supply, earthquakes, water shortages -- the list could go on. But overcoming these problems will require a searching re-examination of what poverty really means. I am increasingly inclined to define poverty not only as a matter of income, but rather as a state of marginalisation in all of those conditions which contribute to the quality of human life. A state of poverty is a state of deprivation with respect to health and nutrition, education and security, housing and credit, and all the other conditions which are essential to human well-being.

Here too we are learning as we go. In this spirit, and with the active support of KfW, we are experimenting with innovative microcredit programs -- especially for the rural poor -- as well as with local efforts to increase agricultural output. Only as legitimate economic activity becomes a viable source of sustenance, and all the manifestations of poverty recede for the peoples of these regions, will the blight of crime, and drugs, and terrorism, be diminished.

The EU report also emphasized the need to expand energy production and to distribute energy more equitably. We are responding to these needs through projects in eastern Tajikistan, to cite one example, where restored Soviet era power plants will provide near 24-hour coverage for Eastern Tajikistan, as well as to people on the other side of the Pyanj River -- in Afghanistan.

Expanding trade and international investment, creating new sources of economic growth, -- and doing so on an urgent basis, and with a long-term perspective, -- are essential priorities for Central Asia. To this end, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is increasingly investing in the leisure sector in the region -- building new hotels in Dushanbe, Khorog, and in Kabul -- and working on a major tourism planning project for the Issyk-kul area in Kyrgyzstan.

The recent opening of a new hotel in Kabul has been a particularly visible example of our Central Asian investments. Our hope, of course, is that a tangible example of confidence in the future can help trigger an upward spiral of hope and renewal. In this regard, the challenges of Afghanistan become particularly important. For without a viable and progressive Afghanistan, any progress which might be made elsewhere in the region will at best be very fragile.

One of the approaches I have used in thinking about development is the concept of “The Enabling Environment”. It has grown out of my impatience with overly simple myths about how development really works.

The term “Enabling Environment” reminds us that the full context of interacting forces must be brought together if sustainable development is to be achieved. The term also recognizes that even the right environment is still only an enabling condition -- not a sufficient one. In the end, human progress must grow out of human inspiration and endeavour. I have come to know the Central Asian peoples and their dreams and aspirations. I know of their proud entrepreneurial spirit -- often manifested at the village and household level. It is critical -- even as we plan for development at the “macro” level -- that we also build at the “micro” level. Too often, we forget that a large number of people in Central Asia live in the countryside.

A sound enabling environment must create a favourable framework in which people’s energy and creativity can be motivated, mobilized and rewarded.

This framework should embrace such conditions as political stability, safety and security, citizen rights and predictable democratic practices. A supportive environment should include transport systems which make cooperation possible, incentives which encourage broader trade, and a legal and administrative framework which is impartial, predictable, and efficient. These concerns are largely the responsibilities of government, but effective governmental efforts can take us only so far. And that is why I so often talk about the role of “Civil Society”; the capacities of the private sector, and the value of partnerships among these various institutions.

The key to building partnerships -- whether they are among social sectors, or among countries -- is a profound spirit of reciprocal obligation -- a readiness to share the work, to share the costs, to share the risks, and to share the credit. In the end, what it will require most -- in Central Asia -- as it has in Europe -- is a spirit of mutual trust.

Let me mention in conclusion, one other set of relationships which will be central to the concerns we have been discussing. I refer to the relationship of both Europe and Central Asia to the world of Islam.

During the Soviet period, the populations of Central Asia were dissuaded from learning or practising the Islamic faith of their ancestors. The result, over time, has been a theological vacuum.

Now the five newly independent countries of Central Asia are re-establishing their relations with the Ummah, that is, with Muslim peoples all around the world. They are doing so quickly, and at a time when relations between the Ummah and the West are particularly strained -- more so than at any other time I can remember.

Some may suggest that these matters of faith should not be a part of the development dialogue between Europe and Central Asia. But allow me to ask the reverse question. Can we really ignore this matter without consequence? I think not.

Two aspects of this question deserve our attention:

The first concerns the relationship between the countries of Europe and their growing Muslim minorities. As is the case all around the world, the effort to accommodate a variety of faiths within any population is often problematic. But a successful effort to establish respectful, pluralistic attitudes and behaviour, based on a deep respect for religious and cultural diversity, will surely help to shape emerging inter-regional relationships. Is it too much to hope that one day, young Muslims, from all backgrounds, all educated in Europe will serve wisely and competently in their countries of origin?

Noticeably today, the peoples of Central Asia are developing religious and civic practices, reflecting the views of their own diverse peoples, but also with Muslim views from outside the region. There is no doubt questions will arise, such as how matters of faith should affect political governance or civil jurisprudence. Responding to such issues could be divisive, and will need to be approached with sensitivity, patience and humility.

My second question concerns the role that Islamic countries could play in partnership with Europe in Central Asian development. I believe that Europe ’s commendable efforts to address the challenges of Central Asia can be even more effective if they see the Muslim world as a relevant resource.

Fortunately there are today a number of Muslim countries which can serve as helpful models and available partners for a progressive and welcoming Central Asia. These are Islamic countries which have kept their own peace, and have progressed thanks to the application of best practice to their development. Many are Islamic countries with strongly pluralist societies -- and whose learning curves for development to levels of global performance are relevant to Central Asia

Much more needs to be done in Central Asia, for many more institutions, and many more people, in many more places, covering many more types of support, within frontiers and across frontiers, if there can be any hope that the pace of progress will become a self-sustaining momentum. The central issue is not, understanding what needs to be done -- for all of us share the same analysis and common goals. The issue is essentially one of scale.

Throughout Central Asia, with each passing day, we see new examples of what can be achieved when we learn to transcend old boundaries -- to replace the icy past of the Cold War by the warmth of new partnerships.

It is that spirit of partnership which brings us here today -- manifested within Europe and within Central Asia -- and now with growing success between Europe and Central Asia.

In that spirit of partnership, then, let us continue, wherever we encounter the boundaries of the past -- to build bridges to the future. I am proud and grateful for the opportunity to join you in that endeavour.

Thank you.

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