Development through empowerment: the AKDN way

via Business Recorder 

Following the National Dissemination Seminar on Aga Khan Development Network’s (AKDN) Water and Sanitation Extension Programme (WASEP) in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, BR Research sat down with Hafiz Sherali, the Chair of the Aga Khan Planning and Building Service, Pakistan, an agency of AKDN.

He has been serving for two decades as a volunteer in various capacities in the institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network. Presently, he is the Chairman of the Aga Khan Planning and Building Service, Pakistan and is responsible for Governance of the institution. Hafiz received a Masters of Science in Architecture Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his focus was on the built environment in developing countries and research in traditional settlements. He has also been engaged with the Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture as a lecturer at their ‘Evening with Series’ in fall 2011 and as a guest speaker at a course titled ‘Disaster Resilient Design’.

In this interview Hafiz talks about AKDN’s background, its experience in water and sanitation, and their future plans. Below are edited transcripts.

BR Research: Tell us a little about the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

Hafiz Sherali: The Aga Khan Development Network is a group of non-denominational development agencies, created by His Highness the Aga Khan, with complementary mandates ranging from health and education to architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalisation of historic cities. As a contemporary endeavour of the Ismaili Imamat to realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action, the AKDN agencies work to improve living conditions and opportunities for the poor, without regard to their faith, origin or gender. Working in the fields of economic, cultural and social development, AKDN aims to provide choices and opportunities to communities so that they can realise and determine their own development.

The AKDN works in 30 countries around the world. It employs approximately 80,000 people, the majority of whom are based in developing countries.

There are three main sectors that we work in as a whole. The first is the social development sector, under which we have the Aga Khan Foundation; the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance, two universities namely the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia; the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES); Aga Khan Health Services; Aga Khan Planning and Building Services (AKPBS); Aga Khan Academies and the disaster management agency, Focus Humanitarian Assistance.

There is another critical arm of AKDN, which is the cultural arm. It was formed with the establishment of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) focuses on the physical, social, cultural and economic revitalisation of communities in the Muslim world. It includes the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, the Aga Khan Music Initiative, the on-line resource ArchNet.org and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Museums & Exhibitions unit co-ordinates the development of a number of museum and exhibition projects. That Trust includes the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Music Initiative and Museums and Exhibitions. We have done some work in Egypt, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Zanzibar and Tajikistan.

The third arm is a for-profit arm or the economic development arm of AKDN. It includes the Tourism Promotion Services which operate hotels all over the world. It also has Financial Services, which include HBL and Jubilee Insurance in Pakistan.

BRR: When was AKPBS formed and how does it get funded?

HS: AKPBS was created in Pakistan in December 1980. It gets funding from Aga Khan Foundation and also its development partners, who like to work with us. These partners include the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA); the German funding agency Kreditanstalt fur Wiederaufbau (KFW); United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF); United Nations Development Program, Pakistan, (UNDP, P); Global Environmental Facility (GEF); European Commission (EC); Austrian Development Agency (AusAID), Hundreds of Original Projects for Employment (HOPE 87), and many other donor agencies.

BRR: What has been the agency’s focus since inception?

HS: The agency’s focus has been to improve the quality of life for communities particularly in rural areas through the built environment. The first 14 to 15 years – it worked primarily in construction; mostly self-help programmes for building schools and health centres in far flung, rural areas. The idea was that the community should own the projects, and a participatory approach was used towards school development.

The way we worked is that we had a self-help school construction programme, where we used to impart skills to the communities. We used to get external materials such as steel, cement and give them the technology. They would provide the raw material and the unskilled labour. AKPBS on the other hand would provide the skilled labour and the expertise. Training was also provided to local masons, so that when we leave, the projects are sustainable. Once the buildings were set up, some of the schools were eventually run by AKES; others were run by the communities themselves.

BRR: What happened after the formative years?

HS: In the late 90s, we felt the need to invest in the wholesome built environment of the community, which includes water and sanitation, which was a prime need of the local communities in rural areas. AKPBS,P launched its flagship Water and Sanitation Extension Programme (WASEP) in 1997. Today, the internationally recognised award winning programme, has improved the quality of life for over 350,000 beneficiaries in Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and Sindh by providing them with potable water that meets World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, and has significantly reduced diarrhoeal incidences among men, women and children.

We see WASEP as transforming societies and generations to come. It is also important to note that donors and partners at Aga Khan Foundation, Pakistan also see it that way as they continue to help the programme achieve success in Pakistan. We have WASEP schemes in over three hundred villages across Pakistan. About 50 percent coverage in water has been achieved in Gilgit-Baltistan since our programme started in 1997.

Secondly, there was incremental improvement in housing stock. Under the Building and Improvement Construction Programme, (BACIP) one million square feet of spaces have been built which are seismic resistant. Similarly, over 200,000 people have benefited from the award-winning BACIP’s home improvement products. such as fuel efficient stoves and water warming facility, roof hatch window, dry pit latrine, and bedding rack. These products have helped improve the overall quality of life of our beneficiaries and reduce our environmental footprint on nature.

BRR: What has been your single biggest achievement to date?

HS: I think our single biggest achievement has been reaching out to the far flung, marginalized rural communities living in the mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral and the low lying coastal areas of Sindh. The government’s support in GB, KPK and Sindh has been instrumental in improving the overall quality of life for our beneficiaries in the areas where we operate In Thatta district in Sindh, which is home to some of the poorest communities in Pakistan. AKPBS,P has undertaken a diverse range of interventions such as flood resilient housing, small scale mitigation infrastructure, and emergency response services such as the construction of 2,800 transitional housing with water and sanitation facilities for flood affected communities in 2010.

We are currently doing a joint project with the government in Gilgit-Baltistan, where their engineers are learning the way we do work and implement sustainable projects. So we are building their capacity. It’s a joint project funded by the Japanese, where part of the equation is that we build the capacity of the government and work in collaboration with them.

BRR: What’s been the geographical distribution of AKPBS’s spending?

HS: AKPBS works in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral; in rural Sindh, primarily in the Thatta area and lower Sindh where there are disadvantaged communities.

BRR: What problems in particular have you been addressing in lower Sindh?

HS: The water in that region comes from the sub soil. Now the problem in these areas of Sindh is that arsenic has come into the soil because of the industrial waste that is being dumped into the sea in Karachi which flows in to the low lying areas of Sindh. We are trying to address that problem by opting for low tech sustainable solutions.

BRR: Have you taken up the issue with the authorities that industrialisation in Karachi is making lives miserable for residents of Thatta?

HS: It is a discovery of the recent past and we intend to work closely with the government to help the communities in these areas. One of AKDN’s biggest advantages in the country is the knowledge repository that we have, and I think we can bring that in to address the problem.

I think some strong steps will need to be taken with regard to the overall policy as well as implementation, to analyse how the pollution happens, and what are its sources so that proper action could be taken.

BRR: Going back a little bit, what is the biggest problem in water and sanitation in Pakistan?

HS: Lack of access to safe drinking water is the main problem. But more importantly, there is lack of recognition of the magnitude of this problem. We have to first recognise the problem that exists. The second issue is to ensure that the projects and the money that is spent are sustainable, are long-term interventions, especially in the rural context where there is an absence of municipalities.

BRR: How do you make a project sustainable in the absence of municipality?

HS: Local government and local community are paramount. In a rural set-up there are no local municipalities as such, there is no set-up; there are no offices around there. So to self sustain that project we empower the community.

AKDN believes that the communities must have a say and participate in the design of the project, without which you are just building a civic facility. What AKDN has done is that we have formed community organisations or you could say civil societies. Within those communities, they have a team leader, who is the biggest activist of that community, whoever it is. That person works on a voluntary basis and is the voice of the community.

BRR: What about financial sustainability? How does that work out?

HS: We set up an endowment fund through which key programme personnel get their monthly salaries.

The endowment fund is based on a contribution given by communities themselves. For example in today’s time, Rs2500 to 3000 is given by the household, when the project starts. That is put into an endowment fund of the community against that particular village, and that money is invested in the financial system such that it yields returns.

In addition, the project itself yields a tariff of Rs50-100 per month per household or whatever amount the community agrees to pay every month and that feeds into the endowment as well. The reliance on tariffs and the returns on the endowment fund are almost equal, which is what makes the projects sustainable.

BRR: AKPBS has three broad themes, water and sanitation, low cost housing and village planning for disaster mitigation. Which of these thematic areas have seen the bulk of investment?

HS: Up till now a lion’s share has gone into water. In the household improvement, we are a catalyst for change, the communities themselves invest, because no donor will pay for household improvement – they can give technical assistance, they can give you market access, but they can’t invest in somebody’s house.

In the years ahead, you would hear much more on hazard mitigation. AKDN plans to invest into mitigation, because these communities are at high risk, from natural hazards, and from seismic hazards. We need to protect these communities from these hazards, since poverty prevention is directly related to disaster mitigation.

BRR: Given your interaction at provincial level, has devolution helped or worsened matters in these affairs?

HS: In Sindh, it has helped significantly. The government is very keenly doing projects in rural Sindh. The government’s capacity, to deliver, is also scaling up to the best of my knowledge. The Union Council government in Thatta has shown support and facilitated the communities before and after our structural and non-structural interventions. We always have government participation in our awareness raising drives, inception and dissemination seminars. AKPBS has always found the government keen to work in tandem to ensure maximum programmatic coverage consequently, improving the quality of life of the people of Pakistan.

In the Gilgit-Baltistan context, there are departments which are coming in slowly. All these processes take time; that cannot be done overnight and it needs a lot of resources.

The biggest thing that they have done in Gilgit-Baltistan is the establishment of Karakoram International University (KIU), which is the biggest intervention that has happened. I think the government needs to be given credit for that because now the people will be able to graduate out of that college and participate in the economic development of the area.

We are also trying to work with them; we do vocational training courses with them in KIU such as carpentry, masonry, wiring and stove making so that they can get more jobs out of it. All these interventions are geared to change the landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan.

BRR: Why does AKDN work mostly around mountainous areas?

HS: AKDN works to improve the welfare and prospects of people in the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa. We generally work in areas where there is lack of access. We tend to focus on the forgotten people. In Pakistan, AKDN works across the country and has invested heavily particularly in the education and health sectors across Pakistan. The first Aga Khan School was established in Gwadar and today AKES has schools in Sindh, Punjab, GB and KPK. The Aga Khan University and Hospital is another prime example of how quality education and healthcare is being provided to people from all across the country.

BRR: Growing urbanisation has not been sustainable as yet; over the last 20 odd years, environmental degradation – the smoke, the garbage dump yards and so forth – has picked up pace in Gilgit-Baltistan. What are AKDN’s initiatives and how responsive you think is the government?

HS: As urbanisation comes in these areas there will be pressures of land, and there will be pressures of uncontrolled growth. The biggest challenge in all of this is hazard mitigation. As for environmental degradation, I think major programmes have to be initiated in those areas.

For example, AKPBS’s BACIP is an initiative that has lessened the burden on the surrounding environment through its products that are produced by local manufacturers. With the reduction of fuel wood consumption, BACIP has had a positive impact on the conservation of forests in the northern regions of Pakistan. The large amounts of wood that is normally used as fuel by local inhabitants has greatly accelerated the pace of destruction of wooded areas and also destroyed the natural habitat of numerous animal species in the process. The adoption of BACIP’s home improvement measures, specifically those related to insulation, is the ideal application for the reduction of fuel wood consumption. The reduction of fuel wood burning also reduces carbon emissions in the air and hence decreases air pollution. Additionally, the innovative low-cost construction methods have also reduced the use of wood / timber for rural house reinforcement.

BRR: What are your agency’s five to ten year plans?

HS: Along with fulfilling the need of water and sanitation in Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and Sindh the biggest plan in the next 5-10 years, is that we work very diligently with the communities on hazard mitigation.

Disasters will always happen, but how do we mitigate their risks; how do we ensure that we have a resilient home from seismic point of view and from geo hazard point of view. How do we impart that knowledge to them? That will be a strategic focus.

It is important for us to add that a fundamental ethos of the Aga Khan Development Network is that sustainable change and development cannot be achieved without the support, commitment and involvement of the entire community. In looking at the challenges ahead, we thank and invite our partners in development to join us and, as in the past, make a renewed commitment to help improve the quality of life for the under-served communities in Pakistan.

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