UCA Executive Chairman Speaks to AKIPress on AKDN's 15 Year Presence in the Kyrgyz Republic and the University's Aspirations

Date: 18 January 2016
Kyrgyzstan is very important for us – AKDN Representative

Bishkek (AKIpress) - This year the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) marks 15 years of its work in Kyrgyzstan. AKIpress talked to Mr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Diplomatic Representative of the Aga Khan Development Network in Kyrgyzstan, about AKDN projects, values and many other topics.


Q: What does AKDN do in Kyrgyzstan?
A: I am a Diplomatic Representative of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which is a private, non-religious, international development organisation. In addition to this I am working on the University of Central Asia (UCA) project. His Highness the Aga Khan IV requested me to help with this project as I am experienced in such areas as education and university development. I also have experience in the public service and private sector. So, I had a chance to look into it from both sides. Most of all, I am engaged and experienced in development related matters. I am not too much focused on making money for the shareholders (laughs). I have greater focus on such an issue as nation building. Nation building is basically forming and strengthening human capital. The AKDN strategy is as follows – our efforts must foster economic development, social development and at the same time cultural development.
The AKDN works in some 32 countries. When we started our activities we worked predominately among communities primarily populated by Ismailis. That was 50-60 years ago. Then the neighbors of these Ismaili communities also requested our help. Since then our policies have evolved and we began providing our assistance to all, regardless of their faith, race, gender etc. All our projects are not-for-profit except for the economic development projects such as the Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank (KICB) in Kyrgyzstan. But this project is aimed at developing entrepreneurship more broadly. By the way, dividends from these economic development projects, which are due to the AKDN, are channeled to social development projects, supported by the Network. What you earn you put back into the development of a country. This is the basic philosophy of AKDN.
What do we do here in Kyrgyzstan? The first area is education from early childhood development to primary and secondary school education. School education is the purview of the Aga Khan School in Osh and higher education that of the UCA. A second area is economic development, in particular access to reliable financial services. Through financial institutions, such as the KICB and First MicroCredit Company (FMCC; operated by the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance), we are trying to encourage economic development in Kyrgyzstan. The third area is improving the quality of life in rural communities. How do we do it? We train them on how to build environment-friendly green houses, build, rehabilitate, and maintain irrigation systems, we help them with seeds, livestock breed, we help local communities to improve local governance. There is another component – cultural development. For instance, we train school-going children throughout the country how to play komuz, compose traditional melodies and we promote the recitation of the Manas. Men do not live by bread alone. You cannot live without bread, but it is not a sufficient condition on its own. We also develop civil society through promoting joint community actions such as the building of irrigation canals. Finally, we are also getting involved in health care projects.

Q: Why do you work in Kyrgyzstan?
A: Kyrgyzstan is very important country for us. Tajikistan faced famine after gaining independence. We could not deliver food to Gorno Badakshan via Afghanistan or Uzbekistan. This was only possible via the Osh-Khorog road. We approached the Government of Kyrgyzstan, which responded favourably to our request. We purchased foodstuff, petrol and other goods and shipped them through Kyrgyzstan in response to the famine. In 1995, His Highness the Aga Khan visited Kyrgyzstan for the first time, I was also a member of that delegation. It was a very young, independent country.
His Highness the Aga Khan asked, “How we can help?” President Akaev and the Government requested our assistance in education. Then we asked what else? The Government responded we would like to develop our economy. In Bishkek, I could not believe my eyes, there were only a handful of restaurants. The AKDN attracted the EBRD, the German developments bank (KfW) and DEG, IFC and together with the Government of Kyrgyzstan launched the KICB. We also established the First MicroCredit Company, which is headquartered in Osh.
Then there were the needs in the education sector. For two to three years we studied the situation and opened a school in Osh, because there was more need for it there than in Bishkek. The Aga Khan School (AKS) not only teaches the students, but also trains the teachers of this school and other public schools of the region.
In 1995-1996, His Highness the Aga Khan asked me to be a co-chair of the Commission [for the establishment of a higher education institution for Central Asia] along with the Minister of Education of Tajikistan. The Commission comprised of people from many countries, good people. The Commission decided that the University would be not-for-profit and it would be located out of the capital in a complex mountainous region where education is not so easily available. We also wanted to help those mountainous areas to overcome their economic difficulties. As has been proven by many researchers, the higher in the mountains you live, generally, the poorer you are. We selected sites for the UCA Main Campuses in Naryn (Kyrgyzstan), Khorog (Tajikistan) and Tekeli (Kazakhstan). We put forward a proposal to three Presidents and made a collective decision to open the university. The Treaty on the establishment of UCA was signed in 2000. The campus in Naryn will open in fall this year, in Khorog in the Fall of 2017 and one or two years later in Tekeli. The cost of construction in Naryn is around US$100 million, a bit more expensive in Khorog, because of more complicated logistics, and Tekeli due to higher construction costs. This is only the first phase. There will be four phases in total. US$ 500 million will be invested in each campus resulting in a total investment of US$ 1.5 billion. In Naryn, we are making additional investments to improve the town’s social infrastructure. We are building a town park, we are setting up a Family Medicine and Diagnostic Centre, Centre for Early Childhood Development and we are also helping Naryn authorities with town planning.
Q: How much do you spend and earn here?
A: We spent US$ 100 million for the University campus. That money came from only one source – His Highness the Aga Khan. AKS Osh is also subsidised by the AKDN. An additional approximately US$ 4-5 million is spent for projects on agriculture, agricultural support, child development. Some projects funded partly by the Aga Khan Foundation. Sometimes our contribution accounts for 30-50%, with the remaining part of funding from other donors. They are confident that these projects will be implemented in an effective manner and partner with us in many other countries. I cannot tell the exact figure, but we spent US$ 30 million annually for the UCA during the last three years with an additional US$ 5-10 million for other programs, excluding the KICB and FMCC. In KICB, all profits generated by it are proportionally divided amongst the shareholders, including the Government of Kyrgyzstan. The surplus is reinvested, but it is not much money.
Q: You want to construct an Academy of Education in the southern suburb of Bishkek. You purchased 85 hectares of land for US$ 8 million for that purpose. The Government cancelled the resolution by which this land was transformed from agricultural use to residential use. What is the current state of the matter?
A: Yes it is true; we purchased the land for this purpose in 2013. We appointed architects and they are now developing the design of the project. We are currently working with three local community schools; one of which was provided a room where we established a reading programme for parents and children as young as three and four years old, who also play there. We provided books and trained teachers. We hope that by the time the Academy is operational, these children will be attending secondary / high school. This will create a sense of ownership for the local community. So, we are now at the planning stage. By the way, this will be a very good project. The quality of buildings will be no lower that of the University of Central Asia. The same applies to the quality of teaching, which will be at international level.
We purchased this land after undertaking all required checks and due diligence, including legal review of all the documentation by our lawyers in Kyrgyzstan to confirm that it was all in order. Two to three months ago, we learned that the Government changed the classification of the land. Now, we don’t know what to do. We bought the land in good faith. It is a huge investment. The building of the Academy will be an investment in the range of US$50-60 million. Purchase of the land alone cost us US$ 8 million.

Q: Do you expect people involved in your projects to be loyal to the values supported by the Aga Khan Network?
A: First of all, what are those values of the Aga Khan Development Network? You know that the founder of the organisation is a Shia Ismaili. These days there is an automatic thinking that if you a Shia you oppose Sunnis. This is a very, very sad trend catching on from the Middle East and spreading throughout the world. This is very sad. I will give the example of Pakistan. We never asked who our neighbor was, because it did not mean anything. We are all Muslims, we all pray, we all fast. No one asked such questions.
In Kyrgyzstan, the majority of Muslims practice Islam of the Hanafi madhab. It is very open, very sufi. Shia Ismaili Islam is very much like the Hanafi madhab in Islam. Very sufi, very thoughtful. You read the Quran and think what it means. It does not mean that you read the Quran and after you say this is white and this is black. It requires careful deliberation and following very specific processes.
Historically, Great Muslim thinkers came from Central Asia – Ferghana, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan. These are people who fostered revolutions in science, medicine, and philosophy.
It is very sad that our beautiful religion was artificially divided. Our task, as citizens, to restore the unity of our religion. One of the objectives of the Aga Khan Development Network is to be guided by the ethic of Islam. So the questions you asked me are the questions of Islamic values for all Muslims. We have to have broaden our thinking. Broad thinking is the ethic of the Aga Khan Development Network. To treat people as you want them to treat you. To be just and respect diversity.
Therefore, during the entire period of my presidency in the Aga Khan University, which was 27 years, religion in terms of theology was not part of the University’s curriculum. The same is with UCA. We never taught religion in that regard and we are not going to teach it.
But there is a subject “Islamic Civilization” – what our civilization brought to this world. And not only Islam, but what cultures within Islam brought to the world. For instance, within the particular practice of Islam in Kyrgyzstan is different from that of Mali, for example.
You may be assured that we are not planning to teach Islam, Christianity or any other religion at UCA. This is a secular University, as set out in its charter.
- Thank you for the interview.

Editor's Note: Mr Kassim-Lakha was appointed as a Diplomatic Representative of the Aga Khan Development Network on July 8, 2014. Before this, he was a Founding President of the Aga Khan University, the first private university established in South Asia. Under the vision of His Highness the Aga Khan, he led the planning, building and operation of this internationally renowned world class institution for 27 years in eight countries of Asia, Africa and United Kingdom.
Kassim-Lakha served as Pakistan's Minister of Education as well as Science and Technology in the Caretaker Government in 2007-8.
Kassim-Lakha received his undergraduate education in the UK and an MBA from the University of Minnesota. In recognition of his academic and social work he has received an honorary degree from McMaster University, Canada as well as national awards of Sitara-e-Imtiaz and Hilal-e-Imtiaz from the President of Pakistan and Officier de l 'Ordre National du Merite from the President of France.
Reprinted from original article with permission from AKIPress