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Member Profile January 2014


Aga Khan Foundation Canada



Father and daughter wait for the newest member of their family to arrive at the maternity ward of the Faizabad Hospital in Badakhshan, Afghanistan.

This month, CCIC met with Khalil Shariff, Executive Director at Aga Khan Foundation Canada, for an interesting discussion on the organization’s approach to international development and poverty reduction, and it's involvement in the maternal, newborn and child health initiatives....among other things!


CCIC - Aga Khan Foundation Canada is part of the Aga Khan Development Network; can you tell us more about the scope, the role and the mandate of that network?

Khalil Shariff - The Aga Khan Development Network is a worldwide group of development agencies with individual mandates that range from the fields of health and education to architecture, rural development, and the promotion of private sector enterprise. Together, the AKDN's institutions and programs work towards a common goal: to build a civil society that responds to the challenges of social, economic and cultural change and to improve the quality of life of poor, marginalized populations. Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) is a registered Canadian charity, established in 1980 as an agency of the AKDN. We work in Asia and Africa to find sustainable solutions to the complex problems causing global poverty.


CCIC - His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims, is the founder of the AKDN. Can you tell us about his role in the organization?

Khalil Shariff - His Highness the Aga Khan is the Chairman of the AKDN. In Islam’s ethical tradition, religious leaders not only interpret the faith but also have a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in their community and the societies in which they live. For the Aga Khan, this has meant a deep engagement with development for more than 50 years. Building on institutions started by his grandfather, the Aga Khan created the agencies of the AKDN to realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action.

While the Aga Khan fulfills a central religious role for Ismaili Muslims worldwide, pluralism is a fundamental pillar of Islam’s ethical framework. The AKDN and its member agencies – including AKFC – are non-denominational. The AKDN aims to improve living conditions and opportunities for the poor regardless of their faith, origin or gender, and AKDN employees come from diverse origins, faiths and backgrounds.


CCIC - What is AKFC’s vision of international development and poverty reduction? How do your programs contribute to that?

Khalil Shariff - Sustainable development is possible only when poverty is tackled over the long-term, with communities in the lead. We operate on the principle that lasting change depends on partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders – from individuals and communities to local and international business, governments, and NGOs. We have been working in partnership with Canadians for more than 30 years, and many of our efforts are undertaken in cooperation with the Government of Canada through Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, and other institutional donors.

Long-term, positive change is complex, and there is no silver bullet. AKFC – like the rest of the AKDN – takes a holistic approach to development, developing programming that responds to the many inter-related factors that undermine development within a given region. An important focus is building high quality permanent institutions across a range of levels – from strong village-level governance councils to world-class regional universities.

AKFC concentrates on specific challenges in key focus areas, which we see as fundamental building blocks for human development: health, education, rural development, and civil society. Situated within the broader work of the AKDN, this approach has proven that progress in one area will spur progress in others.

For example, in the coastal province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, AKFC is working with our partners on issues of food security and livelihoods – but the initiative goes beyond simply increasing agricultural productivity and access to markets. It also addresses underlying factors that are required to build a strong foundation for development in the region, such as literacy; health and nutrition; environmental sustainability; access to finance; and the ability of communities and local organizations to take action on their own behalf.

In Canada, AKFC raises funds, builds partnerships with Canadian institutions, and promotes discussion and learning on international development issues.


CCIC - Aga Khan Foundation Canada is very involved in maternal, newborn and child health initiatives in developing countries as well as exploring innovative financing for development; can you tell us more about these two areas and why they are important to you?

Khalil Shariff - Improving health – particularly for women and children – is a central pillar of the AKDN’s holistic approach to improving quality of life. According to United Nations’ estimates, in 2010, some 800 women died every day from complications of pregnancy or childbirth, 99 percent of them in developing countries.

AKFC collaborates on a number of projects that improve health for women and children, from increasing access to world-class medical services in Afghanistan, to helping families in Tanzania make better choices when it comes to nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene. The strategy is simple: healthy mothers give birth to healthy children – and healthy children grow up to become strong, productive members of their community. AKFC is able to work with the spectrum of capacities of the AKDN to increase the chances for sustainable impact, including leveraging the Aga Khan University’s capabilities in research, education of midwifes, nurses, and doctors, and tertiary care; the Aga Khan Health Services’ extensive clinical care, service provision, and facility management capabilities; and Aga Khan Foundation’s work in community health in remote rural areas.

In 2013, AKFC presented the results of some of our work as part of our annual cross-country University Seminar Series, this year in collaboration with Canada’s International Development Research Centre. A summary of that series is available here. AKFC is also a member of the Canadian Network for maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH), and recently completed the Seminars on Nurturing Maternal and Child Health – see summary here.

Like MNCH, innovative models for financing development – such as impact investing, community-based savings groups, and access to financial services by mobile phone – have been fundamental parts of the AKDN’s global footprint, long before the current mainstream interest in this approach. Our experience across Africa and Asia indicates that innovative financing approaches can have significant positive influence on poverty reduction and expanded social opportunity, especially for the very poor.

In 2013, AKFC convened the Seminars on Innovative Financing for Development, a series of events featuring different strategies for financing development that complement traditional donor-based initiatives. A summary of that series is available here.


CCIC - On the global scene and in the Canadian context, the private sector is increasingly perceived as a key player in international development. Based on AKFC’s experience, how and when can the private sector best contribute to poverty reduction?

Khalil Shariff - In any discussion about the private sector, we have to remember that the term represents a spectrum of diverse actors, who are all important players in the development process: from large, multi-national corporations to an enterprising rural farmer.

World Bank data shows us that there is a direct positive relationship between private investment in a country and rates of GDP growth. But not all growth necessarily directly translates into poverty reduction and development gains. We need to make sure that the poor participate in – and benefit from – this growth, by intentionally linking the poor to economic activity and access to services. The private sector must ensure that marginalized sectors of the population (often groups such as women, rural communities, or undereducated youth) are specifically targeted for productive engagement in the economic system, as workers, producers or entrepreneurs.

To align private sector’s commercial objectives with development goals, we need to look for multiplier effects: which economic activities can stimulate the growth of new economic activity? For example, the construction of the Bujagali Hydropower Project in Uganda – an initiative of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development – almost doubled the country’s effective power generation capacity. Before the construction of the dam, rolling blackouts accounted for a one to 1.5 percent loss to Uganda’s GDP, slowing the country’s economic and social development. The 250-megawatt hydropower facility reduces Ugandans’ reliance on expensive and polluting generators, which they previously used to power their businesses and homes.


CCIC - What is the value that AKFC sees in being a member of CCIC?

Khalil Shariff - AKFC shares CCIC’s overarching view that improving quality of life is both a moral imperative and a practical possibility. CCIC provides a connection to the broader development community in Canada, as a source of information on issues and trends. The diversity of approach, views, and experiences among Canadian development actors can be a source of strength and CCIC can provide a forum for mutual learning and constant improvement on the best ways to support the development efforts of poor communities.



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