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A unique man and his unique network

His Highness the Aga Khan’s 50th anniversary celebrations came to Kenya this week. He is marking his accession to spiritual leadership of the Ismaili Muslim community, and has chosen to commemorate much of this milestone here in Kenya. We should return the gesture by understanding the unique set of institutions that this leader has developed during his 50 years.

Unique they are, for the umbrella body – Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – manages to span commercial, social and cultural institutions. The individual entities within the network include hard-nosed business enterprises in many sectors, including media, telephony, hospitality, power generation, financial services, manufacturing and agro-processing – but also development agencies whose only function is to help the disadvantaged achieve a measure of self-reliance.

The Aga Khan is in many ways an enigma: a jet-setter who is also spiritual leader to millions of faithful Ismaili Muslims; a business titan who partners with private equity groups; a man who races horses and also worries deeply about world poverty. And a leader who inspires extraordinary voluntary action in his people.

I have worked in an advisory capacity in various parts of the network in recent years, and from my up-close vantage point I have noticed that there is a great deal for the rest of us to learn about combining business with social action.

AKDN has a unique purpose: it is “a contemporary endeavour to raise the social conscience of humanity through institutional action.” It is in the “institutional action” part of that statement that the rubber meets the road. Many of us, at community or individual level, profess to have similarly noble aims in life; not many of us can organise a network of agencies spanning 29 countries that delivers real results on the ground, and makes a difference to the lives of some of the poorest people in Africa and Asia. Not many of us can run cutting-edge businesses and development agencies – and bring the same managerial standards to both arenas.

The Aga Khan spent much of his childhood in Kenya, and we are clearly close to his heart. AKDN has assets approaching Sh. 40 billion here, and employs more than 10,000 people. It is clearly a long-term partner, having been in the region for more than 100 years; its first operation was a one-room community school in Zanzibar, opened in 1905.

Today the words ‘Aga Khan’ are part of Kenyans’ ordinary discourse, attached as they are to hospitals, educational institutions, and community projects across the land. This seemingly hotchpotch collection, when examined closely, reveals common underpinnings: managerial discipline; immense emphasis on ethics; and a strong pressure from the top to be self-reliant and self-sustaining.

Much of this achievement is due to the nature of the leader. Senior Kenyan executives who interact with the Aga Khan will tell you that he possesses a formidable business brain, and invariably takes a long view of all the activities he initiates. This is a spiritual leader with a difference.

What is intriguing is that it could all have been very different. The Aga Khan is reputedly one of the world’s richest men, controlling vast resources. He was born into this position, and many in his place might have settled for a life of indolent luxury. Some criticise him for being a spiritual leader who lives the life of a rich man. But what gives the Aga Khan the acknowledged drive and energy that made him build a path-breaking international network?

One answer lies in his refreshingly thoughtful views on Islam – a religion that has found itself immersed in controversy and violence in recent years. To the Aga Khan, Islam is a thinking faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance, and upholds the dignity of man. He views his mandate as Imam to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search, and to give practical expression to an ethical vision of society.

A second answer may be in something he said in 1983: “There are those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their circumstances. Unless they can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink into apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.”

The most important lesson of this golden jubilee? That the walls between business and the rest of life are more perception than reality. It is perfectly possible to combine good business sense with deep-seated concern for the inequities we have created on our planet. Business is the primary generator of wealth; once created, that wealth can used for a higher purpose. Running a business need not make you blind to social realities; equally, engaging in meaningful philanthropy can also be done with clear, business-like goals and without creating dependence.

You and I do not have the resources or the vision to build an international network of institutions. But we do have the ability to light a spark in others. Let us not waste it.

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