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Development, Pluralism and Civil Society
"Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan" at the Nobel Institute, Oslo,
7 April 2005
Madame Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen
I thank the Government of Norway and Minister Johnson for the invitation
to speak here this morning and for her generous words of introduction.
Madame Minister, the exchanges we
have enjoyed since we met yesterday has been highly constructive.
I am particularly honored to be speaking at the Nobel Institute,
respected worldwide for its promotion and recognition of exceptional
endeavors to reduce human conflict.
It is also a rare privilege to address such a learned and experienced
audience which includes not only officials in government charged with
issues of human development, but also leaders of Norwegian civil society
who are important partners in Norway’s impressive international
In my remarks today I will propose to you several questions which I will
attempt to go some way toward answering:
First, why are so many democracies failing in Asia and Africa?
Second, is enough being done to help these young countries achieve
successful forms of democratic governance?
Third, are there common factors causing this failure of democracies?
Fourth, why is the international community unable to get engaged at the
early stages before crisis occurs?
And finally, what can be done?
Before I begin, perhaps I can give you some background on my
My role in human development stems from my position as Imam or spiritual
leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, as designated by my grandfather in
In all interpretations of Islam, Imams, whether they are Shia or Sunni,
are required not only to lead in the interpretation of the faith, but
equally to contribute to improving the quality of life of the people who
refer to them. This dual obligation is often difficult to appreciate
from the viewpoint of Christian interpretations of the role which Church
leaders are expected to perform.
It is on this ethical premise, which bridges faith and society, that I
established the Aga Khan Development Network. Its multiple agencies and
programmers have long been active in many areas of Africa and Asia that
are home to some of the poorest and most diverse populations in the
world, serving people without regard to their ethnicity, gender or
The community I lead of Shia Ismaili Muslims is culturally, ethnically
and linguistically, very diverse. Their main concentration is in South
and Central Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. In recent
decades the community has also established a substantial presence in
North America and Western Europe.
We have lived through colonialism and independence, two World Wars, the
Cold War and many local and regional wars. We have seen the collapse of
the Soviet Union and the birth of new states. The pendulum has swung
from private ownership to nationalization and back to privatization. And
we have lived in democracy and under dictatorship.
The community and its institutions are in many ways a microcosm of the
last century in the developing world and we have learned many lessons.
Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that no human development
initiative can be sustainable unless we are successful in achieving
three essential conditions.
First, we must operate in an environment that invests in, rather than
seeks to stifle, pluralism and diversity.
Second, we must have an extensive and engaged civil society.
And third, we must have stable and competent democratic governance.
These three conditions are mutually reinforcing. Taken together, they
allow developing societies gradually to become masters of the process
and make that process self sustainable.
I will speak first about pluralism.
The effective world of the future will be one of pluralism, a world that
understands, appreciates and builds on diversity. The rejection of
pluralism plays a significant role in breeding destructive conflicts,
from which no continent has been spared in recent decades.
But pluralist societies are not accidents of history. They are a product
of enlightened education and continuous investment by governments and
all of civil society in recognizing and celebrating the diversity of the
What is being done to support this key value for society and for
democracy in Asia and Africa, to pre-empt catastrophe, rather than
simply respond to it?
The Aga Khan Development Network intends to help create some permanent
institutional capacity to address this critical issue through a Global
Centre for Pluralism. It will be based in Ottawa to draw from Canada ’s
successful record in constructing and sustaining pluralist civil
society. The centre will work closely with governments and with academia
and civil society around the world.
The centre will seek to foster legislation and policy to strengthen
developing countries’ capacity for enhancing pluralism in all spheres of
modern life: including law, justice, the arts, the media, financial
services, health and education.
I believe leadership everywhere must continuously work to ensure that
pluralism, and all its benefits, become top global priorities.
In this effort, civil society has a vital role. By its very nature,
civil society is pluralist because it seeks to speak for the multiple
interests not represented by the state. I refer, for example, to
organizations which ensure best practices such as legal societies and
associations of accountants, doctors and engineers. The meritocracy they
represent is the very foundation of pluralism. And meritocracy is one of
the principles of democracy itself.
Village organizations, women’s and student groups, micro-credit entities
and agricultural co-operatives help give access and voice to those who
often are disenfranchised.
Journalist associations also play a key role, explaining the political
process, guarding against corruption and keeping governments
accountable. Responsible reporting and competent comment on critical
issues, and the hard choices that society must address, are an essential
element in the functioning of a democracy.
Civil society organizations make a major contribution to human
development, particularly when democracies are failing, or have failed;
for it is then that the institutions of civil society can, and often do,
carry an added burden to help sustain improvements in quality of life.
I believe strongly that a critical part of any development strategy
should include support for civil society. I know that Norway supports
this approach and works actively with its own civil society
organizations to build capacity in the developing world. Twinning civil
society institutions is a promising approach, to which the Aga Khan
Development Network institutions and programmers are very receptive.
Let me turn now to the question of democratic governance. If we were to
look at a map of the world that charted armed conflicts in the last 15
years, it would show that nearly two thirds have occurred in the
developing countries of Asia and Africa. More than 80 per cent were
internal conflicts, either full-blown civil wars or state-sanctioned
aggression against minorities in those countries.
In nearly every instance, these internal conflicts were predictable
because they were the culmination of a gradual deterioration in
pluralist, inclusive governance. In too many cases – and I can speak
here of our experiences in Uganda, Bangladesh, Tajikistan and
Afghanistan – this sad but foreseeable turn of events has had severely
adverse effects lasting more than a generation.
The question I have is this: if these breakdowns in governance were
predictable, why was the international community powerless to get
engaged at the early stages to help arrest the deterioration and avoid
the suffering that resulted? Secondly, are there common factors in the
majority of these situations which are insufficiently recognized?
I suggest to you that a major problem is that the industrialized world
too often is severely lacking in credible information about the forces
at play in the developing world.
Take as an example the phrase “clash of civilizations” which has
traveled far and wide. I have said many times previously, and I would
like to reconfirm today my conviction that what we have been observing
in recent decades is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of
ignorance. This ignorance is both historic and of our time.
This is not the occasion to analyze the historic causes of the deep
ignorance that exists between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds. But
I am convinced that many of today’s problems could have been avoided if
there had been better understanding and more serious dialogue between
The issue of ignorance, or lack of solid information, and its impact on
our world today, is illustrated by events in Iraq. No less deplorable is
that the 9/11 attack on the United States was a direct consequence of
the international community ignoring the human tragedy that was
Afghanistan at that time. Both the Afghan and Iraqi situations were
driven by lack of precise information and understanding.
My fundamental point is this: Since the collapse of the Cold War, the
need has grown exponentially for the world’s leaders to be able to
understand, and properly predict, what is likely to happen in parts of
the world in which they previously had no reason to be involved.
The task of addressing this need cannot be met by the resources
presently being engaged.
I note that Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jan Petersen, spoke of
this very problem just last week in Beijing. He called for the
international community to provide assistance in governance for fragile
states that is, and I quote: “more systematic, more strategic, more
persevering and more reliable.”
My suggestion is to examine this question in depth.
Let me share with you some real world field examples. Just as we read
about the supposed clash of civilizations, we read about so-called
“failed states.” In fact, at least in my definition of a state, it
cannot fail. What we are observing in reality is the massive failure of
democracy around the world.
I estimate that some 40% of the states of the United Nations are failed
democracies. Depending upon the definitions applied, between 450 million
and 900 million people currently live in countries under severe or
moderate stress as a result of these failures.
To me, therefore, a central question is why these democracies are
failing and what can the world’s nations and international organizations
do to sustain their competence and stability.
Let me now illustrate some specific issues which I believe are
contributing to this fragility.
A number of countries in which we are active have opted to harness
enormous resources to universal primary education, causing a significant
under-expenditure on secondary and tertiary education. This educational
policy originated from a number of ill-advised social economists in the
This degradation of secondary and tertiary education is not a new
phenomenon. It is being made significantly worse today due to the lack
of educational resources available to secondary and tertiary students
who, after all, will represent the leaders of tomorrow.
Secondly, if governance is a science, as I believe it is, developing
countries must educate about governance at secondary and tertiary
levels. Otherwise, they deprive their intelligentsia of academic
grounding in the critical knowledge of how democratic states operate.
A survey today in secondary schools or universities in Africa or Asia
would find that “government,” as a subject in its own right, is either
non-existent or given low priority.
It is clear that over the next decades, a large number of countries will
be designing new constitutions, or refining existing ones, and new
regional groupings will come into place. Many young democracies will
spawn new political structures. But where are the men and women who will
Just as education in governance is weak, the developing world continues
to suffer from insufficient support to certain liberal professions which
are critical to democracy. In my experience, the teaching profession and
journalism are failing to attract the level of men and women who are
essential for these liberal professions to make their appropriate
contribution to democracy.
The challenge is therefore, clear. We must create the human and
institutional resources to build and sustain young democracies.
As long as the developed world hesitates to commit long term investment
towards education for democracy, and instead laments the issue of
so-called failed states, much of the developing world will continue to
face bleak prospects for democracy.
And the West should not discount that an accumulation of failed
democracies could be a serious threat to itself and its values, capable
of causing – if not conflict – deep under currents of stress among
Ladies and Gentlemen, what seems apparent today is that the developed
world must find the resources to provide consistent and meaningful
assistance to fragile states struggling with democratic governance.
The world cannot sit by while countries spiral into crisis.
Some of the things we can do, I suggest to you, are as follows:
A greater commitment to build capacity in the
developing world to teach the science of government.
An aggressive effort to support indigenous civil
society, both to assist in the building of democracies and to provide
a buttress in times of stress.
Active encouragement and support for pluralism. And
above all, we must set about to improve knowledge and
understanding of the factors in the developing world
that are encouraging or undermining democratic governance.