Nation & World

Princess Zahra outlines the work of Aga Khan Development Network

4 min read

Princess Zahra Aga Khan ’94 came home to Harvard this week (May 13) to present a hopeful vision of what education in the developing world can be like.

The forum was in Askwith Hall in Longfellow Hall, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The occasion was the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture, which she was there to give.

At a time when the world is grappling with issues of child-centered education, of women’s rights in Muslim societies, and of the loss of authentic local cultures under a wave of globalization, the princess spoke to all of these.

The two great needs for education in the developing world, she stressed, are quality and relevance. “Lacking in either, you will never produce a culturally independent society.”

She shared an overview of her part of her “family business,” so to speak: the social welfare department of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), one of the largest private development networks in the world.

It was founded by her father, Karim Aga Khan, who for over half a century has been the hereditary imam of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. Both father and daughter trace their lineage to Ali, cousin of Muhammad, and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. And both father and daughter are graduates of Harvard College. He is a member of the Class of 1958.

The princess presented four different case studies, “warts and all,” of AKDN undertakings. “The main point of these stories is quality and relevance. Each of these stories leads us to different questions.”

In East Africa — present-day Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda — the AKDN had long been involved in education, through private, fee-paying but not-for-profit schools for boys and girls. When the “winds of change” blew through, however — when these former British colonies gained their independence in the 1960s — the schools were largely nationalized.

The early years of independence were a time of great excitement, and “fantastic desire for change,” she said. Interest in recovery of local traditions dismissed during colonialism blossomed. But the new states didn’t have the wherewithal to provide education of a high intellectual quality. “Education did not always teach people to think but to conform.”

In the 1980s, as the generation of liberators handed over power to a succeeding generation, the AKDN was invited back in and asked to invest again. That was a positive development, but it came after “several decades of lost opportunity,” she said, during which Africans had mass education, but at the expense of quality. She pointedly commented that the recent troubles in Kenya were “possibly the result of an educational system that did not promote pluralism as a value.”

The AKDN experience in Pakistan was a cautionary tale of unintended consequences. The organization became involved in the isolated region of northern Pakistan during the 1970s. “When my father visited in the 1960s, he went in on a donkey.” The state provided education for boys — and so the AKDN offered education for girls, and very successfully, in many ways. Literacy reached 100 percent. Even the schoolhouses themselves benefited the larger community: Built to a high standard of earthquake-proofing, they could serve as shelters in emergencies.

“But the basic challenge is, once you have an education, what do you do with it?” The daughters of traditional Pakistani villages whom the network was serving were “not about to migrate to the cities … and men don’t like wives who are more educated than they.”

Princess Zahra added, “You could call this the pain of change, … but we could have been more thoughtful in this. … We now run schools for boys, too.”

In another case study, Princess Zahra spoke of the AKDN’s work in the madrasas, the Islamic religious schools, in East Africa. Speaking as the slide show flashing across the screen behind her showed images of little girls in nonthreatening pink robes, she stressed that these madrasas were not schools for terrorism as so many Pakistani madrasas have proven to be.

Still, there was a disconnect between the curricula of these schools — focused on ethics, morals, and philosophy — and the demands of the national education system in which the children would continue their education.

What the AKDN has offered, Princess Zahra said, is “child-centered education using low-key available materials — adding to the curriculum, not changing it.” As a result, the children continue more successfully into the national schools when they are ready.

And there were other benefits as well that led to the development of civil society and more respect for women’s rights: “What happened to these madrasas on the east coast of Africa, and the respect the teachers received, improved the standing of teachers in their communities.”