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The AKDN: Tajikistan’s biggest development implementing agency

Interview - February 19, 2015

Since beginning operations in Tajikistan in 1992, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has grown to become an extensive force for improving the lives of people in the country. Mr. Ali Akbar Pesnani, Resident Representative, discusses the history of the Network, its aims and successes, as well as its unique approach to development.   


How have the activities of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) developed over time in Tajikistan?

The AKDN started its work in Tajikistan in 1992, during a period of real crisis. With the support of USAID we were mainly involved in food supply. A formal agreement with the government of Tajikistan was signed in 1995, and at this time the AKDN became an increasingly important player in this country. Today one cannot name a sector in Tajikistan where the AKDN is not present. We are covering all aspects of society within this country with a main purpose to improve the quality of life of the people of Tajikistan.

We expanded our work from humanitarian food supply to projects within the healthcare, education, and micro finance sectors. Additionally, we worked on public-private partnerships and rural support programs, known as Mountain Societies Development Support Programs (MSDSP). With MSDSP we are able to reach out to most remote communities of Tajikistan. We are also very involved in economic activities, for instance through the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) we help investment in agroindustry and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

An interesting aspect of the AKDN is the sheer size of its operations. How widespread is it both in Tajikistan and internationally?

AKDN is the biggest implementing agency in Tajikistan. We have worked with various donor organizations including USAID, SDC, DFID, KfW, GIZ, EBRD, JICA and ADB, and we have a strong presence in all parts of the country. We have a special agreement with the government of Tajikistan which grants us the privilege of diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention and we have received much support from them for our work.

AKDN is one of the largest private development agencies in the world. We have good relationships with governments from various nations and are present in 33 countries. We are increasing our presence and aim to gain diplomatic status in the countries where we operate. In 11 of the 33 countries we have received such a status. The most recent was granted in Canada this year.

The AKDN is a very unique organization in terms of the influence of its history, religion and diaspora. How has this influenced its status in Tajikistan?

Ismaili presence in Tajikistan stretches back more than 1,000 – 1,200 years. Under the Soviet Union people were not allowed to practice their religion as openly as they are now, and the current government has been very supportive towards the opening of the new Ismaili center here in Dushanbe. This beautiful center is a symbol of permanent presence of the Ismaili community in Tajikistan. Historically, most of the community is settled in the Pamirs in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). However, now the members of the community are present in almost all regions of the country and other parts of Central Asia.

How many people work for the AKDN?

AKDN has a core professional staff of around 3,000- 4,000 people in this country and over 90,000 people worldwide. But the main driving workforce of our organization is volunteer based. We have at least 10 times more volunteers than employees to support our activities.

Our current program, known as Time, Knowledge, Nazrana (TKN) – which means gift, was launched in 2007 during His Highness Aga Khan’s golden jubilee, when he completed his 50th year as the Imam of our community. People worldwide have registered online to offer their services for AKDN in volunteer capacities.

Today we have high level professionals from Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford and other well-known universities doing voluntary work for our network. The basis of our success, I would say, is voluntary manpower. People spend 3, 5, or even 10 years of their lives providing volunteer services and many students take a semester break to commit to AKDN activities. Here in Tajikistan we also have many locals who help us as volunteers.

How does the AKDN ensure that its programs are sustainable?

Communities own the programs that we set up. Our aim is to empower them and their society. We provide technical and financial support to kick-start our programs but we leave it to the community to ensure they will be running. MSDSP is based on that very concept. From a village organization we raise our work to the district and city level for expansion. In this way we ensure our success.

We cannot be totally dependent on grants so there has to be commitment and contribution from the communities where we initiate any programs. In this way we avoid a dependency syndrome. We want the community to own them, run them and feel proud of them. Of course, some programs are very difficult to be made self-sustainable, like our health and education programs, but we find that people are always willing to contribute for the quality of these services.

How does Pamir Energy contribute towards people’s independence?

Pamir Energy expands Tajikistan’s hydroelectric capacity. Obviously this project is heavily subsidized but local people have shown to us that they are willing to invest in electricity and they do make small contributions in order to make use of those services.

The main concentration of Pamir Energy today is in GBAO. We work with the government in a public-private partnership to improve energy provisions to remote areas. Khorog, for instance, now has electricity 24 hours a day, which was something quite unheard of till recently. Additionally energy is now provided to the other side of the border, in regions that never have had electricity before.

This really has changed people’s lives. Economic activities, studies, and health services can now be provided for longer hours because of electricity. Working hours have increased and people are better connected with the rest of the country because they can watch television and use their computers. We now aim to reach out to more households by enhancing PamirEnergy’s capacity.

Efforts to ensure sustainability of the system also deserve praise. Donor agencies like the Norwegian government, SDC, and USAID cover subsidies but people also make their own contributions, which allows for the project to work so beautifully well.

You mention the importance of being connected. The AKDN is also behind one of Tajikistan’s biggest mobile phone operator: TCell. In which way do they contribute to Tajikistan’s economy?

The AKDN is a partner of TCell as a 40% stakeholder and the company now covers over 35% of the market. TCell launched its 4G network earlier this year and continues its efforts to bring in new technology to Tajikistan. Additionally they are the best taxpayer of the country in terms of the contribution they have made to the national economy.

The AKDN is also very active in education. What is its approach to the sector?

We have always been very strong in education. We are working with the government to establish an Aga Khan Academy here in Dushanbe and the AKDN has a private school in GBAO, the Aga Khan Lycée (AKL). This school provides early childhood education and is considered to be one of the best education institutions in the country. Our students learn different languages like Russian, German and French. English is of course part of the curriculum, as a passport for them to pursue higher education anywhere else in the world.

More generally, we work with the government on projects to improve early childhood development of children and we organize trainings for teachers to improve the quality of education in the country. We also enhance capacities within the ministries through IT, languages and mathematics programs.

Good education is insurance for a better quality of life. We strive every day to provide quality education services to the people of Tajikistan to achieve that goal.

A well-known education project of the AKDN is of course the University of Central Asia (UCA). Could you tell us a little more about this initiative and how it is taking shape in Tajikistan?

The UCA is a unique education consortium created in three Central Asian countries, namely Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. It is being developed as an international university to ensure that people who live here in the mountainous areas receive quality education. The university will have campuses in all three countries and we will have good relations with institutions in different parts of the world, including Canada, USA, Singapore, Russia, China, India, Turkey, etc. Similar to the case of Aga Khan University in Pakistan, we want to build up strong relations with well-known universities like MIT, Harvard, McGill, Oxford, and Cambridge but with more focus also on the local needs of the region.

The construction of our Naryn campus has already started and hopefully the first enrolment will be in 2016. The construction of the Khorog campus will start in 2015 with the first enrolment in 2018. In the meantime students from Tajikistan will be able to go to Kyrgyzstan for the first two years of their education and afterwards move back to Khorog to continue their studies. We plan to have our first graduation in 2021.

Could you elaborate on the AKDN’s contribution to the microfinance sector in Tajikistan?

The First Microfinance Bank (FMFB) is called FMFB because it actually was the very first microfinance institution, not just in Tajikistan but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are basically the pioneers of microfinance and we are growing with over 35 branches in the country. FMFB also supports MSDSP, organizing Micro Loaning Organizations (MLOs) for people. Additionally we are increasingly looking at the SME sector. We have partners here in Tajikistan including KfW and IFC, who provide us great support.  The Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank (KICB) will be injecting new capital into FMFB in order to increase the capital base. FMFB also undertakes numerous commercial activities and works with the national bank of Tajikistan to improve the financial base and regulations of Tajikistan. We still have a long way to go but together with the World Bank, IMF, and EBRD we aim to bring best practices into this country.

The AKDN covers many areas, unlike the majority of development organizations which work on a thematic basis. How did this come about?

AKDN’s main focus is always to help people to improve the quality of their lives. When we look at the quality of people’s lives we do not just look in terms of economics. We look at education, health, living conditions, natural disasters, drinking water, and empowering women. Here in Tajikistan many men work outside the country and we therefore empower women to support their families because we strongly believe that when the woman is educated, the family is educated, and when the mother is empowered, the family is empowered.

We are mainly present in countries where people face challenges because we intervene to assist/help underprivileged members of the society. We are thankful to people in developed countries, such as in Canada, USA, and UK, who provide financial support for our activities. It is the Ismaili diaspora communities and the governments of those countries who give us the assistance we need to be able to do our work in the field.