Calgary Herald | Aga Khan works to build a better world

“To me, the Aga Khan sets the gold standard for international development.

… Our world is getting more violent. Our world is getting more complicated. 

What we need are the fundamental values that are represented by the Aga Khan.”

– Jim Gray,  Calgary Oilman and Philanthropist, Founding member of the Awali Group

Jim Gray - Awali - Calgary Herald - Aga Khan wants to build a better world
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Aga Khan works to build a better world

By Robert Remington, For the Calgary Herald.    Published on: April 27, 2015 2:02 PM MD

Jim Gray and a small group of Calgary visitors are impressed by the scope of the project. The Khorog campus of University of Central Asia is being built at an elevation of 2,200 metres — about the same altitude as Mount Assiniboine Lodge in the Canadian Rockies west of Calgary, but in a landscape so remote it takes 14 hours to get here by road from the modern Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe. We arrived on a small Russian Antonov AN-28 aircraft through rugged mountain peaks on a 90-minute fight that the Lonely Planet guidebook describes as either one of the “most exhilarating or terrifying” experiences of your life.

The Khorog site is one of three high-mountain campuses of the University of Central Asia being built by the Aga Khan network in remote areas of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan at historical crossroads along the ancient Silk Road. Gray, the legendary Calgary oilman and philanthropist, has been involved with the Aga Khan network for more than a decade after raising $5 million from 125 Calgary donors — funds matched by the Canadian government — to kickstart an Aga Khan teacher training institute in East Africa. Gray has since visited Aga Khan projects in Pakistan and Africa, and this month completed his fifth such trip to see Aga Khan projects in India and Central Asia, including Khorog.

“This is one of the most remarkable groups of men and women I have ever met. They [Jim Gray, Sherali Saju, Chris Robb, Brian Felesky] are committed to humanity.”
– Shamsh Kassim-Lakah, the Aga Khan diplomatic representative in Central Asia, one of 10 regions where the Aga Khan organization holds diplomatic status.

Site of the University of Central Asia (UCA) campus at Naryn, Kyrgyzstan near the border with China. The Aga Khan Development Network is building three high-mountain UCA campuses in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in a bold initiative to educate people in remote areas of Central Asia. (image credit: Bob Remington/Calgary Herald)
Site of the University of Central Asia (UCA) campus at Naryn, Kyrgyzstan near the border with China. The Aga Khan Development Network is building three high-mountain UCA campuses in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in a bold initiative to educate people in remote areas of Central Asia. (image credit: Bob Remington/Calgary Herald)

… The Aga Khan’s progressive Shia branch of Islam is restoring archeological sites to United Nations World Heritage site status, partnering with the Smithsonian Institute to record and preserve traditional dance and music, providing non-secular education for thousands, engaging in rural development and investing in everything from hydroelectric projects to brickyards in its mission to support impoverished communities in some of the most difficult regions of the world.

Guided by the ethical principles of the spiritual leader of world’s Ismaili Muslims, the Swiss-born, British-raised billionaire Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the Aga Khan Development Network quietly pursues its principles without regard to faith, origin or gender. It does not run TV ads seeking support to assist its work of eliminating child poverty or building its non-denominational network of 325 schools, two universities, 11 hospitals and 195 health clinics in 30 countries. It relies instead on support from the Ismaili community, grants from donor nations and profits generated by its worldwide business empire.

Due to its low-profile philosophy of letting its work speak for itself, the organization remains an enigma to many despite an average annual budget of $600 million US for its non-profit development activities. Its economic stakes in some 90 companies generated revenues of $3.5 billion US in 2013, with surpluses reinvested in  further development activities.

The organization employs 80,000 people, more than 90 per cent of whom are non-Ismaili. Among them is Bohdan Krawchenko, former director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. He joined the University of Central Asia as director general a decade ago after seeing an ad in The Economist.

“I thought it was an audacious, mad idea,” he says of the remote mountain university project. “I thought that anybody who can think of such a mad idea must be worth working for.”

Robert Remington is a former Herald editorial writer and columnist. For more on this story, follow his blog at robertremington.wordpress.com/aga-khan/; watch a related video at calgaryherald.com; and check out part two of the story appearing in the Herald on Monday.

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