His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader to the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, believes one of his hereditary responsibilities is to improve the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged people. For more than half a century, he has done exactly that — on a breathtaking scale.
More than a half century ago, he founded the Aga Khan Development Network and then the Aga Khan Foundation, creating a global web of agencies in 30 countries employing some 80,000 people to develop the poorest regions of Africa and South Asia while working to preserve and celebrate Islamic culture.
The network’s unique merger of commercial business and philanthropy has allowed it to reach more people by reinvesting profits into development work. “[The Aga Khan] has a very fine mind for investing — and he does a bloody good job balancing the task of increasing his capital with that of advancing the needs of his followers,” said former World Bank president James Wolfensohn. “At the end of the day, he is looking for human profits.”
For five decades, the foundation has focused on those “human profits” — via work in rural development, health, education, civil society, and environmental initiatives to assist vulnerable populations, regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. It has done everything from helping Pakistani communities recover from devastating floods to spearheading initiatives to improve education for Afghan girls, and from promoting civil society to battling hunger. The goal has never changed: to spark progress and development in poorer regions while presenting a less threatening face of Islam to the world.
“There are those … who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot,” the Aga Khan has said. “Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.”