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Dr. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha: It is Important to Involve a Community in Decision-Making

«It is important to involve a community in decision-making. You cannot go to some community and say we think you need a water canal here or you need the school here or you need health centre there. They have to tell us what is needed», – notes Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, the head of the Aga Khan Development Network Representative Office in the Kyrgyz Republic, the chairman of the Board of the University of Central Asia, in the interview for CABAR.asia. 

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CABAR.asia: Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is well-known in Kyrgyzstan for doing a lot of work to reduce poverty, to improve the quality of life. Could you please tell us more about how did the activity of AKDN start in this country?

The most important basis for the work of the Aga Khan Development Network is to focus on the improvement of the quality of life of people. We have a program that largely focuses on the rural population, but also we have some other urban programs as well because you cannot simply support one group.

After many years of experience, we have found out that it is important to involve a community in decision-making. You cannot go to some community and say we think you need a water canal here or you need the school here or you need health centre there. They have to tell us what is needed. We only come to the country when we are invited. So this is a very important pre-condition.

In 1995 His Highness the Aga Khan came here to Kyrgyzstan to say thank you to the government and people of Kyrgyzstan for the support they gave during the famine that happened in southern Tajikistan. The government representatives of Kyrgyzstan asked His Highness to help with the maintenance of good quality education and to support small and medium-size industry. The Soviet Union has just recently collapsed and there was a need to support people to come out of poverty.

The Aga Khan School, a purpose-built facility, established in Osh in 2002. The School challenges its students to be intellectually inquisitive and socially conscious, preparing them to contribute to the development of their communities. Photo: AKDN

In 2001 the agreement between the Aga Khan Development Network and the government Kyrgyz Republic was signed. The first program that started here was the high-quality international standard school in Osh city in 2002.

The second project that started was microfinance and financial institutions. The Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank (KICB) was established where the Kyrgyz government along with international financial agencies are partners and AKDN is the lead shareholder. Today it is the largest bank in the country with half a million customers and innovative services.

Nine out of ten AKDN agencies are nonprofit and only one agency – the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is a “for-profit agency”. The profit made by this agency is re-invested to support social and cultural projects of AKDN.

So the idea is to focus on the population and improve their quality of life. We have been invited to work here, and we responded with the help that the community requested.

Could you please estimate the results of your activity since AKDN have started in Kyrgyzstan?

Today the KICB is one of the leading banks in Kyrgyzstan with 39 branches across the country. This is the first bank in this country that introduced a mobile banking system called Elsom. These are just a couple of examples about the bank.

The same for microfinance. Our First Microfinance Company is an organization that lends to small businesses. They have close to 16 thousand borrowers, usually small-scale entrepreneurs in rural areas who, for example, have a small bakery or producing garments.

We also teach entrepreneurship programs at University of Central Asia. I can tell you that about 60 businesses in the last few years have been created by young people, who had an idea but didn’t have the financing. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the new program called Accelerate Prosperity invests into small businesses up to 50 thousand US dollars. It could be five thousand dollars but it gives an opportunity for the person who is not sure whether he or she will succeed as they are young entrepreneurs. We will provide them with valuable business knowledge because in business the money is not everything.

All these years the Aga Khan School in Osh is operating, thousands of students have graduated from it. But at the University of Central Asia, we have 3 schools. One of them is the School of Arts and Sciences which has a campus in Naryn and one campus in Tajikistan, Khorog, and in Kazakhstan, Tekeli town in Almaty Oblast.

We also have a School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPCE) which was establised in 2006. In 13 years, 130 thousand students have graduated from SPCE and obtained certificates in English, French, Russian languages, in financial accounting, in technical and vocational education etc. You study for three, six or twelve months and get a certificate. The external evaluation shows that 90% of SPCE graduates benefited by getting a better job, promoted or acquired new skills that brought them to another level.

The Aga Khan Music Initiative has been active in Kyrgyzstan since 2000 to revitalise and promote Central Asia’s musical traditions benefitting over 7,500 school-going students in the country. Photo: AKDN

AKDN also works in the field of culture. From the very beginning of our activity in this country, also in Kazakhstan, in Tajikistan, we helped to promote and preserve the culture heritage in these countries. Particularly music and poetry and for example training of Manaschis and the playing komuz. Every year we support over 7 thousand students in Kyrgyzstan studying their own musical traditions. We are always talking about the violin and piano, but nobody talks about the national instruments komuz and oz komuz. We train people who will make these instruments. For example, three hundred young people, whom we have trained in our music program, performed at the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Second World Nomad Games.

In Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad oblasts the Aga Khan Foundation has given support to farmers. 56 thousand hectares of land was brought into cultivation, where previously there was no water. They helped to build the water channels, supply the water and these farmers get support for seeds and fertilizers. As a result, their productivity went up and 50 thousand households were able to benefit from the work of the Aga Khan Foundation just in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan.

The Aga Khan Foundation supports improvement of rural livelihoods through better access to reliable and well-managed water infrastructure. Photo: AKDN

There is a similar program in Naryn that also went very well. We brought the technology of greenhouses, that was not there before. We have given a model. Farmers immediately told that this was a wonderful idea and now they can grow cucumbers and tomatoes in the winter. In fact, at the moment many farmers from Naryn switched from growing tomatoes and cucumbers to roses because that brings ten times more money.

All the above are only some impacts as a result of our activities in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is also a home for people of different ethnic background. What AKDN is doing to develop the ideas of tolerance, pluralism for the young generation?

First of all, I want to note and appreciate this unique, small country Kyrgyzstan. What I want to say is that this country has a tradition of welcoming different ideas. Look at the democracy and the vibrant nature of governance. You can speak openly about anything. It is something we have to respect, and we have to appreciate.

What are we doing to help the pluralism? One of the programs that we have in our universities is called the Aga Khan Humanities Project. It is a program that explains to students the values of different cultures, religions, beliefs, and government systems. The program does not tell what is best, good or bad, it asks you to think critically. The Aga Khan Humanities Project works in 87 different universities across Central Asia. Most of them are in Kazakhstan, this country has got really excited about this program for the last 20 years.

Pluralism is also in the curriculum of the University of Central Asia. It opens the minds of young people. Three countries have come together with His Highness the Aga Khan to establish this regional university to promote the pluralism and open-mindedness.

One of the initiatives AKDN helped to establish is the Global Centre for Pluralism. It is located in Canada because the Canadian Government and His Highness the Aga Khan have established a partnership to promote research and promote pluralism. One of the first countries the Centre studied was Kyrgyzstan because of its pluralistic, welcoming and diverse society.

You have mentioned the University of Central Asia which has campuses in Khorog, Naryn, and Tekeli. Why did you choose to build these campuses not in capitals as usual, but in a mountainous remote region? What was the reason?

When we planned this university, the question was what is the difference that we can make. There are so many universities, how can you make a difference, and then we came to the conclusion that the people who really need a good quality education but those who were deprived of this. Who are the ones who are deprived of a good education, of good government services, and health facilities? They are the ones who are living in mountain areas. In mountain areas – the higher you live, the poorer you are. So there is an inverse ratio between the height that you live and your income.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) is a regional, secular, not-for-profit University founded in 2000 by the Governments of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and Aga Khan Development Network. Photo: UCA’s Campus in Naryn.

What happens when that situation comes above, is that when you are not getting all the support, you become marginalized. These days the difference between marginalized and radicalized is a very thin line. Which is why when people are dissatisfied they don’t get an opportunity, don’t have education, and they are going to join all kinds of unfortunate organizations.

We have lots of students from Naryn and Issyk-Kul regions. 66% of our students are from rural areas and small towns. Only 33% of the students are from big cities like Osh and Bishkek, and Dushanbe, Almaty and so on. We find that we are able to help young people, who can get access to good quality education.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was established to promote the socio-economic development of the region’s mountain societies. The University equips youth with skills and knowledge in response to market needs. Photo: AKDN

Now, what will happen when they will get educated? Some of them will come to the big cities, some of them will go to Russia, some of them will go to America. But many will stay in this country and make a difference in their small mountainous communities, villages, and towns.

The University of Central Asia has a focus on mountains and education of mountainous societies. It was a very thoughtful process that the government also agreed. Last year in Kyrgyzstan was declared as the year of development of regions. This year authorities repeated the same idea. I am sure next year they will repeat it again because the development of regions does not take place in one year. It is a sensible policy because if you develop regions, then people in rural areas will benefit from it, not just people living in capital cities of Bishkek, Dushanbe or Almaty.

Are there any other projects which you do in Naryn besides university campus?

We are undertaking a number of programmes, for example, in Naryn, we have built a public park. The municipality now has taken over maintenance of this very popular place in the town. We have provided free Wi-Fi internet in this park so people can come and do their emails free of charge. This is good as it makes people come together in one place.

Also, we are proposing to build a residential school in Naryn. We are making a study right now. The Naryn Regional Administration and Municipality of Naryn are very keen for us to do that. It is going to be a high-class international type of school for talented children. You can come to study there from At-Bashy or Kochkor rayons, Naryn town, get an education there at school and further to enrol in the best universities anywhere in the world. That’s what we are planning to do. We also have plans  for a small hotel in Naryn.

We are proposing to build an Academy – a residential school in Bishkek, to which 50 million US dollars will be invested by AKDN. The land for this school has already been purchased. This school will be for the most talented students of Kyrgyzstan. Regardless of your ability to pay, significant scholarships will be provided for the children who want to study, but their parents cannot pay. The idea is to bring good students and make them the future people who develop the country to another level.

At what stage the project about residential school in Bishkek now?

We have a problem with the land. There was a court case going on against people who sold the land. Once the court matter is sorted out, we will start the project.

Thank you for the interview. Do you have any comments or something to add?

One of the questions I hear from time to time is “Why are you here?” and “What is going on in Naryn with this university? Is it some kind of Shia, religious institution?”. I just want to respond and clarify that.

First of all, we came to this country at the request and invitation of the government and the people. The people of this country have always welcomed the work that we are doing, and we are very grateful for that. Part of it because we listened to the people and asked them what is it that they want.

Secondly, the AKDN is a non-religious, secular organisation. It is meant for everybody who needs our help. We take a very pluralistic approach, and we look at the diversity as a strength, not the weakness. We want to bring everybody’s ideas together, to create opportunities for everybody and improve their quality of life.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.