People in Central Asia can benefit by example that Kyrgyzstan set, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha

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Mr. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Diplomatic Representative of the Aga Khan Development Network in the Kyrgyz Republic, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of University of Central Asia told Kabar Agency about the activities of the AKDN in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, University of Central Asia, plans for future and shared his impressions about Kyrgyzstan.

- Can you tell us about the main activities of the Aga Khan Development Network in Kyrgyzstan, what projects are being implemented?

- Before I explain to you what we do here, in Kyrgyzstan and in Central Asia, maybe I can explain quickly that the Aga Khan Development Network is an organization, established by His Highness the Aga Khan,and it is working in 30 countries, mostly developing countries. Our aim is to work on improving the quality of life of people, wherever we are working, we work through education, through health, through economic development, through culture and this is regardless of race, color, gender, religion. It is a secular, non-religious organization.

There are 10 agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network that work in different fields. Nine of these are not-for-profit and the tenth agency which is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development that is making profit, such as in financial services or industrial production, and all the profits are then ploughedback and used for supporting the non-profit activities, like in health and education.

The Aga Khan Development Network around the world employs 80,000 people and 95 percent of them are nationals of the countries where we work. And it is also important to know that we operate 200 health clinics and hospitals, 200 schools and we have 2 universities, the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.

The Aga Khan University works in Pakistan and Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Afghanistan and also in London, England. And of course, the University of Central Asia is in Central Asia, I’ll tell you about this institution in a minute.

So, to come back to your question, what are our activities here in Kyrgyzstan. We work with rural development, we work on education, financial services and we are focused very much on the development of mountain societies. Mountain people are usually marginalized, because they do not have access to government services as much as city people have. Their education, their health, their financial services, they are not as well available, so we are focusing on those, who live in remote mountain area, like Naryn and Jalal-Abad, maybe in parts of Osh Oblast as well, and Batken. And we are also working in Chui, of course, but the important part is that we do a lot of agricultural development, we work with farmers, our Aga Khan Foundation programmes work with 50,000 farmers, bringing water to their lands, explaining how to improve the quality of their agriculture, greenhouse technology.

In education, we have the school in Osh- the Aga Khan School which is considered to be the best school in Osh oblast, and that has been working for 15 years and finally we have the University of Central Asia. The University of Central Asia has campuses in Naryn, in Khorog, Tajikistan and in Tekeli, Taldy-Korgan, Kazakhstan. I can tell you more about it in a minute, but the important thing is that we are also working on cultural activities. For example, in Kyrgyzstan we trained 7,500 school students in their own music, we teach them komuz, we teach them how to sing properly, we help them to become Manaschies also. And it is important to preserve the culture of any country, where we work. And we want to make sure that people understand their own culture, because there is no use of becoming involved with foreign cultures only, you must learn about other cultures, but your own culture – you must be rooted in it. So, these are some activities, we are involved with.

- Can you tell us about the activities of the Aga Khan Development Network in Central Asia?

- So, wherever we are working, we always go when the government invites us to go. So, in 1993-1995, soon after the Central Asian countries became independent, there were requests for the Aga Khan Development Network to come and work. We started in Tajikistan but we also now work in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In these three countries we have a lot of activities in rural development, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in cultural development, we teach music, as I mentioned. We have schools not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in Tajikistan we have 2-3 schools. And now we are planning to have a school in Naryn, in addition to the University, we are working to establish a school. And that would be a very good thing, because it would be not only teaching in Kyrgyz, but also in English and Russian. One of the strongest programmes we have in Central Asia is in rural development, again rural development relating to mountain societies, because those are people, who need your help most.

Finally, we have a very strong programme in financial services in Kyrgyzstan, the KICB bank that we promoted and that was because the government of Kyrgyzstan requested us to come and help with education and economic development, and particularly financial services. So, in Kyrgyzstan we established the KICB bank, in which the government is also a partner, and several international agencies, like DEG and IFC, KfW – they are part of the shareholders. And the microfinance organisations are also working in Central Asia, in Tajikistan and here, in Kyrgyzstan. But the largest project is the University of Central Asia that is working across the three countries of Central Asia.

- From how many countries do students study there? What kind of specializations does the University offer?

The University of Central Asia is a university that has been founded by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Ismaili Imamat, which is His Highness the Aga Khan. So, these four parties signed an International Agreement under which the University was established, then the Agreement was approved by the Parliaments of the three countries. And now it is registered with the United Nations. So, the UCA is an international organization and it is working in all three countries and it is also now working in Afghanistan. We have three types of programmes - a School of Professional and Continuing Education that teaches programmes in computers, in English language, in financial services, in Russian language, in Kyrgyz language and they also have vocational education. We work in Kyrgyzstan, in Naryn and in Bishkek. In Tajikistan, we have the School of Professional and Continuing Education in Dushanbe as well as in Khorog. And in Tekeli, Taldy-Kurgan.

The second part of our programme is the School of Arts and Sciences. The School of Arts and Sciences is the campus, which is located in Naryn, the new campus that has been built there. And a sister-campus is already operating now, since this year in Khorog, Tajikistan. The third campus will be in Tekeli, Taldy-Kurgan, Almaty Oblast and that will be there in about three years time. So, each of these campuses is a residential campus with students from different parts of the world. Most of the students are from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, but we also have students from Afghanistan and some are from Pakistan and this year we have one student from Iran. So, as the reputation of the University is growing, we are getting more attraction. And the interesting part is that last year we had 530 students applying for the University, this year the number doubled to 1,100. So, there is a lot of interest and it is very interesting that the University is secular, we do not have any religious classes, because sometimes people ask me “are you teaching religion?” and the answer is, of course, not, it is a secular university under its Charter, we are even not allowed to teach religion. So, I just wanted to emphasise that there are some rumors sometimes that come up. And I also want to say how grateful we are to people of Naryn and the Administration of Kyrgyzstan who have been welcoming all these programmes that we are running, we could not have done it without the support of the Government and the peoples. I must say that I am very impressed by the peoples of Kyrgyzstan, they are very warm and they have a very open mind, very nice to see that. They want to learn new languages, maybe it is theirnomad tradition, I do not know, but they are always outgoing to meet people, they want to learn about other people. So, we are very pleased that we have this kind of approach, because at the University it becomes a lot easier, we have teachers, who are from Kyrgyzstan, from Tajikistan, from Kazakhstan, from Pakistan, from America, we have teachers from the United Kingdon, from Russia. So, we mixed a lot of faculty members, because they bring the best qualities from everywhere. I mentioned the School of Professional and Continuing Education, the School of Arts and Sciences, which offers the bachelor’s degree and the Graduate School of Development, we have our research institutes there. We have three research institutes now: one is the Mountain Societies Research Institute that works on issues relating to mountain societies and mostly it is undertaking research, what kind of problems they have in agriculture, in global warming, disasters are taking place today, heavy rain which causes mudslides or heavy snow or earthquakes– we study that. In our Institute for Public Policy and Administration, we are doing a lot of research for the Governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. And with our research we help the Government to make evidence-based policy making. So, for example, what will be the impact of Kyrgyzstan joining the Eurasian Economic Union, what is the impact on the economy? So, the Government requested UCA to develop a study, which we prepared and we gave them, it helped them to make some decisions. Right now, we have made a new study on tourism, what is happening in tourism in Kyrgyzstan, how can it be improved, what is the impact of additional work on tourism, because that creates employment, it creates opportunities for people to visit here and for people here to become more broad-minded. So, these are some examples. And we are also running those programmes for training in the area of extractive industries, in mining, we are doing a lot of work on research in mining and extractive industries. It is interesting that from this year we will be also running an Executive Master’s degree program, because Afghanistan is very keen that we should give a Master’s degree to their civil servants. In the Ministry of Finance, we have a large number of middle ranking civil servants, who are keen because they have seen what we have to teach is very relevant to this part of the world. And we are proposing a similar programme for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan civil servants as well. So, there are lots of new programmes coming up.

What are the plans of the Foundation in Kyrgyzstan in the future, except for the opening of the school in Naryn?

Well, it is a very big programme. There is a second programme of opening the school here, in Bishkek. That is going to be a residential school, for which we have already acquiredtheland, it is called the Aga Khan Academy. And it will be a very large programme, it will be almost 50 million dollars investment, we are just waiting for certain issues relating to the land to be resolved and we will start the construction of the school, it is a very big programme. The other programmes we have are in working with civil society, helping civil society to understand itself, because a civil societyis not just NGOs (most people think that civil society means NGOs), but if you have doctors’ association, that is the civil society, business associations, groups of women entrepreneurs – that is the civil society. We are working on encouraging civil society and to understand how civil society can help to improve the quality of life of people, they are serving. At the same time, we are studying the issue of philanthropy, you know we are Muslims all of us, Muslims are generally very generous with their resources. The question is nobody has really done a proper study where is the money going;do people give just to the poor people or to somebody who does not have food, which is important to give, but can we put some of our charity in creating long-term solutions to poverty? For example, creating a vocational programme so that somebody, who can have a profession that you can teach them, so they no longer have to ask for help. So, in other words, how can we help people to teach them how to fish, rather than to give them a fish. That is very important objective of the Universityof Central Asia as well.

We are now working on another program in education, and we are working with 20 schools in each of the three countries, where the UCA is operating. So, we are working with the Government to look at 20 schools that the Government has proposed to work with, we improve the quality of those schools, and they also work with the neighboring schools. We are hoping that as a result of our intervention, the quality of the graduates will be improved and not only the UCA will benefit, but other universities, and maybe even they can go abroad. But we are focused on the quality of school education. Since the Soviet time, you know that Soviet Union has very powerful positives, which we sometimes do not speak about or do not remember. Education was universal and it was good quality education, health was universal, it was very good quality as well. And now we must make sure that we do not lose that quality and coverage and that is we are helping to see if we can help the government in achieving those objectives.

- How long have you been in Kyrgyzstan? Can you share your impressions about Kyrgyzstan. What do you like?

- Actually, I have been coming and going to Kyrgyzstan since 1995, which is almost 30 years now. So, it has been 22 years. So, I have really enjoyed visiting, working with people here and since the last three and half years my wife and I, we are living here in Bishkek. Because I am also the Head of the University, presently I am the Chairman of the Board, but I am also running the University. Soon we will have a Rector, we have made some appointment, and it will be announced very soon, and then I will not do a day-to-day running. It is very interesting that in Kyrgyzstan, I find the openness of people: the media, you can sit down and talk in any chaihana, sit down and discuss, people are very open to speak. And you can go to Parliament and listen to the debate, I think that Jogorku Kenesh is really very powerful, it is almost sometimes more powerful than the executive branch, which is not bad, because there is always an accountability and there is the Constitution, which provides a balance of power between the President and the executive branch, the Prime Minister and the Jogorku Kenesh. So, it is again very interesting model for many countries in this world. Look, what happened here just one month ago, you had an election, and you now have a new President, the previous President was allowed one term and he said okay, my term is over, now somebody else come. I think this is a terrific example and that is what people in Central Asia can benefit by the example that you have set here.

I also think that this country is very beautiful, it is one of the most beautiful countries I have seen, whether you are in the mountains or you are at Issyk-Kul or you are in the south, in Batken. Remember when apricots are coming and Aigul is blossoming, it is really beautiful. So, when you see the mountain valleys, where horses are running wild, people have an open-mind, it is something that is very haunting, it will not leave you. And I love the music of Kyrgyzstan, I must say that I like songs, I’m very fond of them.

- Thank you for your time and for accepting our invitation. Thank you very much.

Thank you. Thank you to you and to the viewers for listening to this conversation.

Interviewed by Nurzhan Kasmalieva


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