Aga Khan's Aleem Walji: Leading by mistakes to innovate

Aga Khan Foundation USA CEO Aleem Walji. Photo by: Aga Khan Foundation

Aleem Walji wants local communities to take the lead on development — and the Aga Khan Foundation USA that he now leads is ready to help. Appointed CEO in October 2015 after leaving the World Bank where he headed the Innovation Labs, Walji hopes to help build long-term institutions and opportunities through innovative finance.

Aga Khan Foundation USA is a “nondenominational organization” and part of the Aga Khan Development Network, which is active in over 30 countries with 90 percent of staff locally recruited. The foundation implements community-driven solutions and focuses on four thematic areas: rural development, health, education and civil society. Its work is “underpinned by the ethical principles of Islam,” but it “does not restrict its work to a particular community, country or region,” Walji told Devex.

According to Walji, the foundation’s work is especially crucial now, when tensions and conflicts are spreading throughout the Muslim world, where Aga Khan works most closely. “We work in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, East Africa, West Africa,” he said. These states’ and regions’ fragility and conflict “makes the work that we do more challenging but it also makes [it] more important,” he said.

In an exclusive interview, Walji told Devex about the future priorities of the foundation, which plays the “unusual” role of grant-maker and implementer, committed to building the resilience of communities.

Devex also asked Walji about the challenges and opportunities working directly in the community and building effective partnerships. Here are some highlights from that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your priorities for the next few years? What innovative approaches and programs do you expect to launch and implement?

The way in which we operate is very consistent with the principles of human-centred design: You start not with the project, not with institutions, but with the needs of the communities themselves. We are embedded in the country where we are. In every one of the countries we are working, we have offices. One of the strategies to deal with challenges [such as building communities’ resilience] is that we co-design, co-create projects with the communities themselves based on their priorities. They play a key role and drive the projects and the institutions that are created.

One way to increase the likelihood of success is to be driven by the end users, driven by the beneficiaries. Beneficiary is not a good term; it is a partnership with the community to improve the quality of their own life. And the quality of life is not [only] about one dimension: It is not about a water scheme, it is not about a school, or not about micro financial program. We deliberately focus on what we call multi-input development. Let’s focus on need of the communities from the perspective of the communities in a holistic way.

What are the difficulties, obstacles or the challenges in working directly with the communities? What are the strategies to make this relationship a success?

We take a very, very long-term view. That means you have to build and underwrite the institutions, like hospitals and schools. Donors often don’t want to pay for institutions; donors don’t often want to pay for a program that has a 20-year horizon. We have to find ways to help to underwrite those costs — innovative ways to finance.

Unlike a traditional request for proposal, where we respond to somebody who tells us “we want to do health in Pakistan,” or “we want to find a contractor or somebody that is willing to do teacher education in Afghanistan,” we say, based on what we know about the country, based on what we know about the community, we articulate the priorities of the country and go to an agency like the [U.S. Agency for International Development] and present a proposal to do something that is directly in response to the needs.

The second thing is innovative finance. Impact investing is one vehicle that has gotten attention in recent years. If you are willing to take a long-term perspective, what would that look like? In Central Asia, for example, we have the University of Central Asia, which is a university with campuses in three countries. These are institutions that [can] cost hundred millions of dollar to build. We can’t go to a foundation or a development agency like USAID and expect to be able underwrite the costs of the institution. What we have been able to do in recent years [instead] is to go to overseas private investment corporations and say, if we would [put] some of our own resources on the table as the U.S. entity, would you be willing … to help underwrite the cost of the university or of a hospital?

What are your next steps?

Anytime a new leader comes in, you have an opportunity to take a step back and ask, are our resources aligned with our priorities? Resources include time, people and money.

My approach is to do that in a very deliberate way: Are we heading in the right direction? Do we have the right people? [By asking these questions,] we increase the likelihood of getting [where] we want to get. That is the challenge we have for the next months.

We are living in a world right now where instability is infectious but so is hope. If we can turn many of the countries in which we work into [places] of opportunity, then hope can grow and flourish. That is why I came. It is because I am inspired by the mission of the organization, I am inspired by how we work with communities at the local level to be able to hear their priorities, build upon their challenges, [help] unleash their potential and to build for hope and for good in the world.

What added value does your foundation bring to the development community in this specific moment?

Although we work with all communities, regardless of their religious background, we are anchored in the Muslim world. Much of the work that we do is in the Muslim world. And much of what we do is in countries that are unstable. We have decades of experience, knowledge of the environment, and credibility with governments, communities and the private sector. So I feel we are in a unique position to work in those environments and to be partner of choice working with European development agencies, as well as Canadians and Americans.

A lot of resources that we mobilize come from North America and Europe. We work in a nondenominational way. We can work with communities with all different backgrounds and we understand them. We are not “flying out experts.” We understand the context and we have a very long-term commitment.

By building long-term institutions, you also demonstrate to the country and the communities in which we work [that] we are not going anywhere. Syria is a country, as an example, [where] even during the war we had not left. We’re still there. We are not going anywhere.

What are in the biggest pitfalls to be avoided in the areas and countries where Aga Khan Foundation is active, particularly in complex communities in which there are conflicts and instability?

If we assume that we know the answer from outside, that will be a mistake. We have to rely on local intelligence. We have to rely on a local partners; we have to rely on the communities themselves that tell us what are the most important things we can do to improve the quality of their lives.

We need to be very mindful that it is the community themselves that know best. They are willing to drive their destiny and our job is enable and to support them.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Io

    Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.