Michael Kocher, general manager of the Aga Khan Foundation. Photo by: AKF

In the last decade, the upheavals of the Arab Spring, the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of religious extremist groups in many parts of the world have redrawn the development map.

In response, international donors have poured money into countries upended by these forces, where they hope it can contribute to stability and international security.

The Aga Khan Foundation  — one of the Aga Khan Development Network’s 10 “sister agencies” — was present in many of these places well before foreign aid agencies began to consider “countering violent extremism” central to their strategies. Many of AKF’s programs, which range across 16 countries, are in tough neighborhoods. The foundation, founded in 1967, began its work in northern Pakistan. It’s largest program today is in Afghanistan.

Violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram in West Africa, al-Shabab in East Africa, al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State groups in parts of the Middle East threaten state security and development progress in the countries where they continue to operate.

Devex caught up with Michael Kocher, AKF’s general manager, in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, at the inauguration of the University of Central Asia, another Aga Khan initiative. UCA is an international, secular university, chartered by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and by the Aga Khan. It aims to build a world class educational institution dedicated to mountain development with campuses in each of the three cities.

We asked Kocher what it takes to manage a development organization with a long-term stake in a complex region — where security, politics, and international attention can change quickly.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation with Kocher, lightly edited for clarity.

In the places where AKF is working violent extremism has changed the picture in significant ways. What kinds of changes are you seeing in the places where you operate?

Without question. Northern Afghanistan some years ago was one of the more stable areas in Afghanistan, and now it’s quite vulnerable. At the same time though northern Pakistan, the same number of years ago, was much more volatile than it is now. It’s not out of the woods, [but] we are able to go to places and work in places, [that to me] me as a Westerner … were not so accessible. I think over time development, government engagement, civil society are making strides. The vulnerabilities are many, and we’re clearly in a period of great uncertainty … Civil society, broadly, must be and is one of the most effective ways for human society to advance, hopefully to become more peaceful, stable.

Has the escalating rhetoric and attention being paid to countering violent extremism compelled AKF to work differently, or do you just stay the course?

No, no. We stay the course. We’ve been doing youth development and livelihoods and education for a long time. These are fundamental things to development. We’re not political. We’re impartial. But at the same time you don’t work in these geographies without being very mindful. What it has done is, obviously we have to pay ever greater attention. The amount of time one spends on security issues is significant and increasing. But I wouldn’t say that these things are fundamentally changing. There’s long been a commitment to pluralism, to women and girls, education of girls, engaging youth. I wouldn’t say it’s fundamentally changed.

It’s also not something that’s static. You constantly need to evaluate the programs you’re doing, in and of themselves, how they link, your impact — and the broader geopolitical realities. Monitoring and evaluation is harder. Sometimes you need remote management models. But we also are overwhelmingly — well over 99 percent of the team — national staff in the countries where we’re working. So, because we are of the community, it’s not like we’re going to suddenly close shop. In northern Afghanistan, or here [in Kyrgyzstan], or northern Pakistan, it is overwhelmingly Kyrgyz or Afghans or Pakistan nationals that are running and implementing the programs.

Would you say you’re primarily making security or programmatic decisions based on things you’re learning yourselves out in these communities, or are you responding to intelligence from other sources?

Certainly local knowledge is point one — context. You cannot address operational issues, including security, or logistics, or procurement, or whatever it is in a void. It’s all local. So we do engage heavily with communities, community acceptance, local staff to help us navigate. At the same time there are best practice things. I’ve worked for many years in these kinds of environments. I’ve spent much of my time in the field. You learn. We have a range of subject matter experts in the mix.

Is AKF diving into this conversation about the humanitarian-development nexus? I know that AKDN provided humanitarian aid to Tajikistan during the country’s civil war. It seems you would have that perspective as well.

Definitely, we do. It’s not a humanitarian-development divide. It’s a continuum. We respond to natural disasters or displacement, manmade or otherwise, in the places where we work. You need to have the sensibility and the capacity to do what’s required, and some of those are more proactive and planned, and others are reactive. We have a group called FOCUS, which is more of an emergency response. But even at AKF we have our own capacity to respond.

Development work, if good, is also building resilience. It’s anticipating, preparing. A critique I would have is that much more money is put into response than into preparation and prevention and resilience. The math is clear — you put “X” amount upstream and you can prevent a lot of suffering downstream.

It’s a very live conversation, and I think we are doing our bit in the broader space. You know the places where we work and what we do — unfortunately, these mountain societies, they are so subject to avalanche, to earthquake, in other parts of the world to drought. You have to design long-term work that hopefully is also helping to build capacities when those things happen.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.