SDGs and Pakistan

Postcolonial Pakistan and the Promise of Quality and Inclusive Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(Part 2)

Economic development… is certainly critical…Without doubt growth plays a central role in the increasing of human welfare and the dignity of life. But other dimensions and challenges to development play at least an equally important role. Unfortunately, many of them are not easily measured in conventional economic terms, nor addressed through usual economic programmes and policies. (Aga Khan IV 2003)


In the previous blog (Part 1), I introduced Pakistan as a postcolonial state, and shed light on some of its prevailing challenges with reference to contemporary discourse on development and the SDGs as the global framework. In this blog, I concentrate on introducing the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – its history, development approach, and contribution to development and education in Pakistan and particularly to some of the remote and underserved regions such as Chitral.

AKDN: history and development approach

AKDN – a network of development agencies, was founded and is led by His Highness the Aga Khan IV – the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Shia-Sunni split within Muslims occurred after the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over the issue of his succession. Within the Shia interpretation of Islam, Imamat (religious-spiritual leadership) is a fundamental concept that started from Ali – a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Over the years, the Shia community divided over the question of the rightfulness of their Imams. Ismailis are the second-largest Shia denomination with an eventful history and currently reside in over 25 countries. Since 1957, His Highness the Aga Khan IV has been leading this transnational Ismaili community whose population is estimated to be around 15 million.

As part of the mandate, the Imam not only interprets matters of faith but also accepts a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in his followers (the Ismaili community) and in societies among which the community lives (see AKF 2020). In this context, the Ismaili Imams have historically contributed to the development of faith as well as material development- din and dunia as the Aga Khan himself notes:

This engagement has been grounded in my responsibilities as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Community, and Islam’s message of the fundamental unity of “din and dunia”, of spirit and of life.  Throughout its long history, the Ismaili Imamat has emphasised the importance of activities that reflect the social conscience of Islam, that contribute to the well being of Allah’s greatest creation – mankind, and the responsibility which Islam places on the fortunate and the strong to assist those less fortunate. (Aga Khan IV 2003)

In this context, establishing modern institutions for development is rooted in the Ismaili Imamat’s efforts to address issues of the social and economic welfare of its marginalised community in 19th-century India (see Karim 2011). During this time, Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah, the Aga Khan III (the 48th Imam), emerged as an influential national and international leader. He represented India in 1932 at the League of Nations – the predecessor of the United Nations – and he also served as president of the League for a brief period.

Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah, Aga Khan III: source

Aga Khan III played a key role in the political struggle of South Asian Muslims. He was instrumental in many political and educational efforts for the development of the Muslim communities. For instance, he was actively involved in the Aligarh Movement which advocated a modern system of education for Muslims, resulting in the creation of Aligarh Muslim University. Aga Khan III was a founding member and the first president of the All-India Muslim League (1906 –1912) and among the Muslim leaders who founded Pakistan as a separate state through the platform the Muslim League.

Pakistan First Day Cover issued for Aga Khan III’s birth centenary on November 2, 1977: source

For the Ismailis in particular, his leadership was a period of significant modernisation and development. From the beginning of the 20th century, he established several institutions for the educational and economic development of the community in Asian and African countries. His successor, Shah Karim Al-Husseini, the Aga Khan IV built upon his work, and this eventually consolidated as a network of institutions and agencies under the banner of the Aga Khan Development Network in 1967.

Shah Karim Al-Hosseini, Aga Khan IV: IV: source

The overall goal of the AKDN is to improve the quality of life of the people in the countries and regions that it serves.  This goal goes beyond economic growth to address social and cultural development. Consequently, the AKDN has established an extensive network of agencies to address wide-ranging issues in the fields of education, health, culture, rural development, institution-building, tourism, architecture innovation, and promotion of economic development for improving living conditions and opportunities for some of the poor and underserved communities in Asia and African countries. The key components of the AKDN, and their complementarity, are shown in the diagram (figure) below:

AKDN organigramme: source

AKDN claims to have a  holistic and comprehensive development approach. This philosophy goes beyond material benefits/ poverty alleviation to address a more rounded view of human experience and aspirations. For AKDN, quality of life  “encompasses improvements in material standards of living, health and education and a set of values and norms which include pluralism and cultural tolerance, gender and social equity, civil society organisation and good governance” (see AKF 2020).  Each of its component organisations has its specific mandate, but they collaborate to achieve mutual goals in line with the conviction that “ successful development occurs when a continuum of development activities offers people in a given area not only a rise in incomes but a broad, sustained improvement in the overall quality of life” (See AKF 2020). Therefore, AKDN adopts a long-term approach and commitment to community development. To maximise the impact and sustain its development work, AKDN works closely with communities on the principle that “development is sustainable only if the beneficiaries become, in a gradual manner, the masters of the process” (Aga Khan 2002).

To address its broader development agenda, AKDN introduced the Multi-Input Area Development (MIAD) approach in which its various agencies integrate their activities intending to maximise the impact of interventions. This integrated approach contributes to sustainable improvement in the quality of life of the targeted communities through complementary social, economic, and cultural interventions. Over the years, the institutions of AKDN expanded in terms of institutions as well as global reach. Today AKDN  is one of the largest development agencies, working in over 30 countries, with 96,000 employees and with an annual budget of US$1,000 million (see AKF 2020).

Logos of AKDN and its agencies: image credit

AKDN claims that it does not limit its work to a particular community, country, or region, rather focuses on poor and underserved areas of the developing world (see AKF 2020). The Aga Khan (2005) notes “it [AKDN] is rooted in the ethics of our faith, and serves all the populations we seek to support, without regard to gender, race or faith”. Similarly, the employees of AKDN are from different faiths, origins, and backgrounds and a large number of them are non-Ismailis; “the fulcrum of the Network’s activities, however, remains the Ismaili Community – its traditions of volunteer service, self-reliance, generosity and the leadership of the hereditary Imam” (see AKDN 2007). The Ismaili community plays a major role in supporting and sustaining the work of the AKDN. At the same time, in many places – such as Pakistan – the Ismaili community is the major beneficiary of its work as well. 

AKDN and Education in Pakistan

Education constitutes a major focus of the AKDN’s development agenda. In the present era of neoliberal globalisation, development and education agendas are dominated by neoliberal rationalities/logic. Neoliberal globalisation is an economic model emphasising ‘free markets’ and ‘free trade’ decreased governmental regulation, privatisation, reduced government expenditure, and the lowering of barriers to international trade and investment (see Sniegocki 2008). This has resulted in the ‘economisation of education’ as well; where the goals of education are reduced to sole economic growth and increased productivity. From the postcolonial perspective, the increasing trend of neoliberal globalisation dominated by Eurocentrism calls for counter epistemologies. In this context, the discourse/narrative of Aga Khan IV on development and education, influencing the policies and practices of the AKDN institutions, provides an alternative perspective. Aga Khan IV specifies the purpose of education:

­World and faith are inseparable in Islam. Faith and learning are also profoundly interconnected. The Holy Qur’an sees the discovery of knowledge as a spiritual responsibility, enabling us to better understand and more ably serve God’s creation. Our traditional teachings remind us of our individual obligation to seek knowledge unto the ends of the earth – and of our social obligation to honor and nurture the full potential of every human life. (Aga Khan IV 2008)

In this sense education within AKDN is what Khoja-Moolji (2015)  calls a “faith-inspired vision of educational development. The Aga Khan’s narrative on education gets translated into practice through the agencies of the AKDN. Five of the AKDN agencies: Aga Khan Academies, Aga Khan Education Services, Aga Khan Foundation, Aga Khan University, and University of Central Asia have the mandate for education from early childhood to higher secondary, vocational to university degrees and continuing professional development, reaching 2 million students across 16 countries.

The Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) provides education from pre-primary to higher secondary and also facilitates tertiary education through scholarships, career support, and hostel provision. Most of the Aga Khan Schools and other services are diverted to remote and underserved communities in regions such as Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. The mission of AKESP is “to enable many generations of students to acquire both knowledge and the essential spiritual wisdom needed to balance that knowledge and enable their lives to attain the higher fulfillment” (see AKESP 2020).

Aga Khan School building in Chitral: photo credit

The history of Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan goes back to the early 1900s – the first school was established in Gwadar Baluchistan in 1905. In the 1940s, schools for girls’ education were established in the Gilgit-Baltistan region in commemoration of Aga Khan III’s diamond jubilee – completion of 60 years of Aga Khan III’s Imamat (1885 – 1945). He was a great advocate of education and particularly education for girls. He is noted to have said, “personally if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other a girl, and I could afford to educate only one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl” (Aga Khan III 1945). This quote has inspired the Ismaili community to educate their girls who otherwise suffered marginalisation in the traditional cultural norms. Today this saying of Aga Khan III can be seen displayed in many Aga Khan Schools in Chitral as well as other places.  

Aga Khan School building in Chitral: photo credit

At present AKESP is one of the largest private-sector education providers with 155 schools and 47,000 students and 5 hostels. Most of the Aga Khan Schools (147) are in the remote, isolated, and disadvantaged valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan (103) and Chitral (44) providing access to over 35,000 students, of whom 50% are female. These schools contributed significantly to the literacy and socio-economic conditions of these remote communities.

A teacher facilitating student learning in a Aga Khan School in Chitral: source

In Chitral, however, it took another 40 years to establish Aga Khan Schools due to certain unfavourable circumstances including a reluctance of the local rulers to allow opening schools. Also, education did not receive attention from the state until recently. As a result, Chitral remained miserably underserved in all aspects of development including education. As the two educational leaders working with AKEP in Chitral, who participated in my PhD research project, note:

Before we started our schools, there were no school, no opportunities for girls to get education in the district …. educating girls was a far dream, there were no schools, particularly female literacy rate was negligible in Chitral, it was only 2% [in 1980s].

(Education leader 1, personal communication, August 23, 2019)

When AKESP started its school in Chitral in the 1980s, the female literacy rate was 2%. It has now around 57%…AKESP has been a key contributor to girls’ education, particularly in the isolated and remote valleys. We claim to be the pioneer of girls’ schools in Chitral and have worked extensively on this issue… Otherwise, the status of female education would have been different; and perhaps the literacy rate would have reached 10%.

(Education leader 2, personal communication, August 23, 2019)

Students of a Aga Khan School in Chitral: source

According to the 1981 District Census Report Chitral, the adult literacy rate was just 12.7%: 21.9% for males, and 2.3% for females, and it has now reached 62% (72% male and 56 % female) (see Khan 1983). Aga Khan Schools have played a key role in improving the literacy rate in Chitral. There is a widespread perception that the Aga Khan Schools provide better education as compared to other schools. Therefore, parents prefer to send their children to Aga Khan Schools.        


AKDN institutions contribute to the development, and towards achieving the SDGs agenda (see Part 1 for SDGs) Pakistan converging its attention on the development and education of marginalised and underserved segments of the society. Each of its agencies with a specific mandate, address various issues and the associated SDGs. In education, consistent with the targets of the SDG4, inclusive and quality education for all is the goal of education at the Aga Khan Schools with a focus on access to education, pre-primary education, quality, gender equity, inclusion, and lifelong learning. In the next blog, I will look at some of the programmes that Aga Khan Schools in Chitral implement to integrate some key global trends in education (including the SDGs), in the local context of Chitral.

By Mir Zaman Shah

PhD scholar School of Education, RMIT University Melbourne Australia

8 replies on “Postcolonial Pakistan and the Promise of Quality and Inclusive Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(Part 2)”

The services of Aga Khan III and IV have been narrated in short paras. The way they have been introduced is very simple to understand. The services of AKDN agencies, in different sectors of life, tell a lot to the reader and the reader may assume as they were experiencing the services personally.
This write up describes how Ismailis got their existence and what they have offered to the people of different areas regardless of their sect, colours, religion and race.

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Beautifully articulated; the integrated approach of the AKDN is indeed a blessing for the underprivileged people of remote areas. Indeed, Aga Khan Education Service has been a game changer in the region and broader Pakistan.One of the the recent initiative of the service is to facilitative it’s students by offering modules on Self assessment, Career guidance and life skills; a new project called “student counseling and support program” is in place to meet the said objectives.AK schools are having student counselors and student support coordinators to run the new initiative.moreover, a distinct curriculum called the PrISM curriculum is there to develop students in terms of their Personal, intellectual, social and moral development along with mainstream academic activities. With all these unique aspect, the service is producing well-informed youth for the competitive world.


The scholar has rightly indicated the contributions of AKDN in the implementation of SDGs and socio-economic development of the people of Pakistan as a developing nation. AKDN impacting the quality of lives of the people of Pakistan by influencing government policies to improve the life standards through its community led approach in the sectors of health, education, rural development etc. Further, it also believes in public private partnership to ensure sustainable development activities. In addition, it supports government agencies to develop policies and in the implementation specially in the sectors of health and education. AKDN has been able to proof itself as a leading brand in the development sectors in Pakistan.

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Both in the colonial period and after independence, when these extremely mountainous northern parts of Pakistan were left behind in every sector particularly education. Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah took this burden on his shoulder to reach these communities through a fund. And this tradition continues. Change in education is visible and the lives of the local communities have transformed. I appreciate your effort in highlighting these milestones. I think SGDs are the later development and the tradition of transforming communities’ lives by AKDN institutions is history itself.

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Thank you Mir for narrating eloquently the history of Ismaili Imamat and the AKDN agencies in pursuit of transformational changes in lives of the most disadvantaged communities in the world particularly the vulnerable and underprivileged communities of Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral in Pakistan. My life experience is a live example of the transformation Aga Khan Education Service is bringing in the lives of women, their families and communities in Chitral and GB. AKES, P school came to my village Morder Upper Chitral in early 1980s and brought with it multiple avenues for educating and awakening parents and communities regarding importance of girls’ education particularly, and overall human development in general. I went to AKS Morder for my primary and middle schooling and after that never stopped being influenced by this great organization throughout my career. In short, I became the first girl from my entire village and community to go for higher education and earned my PhD degree and continue to strive to contribute to the development of the disadvantaged communities of Pakistan.
Further, I agree with you and esteemed commenters that the integrated approach of AKDN called Multi Input Area Development (MIAD), if used at larger scale have a potential to help achieve the maximum of SDGS not only in GBC, but also throughout Pakistan and similar contexts in developing countries.
Finally, my recommendation is, if possible also include critical theories like feminist and or feminist poststructuralist approach to further deepen your analysis of the existing practices, curriculum and related praxis used by AKES, P. This may help us first to problematize the concept of women empowerment in the postcolonial Pakistan, secondly, it may explore and highlight the existing gender discourses and how can education in general and women education in particular help transform gender equity discourses in our context. gender equality is the cross cutting theme in all the SDGS in general and SDG 4 particularly dedicates for equitable and quality education for all.


In this blog Services of Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) well narrated by the student. AKDN is one most popular known and not for profit organization around the globe.
AKDN provide quality services in Education, Health, Building and construction, Banking, Rehabilitation, Social Development, and many other sustainable developments in various sector of life without any biasedness. AKDN has a unique approach to ensure sustainable development working in collaboration with stake holders, communities, Govt. and non govt. organizations. Majority of the regions know AKDN for its quality services in every walk of life.


[…] enables AKESP to provide quality education to the most neglected communities with limited fee (see Mir Shah). A key factor of quality in some of the AKES schools is their affiliation with the Aga Khan […]


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