SDGs and Pakistan

Quality Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Part 4


In the series of blogs, I explored the challenges of Pakistan concerning development and education, and the prospects and limits of the SDGs in understanding and addressing the challenges. The previous blog (part 3) highlighted some key priorities of the Aga Khan schools in Chitral, Pakistan, dealing with SDG 4 (quality education), including the targets for access, early childhood development, gender equality, and quality education. In this blog, I discuss three enrichment programs (PrISM Curriculum, Middle School Program, and International School Award) being implemented in the Aga Khan schools that bring global perspectives to education in Chitral’s local context. An enrichment program refers to school activities to extend student learning beyond their main course of study. I argue that these programs contribute to improving the quality of education at the Aga Khan schools by bringing awareness and understanding of the various SDGs, including the goals for health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and environment (SDG 13, 14, and 15). In doing so, I articulate how these programs contribute to the SDG agenda, which guides this series of blogs.

Education in Aga Khan schools: enrichment programs and the SDGs

­The Aga Khan schools in Pakistan follow the National Curriculum of Pakistan. In Pakistan, textbooks are the most commonly used resources for curriculum implementation. Curricular programs taught in both public and private schools in Pakistan promote rote-learning, with little emphasis on promoting critical thinking skills among students. The assessment system drives the teaching and learning practices; teachers teach students to pass the examinations. There are 32 education boards in Pakistan administering tests at the secondary (IX-X) and higher secondary (XI-XII) levels. Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB) is the only private sector Pakistan-based board established in 2003 to enhance education standards. As compared to the other boards, the AKU-EB examinations focus on assessing conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Critical thinking is an ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking and think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas.

Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) plans to affiliate its schools with the AKU-EB to enhance their achievement standards. So far, 6 schools in Chitral (out of the 21 high and higher secondary schools) have successfully switched to AKU-EB, 15 are with the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education Peshawar for examinations.

To supplement the curriculum, the Aga Khan schools implement different enrichment programs. Below, I look at three enrichment programs that bring global dimensions to education and enrich student learning. These programs include the Personal, Intellectual, Social, and Moral (PrISM) curriculum, Middle School Program (MSP), and International School Award (ISA).

PrISM Curriculum

AKESP developed an enrichment program titled PrISM curriculum for the holistic development of children. Under this program, different activities are integrated with subject areas to develop various aspects of personal, intellectual, social, and moral development. The program also incorporates the Aga Khan Academies Curricular Strands, including ethics, pluralism, respect for cultures, particularly the contributions of Muslim civilisations, the importance of governance and civil society, and an understanding of economics for development. These strands are core components of the Aga Khan Academies being established in the developing world, in African and Asian countries. The academies are part of AKES, intending to develop future leaders who can build their respective societies. These five areas are integrated into the PrISM curriculum as cross-cutting themes in personal, intellectual, social, and moral developmental areas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Integration of AK strands in PrISM (AKESP 2016, p. 7)

The program is implemented in the classrooms integrating with the relevant themes of core subject areas from Year III-XII.  Promoting pluralism is a crucial feature of the PrISM curriculum. His Highness, the Aga Khan, has articulated the concept in the following manner:

Developing support for pluralism does not occur naturally in human society. It is a concept which must be nurtured every day, in every forum – in large and small government and private institutions; in civil society organisations working in the arts, culture, and public affairs, in the media; in the law, and in justice – particularly in terms of social justice, such as health, social safety nets and education; and in economic justice, such as employment opportunities and access to financial services. (Aga Khan, 2010)

Due to this emphasis, the schools try to develop pluralistic values among the students. One of the school heads relates that the PrISM activities provide ample opportunities for students to reflect on several important values and skills. She notes:

The PrISM helps students develop a positive disposition towards learning and prepares them for the future. The activities help students visualise how the future will be for them as global citizens. Students come from different backgrounds and are diverse in their gender, ability, culture, and religious values. For instance, students involved with the PrISM program respect diversity, culture, faiths, traditions, and individual personalities. (School head 1, personal communication).

This indicates that the Aga Khan schools make conscious efforts to promote pluralistic values among the students.

Students of Aga Khan school working in groups (source)

One of the education leaders who participated in my research project equates PrISM with the concept of training and upbringing, what he calls tarbiat in the Urdu language. He works in a field office of AKEP and is responsible for supporting 20 Aga Khan schools in Chitral. He states: 

PrISM focuses on one of the crucial aspects of education, what we call tarbiat. For me, education without proper tarbiat is worthless. We concentrate on  student holistic development through this curriculum – ethical, social, intellectual, and moral. (Education leader 1, personal communication)

School leaders interviewed in my study felt that the program has a significant impact on students. One notes:

I receive positive reflections from the students. They find the program relevant and useful. Students actively participate in the activities. For instance, a group of students drew a family and had a powerful presentation of the local cultural values. In reflection, they wrote about their life, what type of environment they grew up in, their background, and how local communities live. Teachers sit with them to discuss the reflections. (School head 3, personal communication)

From above, it is evident that teachers and students try to contextualise the learning process by bringing in activities/examples from their daily lives.

The overview of the activities of the PrISM curriculum shows that they contribute to “Education for sustainable development and global citizenship” (target 4.7) that focuses on acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. As an education leader working at the AKESP office states:

PrISM covers themes like sustainable development, human rights, gender equity, global citizenship, cultural diversity, and pluralism -universal ideas to promote peaceful citizenship nationally and globally. Pluralism is among the significant components of AKDN development philosophy. Our schools embrace diversity in its true spirit – not only respecting differences but also valuing them. (Educational leader 2, personal communication)

PrISM’s activities address ‘education for sustainable development,’ a transformative target of the SDG 4. The activities enable the learners to make informed decisions and take actions for sustainable development.  

Middle School Program (MSP)

AKESP collaborates with the AKU-EB to implement the Middle School Program (MSP) in the Aga Khan schools. The MSP is a project-based experiential form of learning that emphasises interdisciplinary learning by applying knowledge in real-world situations. The MSP is rolled out in Years VI to VIII  integrating across key curricular areas such as English, Science, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Urdu to develop 21st-century skills. The term 21st-century skills refer to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are considered critically important for student success in education and beyond school life in careers and workplaces. It aims to bridge gaps in the existing curriculum, which is predominantly knowledge driven. Through MSP, schools aim to develop 21st-century skills among students to prepare them for success in the Year IX-X and Year XI-XII examinations and build life skills.

MSP mainly focuses on developing competencies such as Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Interpersonal Skills and Teamwork. These skills can be categorised into three categories: learning skills, literacy skills, and life skills, as shown in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Three categories of 21st-century skills: source

The MSP serves as a bridging program to prepare the Aga Khan school students for the AKU-EB examinations. As indicated in the earlier section, the assessment practices of AKU-EB are more conceptual and involves critical thinking. AKU-EB exemplifies an indigenous educational movement, emphasising concept-based learning and a conscious rejection of rote memorisation that plagues many Pakistani schools today.

The Aga Khan schools implementing MSP speak high of the program. A school head of an Aga Khan school comments on the program:

MSP is project-based learning. Students are engaged in practical work. They are involved in projects and carry out creative work. The activities focus on 21st-century skills like communication, collaboration, leadership skills, etc. (School head 1, personal communication)

The comments indicate that the program activities allow students to go beyond textbooks and learn essential skills. Another school head describes how the MSP prepares schools to improve quality. He highlights the challenges related to enhancing the quality and meeting the AKU-EB standards. He comments:

Moving to AKU-EB will have a significant impact on the quality of education in our schools. It is a considerable shift for us. We must ensure a provision of good quality teachers, regular professional support, supervision. Also, it requires a close working of teachers, parents, students, and home to prepare the students to meet the required standards. But we cannot force schools to switch to AKU-EB haphazardly without allowing them to improve in quality. We recently experienced a disastrous situation, where we affiliated some of our schools with AKU-EB, and the students badly failed to produce good results. MSP has helped start the process in an early stage (School head 2, personal communication).

In short, the MSP program is expected to develop 21st-century skills among students and enable Aga Khan schools to meet the AKU-EB’s assessment standard. The school head mentioned several problems with the transition, the key being “good quality teachers.” MSP contributes to SDG 4, among others, by developing 21st-century skills among the students.

International School Award (ISA)

The AKESP collaborates with the British Council (BC) Pakistan to implement the International School Award (ISA) in Aga Khan Schools. The BC is an international organisation of the United Kingdom working for promoting cultural and educational opportunities across 100 countries and has been working in Pakistan since 1948. The award program helps schools enrich learning and teaching by introducing international education into the curriculum and embedding it with the school culture. The activities include projects focusing on the SDGs and collaboration with other schools nationally and internationally.

International School Award logo source

The Aga Khan schoolteachers receive training through BC Pakistan on integrating the SDGs with the curriculum and instruction. The activities mainly address the goals for health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), and environment (SDG 13, 14, and 15).  The components of the ISA are shown in Table 1:

Embedding International Work
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)Young people and educators build an awareness of SDGs, which countries adopted on 25 Sep 2015, in a bid to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.
• Schools to run activities that introduce the SDGs to young people
• Young people share information about their local context with partner schools
• Educators identify a need to introduce an SDG in teaching and learning
­­Enriching EducationEducators build awareness of practices in other schools
• Educators identify priority areas of practice and introduce an SDG which is linked with it
• Educators share information about education practices with their partner schools
International School EthosSchools embed their international work into their environment
• Schools review their international activity and assess the development of young people and educators
• Schools commit more resources to their international coordinator and international policy
• Schools carry out more activities with their partner schools
Table 1: Components of the ISA (source)

The school heads who took part in my research project repeatedly mentioned ISA as an essential project. One school head comments:

Our students are doing different activities on the SDGs. There are various topics/themes related to various SDGs. For example, suppose a theme is an environment or plantation; it is integrated into the teaching of science.. Students then share their work with other students in the partner schools nationally and internationally. For instance, one class was learning the Sindhi language from a school in Sindh province on Skype. In another exercise, students worked on the theme of human rights; they arranged a wall in the school and displayed their ideas about their role in creating awareness about human rights. Also, they showed a variety of pictures and quotes from/ about the people who contributed to human rights. A large number of parents participated in the event. (School head 1, personal communication)

It is evident from above that through participating in ISA, the Aga Khan schools develop partnerships with other schools and learn from each other’s experiences. Another school head argues that the program’s activities enhance student learning experiences about the global SDGs framework. Responding to a question about the relevance of the SDGs to the school context, he  comments:

All the 17 goals are relevant. Many of the themes stressed in the SDGs need to be pursued in schools. AKESP’s priorities and the SDGs, specifically SDG 4 targets, are similar…We all need to follow the SDGs and deliver to the plan as much as possible (School head 2, personal communication).

It is evident that the schools take ownership of the program considering the activities relevant to enhancing student learning.

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Aga Khan schools win International School Awards: source


In this blog, I examined how the ISA, MSP, and PrISM programs contribute to student learning, bringing international dimensions to their knowledge in the local context. Through these programs, the Aga Khan schools create awareness and sensitivity among students about global issues that constitute the SDGs agenda.  Howeverer, the SDGs are not the only framework that guides the development agenda withing AKDN. AKDN’s own development approach is a much broader that that thoroughly covers various aspects of SDGs, particularly SDG 4.

While the SDGs offer useful insights and provide a framework for action in the postcolonial context of Pakistan. As such, the agenda seems to be limited in providing a genuinely transformative plan. As a result, since the inception of the SDGs, Pakistan’s performance has consistently deteriorated over time. Pakistan ranked 115th in 2016, 117th in 2017, 122nd in 2018, 130th in 2019. According to the latest Human Development Report 2020, Pakistan ranks 154th out of the 189 countries. In education, UNESCO’s projections suggest that in Pakistan one in four children will not be completing primary school by the deadline of 2030.

In the next series of blogs, I will be looking at educational leadership and the agenda for quality and inclusive education at the Aga Khan schools in Chitral, Pakistan.

SDGs and Pakistan

Quality and Inclusive Education for All: The Aga Khan Schools and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

                                                         Part 3


In the previous blog (part 2), I introduced the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). I looked at its contributions to development and education in Pakistan with a particular reference to the Aga Khan Schools operated by the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) in remote and underserved regions such as Chitral.

In this blog, drawing on the data from my PhD research project, I discuss some of the priorities of the Aga Khan Schools for educational development in Chitral in particular, and Pakistan in general. In doing so, I analyse how the Aga Khan Schools’ efforts contribute to the Education 2030 agenda articulated in SDG 4, aiming to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

SDG 4 targets: source

Aga Khan Schools in Chitral: priorities for education development, and the SDG 4

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 highest fulfillment. Within this faith-inspired vision for educational development, the students are expected to use knowledge/education to improve their standard of life and that of the community and the wider society.

With the core purpose of “reaching out to inspire better lives,” the Aga Khan Schools  offer quality education, in line with  the AKESP  vision –  “a dynamic learning organisation achieving excellence.” The education in these schools contributes to AKDN’s broader goal of improving the quality of life of individuals and their communities. I have previously discussed that within AKDN, quality of life and education goes beyond the neoliberal logic of economic benefits to embrace a broad approach to life (see part 2). In their educational endeavours, the schools are encouraged to follow distinct values such as “respect, fairness, integrity, passion, rigor and creativity.” These schools aim to produce young people who are ”confident, critically conscious, creative, lifelong learners, who are active and ethical citizens for the pluralist world.”

Mission, vision and core purpose display in an Aga Khan School in Chitral 

With these objectives and values in mind, AKESP sets priorities for education at organisational levels for the network of Aga Khan Schools. These priorities shape the programs and practices of all schools. The schools in Chitral initially addressed the acute need for girls’ education and then broadened their focus to education for all. One of the Aga Khan School heads, who took part in my research project, indicates the schools’ evolving priorities over time:

AKESP started with a few primary schools, specifically for girls’ education. Over time, the organisational priorities expanded from sole girls’ education to quality education for all girls and boys. At present, both girls and boys get an education at a ratio of 50:50. Girls’ education remains the primary concern. After taking in all the girls, the schools offer boys admission up to 50% of the schools’ total enrolment, but not at girls’ expense. (School head 1, personal communication, Aug 5, 2019).

Aga Khan School in a remote valley in Chitral

As this discussion illustrates, gender equity has always been a concern and a priority for Aga Khan schools. The organisational policies (e.g., the school equity policy) direct the schools to ensure “equitable access to girls and boys” and to “eliminate gender discrimination by promoting gender equity [through] all the programs, practices and procedures” (School policy document, 2016, p. 45). AKESP’s practices have led to a shift in parental attitudes over recent decades. There is some degree of increased acceptance of the importance of girls’ education in the community. However, some schools still face issues from parents with regard to their gender equity practices. The broader cultural norms in Chitral, like the broader cultural context in Pakistan, favour boys as compared to their female siblings. Boys enjoy more autonomy and privileges, whether it is ownership of family property or investment in access to quality education. One of the school heads notes:

Despite decades of community mobilisation campaigns of the AKDN institutions, we face issues from the community. Many parents challenge me, arguing for boys’ admission. In this culture, boys are the breadwinners, while girls marry and leave their parents. If I compromise on the admission policy, the school will turn into a boys’ school. (School head 3, personal communication, Aug 26, 2019)

To tackle the issue, the Aga Khan Schools put girls’ admission at the forefront.  One school head argues that preferencing girls is a strategy to ensure gender equity/equality. In the absence of such stringent practices, the social and cultural norms in communities would marginalise girls:   

For me,  increasing girls’ education is equated to gender equity. AKESP’s efforts that started back in the 1980s are continuing, targeting to bring more girls to school; otherwise, we cannot ensure gender equality. (School head 2, personal communication, Aug 23, 2019)

Girl students in an Aga Khan School : source

AKESP’s gender equity practices address target 4.5 of the SDG 4, which aims to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.” This blog is addressing SDG 4, but it is important to acknowledge here that it is the SDG 5, which dedicatedly addresses gender equality.

Another of the Aga Khan Schools’ key features is focusing on early childhood education and development (ECED). The schools provide an inclusive environment for learning and development to children from the age of three within the school premises. In some cases, the schools make alternate arrangements for ECED closer to the communities known as satellite campuses. At the national level, AKESP runs a three-year pre-primary program: pre-primary I, II, and III, for the students aged 2– 3, 3 – 4, and 4–5, respectively. In the Chitral region, the schools run a two-year pre-primary program, pre-primary II and III, for children aged 3 to 5. Running pre-primary I is not feasible because children aged 2 – 3 cannot access schools due to the rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions.

The emphasis on ECED is based on recognising that the early years are critical for children’s development. The inspiration for ECED primarily comes from His Highness, the Aga Khan himself, as one of the school heads argues:

More than 75% of a child’s brain development occurs at an early age. The Imam himself repeatedly urged for ECED. He advised his followers about its importance during his last visit to Chitral. In his role as the spiritual leader, the Imam could have talked about many theological matters, which are fundamental in faith. Yet, he spoke about education, emphasising quality education, and especially the ECED. (School head 3, personal communication, Aug 23, 2019)

A school head working in a remote valley of Upper Chitral describes the importance of ECED:

The early age is a crucial period for the children for their learning and overall development. Therefore, the organisation invests a lot in providing resources, both human and materials. Our long-term goal is to provide ECED access to 100% of the children in our target communities. A huge target to achieve only through the Aga Khan Schools. Therefore, we work with other AKDN agencies, the communities, and other civil society organisations. (School head 1, personal communication, Aug 28, 2019)

A teacher facilitating pre-primary students: source

Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan have two key goals focused on ECED experiences. These include preparing early-year students for a smooth transition to the next level and increasing access to quality education. The ECED practices of AKESP directly address target 4.2 of the  SDG 4, “ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”

One of the crucial reasons why many children, particularly girls, cannot access education in many rural areas in Pakistan is a lack of schools. However, in Chitral, public and private schools have seen significant growth during recent decades. As a result, the primary focus of the Aga Khan Schools has recently shifted to ensuring quality and inclusive education. A school head states:

Access to school is not an issue at present. The real problem now is the quality of education the schools offer. Our schools now strive to provide quality education. We need to equip students with such an education to cope with the complexities of the 21st-century. The school’s mission and vision [pointing at the display board] define our aspirations very clearly. (School head 3, personal communication, Aug 23, 2019)

Aga Khan School in a remote village in Chitral: source

For improving the quality of education, the AKESP continues to focus on inducting quality teachers and school heads and on their continuing professional development. Concurrently, the organisation strengthens support mechanisms to schools and has been upgrading infrastructure and teaching resources, including Information and Communication Technologies(ICT). Due to these developments/improvements, the Aga Khan Schools continued to facilitate student learning through various remote learning programs during the pandemic in most schools in the remote valleys of Chitral and the nearby region of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

In this blog I looked at some of the organisational priories for Aga Khan Schools and their relevance to SDG 4. In the next blog, I will discuss some of the enrichment programs that aim to address certain goals, bringing a particular global perspective to education trends into the local context. In doing so, I articulate how these programs contribute to the SDG agenda which guides this series of blogs.

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.

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 1)


Over the next couple of months, I will be writing a series of blog posts on the challenges facing Pakistan in relation to development and education, and the prospects and limits of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a way of understanding and addressing these challenges.

In this first blog, I introduce Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state; this is important for understanding and contextualising ongoing challenges to development and education in the country. I then discuss the SDGs’ agenda and its relevance to the discourse of development and especially to education in Pakistan.

The subsequent blog will focus on the role of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and more specifically the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) in contributing to development and education in some of the remote, isolated, and marginalised regions of Pakistan such as the two districts of Chitral – Upper Chitral and Lower Chitral – in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

I write these blogs drawing on my Ph.D. research project entitled Educational Leadership and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Postcolonial Pakistan. This project explores opportunities and challenges for educational leaders in delivering on the promise of quality and inclusive education in the Aga Khan Schools in Chitral, Pakistan.

Postcolonial Pakistan: challenges for development at the start of the 21st century

Pakistan became a separate Islamic nation-state as a result of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent at the end of the British colonial rule in India in 1947. It is a country of more than 214 million people.  There are four provinces – Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan – and two self-governing territories under Pakistan’s control -Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan in present Pakistan (see map below). The population consists of diverse ethnic groups, mainly Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Saraikis, Muhajirs, Baloch along with many other smaller groups. Majority of the population, around 96.03%, is Muslim and the rest comprises of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Sikhs, Parsis, Kalash, Buddhists, and Jains.

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As a postcolonial state, Pakistan has confronted numerous challenges since its inception. Poverty, overpopulation, corruption, poor governance, political instability, illiteracy, terrorism, tensions with India, and within-state religious and sectarian tensions, and a string of natural disasters (earthquakes and floods) are the core challenges for the country.

The initial challenge of dealing with the cross-border mass migration was caused due to the hasty formation of separate Muslim and Hindu states Pakistan and India, that left many thousands of people living on the ‘wrong’ side of the border. This challenge was rooted in Britain’s colonial policy of divide and rule in handling the subcontinent’s Hindu and Muslim subjects. When people struggled to get into the nation of their religious majority, violence broke out and thousands of people suffered from brutal killings and looting on both sides of the border. Between fourteen to sixteen million people were forced to leave amidst killings of around one million and some commentators have argued provocatively, that this was the first large-scale incidence of ethnic cleansing in the world (see Reid and Burky). The proportion of the Muslim population in the newly established country increased from 75% to 95% as a result of mass migration. Since partition, Pakistan and India have fought wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 and tensions continue to exist on the borders.

The state assumed that Islam as a common religion would provide a shared identity to the diverse ethnic groups leading to national cohesion and harmony. However, despite this effort, various ethnic, linguistic and sectarian tensions continued to plague the country. The ethnic and linguistic differences led to the split of the country and the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1971.

Situated in a hostile neighborhood, the perceived threats emanating from a hostile India and an unfriendly Afghanistan, have fuelled military spending in Pakistan. This has diverted huge resources to defense at the cost of the development of the people. Such a defense-centric policy has strengthened the military institution at the cost of other political and bureaucratic institutions by giving the defense forces a central place in access to resources, decision-making as well as privileges. The military has directly ruled the country for 35 years through frequent coups at different points in time. None of the elected Prime Ministers, except once, has been able to complete the tenure of office, and political governments remain keen to enlist the military’s goodwill. The prevailing corruption in politics and the bureaucracy, and the politicians’ attempts to bolster their own power by inviting the military to take over the reign of power are major factors in preventing democracy from flourishing in the country.

Population growth is a major challenge for development. There are serious concerns about the validity of the official figures pertaining to the current population and the actual population is said to be much higher. World Population Review 2020 reports a population of more than 222 million, a doubling from 1990 to 2019. As a result Pakistan’s ranking moved from 8th to 5th largest in the world. The unprecedented population growth contributes to slow economic growth, unemployment, and consequently to poverty in the country. With the current rate of growth, the population of the country is expected to reach 403 million by 2050.

It can be argued that some of Pakistan’s problems have their roots in the colonial past and that these create legacies in policies and practices in the present time. As a postcolonial state, Pakistan inherited the existing colonial structures and systems in fields including civil service, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, and education. The colonial structure and systems continue to exist and influence until the present time at the expense of a truly participatory, self-conceived, and self-directed development model for the country. As a result, the country presents a picture of a complex postcolonial nation-state, posing severe challenges for development and education.

The SDGs, education, and development in Pakistan

In light of the key challenges confronting the country, the SDGs are relevant to the discourse of development and especially to education in Pakistan. The SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets, constituting a global framework for sustainable development through addressing extreme poverty, inequalities, and protecting the environment. The promise for

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education is articulated in the form of SDG 4 that seeks to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Pakistan demonstrated its commitment to the agenda in October 2015 by becoming the first country in the world to adopt the SDGs as its national development agenda and having endorsed by the parliament. In this context, the SDGs shape the development discourse in Pakistan in relation to the challenges confronting the country.

The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees education as a fundamental right of all citizens. The Article 25A of the Constitution states that: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” The public sector caters to the educational needs of 57% of the students as compared to 43% in the private sector. However, the performance of public sector education has been poor. Pakistan has been persistently performing poorly on all major education indicators; access to education, enrolment, literacy and numeracy, retention and completion, financial and human resource, learning environment, and governance of the school.

The adult literacy rate is 62.3% comprising 72.5% males and 51.8% females, with substantial disparities on criteria such as geography, the rural-urban divide, socio-economic status, and disability. The total number of school-aged children (5 – 16 years) is 51.53 million, and of these 28.68 million are attending school, while  22.84 million children do not attend school. This makes Pakistan the world’s second-highest in terms of out-of-school children, 44% of the cohort population being in this category.

Apart from access to education, the quality of education children receive is worrisome. Many of the children attending school suffer from a ‘learning crisis’ or ‘ learning poverty’ which means students in schools are not learning basic literacy and numeracy. This problem is more severe in Pakistan when compared to other low-or middle-income countries. For instance, 75% of children attending schools in Pakistan cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10, as compared to the overall average of 58% for South Asia.

Addressing the problem of access and quality is critical to progress towards the broader agenda of an inclusive, quality for all agenda as envisioned in SDG 4. It is encouraging to note that the current National Education Framework attempts to contextualise the agenda for education at the national, provincial, and district level for effective implementation. This framework sets out four strategic priorities for immediate action

  1. addressing the issue of out-of-school-children;
  2. bringing uniformity in education standards;
  3. improving the quality of education; and
  4. enhancing access to and relevance of skills training.

Many schools, particularly in the rural context, suffer from lack of basic infrastructure and resources. Public investment in education is minimal and has remained around 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) against a notional commitment of 4 % and the recommendation of 4 to 6% of GDP or 15 to 20% of the total public expenditure in the Incheon Declaration. A large portion of the allocated budget for education (92%) is spent on salaries, and even the remaining funds dedicated to development such as school facilities, training, monitoring and supervision, and curriculum development, is not spent efficiently due to poor decision-making, failure to empower educational leaders working in school and district education offices as well as poor management and governance. Historically, educational governance and management have been poor in the country. Due to the low performance of public sector education, parents preferred private sector schools. However, during the past few years, there have been some improvements in the public education sector in terms of upgrading facilities, ensuring teachers’ presence through the biometric system, and induction of teachers based on merit. These improvements have meant increased enrolments in the public education sector and a decrease in the private education sector (see ASER-Pakistan report). The increased number of students in public schools indicates the confidence of parents in the school public sector education.  


Given these challenges for Pakistani education, the SDGs provide an opportunity for collective action and reflection on the local needs and priorities in the global context. Pakistan has shown enthusiasm to adopt the SDGs at its own development goals based on national and international commitments. However, the state’s policies historically fall short in the implementation phase. Pakistan has not been able to meet its commitments in any of the previous national education policies. Likewise, international commitments have not been met. For instance, Pakistan failed to achieve the goal for the Education For All (EFA) and lies at the bottom in the region (South Asia) on the EFA Development Index. The targets not achieved in EFA are now part of the SDGs’ agenda. In the implementation phase, progress has been very slow even though it has been five years since the SDGs were adopted. The 2020 Sustainable Development Report, shows that Pakistan stands at 134th out of 166 countries in the SDG Index Score with 56.2 scores against the regional score of 67.2 for East and South Asia. This progress is based on data collected before the outbreak of the pandemic. When the impact of the COVID-19 is accounted for, the situation maybe even worse than shown in the report. For achieving the SDGs agenda the government must focus on the implementation of the plan at the national, provincial, and district levels.    

My next blog (Part 2) will focus on 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 in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.