India, like all other developing countries, is a magnet for international NGOs. One of the older and better known non-profits is the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The latter has multiple agencies under its umbrella including AKF, Aga Khan Academies, Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Aga Khan Education Services, and Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development. Often, these sister agencies collaborate on projects even though they have separate mandates, the underlying idea being that within the overarching framework of AKDN, their work should reinforce one another.
Founded by Prince Shah Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, more than 60 years ago, AKDN works in over 30 countries, operates about 1,000 programmes and institutions, and employs approximately 80,000 people. AKDN’s annual budget for non-profit development activities is approximately $950 million.
In India, AKDN has a long history, dating back to 1905 when it established the first Aga Khan school in Mundra, Gujarat. It now operates in Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana.
Established in 1967, AKF focuses on issues and challenges faced by poor and marginalised communities and solves these for them by bringing together human, financial and technical resources. It attempts to do this by investing in people, expanding opportunities, and improving the quality of life, especially for women and girls, through an integrated, community-based, participatory approach. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, AKF is a field-based implementing organisation with presence in countries such as India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Kenya and Pakistan, among others. Its staff count worldwide is about 3,800 and average annual budget is $325 million.
AKF’s development approach is the multi-input area development (MIAD) which leverages the capabilities of AKDN agencies on multiple interventions to implement required solutions, whilst building linkages with public and private sector partners. Its programmes have historically focused on rural areas, on aspects such as rural savings and credit, natural resource management, infrastructure development, increased agricultural productivity, and human skills development. A key model for AKF is to implement local, community-led development approaches aligned with government programmes which can then be scaled up at the state and national level.
AKF’s multiple programmes
AKF was set up in India in 1978. It works mainly in three areas: health, education, and rural development. It also works to strengthen civil society institutions.
- Agriculture and food security: AKF collaborates with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme – India (AKRSP (I)) on natural-resource management and livelihood enhancement in villages. The objective is to support marginalised communities’ economic development as well as protect the environment.
Participatory governance and community engagement are integral to their approach to ensure local ownership. Economic conditions are improved through increasing productivity and strengthening linkages to agricultural traders and processors. For instance, an organic-cotton project in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh aims to improve the livelihoods of 7,000 tribal farmers.
The programme, launched in 1985, currently works in over 2,800 villages, claiming to benefit almost 1.6 million people in Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. As per a 2016 report, it has reached out to nearly 1.5 million people with natural resource and water management, alternative crops, and sprinkler irrigation.
- Education: AKF works with governments, schools and communities on improving the quality and accessibility of public school systems. Interventions include training of teachers in government schools, adoption of child-centred learning material, and facilitating increased parental involvement in school management. Learning support centres (LSCs) have been established to complement government schools by providing after-school support. In 2012, 42 LSCs in Bihar helped nearly 3,500 children (6 to 12 years) to develop their literacy and numeracy skills with support from 137 teachers. These centres also had early childhood development (ECD) centres attached to them. As per a 2011 study, LSC children outperformed non-LSC students in a number of aspects. Post this, LSCs were being phased into schools which involved working with primary teachers to integrate LSC methodologies into their practice.
Partnering with AKDN on the ‘comprehensive sanitation’ initiative, repair of school sanitation facilities has been taken up to improve access to sanitation for girl students, establish drinking water and hand-washing platforms, and promote hygiene education within schools. These initiatives are reaching over 91,000 children in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Telangana.
The ‘Reading for Children’ project (no confirmation whether it’s still running) introduced young children to books through mini-libraries. Through workshops, parents and caregivers built their skills and confidence to participate in this activity and support their children.
- Early childhood development (ECD): AKF uses locally relevant curricula combined with international best practices, provides training and support for parents, caregivers and pre-school teachers, and involves local communities in its early childhood programmes with a special emphasis on girls and marginalised groups.
It offers services for the 3–8 years age group through school and parenting programmes. This is implemented by the Aga Khan Education Service (AKES) that operates 27 ‘early years’ facilities (such as day cares) in rural, peri-urban and urban areas, including ‘in-school’ set ups, standalone centres and community-based centres, in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana. AKF also provides professional development and training to teachers and supports local, mostly governmental, resource centres.
As part of its endeavour to empower women and girls, AKF provides scholastic support, life-skills education, and vocational training to adolescent girls in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who have dropped out of school.
In Bihar, AKF introduced the model of ‘mother teacher’ wherein local women who had the potential and interest to work with children were trained to conduct daily education activities at the ECD centres.
- Economic development: AKF and AKRSP (I) work with rural youth to develop their capacities and help them with job opportunities. Since 2007, 13 training centres have been set up which provide information about government schemes, agriculture markets, and job opportunities and linkages with potential employers (including retail chains, call centres and construction companies). Until last year, 27,500 people have been trained and over 3,700 placed in new jobs. In urban areas of Patna and Hyderabad and rural Uttar Pradesh, AKF helps adolescent girls, who have dropped out of school, access vocational-skills training such as sewing and embroidery.
To help migrants from rural areas, AKF supports a migrant-support initiative that provides migrant youth with skills, knowledge and social support through a migrant support centre. This is being piloted in the Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh.
AKF and AKRSP (I) also promote alternate energy among rural communities to reduce energy deficiencies. These programmes aim to bring energy to poor households while reducing the drudgery of women and children who are forced to collect energy sources such as wood and dung. It also helps young people and women earn a living by selling, assembling and repairing low-cost solar-energy products.
On financial inclusion, more than 5,000 self-help groups (SHGs) have been established in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, with 86 per cent of the members being women and accumulated savings of over US$1 million since 2002. Over 20 SHG federations provide capacity building and oversight support to 1,096 SHGs. In Bihar, with the help of local implementing partners, 35,300 individuals have been organised into 1,807 community-based savings groups (CBSGs). CBSGs differ from SHGs in that the former’s members save in varying amounts and at the end of the annual cycle, collected funds are distributed among them according to the amount they have saved, with savings rates appearing to be several times higher as a result. In India, AKF has pioneered a new model called the SHG Plus model in Bihar, that combines CBSG and SHG components.
The last impact study done was in 2012–13 and it showed mostly positive results. While current numbers are not available, at the end of 2012 there were over 35,000 members in CBSGs in Bihar, 90 per cent of whom were women, each saving $24. The average return on savings was nearly 13 per cent, while the cost per member was less than $18.
- Habitat: To help communities improve and build their habitat, the Foundation works with other AKDN agencies such as the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) and the AKRSP. It also works to improve hygiene, improve access to drinking water in Bihar and Gujarat, and promote household toilet construction in Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, rainwater harvesting is promoted to help communities access and store water.
In 2015, AKF along with Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS), Aga Khan Planning and Building Services and AKRSP embarked on a five-year ‘comprehensive sanitation’ initiative with the objective of improving health and hygiene practices and access to water and sanitation for marginalised communities. This programme intends to support the Swacch Bharat Mission by constructing 100,000 individual-level household toilets, 528 school toilet blocks, and 26 community toilet complexes in select urban settlements. It has also taken up multiple hygiene-promotion activities since one of its goals is ensuring 100 per cent sanitation coverage across all households through a comprehensive behaviour-change communication campaign. In total, this initiative is expected to benefit approximately one million people across 660 existing programme villages. The target is to provide improved sanitation facilities for 700,000 people across six states, with 66,000 households gaining access to improved sanitation and hygiene education regularised in over 350 schools. The programme is coordinating with state governments, panchayats, civil society groups, and the private sector.
- Health: AKF, along with AKHS, works on promoting effective healthcare for underserved populations in Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh.
In 2014, the Foundation completed a three-year ‘infant and young child feeding practices’ programme, Buniyaad, in rural Bihar which trained 500 women from the local community to help mothers with infant care. It worked in tandem with ongoing government programmes for maternal and child health and nutrition, and reached out to 400,000 mothers. Some of the positive results were an increase in the proportion of mothers who breastfed their newborns within one hour of birth, from 17 per cent to 65 per cent, and who were providing age-appropriate complementary feeding to their infants (12 to 13 months), from 20 per cent to 44 per cent.
AKF also provides adolescent health and life-skills education as part of its education programmes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Using a curriculum developed by AKF with technical inputs from AKES, modules on self-identity and esteem, biological and emotional changes, and reproductive and sexual health issues are taught to young girls.
The aforementioned ‘comprehensive sanitation’ initiative has a component for menstrual-hygiene management which includes designing girls’ toilet facilities, safe disposal of menstrual waste, and reliable water sources for hygiene management. The initiative covers awareness building around safe menstrual hygiene and capacity building for health workers and AKDN staff on facilitating group discussions with women and girls. As per the review done earlier last year, the preceding year saw 9,500-plus women and girls sensitised on this issue; 275-plus SHGs, comprising of adolescent girls groups and women, strengthened and formed; and 170 villages covered.
Other initiatives are the multi-sector area development programme in Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh, to improve the quality of life of poor people in the areas of livelihood, education, health and sanitation, and the Sustainable Community-Based Approaches to Livelihood Enhancement (SCALE) project, co-financed by the EU and implemented in partnership with other NGOs, focusing on improving livelihood opportunities in the rainfed, semi-arid regions of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. The latter programme ran from 2002 to 2012, covered 1,060 villages, and benefited 111,500 households.
Funding and impact
AKF receives grant funding from numerous development agencies, private foundations and corporations, raises funds locally in annual events in North America and Western Europe, and receives funding from His Highness the Aga Khan. In addition, an endowment contributes towards its operating costs.
For AKDN globally, a large portion of the funding comes from partnerships with national governments, multilateral institutions, private sector partners, and individual donors, while His Highness the Aga Khan provides regular funding for administration, new programmes and some core activities. The Ismaili community also contributes financial resources. Other funding sources include income from user fees and endowment funds. The project companies of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) operate as businesses but any surplus is reinvested in further development initiatives.
While impact-assessment reports and studies aren’t available, except for a few dated ones, AKF claims success when beneficiaries report improvements in their lives, and when these processes serve as useful models in other places. Evaluation and dissemination are said to be critical steps with international teams and implementers conducting reviews at various intervals in the project cycle. The conclusions are shared with AKF affiliates, beneficiaries and interested organisations. However, the general public don’t seem to merit the same consideration.
There is little doubt that AKF (and AKDN as a whole) have been busy on multiple initiatives for years now. Like any super-sized NGO, their imprint is on almost every social issue out there. This is to be expected; what is not is the lack of details available on the organisation’s actual work. Information on the website is limited to broad overviews and standard NGO jargon; actual data is sparse. The entire site is filled with text but there is no actual, useful information – be it insights into the nuts and bolts of its programmes, whether a particular project is even active now or has it been shut down or integrated with some other project, or basic facts and figures.
Evaluating the impact of its programmes is even harder in the absence of any credible data. The couple of reports and studies available online are a few years old now. It would be foolhardy, then, to expect annual reports, though these have become quite common for many NGOs. After all, there is no reason why only corporates should be transparent and accountable for their CSR work; the budgets of many large NGOs, including AKDN, are comparable to those of big companies.
Not too surprisingly, then, AKF had no time or interest in answering CB’s fairly routine questions on its programmes.
The last few years have not been too kind to large NGOs – first, the crackdown by the current government, then the many scandals that revealed a culture of abuse in organisations such as Oxfam, and the recent exposé on the incompetency and blatant caste discrimination prevalent in Amnesty India. In such times, there is little reason for the common person to believe in the efficacy and sincerity of NGOs. One way to combat maligned reputations is to be open and transparent about the work being done, letting people see for themselves that NGOs are, indeed, walking the walk instead of merely providing lip service and being savvy on social media. The question is: has AKF received that memo?