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Volunteerism in the Ismaili Community: Nobody Can Do Everything, But Everybody Can Do Something.


As Canadians, we understand the value of service in the name of mankind. From our peace keeping missions in war ravaged nations to our generous donations and humanitarian efforts in the wake of natural disasters, Canadians have a history of proudly helping others. This spirit of giving, selflessly and courageously, is what has defined Canadians for decades and similarly is at the cornerstone of his Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan’s philosophy. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and is a world renowned philanthropist who was just recently conferred honorary Canadian citizenship making him the fifth person to be granted this honor. His dedication towards humanitarian initiatives is not only an inspiration but a model that people around the world should seek to emulate and cooperate with.


The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which his Highness has led for over forty years, works to improve the living conditions of impoverished people in specific regions throughout the developing world. These efforts go further than simply handing out food and providing free medical aid; rather it is about sustainable development and enabling the self-reliance of so many impoverished people. The AKDN achieves this goal by creating ideas, sharing resources and imparting knowledge. In a speech the Aga Khan delivered last month at the University of California, he mentioned how the “Aga Khan Development Network has a goal to try to make the countries where we work, countries of opportunity for their populations.”1 It is this type of forward thinking and inclusive mentality that is necessary to see success in the developing world.

As one of the leading private development networks in the world, the AKDN is a “group of development agencies with mandates that include the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalisation of historic cities.”2 “The network operates in 35 of the poorest countries in the world and is statutorily secular.” 3The Network receives funding from various channels including national governments, multilateral institutions and partners in the private sector thereby enabling the vast reach of the development initiatives that its agencies undertake. In Afghanistan alone, the AKDN has mobilized over $700 million since 2001.”4 This funding however, would not be as effective if not for the invaluable volunteer time and professional services provided by the Ismaili community at large. This is an essential and fundamental aspect of the AKDNs mission. By empowering those less fortunate through education and the provision of basic resources, the Network’s agencies in collaboration with national governments are able to make a difference today and more importantly, for the future.


The Aga Khan’s philosophy for humanitarianism is based on the belief that while giving monetary donations to help alleviate global poverty is a tremendous gesture in itself, the giving of time, service and knowledge is a much more meaningful and valuable contribution. By voluntarily offering human capital, people become more emotionally invested and socially connected and subsequently generate long-lasting relationships, support and awareness. Additionally, the benefit of offering time and knowledge rather than simply donating money is that, it is a more efficient method of contribution. By this I am referring to the inherently valuable and competitively sought after pool of expertise and talent available to us in the industrialized world. Such resources would cost a fortune on the open market and would rapidly drain fundraising dollars. By providing such services voluntarily, the AKDN is able to eliminate such costly spending in competing for the best rates and most proficiently skilled personnel. This can be seen for example in areas stricken by drought or disease, which may have needs for irrigation solutions or infection prevention strategies. These needs can be met by engineers and medical professionals from urban areas who visit such impacted regions and voluntarily impart their time and knowledge in efforts to enable populations to become self-sufficient over the long term.

Given the realities of today’s harsh economic climate, volunteering is now more than ever, an ideal form of charity. The cost of living is rising, while employment opportunities are becoming scarcer by the day; many people simply cannot afford to donate money the way they used to. Students are a prime example here, as many of them carry heavy debt loads and are often working multiple and minimum wage jobs to finance their education. These youth make up a huge pool of untapped resources that have the desire and skill to help others who are less fortunate but are unable to give money. As such, their donation of time and knowledge can prove invaluable to humanitarian initiatives like those of the AKDN. Students can offer a range of services including but not limited to, tutoring, translating, basic labour and even building services. They are extremely proficient fundraisers through their knowledge and usage of social media and are extremely effective in their ability to mobilize armies of do-gooders by simply branding something as trendy or new. We must harness the power of our youth and focus it toward sustainable development for those less fortunate. We must not underestimate their ability and desire to give. They are looking for non-monetary ways to positively impact the world around them. Let us engage and work with the youth in our communities to make this vision a reality.


Today’s young professionals in fields such as business, medicine, and communications are also eager and able to volunteer their time and expertise. The AKDN makes this possible through subsidiaries such as the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) or the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS). Through the AKF, young professionals can complete a four-week management seminar facilitated by leading development practitioners and taught by some of Canada’s foremost international cooperation professionals. Here, analytical and strategic thinking and planning skills are taught and instilled, preparing participants for an eight-month placement in a development organization in Africa or Asia. Here they can work in a variety of fields as part of the AKFs International Fellowship Program undertaking fellowship endeavours in development management, media and even microfinance and microenterprise. 5 This program attracts some of the best and brightest minds from an array of disciplines including law, engineering, journalism, education, business, public administration and development studies. The Fellowship Program is not only beneficial in its sustainable development application, but it also offers its participants lessons and meaningful experiences which they can draw on throughout their professional careers.

The Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS) program is another AKDN agency that allows for medical professionals to contribute their expertise in a variety of ways. These may include “providing accessible medical care in modern, efficient and cost effective facilities” while educating local physicians and nurses.6 Such professionals are often involved in conducting research and developing national health policies while aiding in the improvement of quality control in laboratory diagnosis and ensuring that the appropriate documentation of medical records is in effect. “In each country of operation, AKHS registers a National Service Company as a not-for-profit, non-governmental agency” comprised of a board of eleven directors who all “serve as volunteers on an unremunerated basis.”7 Not only is the spirit of volunteerism an integral part of the AKDN and its various agencies, it is the basis on which it forges partnerships with governments and NGOs around the world.


The partnerships formed by the AKDN and its agencies like the AKF undertake “initiatives ranging from early childhood development to health care to civil society strengthening.”8 The Raha Leo Community Health Programme is indicative of such cooperation. The Programme is a public-private partnership (PPP) between the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the Government of Zanzibar and the AKF. Together they focus on “improving the quality of general health services offered at the Raha Leo health facility introducing HIV/AIDS voluntary counselling and testing services (VCT), facilitating youth, community and school outreach programs, and piloting approaches to cost sharing in line with the Government’s Health Sector Reform efforts.”9 These initiatives all stem from a pool of voluntary support that when managed effectively, allows the vast reach of the AKDN to be used as a conduit for good will in reaching some of the most vulnerable people and places on earth.

The breadth, focus and innovation of the AKF in itself is something to marvel at, but one need not look farther than the impact it has had around the world to be impressed and moved by its dedication and accomplishments. One of its most successful fundraising initiatives designed to help alleviate global poverty is the World Partnership Walk. The walk is organized entirely by volunteers and is held once a year in ten cities across Canada. In addition to working together to organize the event, these volunteers also collect donations from people and companies which participants pledge to walk for. With the help of 40,000 participants in 2010, the Partnership Walk raised $6 million across Canada.10 As of May 30th this year the Walk has already collected more than $2 million dollars.11 Now in its twenty-seventh year, the World Partnership Walk has raised more than $60 million for the alleviation of global poverty, owing much thanks to the tireless efforts of thousands of volunteers, pledged participants and donors across the country.12 Based on the same module, there is also an Ismaili Walk for Women in British Columbia. On September 26th 2010 the BC Ismaili community partnered with the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre Foundation to raise funds for the Women’s Health Research Institute. The Institute endeavours to “advance knowledge and care for women, newborns, and their families across British Columbia and around the world.”13 While these events exemplify the mission of the AKDN and the value of voluntary service which it depends on, there are still many other ways in which the Aga Khan community uses volunteerism as a means of making the world a better place to live in.


Ismaili Community Engaged in Responsible Volunteering (I-CERV), is a humanitarian initiative that serves in various communities throughout Canada and the United States. Currently, I-CERV and its local affiliates have “organized blood drives, worked with local hospitals, collected school supply donations for local underprivileged schools, volunteered at homeless shelters, and provided young community members with many service opportunities.”14 Not only does I-CERV use volunteers from the Ismaili community but it also partners with other community organizations to maximize the impact of collective voluntary service. On different occasions they have partnered with Habitat for Humanity in Miami and the LA Times Health Fair in Los Angeles. The collaborative efforts of such civic engagements has led to more inclusiveness in the communities within which they work and has raised awareness that is conducive to generating long term support for a variety of social issues and charitable causes.

CIVIC, Challenging Ismaili Volunteers in Communities is another volunteering initiative that gives back and seeks to leave a positive impact on local communities throughout Canada. This program allows youth between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five “to become ambassadors for the spirit of voluntary service.”15 CIVIC reflects in every way the “initiatives of the AKDN, including health, environment, humanitarian assistance and architecture.”16 The impact left in local communities by CIVIC volunteers has been felt across many divides as their mission is not exclusive to the Ismaili community. It is an inclusive effort to make positive contributions to the community at large, regardless of faith or origin. “On designated CIVIC days across the country, more than 1,100 participants came together in their respective regions and contributed over 4,400 hours of voluntary service to designated projects.”17 These projects can be geared toward the restoration of dilapidated neighbourhoods or the rejuvenation of flora and fauna in natural regions. The dedication of the AKDNs sustainable development mission is evident even here in these micro-level initiatives in industrialized nations. CIVIC has conducted many environmental preservation projects that epitomize this mission. One such example is their planting of trees, the fruit of which will forever be donated to local shelters in the inner city. It is small, voluntary acts of kindness and hard work like this that can inspire others to help on larger scales or different arenas. The point is that the idea of voluntary service should spread through our society and beyond, until all those recipients of good will have the opportunity to someday become donors of it themselves.

The Aga Khan community has also offered its services in recent high profile events such as the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Here hundreds of Ismaili volunteers became ambassadors to the world as they worked with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics (VANOC). The Ismaili Volunteer Core was asked to help with the logistical planning and organizing of the 2010 Games after receiving “applause from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games” for their expertise in streamlining other large scale events which the community regularly holds.18 During the 2010 Winter Games, the Ismaili volunteers provided multifaceted services ranging from informing tourists and athletes, to managing scores of energetic crowds, to chauffeuring senior government officials and ministers to special VIP Olympic events in and around Vancouver. For this, the volunteers underwent vigorous and specialised training from VANOC and were later given the opportunity to manage other Olympic related events.19 The voluntary participation of the Aga Khan community in these Olympic Games shows the extent to which their mission is dedicated. By engaging in voluntary service within the larger community, the Ismaili community has been rapidly growing a reputation of cooperation, tolerance generosity. Their service here is illustrative of their dedication toward making positive contributions in a variety of ways and levels to civil society and humanity at large. The cooperation and integration of the Ismaili volunteers with other such organizations in communities across the country is not only an inspiration but a way of life that is contagious when carried out in the fashion that it consistently is.


The Ismaili community and the AKDN have been a force of good over the past forty years and have impacted millions of lives for the better. These efforts and achievements would not have been possible without the foundation of voluntary service as a tool to harness human potential and create sustainable development for so many less fortunate people. By offering time and knowledge in this way the possibility of human equity throughout the world is getting closer to becoming a reality. As Canadians, it is in our civic makeup to be generous, open minded and forward thinking. By working together, selflessly and courageously, we can build a world for future generations that is full of opportunity and ripe with the human potential to take advantage of it. If alone we have the desire and together we have the ability, let us unite and realize the potential of collaborative voluntary service. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.

Related Links
Senate Chamber Statement – Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Ismaili Walk for Women

Senate Chamber Statement – Thursday, June 3, 2010
Ismaili Centre

Senate Chamber Statement – Thursday, November 20, 2008
His Highness the Aga Khan- Congratulations on Golden Jubilee

Senate Chamber Statement – Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Aga Khan Foundation Canada World Partnership Walk


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