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Of 'Faith' and Faith Based Organisations: The Case of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Post-Colonial India

Dr. Soumen Mukherjee

This project seeks to understand the nature of the religiously informed, or rather underpinned, discourse of welfarism amounting to developmental initiatives and articulated through faith-based organisations (FBOs). The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in post-colonial India provides our case study, though for reasons of historical and contemporary links with East Africa and Europe, it draws upon substantial archival research as well as interviews in not only India, but also East Africa (particularly Zanzibar, Tanzania), France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The choice of the AKDN as a case study is instructive for several reasons. In the first place, the AKDN, spread across 25 countries across the globe, cannot be said to function in any single unilinear way. Its respective modes of operation hinge upon the question of the general socio-political and historical context in which it works. This question of contextuality brings to the forefront issues revolving around negotiations of broader concepts of the world, order and specific sub-sectarian beliefs, and their application, adaptation and/or translation depending on local practices, even while a certain specific version of Islam with the Aga Khan as the Imam remains centrally important. This project will focus on the intersection of these two different sets of forces and shed light on the nature and role of ‘faith’ in the socio-religious worldview that the AKDN promotes.

Secondly, a study of the inspirational origins, operational modes and shifting concerns of FBOs in plural societies over a longue durée, especially with reference to the changing nature of development discourse in South Asia, is long due. The present project will address this gap in scholarship. A historical study of the AKDN shows a complex trajectory traceable to the reformist-welfarist initiatives of Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, Imam of the Nizari Khojas, in late colonial South Asia and East Africa. Yet, in terms of policy matters and functioning, there are subtle differences between the pre-AKDN institutions, founded by Aga Khan III, and the AKDN, founded by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the current Imam of the Khojas.

Finally, the structure of the AKDN as an umbrella network of agencies with diverse mandates — ranging from education, through microfinance and economic development, to health etc. — presents a rare combination of the predominant issues in contemporary development discourse. A study of an FBO dealing with such a variety of developmental concerns will not only help us better appreciate the entwined nature of socio-religious inspiration and institutions and social welfarist developmental endeavours, but also do so with an underlying conceptual category of development in mind that is not a prisoner of an economic reductionism to which it is often subjected in certain sections of academia.