Gems from His Highness the Aga Khan’s Speech at the University of Ottawa

Compiled by Malik Mirza

His Highness the Aga Khan addresses the University of Ottawa convocation, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate on Friday, January 13, 2012. Photo: University of Ottawa. Copyright.

The following 8-point summary prepared by Malik Mirza is taken from His Highness the Aga Khan’s speech on January 13, 2012 when he was conferred with an Honorary Degree by the University of Ottawa. Mirza writes: “Every speech of Mawlana Hazar Imam should be read in full to understand the context and various means which are expressed; this small article brings out a few points which have been expressed by the Imam. It is recommended that one should also read his other speeches to understand the complete views of the Imam on numerous topics. Here are a few gems from his most recent speech.”

1. Topic of the Speech

“There are many topics of interest that I could talk about today. But I have picked just one.  In my eyes it is important – and I understand that it is also high among your priorities.  I refer to the field of governance and public policy, and, specifically, to the difficulty of establishing workable constitutional systems – especially in countries with less experience in democratic governance.

“…My own interests in the last 50 years as Imam of the Ismaili community, have been primarily focused on Africa, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle-East  – and on improving the quality of life for the people who live there.  The more I think about this matter, the more I am persuaded that one of the critical barriers to progress is the way in which governing processes occur.”

2. Lesson from Arab Spring

“The so-called Arab Spring has brought special attention to this challenge – illustrating that it is easier to rally people in opposition to a particular government than to forge agreement about new governing processes.  But, while this pattern has recently been more dramatically evident, it has been a reality for a very, very long time.”

3. Case studies of Kenya & Afghanistan

“In some cases and I think here of Kenya’s very new constitution – power has been diffused – in response no doubt to pressures from ethnic, economic, religious and other centrifugal forces. One risk of decentralization is that it can place more decision-making power into the hands of communities that have had less access to education and governing experience, and less exposure to national and global issues.

“Perhaps this is why, in some cases, the trend has been to consolidate governing authority – such as in Afghanistan, with the aim of overcoming inertia and inefficiency – as well as – fragmented and provincial outlooks.”

4. History of Constitutions

“The history of constitutions can be seen, as an oscillation between the two poles of centralization and diffusion – with new concentrations of power often amplifying the temptation to abuse, while new dispersions of power are often associated with stagnation, paralysis and even more opportunities for corruption. Arrangements that effectively balance power – through a federalist approach, for example, are elusive.

“Critical factor for constitutional arrangements: What is critical is that constitutional arrangements should respect inherited traditions, ensure fairness to minority communities, respond to rural as well as urban concerns and underwrite equitable opportunity for a better life. Reconciling the global and the local, the urban and the rural, the regional and the national, is a formidable challenge – one that calls for the best of our intellectual energies and consistent fine-tuning over time.”

5. Developing countries and coalition Governments

“I suspect that a continuing multiplicity of widely differentiated parties will mean that some form of coalition government will become the norm. This will especially be the case, of course, in societies that are – multi-cultural, multi-religious, or struggling to accommodate secular and religious political forces.

“The difficulty is, however, that multi-party coalitions can be intrinsically undisciplined, with their differing agendas, and often unstable. In such situations, the threat of defection can be highly destabilizing, while accountability is often blurred and transparency is discouraged. Yet, coalition governance is now becoming a familiar form of government in many countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The broader the array of parties, the greater the risk that they will be based on personalities or narrow parochial identities, rather than a broadly-recognized, predictable point of view.”

6. No universal formula!

“There is certainly no straightforward, universal formula to apply in such situations. We must not naively assume that what has worked in some parts of the western world, for example, will also work the same way in less developed contexts. Different places, different histories require quite different approaches.”

7. Hard questions

“The questions raised by coalition governance are not easy ones – either in the developing world or the developed world. What should be the rules under which parties and other governing entities are put together? How can we best find the glue that will hold them together – such as joint commitments to issues of clear national interest – and to a spirit of pluralism which values conciliation among diversified viewpoints?

“Let me emphasize that I am not opposed to the concept of coalition government. Indeed it may be an inevitable response to the intrinsic pluralism of many of the countries in which I work. But the high level of political instability and failure around the world illustrates the need for creative new thinking about this particularly demanding form of democracy.

What constitutional options and best practices will give coalition government the greatest chance of stability and consistent, high quality performance? The alternative is a world widely characterized by significant numbers of unstable states. It is a scenario to be avoided. Again, the discussion of comparative political systems is just one of many conversations in which the great universities of the world should be vital participants. Our own Aga Khan University is now planning a new Graduate School of Government, Public Policy and Civil Society to help address these issues.”

8. Canada – a great world power

“In my experience, a country’s standing in our contemporary world is no longer recognized by what it can achieve for itself, but by what it can do for others. In this context, Canada has truly become a great, world power.”

Date posted: January 26, 2012


Author’s Note: The above summary is by no means any substitute for His Highness the Aga Khan’s ground breaking and deeply perceptive speech on the topic of governance. Readers are encouraged to read the full speech by clicking His Highness the Aga Khan Speeches.

About the author: Malik Mirza, a chartered accountant by profession, is an honorary Alwaez who is working as senior manager finance in one of the telecommunication companies in Islamabad. He blogs regularly at His other post(s) on this website: The Mausoleums of Pir Sadardin and Pir Hasan Kabirdin.

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One thought on “Gems from His Highness the Aga Khan’s Speech at the University of Ottawa

  1. Very inspiring speech. A case to point out – the UK coalition seems to be working out well. Although there are times when the leaders of the two parties are not in agreement, they show a united front to the rest of the world.

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