A new wave of aid strategists is taking a more grass-roots approach to development in Africa - with lessons for the international development community. Rather than keeping operations centralized and dependent on foreign expertise and technology, these strategists focus on development ``from the bottom up.'' They are trying two methods: using imagination with available resources, and directly involving local communities.
Foremost among them is the Aga Khan Network, one of the third world's most respected private development organizations and the largest. Based in Paris and Geneva, but extending to some 25 countries, the network's group of companies is headed by Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims.
As representatives of the World Bank, the United Nations, and other aid agencies point out, the striking success rate of Aga Khan projects has greatly enhanced their potential as effective, low-cost development models to be replicated in other parts of the world.
``One does not often find projects that are impressive and actually work,'' said a field officer of the Canadian International Development Agency, which cooperates with the Aga Khan network in Pakistan.
The Aga Khan approach, its coordinators say, is based on a simple formula that emphasizes self-sufficiency, sound management, a good knowledge of local conditions, and the most appropriate technology.
``Aid should not be given free and people are expected to participate in projects which must eventually pay for themselves,'' says Kenyan network representative Anwar Hajii.
The network is also widely supported by well-educated and dedicated members of the Ismaili community. Although some argue that the Ismailis participate only ``to ease their consciences,'' many projects are designed to help a country as a whole.
The Aga Khan Foundation's Rural Support Program in northern Pakistan, for example, has already dramatically improved the living standards of some 400,000 people in the rugged, mountainous areas of Chitral and Gilgit. By providing loans and expertise to village groups, it has allowed them to construct irrigation canals, build roads, and buy tractors.
Noted for the modest amounts of funding required - only $9 million after six years - the program in Pakistan has encouraged a remarkable sense of community responsibility. Villages have set up their own development bank accounts enabling them to secure further loans for additional projects. To date, not a single village has defaulted. Various aid agencies are now examining the program as a possible model for use in the UN-proposed recovery plan in Afghanistan.
Not seeking to replace governments or international aid agencies, the Aga Khan Network also stresses the promotion of private enterprise and venture capital. A common denominator in many of its projects, particularly in third-world countries seeking to expand hard-currency revenue, is the use of local resources that are renewable and geared to export.
One enterprise designed to increase the value of a basic export commodity is the Leather Industries of Kenya at Thika, located 30 miles north of the capital. It is an operation often cited in aid circles as an example of worthy development. Producing 1.8 million cowhides a year, Kenya for a long time exported only chrome-treated ``wet blues'' (hides with skin and hair removed) to Europe. This brought in a mere 30 percent of the cost of finished leather, and lost Kenya a substantial amount of potential hard currency.
The Industrial Promotion Services (IPS) of Nairobi, an Aga Khan private-development company reputed for its 98 percent success rate, initiated the $10 million tannery. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development took a 40 percent stake in the operation. Processing some 300,000 hides a year, the project has already earned more currency than it costs, and expects to make $12 million in foreign exchange per year.
For IPS project director, Sultan Poonawala, the success of this development concept ``will allow us to start up similar operations in other countries with potential resource-based export industries.'' As it is, the Aga Khan Network is already seeking to help Kenyan enterprises expand in other industrial or agricultural sectors with a solid job-producing and foreign exchange potential.
A deep-sea fishing effort in Mombasa, for example, is increasing the existing fleet of ships and improving port facilities and fishing techniques.
With a rising international demand for shrimp, the Kenyan trawlers aim to land about 750 tons a year. Such a project could easily be replicated along the Indian Ocean coast.