Mission Friends

by Phil Johnson

What does it mean for a mountain village in Northern Pakistan to have a light bulb in each home? What does it mean if the women of the village have developed and successfully operate a honey business? What will it mean that the women have set aside savings for the education of the children of the village? Hundreds of Pakistani villages have electricity because of development work by the Aga Khan Foundation.

Dr. David Nygaard, Ph.D., is Director of Rural Development for the Aga Khan Foundation. His office is in Geneva, Switzerland. David, Mary, their dog Suki, and cat Murph live on the trolley line in the community of Carouge. David and Mary are "Mission Friends" extraordinaire. This honored term from the Swedish pietist tradition comes easily to mind when one considers their work through the years. They are friends, they have spent years engaged in missions to other peoples, and they use friendship as a major means of executing their missions. They have lived in other countries more than 20 of their 39 years of marriage. They made their first home in Garlan, Libya in 1965 as Peace Corps volunteers. Upon returning from Libya, David cast about for a vocation and soon entered graduate school on the University of Minnesota Agricultural Campus in St. Paul. He completed a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics specializing in dry-land agriculture. As part of his degree, he did research in Libya for a year learning why farmers were or were not adopting new technology. The American Association of Agricultural Economics chose his thesis as the outstanding thesis of the year.

Mary and David are passionate about knowing, understanding, helping, and making friends with people of other cultures. After David's graduation in 1978, the Nygaards, including daughters Tanya and Kara, moved to Aleppo, Syria. The International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) had just been created and employed David to establish its work. ICARDA is one of the 15 centers strategically located around the world and supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). ICARDA has its main base in Aleppo and works through a network of partnerships with national, regional, and international institutions, universities, non-governmental organizations, and ministries in the developing world. The network includes advanced research institutes in industrialized countries. (See www.icarda.org). While David worked among the farmers and agricultural specialists in Syria, the family lived in Aleppo and developed competencies in Arabic.

The Nygaards moved to the US in 1984 and David worked for the Agricultural Development Council supported by the Rockefeller family. In 1985, this organization merged into Winrock International, a new Rockefeller endeavor, which took them to Conway, Arkansas.

Next these "mission friends" moved to Egypt. From 1988 to 1994, the Nygaards lived in Cairo. David was the Representative of the Ford Foundation, where grant giving was a major responsibility. Once more, the family became immersed in Arab culture and made many friends. After Cairo, the family returned to the US. David rejoined the CGIAR system by accepting a position at the International Food Policy Research Center in Washington, DC. In 1998 he moved to his current job as the Aga Khan Foundation's Director of Rural Development.

The Aga Khan is the leader of the Ismailis, a group of Shia Muslims (approximately 10 million) who consider Ismail, the eldest son of Imam Jafar-as-Sadiq (d. 765) as the 6th Imam and the legitimate line from Mohammed. The present Aga Khan is the 49th Imam. He states his vision of Islam as:

a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah's noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual's right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. (www.amaana.org/agakhan/profile.htm)

Through his foundation, the Aga Khan implements his vision of helping poor people in underdeveloped countries to better their lives. The Foundation is a non-denominational organization providing aid and assistance in developments that help Ismailis, but is not limited to Ismailis. Rather, places where Ismailis live provide oppor-tunities for the Foundation's work. This includes South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and eastern Africa. The Foundation has offices in 11 developing countries and in Canada, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Its head office is in Switzerland.

Consonant with their vision of Islam and their tradition of service to humanity, Ismailis have established well-defined institutional frameworks to carry out social, economic, and cultural activities. Under the Aga Khan's leadership, this framework has expanded and evolved into the Aga Khan Development Network‹institut-ions that work to improve living conditions in specific regions of the developing world. These institutions work for the common good of all citizens regardless of origin or religion. Mandates range from architecture, education, and health to the promotion of private sector enterprise, the enhancement of non-governmental organizations, and rural development (see www.akdn.org). All this adds up to a substantial professional staff, and many of them, like David, come from western countries and are not religious followers of the Aga Khan. Religious criteria are not a basis for selecting staff; training and experience are key determinants.

Northern Pakistan is one of the areas in which David has done Foundation work. Two thousand villages have been involved in development projects there over the past 20 years. In one village, as an example, the Foundation representatives met with villagers‹always the first step in a rural development initiative‹and together they came up with a development plan. The Foundation provided the funds and technical resources to redirect the water rushing down the mountain to turn a turbine and generate electricity for the village. The villagers created a management struct-ure to operate and maintain the micro hydroelectric plant. The villagers established a fund by charging for the energy used so money would be available for maintenance of the system and eventually for replacement of the turbine and generator. The women are organized separately with the assistance of the Foundation and they develop their own projects and establish financial accounts. In most villages, the women have become better money managers and often more enterprising than the men. Today there are over 1,400 separate women's organizations in northern Pakistan that have been set up by the Aga Khan Foundation.

The women of one village established bee hives and have become increasingly expert in honey production, money management, and in marketing their honey. The winters are cold so the hives must be sent down the mountain until the weather moderates. The women's success has enabled them to repay their loan from the Foundation‹a loan for which they paid interest. They now earn interest by lending money to the men's association.

The impact of these developments upon the social life of the village are surely significant. There must be adjustment problems, and a study of the change in the welfare and social structure of the villages would be very interesting. The education level in the honey producing village is rising and the women's main purpose for their funds is the education of the children.

While David has been about his work, Mary has engaged in her own missions. She has sought opportunities to serve, often utilizing her training as a Speech Pathologist in a variety of educat-ional settings such as working five years at the Cairo American College in Egypt. In each place she has made friends and created a place for the Nygaard family in the community. David is a veteran of travel and of life in the hinterlands of the world. He does not contest that his youth is behind him, but this Methodist preacher's kid who grew up in Willmar, Minnesota, con-tinues to love his work and does not flinch at the extensive traveling he must do. His most recent challenge is to double rice yields in Madagascar, making extremely poor people self sufficient in rice consumption. When he is in such a remote but usually beautiful and peaceful place, he often thinks: "People pay a lot of money for guides and equipment to visit a place like this and I get paid to come here!" When this thought strikes, he chuckles with delight. Thank God for the labors of these "mission friends." May our Lord of love and mercy continue to bless them as they extend help and friendship in far off corners of the world.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson