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Nazeer Aziz Ladhani.Courtesy of the Family

Nazeer Aziz Ladhani, who died in his sleep in Nairobi on Feb. 19 at age 72, was one of Canada’s most prominent thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs in the field of international development. In 1981, he became the first CEO of the newly established Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC). It was not an endowed grant-making foundation, but rather a support mechanism for the development work in Africa and Asia of the international, Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation.

Starting with a modest budget and a staff of one, he had to work to make it clear that the foundation, named after the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, was not faith-based and served the broader international community. Over the next 20 years, Mr. Ladhani turned AKFC into one of Canada’s most respected development organizations. His drive and ingenuity enabled AKFC to become one of the federal government’s largest development partners and to attract an individual donor base of more than 60,000 Canadians and 700 corporate sponsors. AKFC eventually became the centrepiece of a network of Canadian institutions, evaluators and researchers who brought new thinking and rigour to Canada’s development enterprise.

Nazeer Aziz Ladhani was born in the British territory of Tanganyika, now Tanzania, on Aug. 20, 1947, growing up on the family farm at Magole and later in Morogoro, about 185 kilometres west of Dar es Salaam. Following four sisters, he was the fifth of seven children. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, earning an agricultural diploma in animal husbandry from Egerton University in Kenya. During a year back on the farm, he added a pig to the menagerie, years later regaling his daughters with tales of feeding piglets from a baby bottle and realizing – as his father already had – that a different calling might be in order.

England beckoned. His sisters were already there, and during the 1970s, while working as a management auditor for Esso, he earned two accounting certificates and an MBA from INSEAD, the prestigious business school at Fontainebleau, just outside Paris. In 1974 his parents called him to Karachi to meet his bride-to-be, Gulabi Sultanali. They married and in 1977 moved to Canada with their baby daughter, Noor.

The family settled in Edmonton, where Mr. Ladhani set up a business consulting firm and lectured in finance and entrepreneurship at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. In 1980 a second daughter, Aliya, was born and in 1981 Mr. Ladhani spotted an ad at the Jamat Khana, the place of worship for Shia Ismaili Muslims. It was about a startup job with AKFC.

It was not easy introducing the freshly minted AKFC to a well-established Canadian international development community of NGOs, government departments and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Mr. Ladhani didn’t fit anyone’s idea of an aid worker: Unlike the white establishment in Ottawa, he was an Asian from Africa, he had a business background and temperament, and English was his third language. In addition, he was a Muslim, and in a world of Birkenstocks, he always wore a suit and tie. Plus, apart from his brief encounter with piglets, he didn’t speak the development lingo.

He soon understood that while some might see the new operation as a fundraising arm for wider AKF programming in Asia and Africa, AKFC would never fly high unless it became something in its own right, adding genuine Canadian value. He observed that many Canadian NGOs, while well-intentioned, had a “helping” mindset. For Mr. Ladhani, development was about change, and change required both expertise and knowledge. More importantly, it had to be achieved by the people it was intended for. For him, development was about expanding and creating opportunities.

At first he dabbled, moving the AKFC office to Toronto in 1986 and then to Ottawa in 1994. By then AKFC had gained prominence for effective programs and research in natural resource management, micro-finance, health, gender and economic empowerment. Forging partnerships with Canadian institutions, Mr. Ladhani worked to pair McMaster University, for example, with the Aga Khan University School of Nursing in Pakistan, and what began as a simple exchange project became something transformative. In 2008, Firoz Rasul, president of the Aga Khan University (AKU) said that “Over time, the impact of this partnership has extended beyond Pakistan to other countries where AKU has a nursing presence, including Kenya Tanzania, Uganda, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt.”

Mr. Ladhani created a volunteer-sending program providing technical, managerial and professional knowledge, tapping Canada’s Ismaili community and eventually others for expertise that could be returned to Asia and Africa. In 1989 he formed the International Development Management Fellowship. Today, with more than 500 alumni, it is the leading international professional training and career development program for young Canadians.

Mr. Ladhani had no concept of an eight-hour work day. A work colleague, Richard Phinney, said, “For Nazeer, every breakfast, every lunch, every dinner was a meeting – even smoke breaks in the parking lot at CIDA were opportunities for meetings and discussion. He always wanted to know what people thought. He soaked up information.” Ideas would churn for weeks and sometimes months. He was an excellent editor, shaping and reshaping the work of staff and consultants until he had what he wanted. “The one thing he wouldn’t tolerate,” said Ameer Esmail, a former chair of the AKFC governing body, “was mediocrity.”

Huguette Labelle, a former president of CIDA, said, “He wasn’t looking for personal recognition. He had an exceptional capacity to build constructive and lasting relationships, and there was always a sense that if someone needed help, Nazeer would be there.”

“He was a very sensitive individual with a heart of gold,” recalled Feroz Kassam another past chair of the governing body, “but he hid it behind the smokescreen of his professionalism.” None of what he did was easy, and he had to deal with a myriad of sensitive institutional issues. “He never let personal slights get in the way,” Mr. Kassam said, “and once he respected you, you couldn’t find a better or more loyal friend.”

His successor in Ottawa, Khalil Shariff, said, “Nazeer’s fingerprints are all over AKFC, the broader development community in Canada, and all the new institutions and initiatives we have developed over the years. His ambition, standards, mischievous energy, and extraordinary ingenuity are going to be so missed.” That mischievous energy didn’t always sit well with Ismaili ideas of propriety, but he often told his daughters, “If I had followed the rules, I would still be in Morogoro.”

Eager for new challenges, in 2004, Mr. Ladhani accepted the post of director general of the University of Central Asia, recently established by the Aga Khan Development Network in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, aimed at introducing modern liberal arts education to three newly independent, former Soviet republics. In 2009, Mr. Ladhani moved back to East Africa to lead planning for a series of graduate professional schools for the Aga Khan University.

Mr. Ladhani’s greatest pride was his two daughters, whose education and independence he championed both as father and mentor. If he had an unfulfilled ambition, it was to be a teacher himself in some sort of classroom setting. In a sense, though, he was a teacher from the moment he took on the AKFC position in 1981. Everything he did was about enabling people to learn.

“He was skeptical of the charity approach,” Mr. Phinney said. “He believed in supporting the capacity of people and organizations to widen their own horizons. He was such a strong Canadian – he believed in this country, and in the corny idea that the world can be a better place if Canadians are involved. He made a difference internationally in a way that strengthened Canada.”

Mr. Ladhani leaves his wife, Gulabi; daughters, Noor Niyar and Aliya Begum Ladhani; sisters, Zinat Remtulla and Naseem Fazal; and brother, Mushtaq Ladhani.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said Mr. Ladhani was born in Tanzania; at the time of his birth, it was still the British territory of Tanganyika.

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