Political economy analysis may not immediately spur excitement, however, it is an integral cog in establishing effective policy. We sit for a conversation with Mr Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj of The Asia Foundation Bangladesh, as he discusses The Asia Foundation’s current impacts, future policy implementations and women empowerment.
1) Tell us about yourself.
I was born in a southern and coastal sub district of Bangladesh named Bauphal in Patuakhali, where my grandparents lived, but I almost entirely grew up in Dhaka. I studied at Willes Little Flower School, Dhaka College, and then I got my bachelor’s degree in Economics from Dhaka University. I completed my first Master’s degree in Australia from UNSW. My second Master’s was from MIT Sloan School of Management where I was the first Bangladeshi to be a “Sloan Fellows MBA” student in its history of 90 years.
Professionally, my first preference was to become a cricketer. I used to be very ambitious regarding it even though it doesn’t look like that anymore, haha. I used to be very fit and could run 20 rounds at the Dhaka Stadium without a break. I played a few matches in the second division before entering Dhaka University where I was the captain of our university economics department cricket team for three years. Unfortunately, cricket as a profession was quite an adventurous dream back then. I also always had this image of myself working in international development which would allow me to travel across the world and connecting to new people and culture.
So, after my first Master’s I was supposed to do a PhD but came back to Dhaka to gain empirical work experience as a researcher for BRAC under the dynamic leadership of Dr Imran Matin and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. What was supposed to be 2/3 years of empirical work turned out to be 11 years of amazing journey with Brac in Bangladesh, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Myanmar. In fact, I was the founding Country Representative of BRAC in Myanmar. For a Bangladeshi development worker to be able to work for a Bangladeshi organization yet travel around the world is very rare. I feel very fortunate and thankful that I could do that.
Since I was not being able to do a PhD, I decided to strategically position various “back to school” type of educational excursions at different points in my life as I consider myself intellectually inclined – because I don’t want to use the word ‘nerd’, haha. This drive for academic knowledge immersion allowed me to be at some of the premium professional and educational institutes of the world such as UNSW, Gothenburg University, Thunderbird, Aspen Institute, and MIT. By the way, I’m also planning on getting one more Master’s degree, at least, haha.
2) How did you get involved with The Asia Foundation?
While at MIT, and “drinking from a fire hose” as they say, I realized that it is a good time to have myself exposed to a new set of development challenges. At BRAC, we were all doers who loved to build and create at scale. The Asia Foundation to me was more like a perfect blend of thought leadership and implementation. I found their policy-work, higher levels of government engagement, political economy analysis, intellectual depth, and visibility irresistibly attractive. So, I thought it was a perfect horizontal transformation opportunity for someone of my age and experience with a renewed sense of identity at MIT to take the leap into working for The Asia Foundation in 2019.
As can be figured out by now, I like living and working in developing countries. As such, I don’t consider getting a job in Bangladesh to be any different than that in Sierra Leone or any other country because I consider them all global development positions. I am a Bangladeshi, and am very proud to be born and raised here, but I prefer considering myself as a global development worker and I think that helps me to be a conduit of good practices and examples from around the world as well as make use of the best practices here. One may call this “think globally and act locally.”
3) What is The Asia Foundation currently working on?
The Asia Foundation has had an office in Dhaka since 1954. Currently, more than 50% of our work is related to Governance. We get involved with civil society organizations (CSOs) that work on promoting active citizenship and political participation of people. For example, we are currently working in Noakhali and Khulna with NRDS and Rupantar respectively to make sure that people of all backgrounds and party affiliations are engaged in forums and talking about sustainable development goals. We build these forums in such a way that people, administration, and politically powerful people can come and interact with one another.
We also work with a lot of journalists, and during COVID-19, we are particularly working on counteracting the spread of fake news. Through our partners like MRDI, we trained them on how to detect fake news and how to circumvent dearth of information without spreading any false information. We also arrange regular workshops for the members of Economic Reporters Forum in Bangladesh in an effort to augment the quality and depth of their reporting, specifically during the economic recovery process of COVID 19. We also work with Bangladesh police and community members to promote religious peace and harmony. At the same time we work with them to create early warning systems to detect extremism and contributing in countering terrorism. We have been working on this for a long time.
We also work with religious leaders, which is a bit interesting, to counter violence against women. Organizations rarely go to religious leaders because they think that they are a major part of the problems. But we decided to actually work with them and make them part of the solution as they are an influential part of the community. Not only that, we also engage their wives to make community members aware of rising violence against women and how to negate that. Currently we are working with Islamic scholars to take excerpt from The Al Quran and to share information about how Islam promotes honouring women and is against violence against women.
On the economic side, we have a lot of work and one of our biggest programs right now is with iDE regarding women entrepreneurship. We provide them with training and financial access. And in addition to that, what we focus on is a women friendly work environment. We also let women know about their rights as many female entrepreneurs in our program, for example, didn't know that there should be a women entrepreneurship desk at every Bank. It's not just them, people in general don't seem to know that. The idea of it is to provide collateral free loan loans to female entrepreneurs. So, you see, our Prime Minister is dedicated to empowering female entrepreneurs whose information is not being shared properly.
Currently, we are working as a program coordination office for a program with H&M Foundation and have a few other NGO partners. Because of the pandemic, there are many problems being faced by female garment workers. We are looking for better opportunities for them as well as training them for Future of Work. The program will run for 6 months as an experiment and then we have a long-term planning regarding it. It's just the beginning and we are very excited!
Moreover, we use a lot of economic think tanks. SANEM (South Asian Network on Economic Modeling) is an economic think tank in Bangladesh, and one of the presentations was done just last week in front of the minister of commerce who seemed very pleased with it. It was about how businesses' confidence is changing due to COVID-19. We will be doing the surveys and reporting quarterly for one year to measure changes in the perception of business community members. With another economic research outfit, RAPID, we will be publishing quarterly development letters that will showcase thoughts and reflections of Bangladeshi scholars on the recovery efforts of COVID 19.
We have also been involved in the Tannery industry for years. Previously where the Tannery was, the place was environmentally non-compliant. It was also not a conducive environment for the workers, and so the idea was to move it and add the new facilities which will also have a modern effluent treatment plant. It hasn't been the perfect solution, but at least a lot of ideas are being discussed regarding its improvement. Ultimately, we’d like to see this sector to moving towards achieving a higher export target. We are also focusing on labour rights to make the workers as comfortable as possible.
Lastly, we have ‘The Book For Asia’ program through which we have distributed at least 2.5 million books across the country. I first got to know about The Asia Foundation when I was much younger, and my uncle used to study at Dhaka University. They had a public library and whenever I went there, I used to see many books under ‘Donations from the Asia Foundation’ or something like that. But as a kid, I didn't know what donations meant and so I just thought about The Asia Foundation being some sort of book publishers from Nilkhet, haha.
Furthermore, we have also recently launched another program called ‘Let’s Read, Asia’. It’s an open platform for children’s books. Currently, I believe there’s about 40,000 children’s books in 35 languages. You can easily go to the link and read books, and if you feel like you want to write or translate a story or two, you can easily register to become an author or translator, and get access to other options as well. With HerStory Foundation, we are now launching 12 books on prominent Bangladeshi women. Last week, we launched books on Sufia Kamal and Begum Rokeya, and soon we’ll launch one about Sheikh Hasina. To make these launches a bit interesting, Quazi Nawshaba Ahmed arranges puppet shows. ‘Let’s Read, Asia’ may not be our biggest program, but if you think about its impact in 20 years from now, it’ll be massive. It also captures our thrive for partnership and collaboration, making our partners create free online books for children on our platform.
4) The Asia Foundation is involved in so many projects - how does it maintain or synchronise all of these together?
The Foundation has always been a true believer of partnership and collaboration. So, from the very beginning, we searched for existing CSOs that are working in communities on critical issues related to governance and development. In case we couldn’t find one, we introduced some new ones as people would tell us what is needed in the community. But we don't consider ourselves as the original creators especially when we just help fund others. Sometimes what happens is we become the negotiator between our CSO partners and the donors and come up with the best proposal that both the parties are satisfied with.
We are also firm believers of thinking and working politically and political economy analysis. So, if something isn't politically feasible, we avoid doing it. For example, if you ask me what the Bangladeshi export policies should be within the next 5 years, we’ll ask an economic think tank for the best answer and then encourage them to further analyse which ones can actually see the daylight and not the ones that just should, as the latter is kept to be beautifully portrayed by the activists. We are supportive of many activist movements and believe in freedom of speech, but we’re more comfortable running programs that are politically feasible.
5) The Asia Foundation is a global foundation - how do you differentiate the activities between the countries?
We are actually The “Asia” Foundation – when we say global, we mean 18 countries in Asia. It is a very decentralised organization, and every country is unique. Because of the political economy analysis, in The Asia Foundation, you can’t predict which country will do what. It’ll completely depend on the program’s context and how the people involved are navigating them.
Overall, there are a few overarching themes that we like to have all our programs addressing – women empowerment, environment, governance, international cooperation, and economy. But, amongst them, which components will be prioritized and how depends on a country’s respective teams and the political economic analysis taken. We get a lot of support from the Headquarters to develop programs, raise funds, etc, but the decision making is very decentralised and not always very uniform. But at the same time, we are very closely-knit, with the CRs and HQ teams working closely together to come up with ideas and transferring knowledge from each other.
So yeah, it all depends on what a country needs – not all have the same priorities. Some have only a few programs which are massive, whereas others have countless small programs. Bangladesh has been one of the oldest countries in this foundation for which we are one of the most experienced. Without drawing unnecessary attentions, The Asia Foundation has built so many institutes and civil society organisations in Bangladesh over the last 65 years. We are not the type to flaunt what we do. We just create what we have to and move on, and some of us even forget what we had done at some point, haha.
6) How is The Asia Foundation different from other organisations?
We have a lot of programs which are all very important, but our particular interest in working on creating an environment for thriving civil society organisations; I believe that this is what makes us different from others. In the last 12 years or more, there has been a trend in Bangladesh for NGOs to turn into service-oriented NGOs with lesser focus on human rights, democracy, and issues that are a bit sensitive. So, in that context, our ability to work and navigate, makes us all at the Asia Foundation very proud. We kept at least some of our civil society partner organisations active when there has been a lesser interest. And like I said before, we create and move on. So, our existence never feels threatened and we never had the need to assert power over what we do. And when you don’t have that fear, you only care about your creation working and making an impact. And of course, our political economy analysis is what makes us different and successful.
7) So many new organisations are forming in the society and many of them are also shutting down at the same time. How do you feel about this?
Globally, there has been massive shrinkage of development finance and redirection of grants. It is very unfortunate, but it is true that with all the domestic events happening in some of the largest donors own countries there is a real crisis of finance.
Because Bangladesh is a very Entrepreneurial nation, most of the organisations have been successful in creating at least some microfinance activities that gives them the financial support. But it might be a good time to ask whether the for-profit necessity is diluting the non-profit mission or not. Specially during COVID 19 when many CSOs had to choose between keeping either financial or non-financial activities floating. Perhaps this dilemma and ensuing discussion will allow us to come up with a new solution to solving critical social problems sustainably.
During the pandemic, what we have also seen is that there’s a lot of youth activities happening. There has been a surge in the number of volunteers which are mostly students who are doing their best to counteract the problems and emergencies the virus has caused. Some CSOs were smart enough to use these motivated youth to help in their programs, and those who didn’t may most probably not survive. JAAGO for example is a great example of a new generation of activism that is much more focused, and youth led. So, perhaps, the cycle of new replacing old continues…
8) All industries are incorporating technologies – how are organisations such as The Asia Foundation embracing this digitalisation?
There are problems of expectation management and misinformation when it comes to technology. For example, low hanging technologies aren’t even considered. When people talk about technology, they think about the massive changes, get frustrated, and eventually do nothing at all. Another example is, whenever you say block chain in Bangladesh, people think cryptocurrency, but they’re very different concepts when it comes to their real life implications. So, if one gets out of the stereotypical thinking of technology, they’ll see a better pathway of technology integration.
We have a tech and governance team based across Asian countries, and they are working on some brilliant ideas with the global funding available. For example, we are talking about social listening and urban development currently. Physical data is very expensive to collect, but everyone uses mobile phones. If we can bring all the conversations to the cloud, we can potentially figure out what issues are important for urban communities. It can easily be made traceless, so no record of who is saying exactly what. In the cloud, you can analyse all the conversations and easily identify if there is any form of crisis or target specific areas for interventions.
9) The Asia Foundation is working on women empowerment and human rights and when it comes about technology there comes data security which is part of human right as well. What is your opinion on this?
Already there are a lot of data and technology solutions in place, and even though it may work wonders if updated, I think that technology has the power to fuel the bias that you already have into a much bigger scale. If I am immoral, I will use the technology to my advantage for all my wrong-doings and that too at a larger scale. For example, in the US they tried to use artificial intelligence in the legal sector, but the results were the same as they were fed the information that was already race and gender biased to begin with. So, yes technology can make things easier, but that means it’s easier to do harm as well. So, at the Foundation, we are all up for technology but we will also use our governance angle to make sure that they are responsibly used. So, unless we are satisfied that the data is governed to the highest of standards, it will most probably won’t be backed by us no matter how wonderful the idea is. And that is coming from a MIT graduate hahaha.
10) You have been working with global connections for so long, how do you see the position of Bangladesh in terms of youth in different sectors?
Youth involvement in different sectors would most definitely increase simply because of the demographic status right now. About 65% of our workforce is youth and that is a huge number. A lot of them will be applying for governmental jobs, a lot of them will become entrepreneurs, but are we doing enough to create a youth friendly ecosystem?
We need to be careful what we mean by entrepreneurship. In a modern sense, it’s all about the latest technology. I’m not really sure how the intellectual property system works in our country. If I create something, I’ll know that it’ll create millions of jobs, but how do I copyright it? I don’t think copyright regime is talked about and there’s any process to avoid one’s idea from being stolen.
If there isn’t massive employment generation and trade diversification, there’s going to be another disaster. To generate employment, we have to find alternatives for the garments industry affected by the COVID-19, such as leather and plastic. And if there is no trade, there is no competitiveness. So our youth will not be upskilled and will have very sector specific skill. The garments sector is so sophisticated because it got everything right. They have foreign direct investments, skill development opportunities, competitiveness, safety precautions, etc. So, if this sector can do so much so effortlessly, why aren’t other sectors doing the same? That is what is needed for youth, a diversified workforce opportunity.
11) We’ve seen doctors shifting to become foreign diplomats, and engineers who shifted to get governmental jobs – how would these affect policy implementations?
Temporarily it is a survival instinct, they need to get a job for a source of income. We don’t want more than 50% of the youth to be unemployed. No political party in Bangladesh can afford that nor even want to go to that stage of potential instability. So, if they are engaged in any type of activity, you may be able to manage in the short-run, but it won’t allow them to grow. Growth will only happen when youth will be the drivers of macroeconomic indicators through trade diversification and being knowledge workers. So, the policy should be about massive and diversified employment generation, which should be continued in various sector development. And then goes to the point of knowledge development, but that will be done stage by stage. Other than macroeconomic solutions, I don’t think there’s any other viable solution now. But now I see a lot of youth going back to farming which should be encouraged. Which also brings the point of rural and peri-urban youth and their needs are often fundamentally different from the urban youth group.
12) What is your own vision for the future?
I don’t consider myself as an original creator. I like playing with people’s ideas and I like to create an environment in which those ideas are flourished. Even in this office, I have a lot of colleagues who are shy or not confident enough to talk about new ideas. So, my work is to create a safe space for them to build on their own ideas, and my job is to just help them realise their potential.
My super-duper philosophical leadership approach is to be a servant leader, as in lead to serve others and not myself. And, if we all start serving others, then we’ll also be served better. That is how I work here and when I was in other countries, I had the same principle there which lead to tremendous growth of others so far. I myself was pleasantly surprised to see some people turn into such bold human beings from being introverted and cornered, haha.
13) How would you describe your dream project?
Oh, that’d be with the new generation. If I had unlimited money, I would invest on one particular generation, starting from when they are just babies until they’re in college. They will be given free education so that all of them are educated. It is also fine if some of them do not want to study but the option will be there. The mandatory subjects to be taught are going to philosophy, history, math, and at least three languages of their choice. They will come out as the most morally sound and corruption-free generation who will eventually phase out all the others who are not doing justice to their country. But obviously that is wishful thinking, haha.
14) What advice would you like to give to today’s youth?
One thing that I don’t feel comfortable with is that the youth today detest or ignore politics. Maybe a few politicians are not up to the mark like they imagine but most are trying to change the face of the country. And to be honest all of us are more or less political beings - if you ignore it completely, you’ll never be a part of the change that you desire or get things done. We also need to get rid of the philosophy that you don’t compromise/negotiate with the enemy, but if you actually talk to them to at least try to come to a mutual understanding, what’s the harm in that? You don’t have to be a full-fledged activist, but you can just attend the forums, or contact the politicians. If thousands of people knock them regarding the same problem, they’re bound to listen, and if they still don’t, you have the right to be mad at them. But don’t just give up on them even before trying to make them listen and collaborate with you. So,
1. Get involved in politics and use politics as a tool to get things done.
2. Analyse leadership and philosophies. Don’t ever think leadership is all about the person who is at the top, leaders can be anyone and everyone.
3. Learn empathy and deep listening. Don’t judge and try to be in the shoes of the speaker and understand the person better.
15) How should one contact you?
I am present on all kinds of social media. Unfortunately, we don’t have a very well-maintained website, but if you want to reach me personally, it’d be best for you to knock me on social media. I don’t want to tell you my email address though as it may get spammed, haha.