Dr. Reehana Raza is the former Director/CEO of IDEAS. In her interview, she discusses the background and goals of IDEAS.
Can you briefly tell me about your background and how you became the Director of IDEAS?
I arrived at IDEAS after having a career in teaching and research and having consulted for a number of multi-lateral and bi-lateral organizations. I was approached by the Open Society Foundation in New York to undertake this important initiative which was to set up a new economic policy institute in Pakistan. Mr. Soros was keen to fund an initiative that would be locally driven by Pakistani economists who would determine a research agenda that addressed pressing issues in Pakistan and then deliver on it. The objective was to set up a local independent research and policy center which is what IDEAS is.
Can you describe the research and think tank scene in Pakistan? What do you think sets IDEAS apart from other such organizations in Pakistan?
There has been a boom in economic research and policy centers in Pakistan. Much of that growth has centered on Lahore because of the number of universities here which serve as the source of human capital for these centers. Hence, it’s an exciting time for economic research in Pakistan. What distinguishes IDEAS from the others is our vision, our exciting projects, our interdisciplinary approach and the quality of our team. IDEAS’ vision is to undertake research that strengthens the economic and social foundations of democracy of Pakistan. What does this concretely mean? Essentially the argument is to take strategic gambles on research areas which have been stumbling blocks for democracy in the past in Pakistan. The aim is to let this determine our work program and the projects we choose to work on. That driver has meant that IDEAS is working on a number of exciting projects that we believe are critical for sustaining democracy in Pakistan.
In the Pakistani context, what sorts of challenges are faced by research centers? How is IDEAS overcoming these challenges?
Usually the biggest challenge that faces research and policy center that are independent from universities, like IDEAS, is funding. Usually, what happens is that such centers dissolve into consulting firms once their initial funds dry up. IDEAS is fortunate enough to be funded generously so this is not an immediate concern. Nevertheless, IDEAS is very cognizant of the fact that funding is ephemeral and hence needs to put systems in place that ensure that we can be financially sustainable in the long run. The other challenge is recruiting quality people and retaining them. A large part of IDEAS staff is young. We usually hire young people interested in research, policy careers, who see themselves doing a PhD. We hope that IDEAS serves as a good training ground for successful research careers and that many of our young team will return to us after they complete their PhD careers. At the top end, our ability to attract senior researchers is our already existing strong team, and our openness to innovative research.
Can you tell me about the significance of the various research areas at IDEAS and how these were selected?
As I mentioned above the key driver of our research program is IDEAS’ vision. The four clusters and the areas of research selected all contribute in different ways to the vision of strengthening the economic and social foundations of democracy in Pakistan. Human Development, for example, is central to any democratic endeavor. Improving the capacity of all Pakistanis through better access to education and health is critical for the development of a more equal society, strengthening well-functioning democracies and improving economic growth. Regional imbalances are and will be important challenges to the progress of democracy in Pakistan and, hence, the priority given to Public Finance and Fiscal Federalism at IDEAS. The 18th Amendment has devolved more functional responsibilities to the provinces. The 7th NFC award has devolved greater financial resources to the provinces, and distributed them more equitably than in the past forty years. These are regarded as momentous developments but they have coincided with some of the worst fiscal imbalances that the country has experienced with all the associated consequences for macroeconomic stability and long term growth. It is, therefore, critical that we prioritize analytical work on public finance and fiscal federalism in order to ensure the devolution, central to the democratic project in Pakistan, succeeds. Engaging on issues of Social Exclusion and Marginalization are critical for consolidating democracy in Pakistan. Marginality and exclusion are central determinants of how access of various goods and services are allocated and affect how market and other economic institutions function, including political institutions, including those central to the function of democracy. Finally, Political Economy, Governance and Institutions are critical as strengthening rule of law and democratic participation is critical for effective citizenship rights, creating socio-economic mobility and catalyzing economic growth.
What do you think is IDEAS’ contribution to society and to public policy in Pakistan?
IDEAS is a very new institution and we have been around for only one year so it’s a bit early to talk about our contribution to society. However, I think IDEAS is an important player in the policy arena already , not only in terms of some of our policy engagement but also in terms of our team’s presence in key policy forums. For example, before the elections in 2013, the IDEAS team felt strongly that social protection had become an essential policy tool in addressing issues of poverty and vulnerability in Pakistan and it was important for the different political parties to reflect on both the Pakistani and the regional experience with social protection before the new government came into power. In some way, we hope the engagement we had with different political parties contributed to the decision by the PML Government to continue with the Benazir Income Support Programme. IDEAS’ contribution will be the innovative research it undertakes, particularly working in areas which are under researched in Pakistan, such as criminality and policy reform, and in the quality of the work it produces. More good research is needed in Pakistan to improve the decision making and the policy process in Pakistan, and we hope that IDEAS can play its role.