Fayyaz Yaseen is an On Think Tanks Fellow and Director of Accountability Lab in Pakistan. In this interview he discusses the origin of the think tank, the challenges it and the broader think tank community face in Pakistan and the shrinking civic space in the country.
Enrique Mendizabal: Please tell us a bit about yourself?
Fayyaz Yaseen: I am a development practitioner with over ten years of experience in the nonprofit sector. I hold a Master’s degree in economics, and an M. Phil in international development studies. I am currently associated with the Accountability Lab – a research based advocacy organization that works with youth on issues of transparency and accountability, as its director for Pakistan program. My areas of research include governance and accountability, Open Government Partnership, Open Government Partnership, entrepreneurship, women and child rights, public service deliveries, and public education.
EM: How did you come to work at a think tank? Why?
FY: As an economist by academic qualification and training, I always had strong interest in research, and wanted to pursue it as a career. I started of my career as a freelance researcher for a media house based out of Islamabad where I worked for about six months, that helped me land a full time job as a research lead at a local not-for-profit organization. A year and publication of two research reports later, I found out that Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) – the premier think tank in Pakistan was looking to hire entry level researchers – I applied to be one and got the job. The SDPI played a great role in honing my research skills further and provided the due mentorship, training, and opportunities that I could establish myself as an accomplished researcher.
Then I served at the Atlantic Council USA (AC) as a Research Associate through Think Tank LINKS (Learning, Innovation, and Knowledge Sharing) program of the US government. Serving at the Atlantic Council was an amazing experience as this is where I closely observed and learned how research and policy agenda are set for research organisations, how effective advocacy around evidence based research is carried out, and how the policy circles (Senators and public representatives in the US case) respond to such policy advice. Serving at the South Asia program of the AC, I was also able to develop lots of professional connections, honed my research writing and public speaking skills, and got engaged into organizing a number of small and large seminars and conferences. During this period, I was introduced to the concept of social entrepreneurship and how it can be employed to tackle myriad forms of social issues that are out of government’s sight and attention.
During this fellowship, I also closely worked on Pakistan-US relations, and met a number of US public officials (and diplomatic staff of the Pakistani Embassy in the US and Pakistani journalists who are based in and reporting from the US). It was in fact during such meetings when I realised that the bilateral relation between the two countries was mired by unrealistic expectations on both sides and how emotions on the two sides overrode evidence for the policy on bilateral relations. However, after coming back to Pakistan, I discontinued working on Pakistan’s international relations and got more closely engaged into governance accountability work.
On my return, I joined the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) another think tank based in Islamabad, as Manager Research and Development. While in the US, I met Blair Glencorse, the founder and Executive Director of the Accountability Lab, and started talking about founding and establishing Lab’s Pakistan office. The discussions and finalizing subsequent nitty-gritty of establishing the Lab in Pakistan took us another year or so, and eventually we started the Lab’s Pakistan chapter in mid of 2015. Ever since, I have been leading it in Pakistan.
EM: What is Accountability Lab? What does it do?
FY: The Accountability Lab is a research based advocacy organization that works with youth on issues of good governance, transparency, and accountability. It also serves as an innovation hub where it assists the youth in identifying simple, low cost, and efficient accountability tools that can help promote the culture of integrity and accountability in the countries where it works. At the moment, the Lab is building and leading the Open Government Partnership (OGP) movement in Pakistan, Nepal, Liberia, and Mali. In all these countries, we are closely working with the government, civil society, media, and other stakeholders to devise OGP National Action Plans (or NAP in the lingo) of the respective countries. We are also leading various incubators around transparency and accountability, counter violent extremism, and social entrepreneurship along with running this very popular television show called the Integrity Idol.
EM: What is your role? How did you get that job?
FY: I am associated with the Lab as its country lead/ director for the Pakistan programme. Back in 2014, when I was in the US through the State Department funded Think Tank LINKS fellowship program, I met with Blair Glencorse – the founder and Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. Upon this introduction and after getting to know about the Lab’s work, I became rather impressed by it. Having worked on governance and accountability related issues in Pakistan prior to this fellowship, I knew how badly the hitherto old-school way of doing accountability needed an innovative approach to be more effective. Thus, I discussed the idea of founding the Lab’s Pakistan chapter. As I came back to Pakistan after the fellowship, I started working as an ambassador for the Lab in the country along with a full time job, and eventually laid the foundation of the Lab in a few months. We are currently a team of 12 with two offices in Pakistan – one in Islamabad and the other one in Multan, with another office opening soon in Karachi.
EM: So, in other words, you are the Founder and Director of Accountability Lab in Pakistan. In this role, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
FY: Soon after founding the Lab in Pakistan, one thing that I quickly realised was that working at an established think tank was altogether different than starting a new one – at a new organisation, you cannot devote as much time to research and advocacy as you want to, rather, most of the time is spent in managerial stuff, day-to-day fire fighting of issues, raising funds even to pay the salaries, so on and so forth.
On top of this, in the Pakistani context, is the issue of the closing civic space, where the government departments would never realise the importance of research, and prevalence of an active and vibrant civil society and would try to regulate (read strangulate) anyone working on issues of civic concerns. In face of these conditions, the biggest challenge for me has been to, firstly, survive as an organisation by dealing with plethora of regulatory requirements and, secondly, to keep the Lab’s research and advocacy agenda aligned with its vision and mission (as many times donors tempt you to diverge from it by taking up assignments and work that do not directly relate to the organisational mandate – we have been able to turn down such offers so far).
EM: And what are the biggest challenges Pakistan is facing in terms of accountability?
FY: The accountability issues in Pakistan are both cultural as well as political. In terms of culture, for thousands of years until the colonial rule, the subcontinent has been ruled by kings, monarchs, and rajas. And throughout their rule, the powerful had complete immunity of their actions and lack their off. Law only applied to the weak and the poor, and disobeying the law was a symbol of power. Gradually, this became a norm, and everyone in the society, in order to brandish whatever power that they wielded, publically (and proudly) disobeyed as many laws of the land as possible.
Even after freedom from colonial rule, our political representatives continued with this practice, and instead of discouraging it, the public, by and large, not only looked at them in awe but also felt proud in imitating them. Later on, when lack of accountability posed a serious governance challenge, encouraged mass corruption, and eventually crippled the entire way of life in the country, then people started realising the importance of accountability.
Fortunately, culture of immunity of the powerful and showcasing power through flaunting the law are changing but I think we still have got a long way to go before, as a society, we start appreciating transparency, accountability, and rule of law for everyone.
EM: How did other think tanks respond to the foundation of a new think tank? Where they supportive? Suspicious?
FY: There are not many think tanks in Pakistan, thus the existing think tanks always welcome the creation and formation of new think tanks in the country. Entry of new research and policy advisory bodies creates a healthy competition among the think tanks which compels them to be more rigorous and innovative with their research and advocacy. The same stands true for Pakistan.
I have always observed a graceful congeniality, collaboration, and cooperation among the think tanks in the country. In my own case, my former colleagues at the SDPI, especially Dr. Vaqar Ahmed extended a great deal of advice and mentorship in establishing Accountability Lab in Pakistan. In fact, I still look to many of my former colleagues both at the SDPI and CPDI when I need advice and assistance relating to Lab’s research and advocacy activities, and they have always been gracious to lend the due help.
EM: What would you say are the main challenges that Pakistani think tanks face today?
FY: There are a number of challenges that think tanks face in Pakistan: not having enough financial resource base to be able to set independent research agendas, facing human resource capacity constraints (both in terms of numbers and staff’s research acumen), the inability to devise effective advocacy/communication campaigns for the policy engagement, and a lack of depth in the research work, among others.
Also, since think tanks (due to financial dependence) are often working on donor-driven agendas, their relevance to the country’s own research and policy needs is limited. Finally, since think tanks cannot afford market commensurate pay packages, they are rarely the first choice of the best talent produced by the universities.
EM: And in the future? What will think tanks in Pakistan be worrying about in the next 5 years -unless they do something about it now?
FY: Due to the closing civic space in Pakistan, there is an overall suspicion about civil society’s work in the country. And this includes think tanks. This has increasingly resulted in barring think tanks from collecting primary data (surveys, interviews, FGDs) for research purposes. Government owned data in Pakistan is either fudged (due to political reasons), not publically available, or not available at all. So think tanks have to collect it from the respective respondents on their own. This is becoming increasingly harder to do. Without the access to or ability to collect right data, the relevance and quality of the research of the think tanks will be severely compromised, and I think they all are, quite rightly, concerned about it.
Amid this shrinking civic space, the donor community is also diverting their resources to other countries, making the access to resources for local organisations very difficult. I think both of these challenges are quite worrying for think tanks in Pakistan and they are not quite sure for what to do about that.
EM: You have joined the On Think Tanks Fellowship Programme. How do you think this will help you and your organisation?
FY: The On Think Tanks Fellowship is an amazing programme that is designed to specifically mentor, guide and advise mid career researchers and founders of new research and development organizations like ours. From free access to carefully designed capacity building programs to one-on-one advisory sessions on personal, professional and organizational development, from crowdsourcing of solutions from this very experienced and diverse group of fellows and OTT staff members to networking opportunities with think tank experts from across the world, and from abundant writing and researchers’ profile building prospects to access to career building opportunities at the national and international level, it is a complete package. I think I am lucky to be a part of it, and looking forward to benefit from all the resources and opportunities that the OTT throws my way.