Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue

25 November 2016
SERIES South Asian Executive Directors 16 items

Professor Mustafizur Rahman is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a leading centre of excellence in Bangladesh. He discusses his career at CPD, the challenges he faced, CPD’s impact, and the role that funders and the think tank’s leadership and staff have played in contributing to CPD’s development over the last decade. 

Annapoorna Ravichander: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Mustafizur Rahman: I am an economist by training. After having done my PhD in development economics, I joined the University of Dhaka as an Assistant Professor in 1986. When the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) was founded in 1993 by Professor Rehman Sobhan, I was part of the core team. It was indeed an exciting time. Bangladesh was leaving behind the decade-long military rule and the vibrancy of the civil society was palpable. The need for independent voice, evidence-based engagement and an interactive dialogue process was increasingly being felt in Bangladesh. It was in this backdrop that CPD was established by Professor Sobhan with the vision of contributing to Bangladesh’s journey forward by promoting an inclusive, constructive and informed dialogue process among key stakeholders. The need for such a dedicated institutional facility in support of this was acutely felt at that time. Such a facility would serve as a platform which would facilitate debate and discussion, influence policies and reforms, pursue policy activism and give voice to the marginalised sections of the society. I saw my involvement with CPD as a unique opportunity to be part of this exciting journey, where I could bring on board my passion for research and my desire to work towards positive change in Bangladesh. At the beginning, I was both teaching at the University of Dhaka and helping Professor Sobhan in getting CPD off the ground, in particular looking after CPD’s research related activities.

AR: And how did you arrive at this post?

MR: When CPD started to work under an institutional structure, after a review carried out in 1999, I was made the Research Director. I served for eight years in this capacity, between 1999 and 2007. As Research Director, I was very closely involved with CPD’s research activities, both supervising CPD’s Research Division and being closely involved in CPD’s research related activities. Work as the Research Director gave me an opportunity to set up and strengthen research capacity, undertake research planning and provide leadership in implementing CPD’s research work plan. At the same time, I worked closely with the then Executive Director Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, who was defining role in giving CPD a strong institutional and organisational foundation and steering CPD towards its emergence as a leading think tank in South Asia. My close association in this process helped me to have an in depth understanding the ethos, vision, mission and mandate of CPD. When I became the Executive Director in 2007, I was thus well-conversant with CPD activities, its vision and mission, and where it aspired to go in the future.

AR: What was the leadership transition like?  

MR: I had carried out the responsibilities as CPD’s Research Director for about eight years then the CPD Board appointed me as the Executive Director. I had long been a part of the senior management of CPD and was thus, as it were, an “inside” person. I was closely involved with planning, operational and implementation related activities spearheaded by the Executive Director. I was committed to pursuing the vision and mission of CPD and had excellent rapport with the collective at CPD. My transition from a Research Director to the Executive Director was thus quite smooth. My predecessor Dr Bhattacharya who was moving to Geneva as Bangladesh’s Ambassador to the WTO and UN organisations helped me a lot in getting ready for the executive responsibilities and helping me get ready in taking up the responsibility of the Executive Director of the CPD.

AR: Did you foresee any challenges, if so what were they and how did you overcome them?

MR: Whilst CPD’s leadership transition was smooth, I was aware of the fact that maintaining the standards and track record of the CPD was going to be a challenging task. The Chairman and the CPD Board, which include some of the most eminent citizens of the country, were extremely supportive and I benefitted enormously from their advice and encouragement. My colleagues at the CPD gave me unconditional support. By this time CPD had consolidated its position as the country’s leading civil society think tank. I tried my best to maintain the level of excellence to which my predecessor had elevated the organisation. In 2006 it had produced the Vision 2021 document through country-wide consultations and campaigned in favour of good governance. When I took over, the country was entering into a new phase, where a military-backed civil administration had assumed power after months of civil unrest. There was a large degree of uncertainty with the new power exercising restrictions on activities of non-state actors. My colleagues and I had to strategise in view of the emergent situation, consolidating our achievements and avoiding taking risks.

The other challenge I faced was to strengthen CPD’s institutional capacity through organisational and human capacity development. Under the wise guidance of the CPD Board, and with help from colleagues, we continued to strengthen our in-house research capacity and strengthen our Dialogue and Communication Division. We focused on issues of interest and importance to Bangladesh and tried to design our activity portfolio accordingly. We also started to take preparations for financial strengthening of CPD since a major multi-year programme support was coming to an end.

We felt the need for endowment fund and capacity building support to enable CPD to free itself from projectised involvements and to enable the CPD to develop and pursue a demand-driven portfolio and to carry out research and dialogues with high degree of professionalism. The TTI announcement in 2009 came as a unique opportunity to address this challenge, and the CPD Board, senior leadership and all colleagues were extremely keen to take advantage of this. We spent a lot of time and gave our best efforts to get ready for the competition, and to prepare the needed documentation. We were delighted when CPD was selected as one of the few think tanks which received the TTI grants in Phase I through a highly competitive process. Indeed, CPD was also awarded TTI support under the Phase II support.

AR: How did the TTI funding make a difference?

MR: The senior management at CPD has put emphasis on, and gave priority to, building on what CPD had achieved and was keen to take this further and forward. Research portfolio became more diversified and effort was put on strengthening CPD’s institutional architecture. A Strategic Pathway document was prepared and quality assurance mechanisms were put in place in all the three Divisions of CPD: Research, Administration and Finance to ensure quality assurance in research, and good governance, transparency and accountability in running the institute.

CPD also endeavoured to reach out beyond the remits of the country. Over the next years CPD took the initiative to spearhead and host two global networks – one, the Least Developed Countries IV Network, concerned advancing interests of the LDCs in view of the Istanbul Programme of Actions for the LDCs; the other, Southern Voice on post-MDGs, was geared to give voice to southern think tanks in view of the SDGs.

Strategic moves were gradually put in motion to realise CPD’s ambition of transforming itself as a think tank with “local roots and global reach”. In carrying out my responsibilities as the Executive Director, I received full support of my predecessor, Dr Bhattacharya who returned to the CPD after having represented Bangladesh at the WTO as Ambassador, and working at the UNCTAD where he served with high reputation as Adviser for the LDCs to the UNCTAD Secretary General.

AR: In your opinion, what are the best ways that think tanks can work together? Are there any best practices you would recommend? 

MR: I feel that there should be more and closer collaboration among think tanks, beyond participating and giving presentations in seminars and conferences where they often tend to meet. Mutual learnings, in terms of research quality assurance, institutional management, human resource development, best use of outreach tools and social media, resource mobilisation etc. are critically important for institutional development and organisational strengthening of the think tanks. There is much to learn, as regards to best practices, from each other in each of these areas. This is particularly relevant for new and relatively weakly-endowed think tanks.

Hence, I reckon the regional and global Think Tank Initiative conferences and meetings are very good platforms to bring think tanks awardees together to stimulate cross-fertilisation of ideas, encourage learnings across think tanks and to identify common modalities for collaboration. Joint capacity building programmes have also worked well under the TTI support. I have found that membership of think tanks in common regional and global networks works well, particularly when they take up collaborative research. An Opportunity Fund+ type of window, where think tanks take up activities of similar and complementary nature, also produce good results. Inter-TTI fellowships and exchanges, on a regular basis, should be encouraged to promote learning across think tanks.

AR: There have been projects where CPD has work very closely with the government. Can you briefly share with us your experiences regarding this and how do you avoid getting “too close”?

MR: CPD does not take any financial assistance from the Government of Bangladesh (GoB). This is because a key mandate of CPD is to put under close critical scrutiny government’s policies and practices, on a regular basis. The apprehension is that financial transactions could create conflict of interest in relation to the government and could constrain voicing of independent (and critical) analysis and opinion. Indeed, this was one of the reasons for staying away from any financial dealings with the government.

However, CPD remains proactively engaged with the government. CPD’s research and policy recommendations are shared regularly with the relevant government entities. Policy briefs are prepared to service needs of specific Ministries/bodies. High level policymakers including Ministers, Secretaries and high officials are regularly invited to, and to take active part in CPD dialogues and events. CPD’s senior management and colleagues are invited to be members of various important policy committees constituted by the GoB; they are also invited to take part in government delegations and negotiations.

My predecessor, as was mentioned, was invited to represent the country in the WTO as Bangladesh’s Ambassador. Senior colleagues have been members of Panel of Economists for successive five year plans and participated in climate change and trade negotiations as part of government delegations. All these allow CPD to interact closely with high level policymakers, and contribute to policymaking. This is an excellent way to make practical use of CPD’s research work and policy recommendations.

However, when CPD’s assessment of government’s performance is not to its liking, or when government data analysis and evidence are put under critical scrutiny, or when the state of governance, transparency and accountability concerning public sectors and performance of the government is questioned by CPD, then CPD is subjected to harsh criticism and at times sanctions of various types. CPD is very careful to maintain and sustain its credibility through evidence-based assessment of policies and by remaining honest and maintaining integrity. On the other hand, CPD has also worked closely with the government on specific issues and have found the government receptive to many ideas put forward by CPD.

AR: Has the work of CPD resulted in providing effective solutions in the government decision making process? If so, could you share an example?

MR: It is not unusual that without giving credit to CPD, some of its recommendations are accepted and implemented by the government. A number of policy suggestions as regards monetary and fiscal policies, trade related policies, reform issues, negotiating stance in various fora and Bangladesh’s stance on key global issues on negotiating tables may be cited in this regard. CPD believes, however, not in attribution but in contribution.

When CPD senior management colleagues are members of government committees, they can influence policies in more direct ways. CPD has in this way made important contribution to formulation of Bangladesh’s policies including environment, trade and industrial policies. In the past, CPD has worked closely with the Ministry of Commerce and played a key role in the design of negotiating stance in the WTO, through research and also thanks to appointment of CPD’s immediate past ED Dr Bhattacharya as Bangladesh’s Ambassador to the WTO. CPD has found, through practice, that when it is able to involve senior policymakers such as Secretaries of Ministries as Chairs of CPD’s programme Advisory Bodies, collaboration with concerned Ministries is greatly facilitated and the possibility of policy recommendations to be accepted by concerned authorities also rises significantly.

One pertinent example is the BCIM-Economic Corridor. CPD pursued this initiative from the very beginning, since 1999, when this was known at the “Kunming Initiative”. CPD’s Chairman Professor Rehman Sobhan, and the late Dr M Rahmatullah, who was Director of CPD’s Transport and Connectivity programme had earlier laid the intellectual foundation of the BCIM-EC initiative. CPD was the focal institution for the BCIM Forum and contributed to steering the BCIM idea from Track-II (civil society) to Track I (intergovernmental) in the context of Bangladesh. CPD contributed through research, hosting of BCIM Forums, popular writings, awareness raising events with private sector and key stakeholders and close collaboration with the policymakers. Gradually, the idea took shape and got realised into concrete actions at intergovernmental level. CPD also extended fullest cooperation to the holding of the BCIM Car Rally from Kunming to Kolkata where the GoB played the key role.

The other example is that of the “Transfer Pricing Cell” at Bangladesh’s National Board of Revenue (NBR). CPD worked with NBR to come up with a Working Paper on transfer pricing. CPD organised a number of events with participation of high level policymakers and concerned officials to pursue the cause. Subsequently, a Transfer Pricing Cell was established at NBR which is working to ensure that capital flight from Bangladesh through transfer pricing can be adequately dealt with.

AR: As an Executive Director, could you share some tips on how you manage projects at different levels and with different stakeholders?

MR: CPD’s management of project and dealings with stakeholders involve interaction at five levels: getting permission from authorised body of the government (NGO Bureau of Bangladesh), project management, project implementation, project reporting, and dissemination and outreach among key stakeholders.

Proper management of projects at different levels and with different stakeholders is contingent on a number of factors. Development partners with whom CPD works haave specific requirements. The smart way is to take cognisance of particular practices of specific partners and supporters in setting up the activity and financial management system. This should be done in a manner that addresses specific demands of the partners.

CPD has to get permission from the NGO Bureau to receive foreign funds. Documentation has to be done meticulously. CPD strives to carefully follow project outputs and reporting milestones son reporting milestones are clearly delineated to ensure timely delivery of the outputs.

CPD’s project ideas are generated through in-house consultations taking stock of emerging needs and views of policymakers and stakeholders. Concept Notes for relatively larger projects are developed and then consulted at expert group meetings (EGMs) for further refining. It is also CPD’s practice to organise EGMs to discuss draft research outputs.

The reports are then presented for discussion and feedback in the presence of high level policymakers, involved stakeholders and the media. The purpose is three-fold: policy awareness, policy influencing and generating comments, suggestions and feedbacks to get inputs for the revision work. The feedback received is then incorporated in the final version of the report. Research reports and policy briefs are widely circulated through various avenues and, increasingly, by taking advantage of the social media.

Sometimes if the project so demands, CPD sets up networks to pursue the cause downstream. For example, in view of the CPD work on the SDGs, CPD has set up a Citizens SDG Platform where research findings are disseminated with the help of the network members who also are actively involved in the dialogue process.

When CPD feels that an issue calls for urgent attention of policymakers, but CPD doesn’t have in-house capacities, support of outside experts is sought to help deliver the outputs. This is also seen at the CPD as a good way to develop in-house capacity on particular issues with collaboration of outside expertise.

AR: Many think tanks in the region are concerned about the source of their funding. How important is domestic funding for CPD? How hard has it been to raise this kind of funding?

MR: The share of domestic funding in CPD’s overall resource envelope is rather insignificant. Reasons are three-fold.

First, as far as Bangladesh’s private sector was concerned, the practice of allocating funds to think tanks, for research, dialogue and outreach purposes, is rather absent.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, CPD does not take GoB funds being apprehensive of a possible conflict of interests. CPD also avoids taking funds to pursue research work from organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF who have important say in reform measures and policies in Bangladesh so that no conflict of interest arises in undertaking assessment of those reforms. CPD is also very cautious to take funds from the private sector as it often puts under scrutiny business practices pursued by business houses and there is a perceived apprehension that support could influence CPD’s voice if a transactional relationship is established with such entities.

Having said that, we do not shy away from dealing with the aforesaid important stakeholders in Bangladesh’s socio-economic progress and development. Indeed, CPD very closely works with Bangladesh’s private sector to promote policies that are conducive to promoting business-friendly environment in Bangladesh. CPD is also engaged in policy debates and discussion with the World Bank, IMF and other multilateral institutions working in the country. On specific occasions, CPD has partnered with particular business groups and multilateral organisations to organise events. In such cases, CPD is very cautious who the partners are in order to ensure that there is no conflict of interest in implementing such activities.

Finally, and regrettably, the practice of setting up of foundations by the private sector, which could then allocate resources for supporting think tanks, is yet to take root in Bangladesh. If this would have been the case, domestic think tanks would have access to local funds and they would not be so overwhelmingly dependent on foreign-funded projects and outside support as they are at present.