Life’s Work: An Interview With Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) (Part 01)

Life’s Work: An Interview With Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) (Part 01)

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Dr. Fahmida Khatun is a prominent Economist in Bangladesh and the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a leading think tank in South Asia. In this sublime and intellectually empowering interview, Dr. Khatun reflects on her early life and her journey to becoming who she is today, talks about Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and its work, the state and future of CPD, how CPD operates as a think tank, how CPD uses research and dialogue as a tool for policy influencing, challenges for CPD, shares how much CPD has evolved over the past decade, CPD’s global ambition, and her thoughts on the future of think tanks and explores why life is a nonlinear journey, and the hardwork and hardships that we desperately want to avoid are universal and are part of our becoming and why we should forget the supremacy of idle talent, actively resist the idea of overnight success and diligently work hard on our goal if we want to make a difference.

This was a much longer interview, so we had to break it up into two parts. This is the part one of the interview. Please come back later this month for the final installment of the interview. Happy reading.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Where did you grow up? Could you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today?

Fahmida Khatun

I grew up in the beautiful Jahangirnagar University campus in an academic environment around intellectually curious people, watching professors and interacting with them. When I think back to my childhood and early life, I realize that those interactions had definitely shaped my work and the way I view life. I was an introvert person and did not like going out much. Even today I love to spend time with myself if I get an opportunity.

I wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up. That came from my family and the environment I grew up. Although I came first in my class, I did not make it as a teacher since appointments were made on political grounds very often. I eventually ended up in research. And I do not regret that.

I started my research career at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), a public research institution that conducts policy research on development issues. While at university I used to frequent BIDS library for resources and I knew a number of economists there. I thought it would be a good place for me to build my career.

After working for two years at BIDS, I went for my second Masters and Ph.D. in Economics at the University College London. After completing my Ph.D., I returned to BIDS, worked there for a while and then took a leave to join UNDP as an Environment Specialist. Later I worked at the USAID Mission in Bangladesh as an Economist. After working for a while at USAID, I realized that my core interest lies in research. So I went back to BIDS.

I joined CPD in 2002. I was attracted by CPD’s approach to research. CPD is not a typical research organization that only focuses on the personal intellectual pursuit. It also focuses on policy influencing through research and multi-stakeholder dialogues on socio-economic development of the country that can have a real impact on the lives of people.

We organize dialogues with high profile policymakers, politicians, members of the national parliament, and also representatives of the private sector, civil society, grassroots level, and rights-based organizations and other relevant stakeholders to listen to their views and recommendations on issues which are important to shape the development discourse of Bangladesh. These dialogues are platforms for people who do not have access to the policymakers but have a say on policies which are formulated for them.

In course of my work, I have realised that research combined with policy-activism is critical for policy influencing towards the formulation of people-centric strategies. At the end of the day, policies are made for the betterment of people. If they do not have a say as to what is good for them and what is not, then the benefit of policies will not percolate through them.

I grew up in the beautiful Jahangirnagar University campus in an academic environment around intellectually curious people, watching professors and interacting with them. When I think back to my childhood and early life, I realize that those interactions had definitely shaped my work and the way I view life. .

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Future Startup

Could you please tell about your work as the Executive Director of CPD as well as how you approach your work?

Fahmida Khatun

This is a challenging profession. The profession of a researcher in a non-government think tank neither gives you power that government officials enjoy nor gives you the money that the private sector offers. However, we have the power of passion. The motivation of our work comes from within. This is to contribute towards developing a just and equitable society. Respect from people is our strength.

Our job has its own set of challenges. Policy influencing means you also scrutinize policies. You point out not only the achievements but also the limitations of policies and their outcomes. It is in human nature, we dislike criticism. But we do not recognise that criticisms are also for further improvements.

Working at CPD is not a mere job. If you come here with the mindset of “doing a regular job,” you are probably at a wrong place. Here, one works not only for self-development but also for the development of the broader community who are left behind.

My approach is to manage the organization with the utmost sincerity. Another important task is to engage in the development of its people. We follow a participatory approach in all cases – from developing research programmes to organizing dialogues to improving organizational performance. The objective is to give everyone a sense of ownership and make them feel that they are important to the organisation. We want to give each and everyone a sense of purpose; that is, what they are doing is important to the institute and to the country.

This is a challenging profession. The profession of a researcher in a non-government think tank neither gives you power that government officials enjoy nor gives you the money that the private sector offers. However, we have the power of passion. The motivation of our work comes from within. This is to contribute towards developing a just and equitable society. Respect from people is our strength.

Future Startup

Could you please give us an overview of CPD as an organization?

Fahmida Khatun

We have three pillars at CPD: research, dialogue, and communication and outreach. CPD was established with an objective to enable dialogues with the policymakers and people from all walks of life. Then came the realization that evidence-based research is critical to have a meaningful conversation. So research became one of the most important pillars. We arrange discussions on our research findings. We publish our research in the form of books, monographs, journal articles, working papers and policy briefs. Social media has become important for the outreach of late, we are using these new media platforms to reach out to a broader community who do not come to dialogues and but have interests in our activities.

Our flagship program, the Independent Review of Bangladesh’s Development (IRBD), provides analysis of the economy and reviews sectoral performances throughout the year. For the last two decades, we have been organising media briefing to give immediate reaction to the national budget announced by the Finance Minister of the country in the national parliament. We also make recommendations before the budget announcement.

Apart from our regular programs, when there is an emerging issue, we immediately take it up and bring the attention of the policymakers and stakeholders. Examples of our immediate activities include research and dialogue programmes following the Rana Plaza incidence in 2013, the Rohingya crisis in 2017, and the floods in 2004 and 2017, among many others. We can swiftly address immediate and relevant emerging issues; this has been one of our strengths thanks to the commitments, talents, and expertise of CPD’s workforce.

We do not work in silos. We do not carry out our routine work disregarding what is going on around the world and in the country. Out attempt is to remain relevant in the policy field by addressing emerging topics and issues. We are a very dynamic organization.

Future Startup

How big is your team now? How does the operation work? Could please give us an insight into your organizational culture such as how people work and collaborate within the organization?

Fahmida Khatun

We have about 70 people now. From the operational point of view, we have three divisions – research, dialogue, and admin and finance. As for researchers, we have about 30 to 35 people working at any given time. Apart from the regular staff, we also have consultants from within and outside the country.

We have a strong culture of mutual respect and bonding within the organisation. It is a mixture of formal and informal culture. While we maintain high professionalism in case of implementing office rules and show zero tolerance in case of deviation from those, we also reach out to our people and provide opportunities to work as a team. We spend a substantial amount of our time at the office. So a sense of belongingness to each other as professionals and empathy towards co-workers are so important. They have to feel at home. They have to feel comfortable. They have to be satisfied professionally. We give utmost importance to a mutually respectful working environment.

The other important component of our culture is continuous learning. We provide ample capacity building and learning opportunities to our people at home and abroad. We also learn from each other, irrespective of positions.

We do not work in silos. We do not carry out our routine work disregarding what is going on around the world and in the country. Out attempt is to remain relevant in the policy field by addressing emerging topics and issues. We are a very dynamic organization.

Future Startup

How do you decide which research area to focus?

Fahmida Khatun

We work on areas such as macroeconomics, investment and trade, regional connectivity, institutions and governance, agricultural and rural development, climate change, health and education sectors, gender empowerment, social security, and sustainable development goals.

While taking up an issue for research we have two broad criteria in mind: first, whether it fits into our broad thematic objectives and second, whether we have the expertise to work on it. For example, the upcoming national elections is a hot topic now. There are a lot of expectations from many people that CPD should work on the national elections. But we will work up to that level where our expertise lies. For example, we can analyse the election manifestos of various political parties to see what their promises are on economic issues, how they will create employment for the youth and reduce inequality. Or, we may highlight the immediate economic concerns and issues to be attended by the newly elected government.

Future Startup

How do you finance your operations? What is your business model?

Fahmida Khatun

We develop our programme proposals based on our interests and expertise, and relevance to the country. Then we present it to the potential supporters. It is more of a demand-driven rather than a supply-driven model. Thankfully, this model has worked well for us so far. We believe that if you have good and innovative ideas, and if you have a proven track record of implementing your programmes efficiently and with integrity, there is no shortage of fund.

Future Startup

The overall non-profit funding is going through profound changes globally. In many instances, NGOs are seeing a decline in funding and many local NGOs are adopting more of a social enterprise model where they run these for-profit ventures to earn money which then eventually go back to fund their non-profit operations. Do you have plans for diversification towards a more self-sustaining model?

Fahmida Khatun

We review our financing model constantly – how to mobilizing resources to keep the institution going. So far we have not experienced any problem in generating resources. But given the declining resource flows globally in view of pressure on resources for regions in conflicts, we have to think innovatively. Our resource diversification model will, of course, be different. We will build on our expertise and experience for resource mobilisation.

While we maintain high professionalism in case of implementing office rules, and show zero tolerance in case of deviation from those, we also reach out to our people and provide opportunities to work as a team. We spend a substantial amount of our time at office. So a sense of belongingness to each other as professionals and empathy towards co-workers are so important.

Future Startup

How much has CPD evolved over the last 16 years?

Fahmida Khatun

We have grown as an institution, broadened areas of our work and diversified our products. We have a bigger team now. The number of publications, dialogues, and international events have expanded at home and abroad. We organise events in the sidelines of the Ministerial Meetings of the World Trade Organisation, high-level UN meetings, and Least Developed Countries Forum, just to name a few.

In many organizations, the transition of leadership is a challenge. People at the top tend to hold on to their positions. Since its establishment in 1993, CPD has experienced 4 leadership transitions, which shows the strength of the organization. We have set an example in our sector.

Our objective is to become a global Think Tank. CPD is the secretariat of the Southern Voice Network. This is a network of 49 Think Tanks from South Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Think-Tanks that are based in Southern countries like Bangladesh, are always considered as national think tanks. Contrary to that, any organization based in the western countries is regarded as global just because they are located in developed countries. We want to change this colonial perception. A think tank can produce high-quality research and can organize events which are of global standards irrespective of their locations.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for CPD now?

Fahmida Khatun

First, finding skilled and qualified people is a challenge for us. Despite the fact that we regularly invite and screen tons of applications, sometimes we fail to fill up our open positions. It is an irony for a country where youth unemployment is more than 10 percent.

Second, after recruitment, we expect our people to grow and upgrade themselves, and hence they need to go abroad for higher studies. Once they go abroad, the returning rate is low because they do not see their future here – the downside of being a developing country. It then creates a retention problem for us. Brain drain is a real problem.

Third, having an independent voice and expressing your honest opinion is a challenging task. The space of independent voice is shrinking. If a society has to grow, it has to create an environment where diverse groups can express their opinion and debate on issues that are important for development. That is the basic feature of an inclusive and democratic society.

Fourth, resource mobilization is also becoming difficult. Given the fact Bangladesh is likely to graduate from least developed country to a developing country by 2024, there may be further pressure on external resource flow to the country.

Think-Tanks that are based in Southern countries like Bangladesh, are always considered as national think tanks. Contrary to that, any organization based in the western countries is regarded as global just because they are located in the developed countries. We want to change this colonial perception. A think tank can produce high quality research and can organize events which are of global standards irrespective of their locations.

Future Startup

How do you operate as a person? What does a typical day of you look?

Fahmida Khatun

I try to start my day as early as possible and typically work late. My days are long. Given the diversified nature of my work as the head of the organisation, I try to be disciplined to function smoothly.

I meditate. I cannot afford to take time out for it. Instead, my meditations are more on the go. For instance, I would leave everything aside and be with myself for 10 minutes. I would forget everything and relax, which helps me to re-energize myself. I do these small sessions at least twice a day.

Future Startup

What are some lessons you’ve learned?

Fahmida Khatun

There is no alternative to hard work. Nothing comes easy, and it is true for everyone. Talent is important, but one also has to know how to utilize it. You have to be willing to put your best effort to make your talent work for you. If you are persistent in achieving something and stay the course, you will get there.

However, one should not be obsessed with success all the time. Failure is part of life. We should embrace it gracefully. It teaches us how to take the next step.

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One should not be obsessed with success all the time. Failure is part of life. We should embrace it gracefully. It teaches us how to take the next step.

Cover photo credit: Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD)

Update on November 25, 2018 at 9 PM: This interview has been updated with new information

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