Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Bangladesh. Working in the international development field since 2006, Mr. Faisal has spent most of his career with BRAC International in Africa and Asia, including Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Prior to joining the Asia Foundation, Mr. Faisal served as country representative for BRAC Myanmar, where he built a team of more than 300 staff providing financial and non-financial services to poor and marginalized clients through 42 branch offices. Before that, he worked as a senior research associate for BRAC, where he managed the poverty and environmental research units, wrote numerous papers and articles, and designed and managed household surveys. From 2017-2018, Mr. Faisal was a Sloan Fellow and completed a full-time mid-career MBA program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Faisal about his journey, The Asia Foundation Bangladesh, all things development sector, work, and life. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. This is a fascinating conversation in its entirety. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it.
Table of Contents
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. To begin with, can you please tell us about yourself, your background and upbringing, and your journey to what you are doing today?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
My name is Faisal. My full name is Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj. Like any other Bangladeshi, I also have a nickname. At home, they call me Jimmy. That has significance. When I was born, my father was working for American Express Bank, where his boss's name was Jimmy, and the US president was also Jimmy. That's why I have my nickname, Jimmy. Then he moved to Saudi Arabia for a work project, and the king of Saudi Arabia was Faisal. That's where I got my name, Faisal.
My father definitely had big hopes that I would become something like a Raja-Badshah (king and sultan) at some point (laughs). While that hasn't happened yet, I don't think I'm doing that bad either. In the beginning, he had some doubts, but I think he's okay with what I've done and achieved lately.
I was born in the southern part of the country. If you know Patuakhali, within Patuakhali, there is a place called Bauphal. I was born there. Both of my grandparents are from Bauphal. I had the experience of living in rural areas for four to five years before I started schooling. I started schooling in Dhaka. But you can see that there was a huge cognitive period that I spent in the rural area. Most probably, my love for open space, green space, rivers, and rustic life originates from the fact that I lived there when I was young. And it also became important in other areas. Growing up, on our ancestral land, there was no division based on religion or caste. We had close friends among all religions and castes. I think that also helped me to think more inclusively as I grew up, to be more accommodating, and tolerant.
Do you think that's the case in almost all rural parts of the country? I come from Maheshkhali, and people of different religions live close by, and I have never seen any communal disharmony. Many of my teachers were Hindus, and we always had an excellent relationship.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
You spoke my mind. When we were growing up, many of my best friends were Hindus. I never really realized that there was a difference. The only way I realized the difference was because their celebrations were different. But I was always invited, and they were always invited to my house. There were some restrictions on food, for example, but we took it as a normal human thing. We never hesitated to ask or talk to each other about religion or anything. To me, it became more and more prominent in Bangladesh after 2000. Before 2000, I think it was pretty much a similar experience across the country. But you may have a different experience.
I never felt or experienced any difference. In my village, for instance, I would say that people who are practicing Muslims and practicing Hindus, I don't see any issues between them. There is no communal tension or those kinds of things.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
That's very interesting because even though I grew up and was born in a rustic area, I haven't been to my ancestral place for 26-27 years. That means I don't know. I don't know the recent developments, and that's quite important because it also means that we are assuming a lot of things being in the city, which may or may not be the same in the rural areas.
As you said, maybe there is still social cohesion, social rules, and a social contract in those places, and that helps them to maintain a more peaceful status than we experience in urban areas. Mostly because in urban areas, privacy, and seclusion are more important than community. In cities, we live in a more disconnected state, and we are fearful of things. So, I think we have all sorts of assumptions. And given that we are a small country, I find it surprising how less and less we are becoming exposed to rustic life. I don't know what children will say these days, for example, when you ask them where milk comes from. I think they will say the grocery store, not cows.
I was thinking the same thing the other day. Our lives are so easy; it's like we might eventually think water comes from the tap.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Going back to your question about my background, at some point, we moved to Dhaka. My father also returned from the Middle East and started his own business. I attended Wills Little Flower School for most of my primary and high schooling, and then I went to Dhaka College. Later, I studied economics at Dhaka University for my bachelor's degree.
Immediately after that, in 2004, I went to the University of New South Wales in Australia. I stayed in Australia from 2004 to 2006. After completing my master's, I returned and started my career. Later, in the middle of my career, I felt the need for another academic pitstop. So, I joined the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a Sloan fellow. The Sloan Fellow is a 100-year legacy program at MIT, and I think I was the first Bangladeshi to attend it. It's a highly prestigious program. I don't want to use the word elitist, but it is an elitist program. That sums up the educational part of my life.
In between, I pursued Ph.D. coursework at Gothenburg University with the generous support of the Swedish government. Additionally, I was selected for two fellowship programs as an emerging nonprofit leader—one at Thunderbird, Arizona, and the other at the Aspen Institute in Colorado both funded by Amex Leadership Academy. That in a nutshell is my classroom type of experience.
I'd like to go back to your early life, the time you spent in Patuakhali, as well as your early years in Dhaka. What was the environment like during your childhood? Please tell us more about your parents and any memories or lessons from those years.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
As I said, both my father and mother hail from the same area, with their houses not far apart from each other. However, they had different upbringings. My maternal grandfather was a doctor, so you can imagine my mother's lifestyle was somewhat different from my father's, who lost his father at a very young age.
The devastating 1970 cyclone, which you may be familiar with, passed through Bhola and affected my ancestors' land. My father and the entire family endured immense suffering. Some of my uncles and cousins lost their lives that night. It was an incredibly severe cyclone. I often come back to this particular event. Because it holds significant importance in my life, and there are reasons for that. In many ways, it shaped the course of my life. It instilled in my father a profound sense of impermanence, a mentality of temporariness or migration.
My mother, too, had experienced her share of tragedies. She lost her mother at a very early age. Thus, I think both of them were exposed to the abstract idea of impermanence from a young age.
I believe that experience contributed to their ability to adapt and move from one place to another. While it may not be precisely a migration mentality, it certainly played a crucial role. It instilled in us a sense of impermanence. My father, for instance, rarely preferred to stay in one house for more than a few years. He was constantly moving from one place to another and transitioning from one stage of life to the next. I think this mindset also fueled his ambitious thinking, where he believed that constantly progressing to the next step was essential for survival.
That being said, my father was never a typical businessman. He leaned more towards being a philanthropist. He would generously give away his money to quite a lot of people, which often caused tension within the family because we didn't understand his actions. It's great to have a philanthropist friend, but it's not good to have a philanthropist father.
In contrast, my mother is a very, very simple woman. She doesn't grasp the complexities of the world and prefers to lead a simple life within her surroundings.
One good thing about my parents is that both of them granted us sufficient independence as we grew up, allowing us to make a lot of our own decisions. While they had certain expectations and priorities, they were not binding. For instance, my father thought that I would become a doctor and my sister would become an engineer, but neither of us ended up following those paths. Nevertheless, they have been incredibly supportive of whatever decisions we made. They had faith in us. They granted us the freedom to think independently and thoroughly consider our choices.
They have also been kind in supporting us throughout our studies and providing financial assistance whenever needed. While we don't have any assets, we did have access to cash when required. That's how I would describe it. There were no promises of material possessions during our growth. However, if we needed a certain amount for a course or endeavor, they readily provide that support. But it never extended beyond that. In that way, we were also privileged, and I am truly grateful for it.
Looking at my parents, I think this notion of staying grounded, being aware of impermanence, and being mindful of one's surroundings came as a family thing to me. I am always conscious of my surroundings and cognizant that there are individuals who may have fewer privileges than us. By remaining mindful of this, we can keep our ambitions grounded and maintain a sense of perspective.
However, we didn't have a specific guideline to follow, neither for me nor for my sister.
Another aspect of this story is that there are certain things that happened in my life that my father couldn't do due to his commitment to the family, earning a living, and various other limitations that life put on him. He wanted to attend Dhaka College, which he couldn't do. Instead, he ended up attending TNT College because it had a night shift option that allowed him to work during the day. Similarly, he wanted to study economics at Dhaka University, but circumstances such as making a living and other factors prevented him from doing so.
I think, in a way, I fulfilled both of those aspirations for him. Studying in Australia was an abnormality. But when he attended my graduation at MIT, I could see how proud he was that his son finally made it to the top league of schools. He could proudly say that his son had studied at the best university in the world.
The flexible parenting and independent mindset that their flexibility allowed us to develop from an early age helped us to create our own strategies and determine our own paths. We didn't have this prescribed idea that you have to study these, be that, and achieve that. I don't know about my sister, she can explain hers. But for me, it was great. I had the freedom to explore different aspects of myself and eventually make a decision about what I truly wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.
That opportunity set me on a path where I now believe I am in a position that I have wanted for a long time. I am doing the kind of work that I have always wanted to do because there was no pressure to conform to a certain path. Ideally, none of our parents anticipate that their child will become the country representative of an NGO or an international NGO at some point. So, in that sense, those are the most significant influences of my parents.
That is a heartwarming and beautiful way to put it. I feel like going in all kinds of directions. A few aspects that stand out for me are your appreciation for nature, your contemplation on the transient nature of things, the impermanence of the world, and the importance of flexibility alongside a sense of discipline.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
The correct phrase is having a lot of whitespaces. I need to have a lot of white space to explore, reflect and then come back to life. That's I think the right way to put it.
How has that (your upbringing) influenced your thinking about the world and the work, the kind of work you have chosen to do, and how you interact with the world, including the people in it?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
There are, of course, phases in my life that I'm not proud of, and I believe everyone can relate to that. There are times when we try to conform to others' expectations rather than embracing our unique selves, particularly when it comes to management. However, I'm grateful that those phases have been relatively insignificant in my life. I have experienced negativity and challenges. Other than that, my journey has been a pretty typical set stage.
In school and college, when thinking about my career, I always had a few aspirations. Firstly, I wanted it to have a meaningful impact on my country and marginalized communities. This inclination grew within me due to various factors, including my upbringing. There is no hypocrisy in that. I truly believe that and It has been a consistent guiding principle throughout my life. Next, I have a deep passion for traveling, so I wanted to do something that would allow me to travel around the world. And, I wanted to do all of this while being a Bangladeshi, which can be challenging.
Fortunately for me, it worked out.
As I mentioned earlier, I was an economics student at Dhaka University. My friends took to the path of either becoming teachers or bankers, and some of them pursued careers in the civil service. These were the top three career choices, and I didn't like any of them.
My option was again, let's go for a master's and see if I can find the answer to what I want to do. When I went to UNSW, it was a two-year program, a good enough timeframe to explore and think things through. And I thought I had an answer. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I chose Environmental Economics instead of Economics, as I felt that environmental touch was necessary for my satisfaction. I didn't pursue financial economics, which is more attractive, or accounting, which is more immigration-friendly. Instead, I pursued environmental economics because, to me, the environment, poverty, and everything is connected, I wanted to learn about that aspect of human society and contribute to it. Everything was going well, and then I decided to return to Bangladesh and work for a few more years before applying for a PhD. Back then, I was also interested in pursuing a PhD. Academic interest has always been present within me.
I would say I love working with data. I love numbers, math, statistics, and econometrics. That sort of worked in a very strange way when I returned to Bangladesh.
I was talking to this BRAC Director who eventually became my mentor for the next 11 years. His name is Dr. Imran Matin. I was talking to Imran bhai, and he had a lot of vision. He was and is super inspiring, and he won me over within an hour. The next thing I knew, I joined BRAC as a researcher. The thing is, when you have the capacity for data and the analytical ability to understand it, you have the whole country in your hands because they conduct surveys all over the country. It took me three years to travel across the entire country and gather a database on water, sanitation, hygiene, and poverty. I saw parts of the country that I never, ever thought existed. The travel bug that I was telling you about, BRAC fulfilled that completely, and I completely forgot about my Ph.D. ambition.
After three years, when Imran Bhai came and told me that we are opening up programs in Africa and wanted someone like me to go there and manage the research unit, I had data, travel, independence, and Africa, a new continent, in mind. Of course, I said yes. I was then sent to Uganda first, where I worked for three months. Uganda already had a research division. There, I learned quite a lot of things and eventually got my own unit in Sierra Leone. I stayed in Sierra Leone and Liberia for a few years, and I traveled quite a lot.
Although it was a different country, different people, different cultures, different adventures, and different kinds of poverty, common people's jokes somehow are similar everywhere. They poke fun at rich people and stuff like that.
I think I was very, very brave back then because once I decided I would go to Timbuktu in Mali. Have you heard of Timbuktu? It is like a mythical place in Western culture and elsewhere. I somehow learned that a music festival takes place in Timbuktu every two years where all the tribes come together. I decided to travel there by road, using public transport such as taxis and bikes. Crossing Guinea was really tough; it was full of drunk soldiers and everything. Nevertheless, I made it all the way to Timbuktu and came back. When I think about it now, it was a very risky thing to do.
I'm ever grateful to BRAC as a Bangladeshi for giving me that opportunity, which is always very normal for Western folks with a passport and everything. And I had this opportunity because I worked with BRAC, a Bangladeshi organization. Throughout all these years, I was based in Africa and was given the responsibility for Sierra Leone and Liberia. That helped a great deal.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
At that stage, my parents became a bit confused about my future, I have to tell you that. They were like, "What is he doing?" And BRAC pays really, really poorly. My father is a businessman, not a luxury businessman, but still, he couldn't see the point. "What are you doing? Why are you wasting time? You didn't go for a PhD, you didn't join a bank. What is your actual intention?" It was difficult for me to explain to him that I was living my life to the fullest. I was enjoying the freedom and learning opportunities. I found joy in working for people, and I enjoyed sacrificing my salary. Parents don't understand that, no matter how open-minded they are. But that was a very fulfilling time for me. At the same time, it was a very challenging time for my parents to understand what was going on.
It only started taking a different direction, I think, when BRAC decided, after my assignment in Sierra Leone, that they wanted me to be the country representative of BRAC Myanmar. Only then, I think, my parents realized, "Okay, being a country representative sounds good, especially at such a young age. I was 35 or 36 back then." They understood that it was quite a significant job. Finally, when I invited them to Myanmar in 2016 and they came to visit, their whole perception changed. They realized that I was doing something truly meaningful.
I took them on a field trip with Myanmar people and showed them authentic Myanmar houses, giving them a down-to-earth sense of how people live in different countries. They realized that working for the people of Myanmar and helping the country grow was truly meaningful. My parents, despite having their ups and downs in their idea of what their son should do, finally understood it. I believe it was also a win for them because they had faith in me, and they were finally convinced that their faith was not misplaced. Now, looking back, I think they're fine.
What happened after that?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Once you become a country representative, it entails a higher level of responsibility. It's a stressful job. In the very beginning, I suffered from impostor syndrome. I questioned whether they made the right choice and whether I had deceived them. That dilemma weighed heavily on me.
One thing that I have done well, to my credit, is that I have always been nice to my supervisees. I have always tried to help them realize their potential. Instead of imposing my wisdom on them, I would listen to them. In most cases, they are in the best position to understand what they're doing. Since I could connect with different cultures, I believe it greatly helped me in Myanmar, even in many difficult circumstances.
Being a Bangladeshi working in Myanmar, I think there was a certain need for deliberate personality projection. Whether it's good or bad, I don't judge, but it was necessary. Earlier, I briefly mentioned the dark side, and that's what occurred after assuming the role of a country director.
Can you please delve deeper into that story in terms of your experience with impostor syndrome, how you dealt with it, and how it affected you as an individual?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Once you have impostor syndrome, it can be insidious. First of all, you might think, "I probably showcased the leadership qualities they were looking for, but in reality, I may not possess them." It's a serious confidence issue. So, what do you do? Then you start contemplating, "If I were in their position, what leadership qualities did they actually see in me?"
You may then adopt the mindset of a Machiavellian leader who can get things done. There's a target to achieve, and you attempt to fulfill it. You try that for a while. However, after facing a few obstacles, you realize that it's not who you truly are, and you sink into deeper feelings of depression. Eventually, you realize that they saw something in you, and that's why they gave you this opportunity.
They must have seen something in me. It is within me, not in their perception of me as I am thinking now. Once you have that mindset switch, imposter syndrome can lose its grip on you.
I am the one who convinced them, and this is why they were persuaded. It's not because they wanted to see someone Machiavellian; they saw Faisal who effectively led his team in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I should continue in that manner. Once I realized this, it's what I began doing.
That's when I think, the impostor syndrome immediately stopped. That's also when I started seeking feedback, something I didn't do while going through it because you're also fearful of receiving feedback. You don't want to hear that feedback. What if it turns out to be negative and reinforces your insecurities? As the team continued to develop, more and more of my colleagues approached me and said, "Faisal bhai, thank you for your contributions and efforts." It gradually improved my confidence and aided my growth in the role, allowing me to make the right decisions.
You can be the mean boss and not listen to your people, choosing to handle things on your own. However, I have decided to take a different approach where I actively listen to them and value their feedback. I have set certain boundaries. If they cross those boundaries, I will inform them that they have crossed them. But within those boundaries, they can explore and unleash their potential. My responsibility is to ensure that the boundary is established based on the context, adjusts with the context, or perhaps even removed depending on the context.
There are other aspects, but boundary setting and fair play rules are important in how I lead and also for my sanity. I cannot micromanage. Some people enjoy doing that, but I do not. I lack the capacity for it. Instead, I prefer to encourage my colleagues to show their potential. If they are unable to do something, then perhaps I will consider adding another person to the team. However, that doesn't mean I will say, "You haven't performed well, so you're out of the team." Everyone has their qualities, and unless they are provided with the appropriate environment, I cannot fairly judge their performance. Therefore, boundary setting is crucial.
At TAF, we even designated the senior leadership as servant leaders. The idea behind this is that I, as a country representative, have gone through my own individual exploration and program development. The same applies to other senior management staff here. We have reached a point where it's time to focus on the next generation and serve them in realizing their potential, serve them to ensure they perform their job well, listen to them, and focus on their development to become the next version of ourselves or even surpass us.
That's why I believe servant leadership is important. It is important for other reasons as well. If I am serving you, there will come a time when you will also serve me, and together, we will serve each other. That I think is a wonderful world where we all are serving each other and contribute to one another's well-being instead of solely focusing on ourselves.
One thing about people is that they are mimetic; they tend to imitate others. When we engage in positive actions and others observe them, they are likely to mimic those positive behaviors, which is good for everyone. I would like to ask a follow-up question regarding impostor syndrome. What should individuals typically do if they are experiencing impostor syndrome?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Impostor syndrome is psychological warfare, and it is something that can be addressed and corrected.
Interestingly, a similar experience occurred to me when I was selected as an MIT Sloan Fellow. When I wrote my SOP selling myself to them, in a sense, I did so with enthusiasm. However, upon being selected, the first thing that came to mind was whether I had exaggerated my achievements and oversold myself, and I didn't want them to believe what I had written. Upon reevaluating my SOP, I realized that there were no falsehoods or exaggerations. It was exactly what I've done in my life.
However, when I entered the classroom, I became even more confused as I came across people who had founded multimillion/billion-dollar companies among many other diverse backgrounds from around the world.
At the same time, once you step into that classroom, you automatically feel like there is a reason why you're there. If this feeling doesn't come naturally to you, you should ask yourself, "Why did they select me? Why did they make me the country representative? What did they see in me?" If these questions are not clear to you, they should be clear to those who selected you, and you should feel free to ask them, "What did you see in me?"
For instance, in the Sloan Fellows Program, I realized several factors worked in my favor. I was a Bangladeshi coming to a business school with years of experience in the development sector. It means I could add a unique perspective to any discussion. When they had the classroom visualized, they wanted to have diverse people, talking from different directions, and challenging the status quo. This realization made everything fall into place.
For instance, in one course, if someone argues for less government oversight and fewer restrictions on innovation, another person can present a counterargument based on their experience in a country where similar technological innovation went awry and caused more harm than good. In Africa, for example, people were developing an innovative payment solution, and the government initially believed that regulation was unnecessary. These individuals appeared to be good people but turned out otherwise. When you actively engage in discussions and participate, you begin to realize that your perspectives differ, and that's precisely why they chose you.
If you are selected for a leadership position, it is crucial to be your authentic self; otherwise, you are unlikely to survive. That is the greater risk of imposter syndrome. Once others discover that you are acting differently than they thought, that is when the real trouble begins.
One should try to consistently act in accordance with their true self and fully embrace who they are. This is the most effective antidote to imposter syndrome. Because imposter syndrome asks you do to the opposite and doubt your true self.
Going back to your journey, you started working in Myanmar, what happened after that?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
I think I worked in Myanmar from 2012 to 2017. By the time I left, we had implemented a massive microfinance program. Aung San Suu Kyi was in power, and the country was very optimistic and heading in the right direction. This was before the Rohingya issue happened.
At some point, I realized that I should take another pit stop for various reasons. One reason was that I had served as the country representative for five or six years, reaching a significant stage in my career. I understood that very few people achieve such a position at that age, and I shouldn't become complacent but instead further enhance my skills and expertise.
I was also quite exhausted and fatigued. I felt the need for some white space to reflect and contemplate life and work, as it is in my nature. I require moments of solitude to disappear and reappear. I needed that white space.
So, I thought about going back to academia, but I didn't want to go to just any school. I thought, let's start at the best school so that it would also serve as a market signal, demonstrating that I can stand alongside the world's best and compete with them. It was a way for me to prove to myself that I was ready and to get rid of that impostor syndrome once and for all. So, there were both selfish and selfless reasons, and ultimately, I decided to pursue higher studies.
I was looking at where I could go and came across the MIT Sloan Fellows Program. I thought it was a perfect fit. They required a minimum of 10 years of experience, which I had. Since the program required significant professional experience, it meant that I would be in classes with individuals who also possessed professional expertise. Being at MIT, I anticipated learning a lot about technology. There was a lot of discussion about financial inclusion, technology, and things like that at that time.
I thought that this program would provide the ideal opportunity for me to transform myself for a new age, a new era, and a new style of management. It would allow me to acquire new tools, enhance my understanding of technology, and provide the necessary whitespace for personal growth. It was at this point that I decided to take that break.
I asked my boss if I could take a break for a year and if they would grant me a sabbatical.
My boss at that time was Faruque Ahmed). He was a very kind and nice person. He said, "Of course, why not? and I would write a very good recommendation letter for you too.” In the end, everything worked out.
When you go to MIT, of course, your eyes open up even more. You realize that the whole world can be within your reach in a way. I thought maybe it was also time to change my organization. By that point, I had already spent 11 years with BRAC and had reached the level of country representative. BRAC is a grassroots-level organization that focuses on micro-level initiatives. It involves building tangible things, so you instantly feel a sense of accomplishment. You go home and say, "Today, I opened the 50th branch office." For instance, when I was the country representative in Myanmar, I used to look at a photo with the map of Myanmar dotted with all the signs representing Brac branches. It felt like an empire, and that brought me joy.
But this time around, I thought that bigger things were happening at the policy level, where people shape policies and change the course of the country. And BRAC was not very well known as a thought leader in many sectors.
At that time, my girlfriend also worked for the Asia Foundation. Through her, I came to understand that it was quite a fascinating organization. Without her knowledge, I applied for a few positions and one of the positions I received a response for was the Country Director role for Bangladesh.
They were probably looking for a Bangladeshi with exposure to the Western world, with an analytical mindset and thought leadership. At the same time, the organization was undergoing a transition and required someone with a business background who could understand transition management and related aspects.
After 9-10 interviews, they decided that I was the right fit for them, and I decided that they were the right fit for me. That's how I ended up at the Asia Foundation, an organization that operates in 18 countries in Asia, with its headquarters in San Francisco. This time, I didn't experience any impostor syndrome.
But I did ask myself a question: all the country reps here are talented, research-oriented, data-driven, and diplomatic-type individuals. Why was I selected this time? I knew the answer from those nine interviews. They were looking for someone who could navigate between development and diplomacy, someone who understands the culture and can leverage the strengths of both domains for the organization. That's why I think they decided that I'm the right candidate. It has been three years, and I am going to work for another three years at least.
We'll be talking about your work at the Asia Foundation in a moment, but there are several nuggets of insight that I'd like to touch upon first. The first question is about nature. What aspects of nature do you find valuable and compelling? The second question is about your take on the current development paradigm. Recently, I visited quite a posh and large residential area. Surprisingly, there were no parks within the residential area, despite its size. I live in Mohammadpur, where it's difficult to come across green spaces or parks. What are your thoughts on these things?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
As an organization and as a development partner of Bangladesh, our interests are wide. It's not limited to sectoral thinking but rather it's country thinking. If someone presents an innovative idea, we are more than happy to collaborate and test it with them. This demonstrates our broad range of interests across various topics.
Now, returning to your question about nature, after finishing my job at five or six, I can easily unwind for one or two hours if there's a nice park or a walking space available. In Baridhara, we have two parks here. My problem is laziness, so I don't have an excuse.
But if you live in Mohammadpur or somewhere similar, you don't have many options. I believe this is closely related to how the government thinks in terms of citizens' preferences rather than development preferences, I will come back to that. When considering development or designing a landscape, one cannot ignore the needs of citizens, aesthetics, citizen facilities, toilets, and so on. However, in Bangladesh, we have observed designs being implemented without considering the citizens' perspective.
To me, I think a healthy dose of elitism is necessary for any country. Too much of it becomes toxic, just like an excess of salt in your food. If there's too much salt, it's toxic, and if there's too little, it doesn't taste good. Similarly, elitism, when it comes to citizens, is like that for me. A healthy dose of elitism is needed in various aspects of life, including city design. If you don't have that elite involvement, it has certain downsides. Regardless of our disdain for the elites, they have a certain role to play, and this is another aspect to consider. Why do you think Gulshan Park was suddenly revived? It's because elites decided that they would live in this country and initiate change. Hopefully, other areas will also have their time, and hopefully, it's not too late.
But again, returning to your point, as a citizen, I demand the freedom to go out for a long walk. I want to enjoy a cup of coffee without worrying that it's a diuretic and I won't find a public toilet nearby. I don't want to encounter bumpy roads. However, these things are not happening because there is a lack of consideration for citizen experience in development designs. Throughout the entire design process, there is a lack of involvement from people who can guide the development in the right direction.
We were talking about citizens' participation in urban planning.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
I think most of the time, we don't consider citizens' thoughts and needs. We design somehow without thinking about who will ultimately use it and how they will perceive it. Profit, of course, is an important factor for a growing country. However, it's time we give thought to questions like how citizens will live in a city like this.
You might have already guessed that I've a bit of a ‘Self-sacrificing orientation’. I think that's a good thing to be when you're a development worker because you need to be able to think about everything without yourself in mind. If everything is for you, you develop in a certain way. But if it is for everyone else, and you think you don't matter, that's what I mean by Self-sacrificing thinking.
I don't think we need to be worried that much about nature. Nature knows how to reclaim things. I'm least bothered by deforestation; forests will either grow or remain the same. It's just that our lives are going to be miserable. When someone says we need a greener world, I think we should be honest enough to say that it is for us. The earth itself is not concerned about deforestation as such. It will eventually reclaim it, no matter how much you resist. We need to acknowledge that it is needed for us and that's why we need it now, rather than saying that we should be concerned about nature. Nature is nature; you don't have to worry about it. I'm not worried about nature; I'm worried about human beings. The way we are currently designing our cities is not how human beings should live or think about civilization.
VI. THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY
I have two more questions about your journey. You spent time in Africa, Myanmar and then Bangladesh, and the US. Different cultures, different types of people. How has that experience shaped your perspective on people, cultures, and society?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Tremendously, of course. Many people travel across the world. My travel experience was a bit different. I worked and lived in those countries. If you include travel, then there are many more countries. These are countries where I lived, worked, and studied. That's a much deeper and better way to learn about these countries. In many aspects, I don't see any difference between a developed country and a developing country. In many aspects, I see a lot of differences. For example, racism, class differences, and discrimination can be found everywhere. They exist in the richest countries of the world as well as in the poorest countries. This is common.
Similarly, just because we don't have any color differences, it doesn't mean Bangladeshis are less susceptible to them. We have our own problems. If we think about the people who work at your house, the housemaids, they don't sit with you. Nowadays, changes are happening, but in most cases, they still don't sit with you at the dining table. They have separate seats.
We also have commonalities in good things. For example, anywhere you go, if you stumble on a street, someone will come and pick you up. It's the same in every city, but many will not. In that way, we have a lot of similarities as well.
The best thing we should learn is to keep whatever is best for us and ignore the rest. I'm a liberal person. I want to see my country become a bit more liberal than it is now. But I think Bangladesh is way more liberal than many other countries. I think we are a very tolerant nation. Recently, we were discussing counterterrorism, and we reached an agreement that regardless of how much the world portrays Bangladesh as a terrorist threat, there is no evidence to support that.
I completely agree with you on the point that we are much more tolerant as a nation and as a country than many other places in the world.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
When I started my work at the Asia Foundation, I returned to Bangladesh after almost 11 years. For the past 11 years, I mostly lived and worked abroad. When I came back, one of my very first thoughts was, "Oh, it's such a radicalized country." Even as a Bangladeshi, I bought into this idea that we are highly radicalized. However, after working for one and a half years, I have realized that we have some of the most kind, curious, and tolerant groups of people. We are sacrificing the overall image of the country just for a few exceptions.
One of my biggest frustrations, you could say, with the government at times, is that we should open up the country and allow people to come in larger numbers and explore. There may be one or two problems, but if we allow them to come easily, everything will be fixed. Think about Thailand; they didn't lose any culture by welcoming all these foreigners; instead, their culture has become stronger. They even export their culture. The same goes for Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. They didn't have to sacrifice anything to be open.
Then why do we think along these lines that if we open up, everything will be gone? In reality, everything will be appreciated, and you will feel more confident. If 50 foreigners come and go to Bokul Tola to listen to Rabindranath Tagore's songs, it would be better for our culture that other people are appreciating it. I don't understand why we don't try to learn these good practices from elsewhere. We are frightened of foreign cultures. But at the same time, we do have lots of elements that we foster that are even worse than foreign cultures.
Those years of living and working in different countries have helped me develop a better sense of humanity. I’ve learned that human beings, in general, are empathetic. People, in general, are kind and compassionate. Everyone has the same worries; they worry about their job, their living situation, what they're going to have for their next meal, and how their family is going to grow. That's how most people are.
You studied Economics at Dhaka University. The Economics department is one of the most prestigious departments at Dhaka University, and it has produced many important individuals for the country. Then you went to MIT, another globally significant educational institution. What do these organizations have in common in terms of producing influential individuals for countries and societies? What sets them apart from other organizations? What are your thoughts on this?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Dhaka University, located in the middle of the city, is a highly politically conscious institution. This is an important and unique characteristic of Dhaka University. While Rajshahi and other universities in Bangladesh also follow a similar pattern, the historical significance and the occurrence of student movements on the campus make Dhaka University distinct. As a student of Dhaka University, when you enter, you automatically feel like a part of that revolution, as if you are contributing to the change and shaping the future of the country. You can be a rebel. I'm not sure how the campus behaves these days, but that's how we felt when we were there.
When we talk about the economics department, particularly Dhaka University economics, it is very different from any other economics department in the world, I would say. Whether good or bad, Dhaka University's economics is highly influenced by political ideologies. I don't think any other university spends as much time in an economics class debating whether capitalism is better than socialism or vice versa. That doesn't happen anywhere else in the world anymore because they have already taken a side. But for us, even though we lean towards capitalism, we still have this socialistic nostalgia.
I think that's a good thing because we still have doubts that capitalism itself is not going to solve all the problems. Having these people in leadership positions also enables them to ask tough questions, such as I want to take a loan from the IMF without sacrificing certain things. You can ask all those challenging questions. Politicians, at the end of the day, may sell out, but economists can pose those tough questions. For example, when Dr. Abul Barkat was in the limelight for some time, I recall him giving a lecture on energy. After the lecture ended and everyone was leaving, journalists approached him on stage and asked, "What do you think about the caretaker government?" This reflects the perception that economists are expected to have answers to everything. I believe it stems from the idea that economics is connected with everything.
Good or bad, that's how the economics program is run in Bangladesh. It is more socially oriented and is based on the idea that we are still undecided between socialism and capitalism. Even though many of these theories have been proven, we approach everything with doubt. I have written pages of answers on the Phillips curve, which is a proven theory, but I don't believe it because it's anti-socialist. It's the same for any other concepts. Good or bad, that's how it's taught.
MIT, for example, has an excellent economics school that is a different breed altogether. For a long time, I didn’t much about various schools of thought in economics. MIT, for instance, believes that anything can be proven through math and physics. That's their approach to economics. It involves working with data, devising solutions, and creating theories. There are no ifs and buts in their approach. It's not about socialism or capitalism. If you go to the Chicago School of Thought, they believe that money supply can solve every problem. The root of everything lies in money, whether you restrict it, control it, or spend it. That's their sole formula. On the other hand, Berkeley leans towards social philosophy more than math.
In Bangladesh, economics students are more closely tied to politics. It's primarily focused on political economy, informing the power and advocating for bold approaches and ideas about how countries should run. However, in the Western world, economists don't typically operate in the same manner. They usually work behind the scenes, conducting research, writing theses, or developing theories. If the government seeks their expertise, they provide valuable insights and offer various options, but it's ultimately up to the politicians to decide which course to take. This represents a distinct approach.
Nevertheless, the close connection between politics and economics in our context, and the emphasis on industry in the Western world, makes both approaches effective. If you don't do either, you will not be anywhere. In many universities, many departments do not work well or exist without creating an impact because they have neither political inclination nor economic or social. They don't go outside. They live in their own bubble. That's not useful.
You have years of experience in the development sector, spanning multiple functions and countries. What have you learned about the nature of development work? Common development challenges, such as poverty, inequity, and inequality, have persisted for a long time. What is the nature of these problems? You have led organizations in Myanmar and Africa, and now you're running one in Bangladesh. What are some of the lessons you have learned about what separates excellent development organizations from not-so-good ones?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
The last question is the easiest for me to answer, but it's also a bit theoretical. Don't take it as a recipe. In my opinion, the best development organizations are Self-sacrificial. They remove themselves from the equation and have the ability to do so. If you're solely focused on the growth and expansion of your organization, it becomes challenging to perform good work because you're prioritizing serving yourself rather than serving others. In my ideal development organizations, there is a belief in starting and completing tasks. They start and end things.
This mindset is crucial for several reasons. If you consider Bangladesh today compared to ten years ago, it's evident that the country has undergone changes, people's demands have changed, and the nature of poverty, discrimination, and other challenges has changed. If a development organization fails to consider these factors and continues to operate based on outdated templates, insisting on working in the same manner, it will not do well.
Successful development organizations are dynamic and change themselves with time. They understand the importance of starting and ending tasks. They do not stick to a particular thing that worked 50 years earlier.
I also think it's crucial to consider the assumption of heterogeneity when developing our work. Allow me to explain. In many instances, when we undertake development work, we tend to view specific groups as homogeneous. For example, if someone is poor, we may assume they all have similar characteristics and needs. Unfortunately, this is a common approach in the development sector.
For example, you're working with a specific minority group and you may say that this is a minority group and this is their problem. When you do that you fail to understand the complexity of that group. When working with a specific group, it is important to avoid generalizations and recognize the complexity within that group. Within the minority group, there can be males and females, poor and rich, privileged and underprivileged, educated and uneducated, and more. Making general assumptions about the entire group hinders understanding. The organizations that grasp this heterogeneity are the ones that excel in their work. Additionally, it allows organizations like ours to trust those organization partners.
For instance, someone is working with a minority group X and approaches us and tells us that there is a diverse need within the group, which itself is a very good start. Rather than saying that I have a solution for all of them.
Instead, when you say they have diversified needs, these are the low-hanging fruits that you can go after right away and these are the more far-reaching problems that you can eventually address in the longer term. That's a much better way of developing a program rather than saying that this is a five-year project and at the end of it, every problem will be solved.
You need to be perceptive and empathetic and leave your prior experiences behind to become a good organization.
Over the last 10 years in Bangladesh, I have observed a significant shift toward organizational sustainability in the development sector. When we talk about sustainability, it means we are considering the longevity of our existence. That's anti-Self-sacrifice. Consequently, organizations tend to pursue programs that support their continued existence, such as service-oriented initiatives, microfinance, healthcare, and more.
If you want to take that route, that's fine, create the finest service organization in the world. However, policymakers and certain stakeholders should be concerned because who will then address the needs of disabled individuals, ultra-poor communities, and those living in char areas? These problems rarely align with a purely service-oriented approach.
Similarly, as sustainability has become the modus operandi for many development organizations, an increasing number of people are moving away from working on people's rights, human rights, disability issues, childcare support, and similar concerns. In my opinion, this is a bit dangerous. If the international funding landscape changes tomorrow, these topics will become interesting again for many of us. However, if you have transformed into something else, how can I fund you? If you decide to pursue a different path, you cannot approach me for funding in that area. I cannot do that.
These are some of the good, bad, and ugly sides of the development sector. I might sound controversial, but unless you can plug yourself out of the solution, it becomes exceedingly difficult to be an effective development worker.
I know many organizations that approach it differently. They prioritize sustainability, although I won't mention their names. What they excel at is generating new projects, ideas, and solutions. They identify emerging issues and develop corresponding solutions. They have been doing it successfully. This is one group that does very well.
Another group comprises organizations that concentrate on specific issues. For instance, there are organizations dedicated to migration-related matters. This is a long-term commitment spanning 20-30 years. They adopt an approach where each year they learn about a new problem and strive to address it. I find this group to be doing an outstanding job.
However, organizations that solely focus on institutional sustainability without emphasizing innovation or tackling new problems need to be careful. It should not turn into a money-making scheme or venture in the name of sustainability.
There are some truly excellent insights. Essentially, you have answered my next question. However, I'd like to delve deeper into this topic. Why don't development organizations become redundant? The purpose of development organizations is to work towards solving social problems, and once a problem is resolved, they should go out of business. As you mentioned, they should start and end projects and then move on to address other issues. But we don’t see it happening a lot.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
There is macro-level development work that takes place, typically carried out by governments, think tanks, and prominent development organizations. I am referring to development partners, not just NGOs. They have the ability to influence a country to take a certain direction. One of their primary objectives, particularly for Western countries, is to alleviate poverty. One of the ways employed to achieve this is by generating employment opportunities.
Now, creating employment is not a job of an NGO. However, what NGOs can do is identify individuals who are unemployed, work with them, and figure out the reasons behind their unemployment. This is where collaboration between NGOs and the government becomes crucial if there is mutual trust. I am not certain whether this level of trust currently exists in Bangladesh, but ideally, it should.
The idea is that no matter what I do as a government, there'll be this left-out group, and I can count on my civil society partners to identify that. This is from a service point of view.
Similarly, no matter how many policies I implement, they may not be inclusive. In such instances, again, I count on my civil society organizations to point me in the right direction. If I cannot do it alone, I can expect my CSO to do that with the help of development partners. There is a beneficial and complementary approach to doing these things.
Now, development organizations may not become redundant based on how they evolve from one stage to another. For instance, as an organization, you initially focused on providing relief after 1971. However, by 1975, you recognized that relief work was no longer important, so you shifted to a different area. There are good examples of prominent Bangladeshi organizations, you know their names, that successfully navigated from one thing to another and evolved over time. Once you can do that, it makes sense.
The problem arises when these organizations become so big that they start dictating to the government what actions should be taken based on their benefits. This leads to a breakdown in trust and undermines the collaboration I mentioned earlier. For instance, if the government aims to achieve developed country status within 10 years, the CSOs may not fully comprehend or appreciate this goal due to their focus on marginalized populations. However, having differences in opinions does not mean that the organizations cannot work towards the same target as the government. This is one of the reasons why many organizations do not become redundant.
If we summarize, there are two main reasons for this: one positive and one negative. The positive reason is that these organizations strive to innovate, evolve, and get into solving different problems. The negative reason is that they become too big to fail and fail to remove themselves from the equation.
The other aspect is that development work will always be relevant. Development work will never end because the nature of these problems is that they persist. Even in the USA, there are NGOs and nonprofits. The economy and civilization move in cycles. In Chicago and some other areas, they are now considering the introduction of Microfinance. It may be surprising for a country like the US, but there are also marginalized individuals who require assistance, and they are now asking organizations to help them develop programs to address these challenges. This continuity will always exist. As a CSO, I personally draw a line when it comes to dictating to the government how things should be done. I don't believe we should engage in that.
Every paradigm works as waves. These cycles typically last for 5-10 years. As I mentioned earlier, sustainability has been the primary focus over the past decade. This focus led many organizations to shift their attention towards areas such as microfinance, skill development, entrepreneurship building, and women's enterprises. These initiatives provide immediate financial support. But we also lost many civil society organizations that were dedicated to human rights and rights-based development. This shift came at a cost.
Regarding the future direction of the sector, it is once again a wave-like pattern. Compared to three years ago, there is a noticeable increase in demand for human rights organizations, accountability, and transparency. These issues are coming back, and where there is demand, the supply will follow.
New organizations, most likely civil society organizations (CSOs), will emerge to address these issues. Hopefully, the government will also recognize the importance of such organizations and work with them. Otherwise, there will be friction.
In such a situation, it is crucial to embrace Self-sacrifice, or the ability to adapt and grow when necessary, as well as the ability to shrink when needed. It's not always necessary to maintain a 20-story building for your employees; you can adjust, shrink, and grow according to the circumstances.
Coming to your work at the Asia Foundation Bangladesh. Your work as the Country Representative at The Asia Foundation. Can you please tell us what your work entails, your philosophy of work, how you approach and manage work and people, and what you enjoy the most about your work?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
The Asia Foundation, as I mentioned before, differs significantly from my previous work. At the Asia Foundation, our focus is at the macro and meso levels. We do a lot of fund management for other development partners, such as the UK, USA, and Australia. It's not a typical development organization, and describing our work in simple terms can be challenging. We provide financial support to civil society organizations (CSOs), manage funds, and run capacity-building programs to enhance their effectiveness.
Right now, we are providing funding to nearly 30 CSOs, Think Tanks, and NGOs in Bangladesh. We call them CSOs deliberately because they mostly focus on human rights, accountability, transparency, and good governance, rather than microfinance or other areas. Understanding these organizations, selecting them, assessing their capacity and needs, and determining whether they can deliver the work or not takes up a lot of our time.
The good thing is that since we have been here since 1954, we know most of the capable organizations.
The other part of our work involves direct implementation, where our team carries out projects themselves. For example, counterterrorism and religious freedom are two such programs. We are confident in handling these ourselves due to the sensitivity of the data, exposure, and the beneficiaries involved. As you can see, it's a combination of fund management and direct implementation, but fund management, quality control, and similar tasks constitute the majority of our work.
In terms of our portfolio, governance accounts for more than 50% of our work. Anything related to governance is our niche.
For instance, we have a South Asia Grant fund that is currently being implemented simultaneously in five countries, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Maldives.
With the assumption that civil society organizations have not been properly supported for the last 10 years, we are inviting civil society organizations in these countries to share their ideas with us regarding government accountability, transparency at the local level, and research ideas that promote citizens' rights, migration, freedom of speech, etc. It encompasses various aspects, but all converge into what one of my favorite colleagues used to refer to as negative liberty.
Negative liberty and positive liberty primarily pertain to the governance side of things. In simple terms, when you want the government to do something more and more, it's referred to as positive liberty. For instance, the right to shelter, food, and education. You want the government to promote and invest in these things more and more.
On the other hand, negative liberty encompasses things where you prefer minimal government interference. Freedom of speech and freedom of movement are examples of liberties where government limitations are not desired. These are commonly referred to as negative liberties. Most of our work focuses on negative liberties. Good governance entails not restricting these negative liberties of the people. You let people be. You are transparent and accountable for everything that you do. This approach leads to prosperity. The South Asia Grant fund is more on this side.
We have work on political participation at the local level, a shrinking civic space again. An example of this is our observation that when we discuss sustainable development goals, people still come together and want to go for solutions. We actively promote people's participation in decision-making processes at the local level.
What are some good examples? For instance, if an infrastructure project is built, people should be able to ask about the cost-benefit analysis, procurement process, and other relevant aspects. We strongly believe that people should have the ability to ask questions and seek information.
Another area we focus on is media censorship. We have several projects specifically addressing these governance-related issues. We believe that collectively, these efforts will contribute to improved governance and enable the government to better serve the population.
What is your philosophy of work? You briefly touched on how you work with other people such as empowering them, can you expand on that?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
As I mentioned, at this stage of my career, I am particularly interested in promoting the next generation. I have seen my hay days. Before I become more gray and obsolete, I would like to see the next generation taking the lead. We have a lot of talented individuals here, and my goal is to support them in reaching their full potential.
My role involves establishing boundaries within which they should operate. These boundaries are important because, while engaging in their work, they might inadvertently veer off course. My role is like an observation tower, ensuring that they stay on the right track.
I enjoy inspiring people. Although I'm not an inspirational speaker myself, I like to connect them with inspiring leaders. I focus more on the human resource aspect, trying to find people who are dedicated to making the country a better and more prosperous place. I am constantly on the lookout for talent, both within our office and beyond. Boundary setting, quality control, inspiring them to serve each other, creating an enabling environment for them to flourish, and grow, encouraging innovative ideas, and helping them realize their potential are some of the areas I focus on.
On an external level, I am always on the lookout for organizations and champions who are doing great work. I learn from them and, if possible, provide financial assistance and create platforms for them to come together and amplify their voices. I believe that establishing a safe space is crucial in the media, civil society, and politics. Lately, we have been successful in creating such platforms where individuals can openly discuss their challenges and collectively find solutions. In this sense, I act as a conduit, facilitating these connections.
When it comes to program development, 90% of it is taken care of when you have competent colleagues and partners who can do the work. My contribution in these aspects stems from my global experience, allowing me to approach things from a systemic perspective and ask challenging questions regarding their importance. While some things may be fun to do, if they are not important, they are not worth pursuing.
How do large development organizations like TAF make important decisions like which program to pursue and which not to?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
That's a very good question. As I mentioned before, we would love to fund or manage funds for as many organizations as possible, but that is not feasible. Moreover, many upstream donors do not consider us experts in many fields such as climate change. Regardless of the amount of work we do in this area, we are not experts.
Since we rely on our internal capacity to assess projects to support, it is important that we operate in our circle of competence. We follow a structured process in terms of supporting projects.
When a funding opportunity arises, we publicly announce it and provide detailed information on how to apply the selection criteria and other relevant details. We then carefully select the best projects. The assessment is conducted in a systematic manner.
Additionally, some projects come through self-solicitation. A lot of people come to us with proposals, which requires a much better discerning ability. In any case, there is a due diligence process. In any case, a mandatory due diligence process is carried out to ensure thorough evaluation and scrutiny.
An organization can fail due diligence for various reasons, such as a negative track record involving misconduct or similar issues. The funding process involves multiple stages. Do I personally enjoy it? Most likely not. However, we have a responsibility to protect the funds, which come from another country's tax revenue. Hence, it can’t be without asking questions.
You run a program called Collective Impact where you work with garment workers. Although this may not be directly relevant to you, I would like to ask about it. We talk a lot about women's empowerment in the garment industry. Similarly, people have a lot of questions about the pay that these people get. Many argue that women garment workers face numerous challenges during their employment and even more challenges after retirement. A significant number of these women enter the garment factories at a young age. However, their lives do not experience significant improvement because the wages are highly competitive, which means they are unable to save much. Many of these women face family crises, such as marriages falling apart, which further complicates their lives. When they reach the ages of 35 to 40 and can no longer work, they often find themselves in a worse position than when they started. This becomes even more difficult because many do not have a reliable support system within their families. While it is beneficial for many of these women to have work, as it is crucial for their livelihoods, over a 20 to 30-year timeframe, their lives become exceedingly challenging. While there are studies on this matter, it does not receive much attention in mainstream discussions. How do you see these secondary consequences, and what do you think can be done to address them?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
That's where the macro-level initiative comes into play once again. Unfortunately, it is still suboptimal in Bangladesh. You heavily rely on a single sector for exports, foreign currency earnings, and generating substantial employment for women.
Unfortunately, there isn't a secondary industry that can offset this over-reliance on the garment sector yet.
Take the tannery sector, for instance; it has shown little growth. Even if it does, it doesn't absorb female workers.
We brought these women out and gave them jobs as a society and as a government, we haven't offered them a sustainable future. However, this issue is not the fault of the RMG sector. The problem is that we don’t have another industry that can pick things up after RMG.
Unemployment, in general, is going to be an issue in Bangladesh, especially with all the young people. Ideally, by the time these people reach the ages of 35 to 40, they should have transitioned into leadership positions. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to do that properly.
Our Collective Impact program, to be honest, recognizes these challenges. It acknowledges and addresses them comprehensively. Its purpose is not to encourage everyone to join the RMG sector; that is not the program's objective.
The program takes into account that many women will be unable to continue working in the RMG sector. For these individuals, we’re asking our partners to develop ideas and programs to support them during this transition.
In another country, we implemented a similar program in the agricultural sector, which they call the "push-out factor." These workers will be pushed out, and one way to ensure a graceful transition is if another industry emerges. Currently, there is no lateral movement available. But there is the potential for parallel movement where these workers can be integrated into women's entrepreneurship. Additionally, you have to look into the work we do in women's entrepreneurship as part of another project, where despite having all the necessary elements, the sector is not growing.
You have rightly pointed out the challenges faced by RMG workers. As an external observer, I can see that by the time these individuals reach 35 to 40 years of age, they need to have another job, or establish their enterprise, or find alternative avenues for economic integration.
Now, many of these things require extensive intervention, which cannot be done with NGO initiatives alone. We're now talking about macroeconomic factors and massive employment generation.
Do you see that also as a policy failure? Could we have done things differently from the beginning to avoid this?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
That's the problem we have been discussing for many years now. Many people foresaw this issue, but why isn't another export sector growing? It perplexes me. Why isn't there a policy incentive in place to address this?
At a certain level, it seems that we lack innovation. We just milk one cow while there are so many cows that are going barren.
Diplomatically speaking, this is a macro-level challenge, which you can't solely leave to the NGOs or INGOs to solve. If your macroeconomy fails to grow or diversify, it indicates a challenge at the macro, policy, and leadership levels. No one else can fix that.
You have several youth development programs, including grants and fellowships. This question comes from my personal experience. There are a lot of youth development programs. However, it looks like they rarely reach young people outside major urban centers. There are many talented young people in villages across Bangladesh, they rarely get exposure to these opportunities. Why do you think the majority of youth development initiatives and opportunities are limited to urban youth?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Let me straightforwardly admit that this is an ongoing stereotypical issue we have yet to overcome. Whenever we are asked to describe a young person, our minds usually think about urban youth. We think of a youth listening to podcasts or music while taking a walk in a park. We don’t think about a young person next to a pond, catching fish. There's a stereotypical problem with urban policymakers.
The term "youth" is an English term. When we say "Juba" (Bengali for youth), it carries a romanticized connotation. There is never an accurate portrayal of nonurban youth. It's a mindset problem. However, I do think that some organizations like JAGGO and BYLC are doing an okay job reaching out to a broader spectrum of young people.
Similarly, numerous programs are emerging to address these challenges because youth can also be a highly destabilizing factor if not properly engaged. Nobody wants that outcome.
Donors have a strong interest in large-scale youth development programs. I think USAID is all about youth now, among many other things. They want to go deeper and be in every district. That way, things are changing. It's no longer like the same youth programs that were developed two or three years before.
Then again, the problem is that when you think about development partners or NGOs, there are not many youth-led NGOs and organizations. At the urban level, you have a couple of examples. There are a few that are growing at the non-urban level. However, we need exponentially more organizations than that. We need 100 times more organizations than that. Unless we utilize the power of youth, it's akin to a ticking time bomb that will undermine whatever progress you have achieved so far.
If you combine the coming women unemployment out of RMG that we discussed earlier and the coming challenge of youth employment, unless there are some massive employment generation and entrepreneurship initiatives, these problems are not going to be solved.
What could be done to help create these hundreds of organizations if they don't exist now?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Again, the development partner cannot do employment generation. They cannot influence macroeconomic challenges. What development partners can do is mobilize youth. They fund mobilizing youth, forming groups, making them aware of political issues, training, and upskilling them.
Skill development has received a lot of investment in the last three years. You now have skills development programs even in many remote areas that can help young people get jobs.
Many people are working on skills like programming, artificial intelligence, and everything in between. There are a lot of proven skill development programs and youth organizations, I think the main focus should be to spread these initiatives across the country. If you find a successful case, take it to the national level. But questions remain. If you train people on tech skills with the assumption that there will be a lot of software firms coming in, and if they don't, that can be a problem. This is a complex problem.
Coming back to TAF. Can you tell us how big the organization is in terms of the team, how the organization is structured, about culture, values and principles, and those things?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
TAF is the way you see it. Very open.
A lot of books and a very nice office.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Books for Asia has been one of our longest-running programs. That's a good way to start this off. We consider ourselves, everyone up here, as thought leaders. You might be implementing a program, and you might be very hands-on but at the end of the day, we expect you to be a thought leader in a particular topic. You become a knowledge hub for others to learn from you. Enabling that environment to become a thought leader is one of the most important aspects of TAF.
As for the culture, every country office of TAF is decentralized. The country offices make all their decisions independently. We rarely have to take any permission from the San Francisco headquarter. That is important because that culture is also prominent inside the country offices. People are encouraged to ask questions, people are expected to explore and speak up their minds.
We try to provide as much comfort as possible to our people. For example, we recently had a retreat, where we decided that we will slowly move to use well-being as an indicator of success. So well-being is a proxy indicator for productivity for us or will be at some point. In general, we have a very friendly environment, people talk to each other, and share each other's learning. I hope there is no politics.
How does the work of the Asia Foundation Bangladesh impact Bangladesh?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
The impact is visible in the work of the civil society organizations that we support. Their work is an indication of our impact. I should not name names. However, there are CSOs that we funded at a certain stage of their growth, and they have become strong institutions now. There are four/five examples of that. That's an impact.
Having those institutions in Bangladesh that people can look up to for neutrality, accountability, for transparency. That's our biggest impact. We have created a CSO environment and given them the platform to flourish. That's how I see our impact.
What are the challenges for TAF Bangladesh?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
As I said earlier, the government should understand that we are here to complement their work. They should not think of any INGO, for that matter, a development partner as a challenger, or troublemaker. As long as the government understands and allows us to help them, I think that will be very appreciated. However, I think this is not a challenge for TAF alone but for everyone.
Other than that, I don't think recruiting talent and everything is a problem at all in Bangladesh. You have a lot of great people and a lot of great ideas. Tusting the civil society organizations and allowing them to help build a prosperous country, fulfilling the middle-income ambition, I think that would be highly appreciated.
What are some of the priorities for 2023-2024 for TAF?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
2023 is an election year. This year will be dominated by the election. But this is also the year when we are slowly seeing the end of COVID and the return of full normalcy. There's a transition back to movement, mobility, and everything.
For TAF, this year will be about realigning ourselves with the government's aspirations and goals and helping them to achieve their target while listening to the people of the country and trying to understand how their aspirations can also be fulfilled through the government.
We discussed this a fair bit. I want to take another stab at it. Why do you think the challenges like poverty, inequality, and inequity persist even though we have so much material progress as a civilization?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
That is because of the wrong assumption that the trickle-down effect happens. We assume that growth will fix a lot of problems. However, history tells us that that's not how it works. There will always be groups that are left out. CSOs are important because they point this out and help the government to reach those people that they could not otherwise reach. There will always be marginalized people, no matter how rich you are.
If the trickle-down theory, which is dominant in fact in the development sector as well, doesn't work, what should be the approach to solving these social ills and problems? Should that change?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Trickle-down is the simplest way to express it, but what is truly happening is that the distribution of growth is not proportionate. When you water a tree, you assume that all the leaves will receive an equal amount of water, but that's not possible. There are hidden leaves or parts of the tree that don't receive enough water. It's important to acknowledge this and identify the hidden aspects that require special attention. So, a change in the entire approach is necessary.
Despite making significant investments in road construction, if roads are built based on the influence of individuals living nearby, they will never benefit the general public. Unless we alter this approach and prioritize citizens' perceptions, roads will continue to be built in the wrong places or not where they are most needed. We must change this mindset. Accountability and transparency are crucial. We need to identify the most meaningful and impactful ways to allocate growth funds, which will ultimately bring about change.
Now, if you are not accountable and transparent with your growth and budget, this problem will persist. You have made enough investment in building roads but if roads are built based on who is the most influential person living close to the road, it will never benefit common people. As long as we don't change that, roads are always going to be built in the wrong place, or in a different place than where it is needed the most. We must change this mindset. Accountability and transparency are crucial. We need to identify the most meaningful and impactful ways to allocate growth money, which will ultimately lead to change.
Advice for young people.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Whenever I think about young people, I associate them with anger, irrationality, and the desire to change the system. Perhaps that was how I was in my youth.
One suggestion I have is to cultivate the skill of deep thinking. Create a space for yourself where you can reflect and think. Before starting a new endeavor, take the time to ponder and thoroughly consider it. Pondering is crucial. The ability to step back and understand the system before reacting is essential.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to build a career in the development sector?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Even to this day, it is still a bit of a sacrifice because your salary and benefits may not be on par with the current living standards. Once you are willing to make that sacrifice because you see the social impact of your work and how it will change the lives of other people, only then commit to the development sector.
There is nothing wrong if you decide not to work in the development sector. Everyone, from their position, is working for the country. As long as you realize that, you don't necessarily need to come and work in the development sector.
The other thing is that the development sector also varies from one organization to another. There are accounting jobs, finance jobs, and similar roles in the development sector. So working in the development sector doesn't necessarily mean that you will need to go to a char area to help people. If that energizes you, do that by all means. Relief work is a great example of that. People who are truly passionate about relief work love it. They enjoy going from one affected place to another, being physically involved, and working under the sun. It's a different kind of energy. If you enjoy that, go for it. But remember, you have many paths to make significant contributions.
I would suggest reflecting on what you want to do and what you enjoy doing and then finding a job accordingly. It's not about the development sector, corporate sector, or anything else. Whatever makes you feel alive, go for it.
A few books that have left a lasting impact on you.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
The first book that comes to my mind is Siddartha by Harman Hesse. I loved that book. It is about reflection, change, transition, and mindfulness from a human point of view. I read it towards the end of my university, and it changed my life.
The recent one is Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark. That's where most of my technological wisdom comes from. I think it's a mastery book. He's a professor at MIT, where he helms the Future of Life Institute. It's an excellent read on artificial intelligence and what are some of the things that are overblown and what are underappreciated things. He mostly talks about understanding artificial intelligence to dominate it before it goes to the wrong hand. As a good folk, you need good AI so that bad AI doesn't take over.
What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey??
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
I don't know how to phrase it, but once I learned that being yourself also means being authentic, it changed my life. Being authentic means not trying to be like someone else.
I see many people who get into cults, such as Elon Musk, Donald Trump, or anyone else, and it's because they are not being authentic. They project themselves onto someone else, but they are not that person; they are themselves.
Once I learned this, it became the most significant lesson in my life. I realized that I am Faisal, with all my flaws, limitations, good traits, and bad traits. This lesson has had a profound impact on how I perceive the world.
How do you stay productive? Do you have any unique approach to productivity?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
I'm a low-energy person, and you can probably sense that. The good thing is that I am aware of it. Once I learned that, I realized that one of the ways to enhance my productivity is by helping others become productive. When they are productive, their energy and enthusiasm motivate me. That's why this door (pointing to the door of his desk) is never closed before 7 pm.
You may have noticed that everyone comes and goes, and that keeps me productive.
When my colleagues are energetic, happy, and productive, it has a positive impact on my productivity. I don't have much energy of my own; I draw energy from the people around me. It's similar to the character Silver Surfer from the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie. He relies on absorbing energy from planets to survive. So he goes from one planet to another to absorb energy. Similarly, I draw energy from interacting with others and being in an environment of productivity.
What do you think about life given that life is short and transient?
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
I used to fear death quite a lot. I no longer. I have come to an agreement with myself. Sometimes I think of death as the final bell in an exam. It's a three-hour exam, and at the very end, there is a gong that signals time is up.
When I was a student, I was never happy. I would always think I could have done more. I could have written more. But now, when it comes to death, I think about that three-hour time frame and convince myself that I have done whatever is best possible for me. It could not have been better than this. I don't have the capacity. I have to admit that I don't have the capacity to be the first, second, or third. I have done whatever I can. If that is stellar, then it's stellar. If it's not, it's not. But I have tried. I can die peacefully.
I don't have any negative thoughts about it. Before my death, maybe I would like to see that these folks are doing well. That would make me happy. But I have a no-harm policy. I reflect a lot. If I am being harmful to someone, I will know, and then I can always go back to them and rectify that.
I think that's beautifully put. Accepting life that is. This was a wonderful conversation. I think this is a good place to end. I appreciate and am grateful that you took the time to share your journey with me. Thank you so very much.
Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj
Thank you. I enjoyed the conversation. And we can continue this discussion.
Credits: Photos by TAP Bangladesh.