Dr. Abid Qaiyum Suleri is currently the Executive Director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). SDPI was founded in August 1992 on the recommendation of the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy (NCS), also called Pakistan’s Agenda 21. Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, editor at large for South Asia at On Think Tanks, conducted this interview.
Annapoorna Ravichander: Could you please share a brief background about yourself. Why and how did you join SDPI?
Dr. Abdul Suleri: I was in grade three at school, when General Zia ul Haq imposed his 11 year-long martial law in Pakistan. My father is pro-democracy and that helped me turn into a human and social rights worker during school days. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture and a Master’s degree in Entomology from Pakistan. At university, I was elected office bearer of student political movements. I had brief stints in both multinational private sector companies and provincial civil service offices before leaving for the UK in 1996 to do my PhD in Food Security.
I always liked contributing my analysis to policy discourse. This led me to leave the civil service and join an independent policy think tank, SDPI, in 2001. After three years as a researcher at SDPI, I joined the OXFAM GB Pakistan Programme as head of programme. However, I realised that SDPI offered more intellectual freedom as well as a multidisciplinary approach, along with choices of action. I rejoined SDPI in 2005 as deputy executive director, then worked as interim ED in 2007, and have been heading it since 2008. I have enjoyed all my roles at SDPI. I get paid to work on what I believe and do as a student: research analysis and evidence based advocacy for a just and peaceful society. The sense of societal contribution I have through my work at SDPI is a great source of satisfaction.
AR: What have been your challenges as an ED in terms of retaining human capital, raising and managing funds and engaging with a different audience?
AS: Since its inception, SDPI never had an endowment or core grant, sailing smoothly until 2005. Due to a changing funding landscape, the organisation faced a financial crisis starting in 2006. It was a vicious cycle: we could not retain human capital due to lack of funded work and without this talent didn’t have the research capacities to compete for funded work.
2008-09 was the most difficult period. Most senior researchers had left due to funding constraints and the Board of Governors was considering closing down the organisation. However, a few of us opted to work on reduced salaries, adopted austerity measures and tried not only to produce quality research but also carried out objective advocacy. The aim was to try to remain “relevant” to the policy needs of Pakistan.
I always tried to compensate monetary benefits with non-monetary benefits like intellectual freedom, flexible work hours and opportunities for exposure in academic and policy circles. This team work paid off- we got a break by winning a competitive research grant from the Think Tank Initiative from IDRC. This funding helped us recruit and retain quality staff, strengthen research and advocacy programs and prove our competitiveness to other funding sources. Over the last seven years, there has been a complete turnaround at SDPI. Today, we are considered as South Asia’s premier and most prestigious independent policy think tank. We are present at all important policy making fora in Pakistan and are heard by policy makers, the media, parliamentarians and community members.
However, in the absence of an endowment or a core grant, conducting quality, independent, research on non-funded but extremely relevant issues remains a challenge.
AR: In addressing these challenges did you get any support? If so, from whom?
AS: My team members are a constant support. Those who stood by SDPI in 2008-09 and accepted to work on reduced or no salaries inspired others to believe that working for an independent think tank requires missionary zeal. Our team shares a collective vision and that makes it easier to face challenging times. Having said that, funding from IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative was a breakthrough. It helped us to break out of the vicious cycle we were caught in.
AR: In your opinion, what is the future of the funding scenario in Pakistan? If funders were to discontinue funding, what would be the future of organisations like yours?
AS: There is no free lunch in the funders world. Most of the funders have political economy tags attached to their funding. Pakistan is facing political uncertainty and acts of terrorism at the domestic end and, despite the exemplary sacrifices by its people, a demand of doing more to control terrorism from the external ends. On the other hand, funders, especially American and European, are facing their own fiscal challenges and a policy shift in funding priorities. Thus one can foresee a situation where major funders will start diverting their development funds from Pakistan either because of their changed priorities, or to put pressure on the Pakistani government.
Increasingly stringent rules for funders to stop flow of money to anti-social non-governmental organisations will be another challenge. However, I don’t see a discontinuation of funding in Pakistan. Hypothetically speaking, if there is no funding from bilateral sources at all, even think tanks like SDPI would survive. SDPI’s team has earned credibility and has a proven track-record of conducting independent research and bridging research-policy gaps. Any organisation with these attributes would be resilient enough to survive even if it is through small funders or UN projects.
AR: What are your current challenges?
AS: To remain relevant to national, regional, and global policy priorities. Over the last 25 years SDPI has turned into a one-stop shop for policy advice seekers in and on Pakistan. This has put tremendous pressure on us. We have to keep updated on all major and minor developments in the field of sustainable development. The second challenge is when policy makers ask for policy advice on issues and sectors where SDPI might not have done any research recently. Trying to retain our niches, produce quality research, achieve a balance between the urge to spread too thinly and to focus on select areas, and maintaining our credibility are the major challenges I face as the ED of a 25 year old think tank.
AR: In your opinion, what are the best ways think tanks can work together? Are there any best practices?
AS: Organisations are made up of people. I believe in working with likeminded people. These likeminded people and organisations can work together to form issue and sector based alliances and networks. These alliances and networks should collaborate on a non-funded basis. They should keep on doing what they would have been doing if they were not part of a network and then give a collective identity and brand to their outputs. This would work extremely well. I have seen this working successfully for CANSA (Climate Action Network South Asia) and for SAWTEE (South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment). The networks which are formed to seek a funding opportunity often turn dysfunctional once the funding runs dry.