Discovering my Purpose

Under the starry sky, sleeping for only three hours a day inside a sleeping bag, fetching water from the stream, cooking meals after long treks, sitting on stones for hours, and getting ready without a mirror were pivotal experiences for me during a wilderness trip in the northern areas of Pakistan. Interacting with people of diverse backgrounds urged me to reflect on how people seemingly made decisions that were different from textbook economic rationality. They helped me realise the need to understand economic agents and their decisions in the context of their capabilities and thus study the impact of policies holistically. Therefore, while exploring various domains within economics that solely focused on homo economicus, I felt that a multidisciplinary approach was crucial to bringing an ethical perspective to the public policy of Pakistan.

My interest lies in connecting the dots between economic theory and philosophy, where economics lacks the willingness to define an economic agent, and philosophy becomes a constructive tool to redefine that agent. It allows me to understand individuals’ diversity thereby trying to improve their capabilities. For example, mainstream economic theory assumes individuals as rational agents; however, normative ethical theories propose that human activities are context-specific, and thus affected by norms, culture, and values. Such holistic philosophical approaches are not catered for in policymaking in Pakistan, as seen in recent COVID-19 programs that focused on food rations and mainstream policies that solely focus on the transfer of resources such as income support programs. These policies lack philosophical reflection and reasoning on the impact of those interventions on individuals’ life opportunities such as how these transfers of income enhance the individual capability and why these are the only preferred solutions. The capabilities approach as pioneered by Sen and developed by Nussbaum, Crocker and Binder has encouraged me to re-evaluate policy-making by pursuing systematic training in philosophy and public policy.

The curiosity about global ideas was unthinkable growing up as a girl. My interests were first sparked when I assisted the Citizen Journalism Residency Program in Spring 2019 supported by the US Consulate General. In the Summer of 2019, while exploring the underprivileged areas of my country as a volunteer in The Citizens Foundation, I quickly recognized a gap in public policy which does not seem to account for ethics in implementation. Jonathan Wolff’s critique on reducing questions of morality to justice motivates me to give more thought to ethical analysis of policy. His work has given me a direction and a tool to understand the moral dilemmas of policy areas, and most importantly, to critically reflect the way policies are preferred over each other. It has made me critical of the current policies of Pakistan that solely focus on growth and ignore the nuanced factors that impede the actual development of citizens. Finally, this ignites my interest and determination to critically examine the role of policy interventions and how they are and should be meant to help people actualize the good, keeping in view their contexts, values, and beliefs.

In Fall 2020 visiting Lahore slums as a Field Researcher at the WHO EMRO Project, I practically investigated their economic situation, food security, as well as access to immunisation services due to the enacted government policies. It gave me another chance to dive deeper into understanding the way policies affect actual capabilities of minorities. It motivated me to analyse the extent to which policies are compromising the agency of individuals. For instance, in Pakistan, upon external agencies’ proposals, bans on economic activities are placed on women in slum communities and street vendors without contextualising the targeted community’s beliefs and values. It further compelled me to contemplate how a philosophical approach can equip me to question the underlying nature of external policy interventions. As a Field Researcher, I reflected on the need to have holistic local policies to prevent the consequences of externally imposed policies.

Moreover, as Field Researcher, I explored how COVID-19 has drastically hit the socio-economic landscape of Pakistan’s slums and how people make decisions under uncertainty. This experience of interacting with people of diverse social and economic classes has transformed me from a passive observer to an ambitious and empathetic participant for their betterment. It compelled me to assess the need of incorporating public opinion for well-informed policy decisions that contribute to creating capabilities, and that incorporation was not to justify principles of distributive justice. Exposure to Michael Walzer’s ideas persuaded me further to have a philosophical lens to critically understand the foundation of public opinion in policies. Most importantly, the extent to which public opinion ought to be considered in policymaking, to deeply consider what public justifications amount to discarding public opinion and whether this “commonsensical” discounting is moral for society.

Currently, I work as a Research Assistant at ITU Ihsan Lab, where I analyse whether technological innovations such as ‘smart city’ applications, which have recently gained prominence in urban planning, are, in fact, human-centric and ethical. To do so, we evaluate them from the lens of systems philosophy, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is resulting in a peer-reviewed publications during the first half of my undergraduate studies. It has allowed me to also reflect on the significance of economic and system models, their explanatory and predictive powers, and the extent to which they relate to everyday human interactions and real-world phenomena. This brings up the question of how policy analysts can best evaluate what interventions work in development, and whether some interventions can also lead to negative outcomes or harm capabilities of certain groups while benefiting others. Perspectives from moral and political philosophy, such as critiques of utilitarianism, really help avoid reductionist approaches.

My use of systems thinking in analysing social and economic life helps focus on the underlying causes of any system’s emergent behaviour. Thinking about the system, with complex and important interrelationships between individual parts or aspects, helps analyse the intended or unintended consequences of proposed policies that result in influencing the capabilities. This has skilled me to become a better and more creative problem solver, especially by considering errors of omission. Moreover, being evidence savvy helps focus on important practical issues related to the design and evaluation of public policies.

While working as a Data Analyst at Pakistan Alliance for Math and Science (PAMS), I developed an understanding of the internal causal factors specific to each district and province contributing to continuously increasing the out-of-school children in Pakistan. The rigorous data analysis at PAMS aimed to help the government determine areas where state expenditure should be a priority for education. The resultant policy produced the needed result there, but I identified that empirical reasoning is not sufficient in understanding the root causes behind the policy issue of capabilities. I explored various cultural, social, and economic factors that impede implementation at the local level. I analysed why the proportion of out-of-school children in Pakistan’s districts at the base of the pyramid have stayed in the same position. One of the main reasons is the government’s failure to account for cultural aspects in policy formulations, such as cultural norms associated with girls being at home and boys helping in work, as highlighted by Fukuyama’s work on culture and social capital.

I am determined to pioneer my career through reframing policymaking in governmental think tanks of Pakistan with philosophical and cultural perspectives. In the long run, I hope to establish a think tank focus on this paradigm.

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