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Category: Impact Interviews


Democracy In All Policies

In small communities, civic and democratic practices are already evident in everyday habits, customs, therefore behavior-change interventions in such places must include them.

-Mihai Lupu

Mihai Lupu is an ASAP board  member and the founder of EduCab.  His academic and practical focus is on harnessing the potential of various organizations, such as public libraries and community centers, within small to medium-sized communities to initiate, curate, and foster critical thinking-based knowledge, democratic practices, and exposure to diversity-focused contexts that contribute to enhancing community-oriented and civic engagement practices worldwide. 

Through his work, Mihai demonstrates that in small communities, civic and democratic practices are already evident in everyday habits, customs and therefore behavior-change interventions in such places must include them.

He calls these practices small-scale democracies, and he emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and also acting on the democracy distance, which refers to the gap between established democratic narratives and practices and citizens’ understanding of their local customs and practices as essentially democratic instances with civic value.

To facilitate this understanding, Mihai breaks down the concept of democracy into smaller units of indices and indicators that can make more sense for citizens in villages and small towns.

He demonstrates that such indices and indicators are easier to be regarded as having democratic value to people, if they are seen with their relevance into day-to-day actions and experiences, while providing a wider range of space for specific interactions at the local level, tackled by anchor institutions like public libraries. Additionally, Mihai expands the concept of community beyond the classic territorial approach and diasporas to include all those who contribute to and are connected to these communities.

Throughout his work on this topic, Mihai draws on academic and non-academic literature to open discussions with new questions and ways of tackling his ideas. He also uses various examples of interventions and results achieved through the EduCaB program and methodology, which he founded and continues to implement in over 400 communities worldwide, while relating them to existing practices and approaches.

…a library can promote democratic practices and the overall experience of democracy while capitalizing on existing resources. 

Mihaita Lupu

Libraries are seen as miniature Agoras, contributing to the larger scale Agora by improving citizens’ well-being and quality of life through the way they relate to themselves and to each other. The questions and examples presented in his research aim to start a larger conversation among those who care about reviving communities and democratic practices in small communities, asking how much we do not use from what democracies can offer right now and how much a library can do to promote democratic practices and the overall experience of democracy while capitalizing on existing resources. 

Since this exercise it’s just at the beginning, the larger scope being to capture the potential of all core local institutions and stakeholders to translate indicators of democracy into specific actions easily recognizable by citizens, he names his approach ‘Democracy within all policies’, this being an EduCaB concept and program, developed in partnership with Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP), Yale Global Justice Program, Kettering Foundation, Periphery Inc. and the network of public libraries and community centers supported through EduCaB.

Mihai Lupu

AnnouncementsImpact Interviews

A Word from the ASAP President

In 2022, Academics Stand Against Poverty inaugurated the Ambedkar Grants for Advancing Poverty Eradication (AGAPE), providing competitive funding and mentoring for innovative pilot projects in severe poverty eradication with strong prospects of cost-effective scale-up. The first four grants have been made, and a new round of AGAPE grant funding for 2023 was announced. 

In partnership with Global Financial Integrity, ASAP also selected and honored the winners of the Ninth Annual Amartya Sen Essay Prize Competition on illicit financial outflows from poor countries – while announcing the Tenth Competition and publishing the winning essays
of the Eighth in Journal ASAP.

ASAP continues to work closely with Yale’s Global Justice Program on various fronts. One key idea is to incentivize the development and deployment of innovations through publicly funded impact rewards rather than patent-based monopoly rents. This option is needed especially in the domains of green and health technologies. Impact rewards would take account of the third-party effects of innovations, make beneficial innovations much more affordable, and draw R&D efforts to the specific needs of the poor. In partnership with JENA and AHETI in Africa, and RIS in India, we have been pushing this idea at the T7 and T20 as well as at COP27.

Another joint effort is focused on the 42% of humanity who cannot afford a healthy diet – a horrendous silent catastrophe that is widely ignored, with a large percentage of global food production wasted or converted to biofuels.

2022 saw the retirement of Helen Lang as ASAP’s Global Coordinator and Helen Yanacopulos as Secretary of the ASAP Board with our gratitude for their great contributions over many years. We welcome Zeke Ngcobo as our new Global Coordinator and plan to add one or two Board Members soon.

Academics Stand Against Poverty is still more wish than reality. But if even just one in a thousand scholars and educators were actively to join us, we would stand a real chance to achieve at least that small shift in the global distribution needed to end the more severe forms of poverty.

Thank You.

Impact Interviews

Impact Interview: Martha Chen

In this article, Gabriel Neely-Streit interviews Professor Martha Chen, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Read more of our Impact Interviews.

Martha Chen

In 1997, Chen helped found, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a “global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.” The informal economy comprises around 300 million laborers worldwide who work without employment security, social security, or other state or employer benefits. Around 70% of informal workers are self-employed, and many live below the international poverty line.

Here, Prof. Chen discusses her organization’s multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approach to supporting informal laborers, as well as her journey from a small NGO in former East Pakistan (Bangladesh) to Harvard’s Kennedy School, and leadership of one of the most important NGOs in informal sector development.

ASAP: You described your career as progressing, “from activist practitioner to activist academic”. Can you describe that progression? What motivated you to enter academia?

The activist practitioner part of my career, which was the first half of my career, began when my husband and I and our young son were living in Dhaka, East Pakistan in 1970. The coast of East Pakistan was hit by a very large cyclone and tidal wave, in November of 1970. At that time there were very few NGO’s in East Pakistan, unlike today. A group of us started a cyclone relief project and that got many of us into development. That was followed by activism around the recognition of Bangladesh and the civil war that was being perpetrated on East Pakistan by West Pakistan. Then, in the mid-70’s I joined what is now the world’s largest NGO but was at that time quite small: BRAC [then known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee]. The founder of BRAC [Fazle Hasan Abed] and I had worked together on the cyclone relief and some of the money we had raised for cyclone relief he spent to rehabilitate refugees returning from India after the Civil War, and that’s how BRAC was born. He invited me to join BRAC, so I did and started the women’s program in BRAC. That was the beginning of my activist practitioner career.

I worked with BRAC for 5 years. The work involved organizing village women, but also supporting their livelihoods in various ways: craft revival, poultry farms; all the inputs that were needed to make their livelihoods more viable.

The next chapter of my activist practitioner career was that I was invited by Oxfam America to set up their first field office in India, and I did that in 1970-71. I was in India for going on 7 years. I took all the lessons I’d learned from BRAC Bangladesh and supported a portfolio of grantees who were working with either village women or city-slum dweller women around their economic empowerment. I worked with about 60 NGO’s.

ASAP: I’m imagining that work informed a lot of the work you’ve done with WIEGO

Yes, both those chapters of my activist practitioner life sort of propelled me into the WIEGO work. Any of the knowledge I’d gained, the contacts I made, the commitment I gained, all of that was then channeled into WIEGO.

ASAP: How did you come to form WIEGO?

When I left Oxfam America in India, I came to Harvard and I started doing research and teaching at the Kennedy School. For about a decade I tried to stay involved in the more activist practitioner part of my life. I did consulting, and I did field research.

In the early 1990’s, three of us [at the Kennedy School] began to say, ‘we need to do something about how the informal economy is perceived in mainstream academia, and in mainstream development discourse,’ because we knew that it was stigmatized as underground, illegal, black, gray, and that the working poor that we worked with were mostly in the informal economy, and most were simply trying to earn an honest living against actually great odds. So we began circling the idea of a project on the informal economy.

In 1997 we convened a group of 10 experts on the informal economy for what was called the team residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, in Bellagio, Italy. Some of us didn’t know each other before but we knew about each other so we gathered people who we thought were had the same concerns that the informal economy was misunderstood and somehow undervalued in development circles. We had four or five days at Bellagio to spell out how we saw the problem and what we thought would address it. We had a member of that founding group that loved to do charts for us. He did a chart that had a pyramid and an inverted pyramid. The pyramid was what the labor force looked like. At the tip of it you had the formal labor force, at the base of it you had the large informal workforce. On the inverted pyramid at the top you had all the resources and support (policies, regulations) supporting the small formal workforce, and at the inverted tip of the pyramid, you had the very few resources and support going towards the broad base of the informal economy. We wanted to make a rectangle instead of the inverted pyramid where appropriate; resources and support would go to the base of the informal workforce.

ASAP: What are some of the particular challenges that face female workers in the informal economy? How does WIEGO address those challenges?

We address them in a 2-layered way. One is that we see the problems that all informal workers face, and usually those are sector specific, and then we look at the particular constraints that women within those sectors might face that the men do not. There are 2 kinds of issues that we look for. One is what are the negatives, the sort of binding constraints on informal workers as a whole, and by sector. Then we look to see what kind of support they are demanding, either legal, policy, services, resources, what kind of support would help them. So it’s partly what would reduce the negatives and also what would enhance the positives for informal workers by sector.

Then we look at what’s affecting women in particular. So if you take street trade for instance, the big constraints are the insecurity of the vending site and the daily harassment by local authorities, specifically police. Within that, the problems are particularly acute for those who sell fresh produce, one of the reasons being that if your goods are confiscated and they’re fresh, they perish before you can retrieve them from the local authorities. We also know that the majority of fresh produce vendors are women and that the majority of vendors of more durable products are men. So that’s how we address the generic constraints and then the differences between men and women within them.

ASAP: Describe a few of WIEGO’s greatest achievements.

I’ll go from the more abstract to the more specific. I think with regards to mainstream thinking mindsets, we have changed the conceptualization of the informal economy to include not just the self-employed in informal enterprises but also the wage employed in what we call informal jobs. We’ve developed with the ILO (International Labor Organization) statistics department and other international and national statistical bodies a new concept and definition called informal employment, which includes both the self-employed and the wage employed. That is one of the main contributions at the more abstract, intellectual level.

More concretely, we have helped create or strengthen organizations of the workers and link them up by sector. We’ve helped create national, regional and international alliances of domestic workers, home based producers, street vendors and waste pickers. We know for sure that many of those organizations would not exist without our support or would not be as strong. Those are our two main claims to fame. Otherwise, we’ve been able to change mindsets and get more favorable policies in those contexts. But our two main achievements increasing visibility through the statistics and the second one is increasing voice through organization.

ASAP: You talk about the importance of inter-disciplinary cooperation in doing this kind of work. Why is that cooperation important, and how do you achieve it?

There is the academic context of interdisciplinary research, but the more important interdisciplinary aspect of WIEGO’s work is what I would call inter-constituency. We’re really a 3-legged stool. We have members and partners that are organizations of informal workers, we have members and partners that are researchers and statisticians, and then we have members and partners who are development practitioners in national government, international agencies, and NGO’s, and we bridge those three worlds. I think that’s a signature dimension of our work, that we really try to bridge those worlds and build on the comparative strengths of each to leverage more support for the working poor in the informal economy. We help build the advocacy capacity of the organizations of workers, we gain expertise from them, we get researchers and statisticians working on improving our knowledge of the informal economy and then we partner with development agency members and partners to try to bring about policy change.

ASAP: Do academics have a responsibility to be activists?

I wouldn’t say that all academics have a responsibility to be activists. I think that academics in the social sciences might be more likely to be engaged in the real world effecting some type of change in either policies, or theories or practices that relate to issues that impinge on the poor, so there’s a responsibility to make sure that what they do in the real world doesn’t have contradictory outcomes for the poor. Maybe one way to do that is to become more activist with what you do in the world. But I wouldn’t say that all the people in the humanities or the sciences have a responsibility to be activists.

ASAP: How has your activism work with WIEGO encouraged or inspired your academic research?

I was trained to learn and to think inductively rather than deductively: I don’t start with received wisdom and then try to test the theory, I tend to start with descriptive reality and then build up theory, so my exposure through activism is always feeding into that kind of inductive learning and thinking. There’s just no doubt that it has informed my academic work.

ASAP: What are your future goals?

I see myself for the duration of my career being both academic and activist, primarily through my WIEGO work. The research/intellectual agenda of that work is to continue to push for better statistics on the informal economy, since data drives so much of policy making and to complement that with better field research on the informal economy.

We’ve just completed the analysis of the first round of a 10-city study on what’s driving change in the urban informal economy. We plan, if we can raise the funds, to do a second round so we would have a longitudinal panel of data on observing the workers in those 10 cities.

ASAP: Does WIEGO present its findings to policy makers?

We don’t do research without having that in mind as our targeted outcome. We’ve presented the first round of findings at the World Urban Forum, I’m presenting to the European Commission, and a regional conference with urban officials in Bangkok next week. We wouldn’t do the research if it wasn’t going to be channeled. In each of the 10 cities our lead partner was a local organization of workers, so we have published advocacy tools and materials based on the city level studies for those organization to use in their ongoing advocacy work. It’s always research to advocacy. There’s no doubt about that. That’s the goal.

ASAP: What advice can you share with academics who might be interested in poverty related activism?

I think it’s very important to partner with some kind of member organization of the poor to first know what their needs, demands, and dreams are, and second to tailor your own research and activism to meet those needs and demands and dreams, and to build the capacity of those organizations to carry on the fight. Academics and policy makers will come and go but the poor and their organizations are the ones who are in it for the long haul, to try to make their working environment more favorable and supportive.

Impact Interviews

Impact Interview: Jason Sharman

Jason Sharman

In this article, Gabriel Neely-Streit interviews Professor Jason Sharman, of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. His recent work has been instrumental in exposing widespread corruption among Papua New Guinea (PNG) government officials. Millions of dollars, Sharman has found, are being siphoned from PNG government accounts into private bank accounts and investments in Australia, many of which belong to government officials. Read more of our Impact Interviews.

Sharman and Sam Koim, Papua New Guinea’s Anti-Corruption task-force coordinator, continue to work to expose both these corrupt PNG officials and actions by Australian banks and government agencies that allow money laundering to continue. More broadly, Sharman is one of the world’s foremost scholars on shell companies and international money laundering, issues with increasingly important implications for global poverty and governance in virtually all states. Here, he discusses his research on PNG corruption, Australian money laundering and international shell companies, and his efforts to bring his findings to a public audience.

GNS -How did you first get started studying corruption and the shadow economy? What motivated you to focus on money laundering?

JS- I first developed an interest in tax havens because in studying international politics I was interested in how small, weak countries (most tax havens are small places) relate to big, powerful ones. Tax havens led to an interest in money laundering as the two are commonly associated in policy pronouncements and the media, though the partial evidence we have actually suggests that most laundering takes place in big, rich countries.

-How did you become aware of Papua New Guinea’s money laundering issues? How did you get involved with Sam Koim and Taskforce Sweep?

I was alerted to the problem of corruption proceeds from PNG being laundered in Australia by people who did the international assessment of PNG’s financial system. When I first did interviews with people in the Australian government they recommended I get in touch with Sam Koim, and so I flew him over to a workshop in Brisbane in October 2012, we have stayed in touch since.

-How much of PNG budget siphoning/ money laundering is being done by government officials?

The local police estimates that something like 40% of the total PNG budget is stolen by politicians and bureaucrats in the government.

-How do you go about gathering statistics on money laundering and other under-the-table financial practices? I know that to research corporate shell companies you had to actually create some yourself…

In a smaller project I bought some shell companies from Nevada, England the Seychelles as well as opening bank accounts in the US, Cyprus and Somalia. Later with my co-authors Mike Findley and Dan Nielson we impersonated a range of high- and low-risk individuals and made over 7,000 email solicitations to firms in 180 countries for exactly the sort of untraceable shell companies that are prohibited by international law. The results are available at

-In which ways are Australian banks complicit in PNG money laundering? Are they doing due diligence to ensure that customers with PNG ties are banking legitimate money? What should they be doing?

The Australian banks have improved their procedures for screening out corruption funds from PNG, though there are still problems. The real problem is the Australian government, which continues to turn a blind eye to these flows of dirty money.

-Your work with PNG has gained a fair amount of media attention in Australia. How did you and your partner bring your findings to the media/ general public? Why did you feel it was important to do so?

Crime is a media-worthy story. When it comes to corruption, the Australian government has no interest in taking action unless they are embarrassed in the media first. After taking no action for years there was a public direction to the head of the Australian Federal Police to look into the problem less than 24 hours after the main TV program aired. Cause and effect.

-In what sorts of ways does presenting your findings to the media differ from presenting in an academic journal/at a conference?

Predictably, the media has no interest in method and theory, so all this had to go. The media does have an interest in hurting people and institutions, which can be turned to advantage, e.g. in pressuring the government.

Did you have to take precautions against any sort of backlash by the PNG government, for example being sued by officials who were implicated? Did you feel threatened at any point during your research/presentation of your findings? What has the fallout been?

The Australian government has now cut off my access to some key officials, which is annoying, and tried to prevent people in the PNG government talking to me, unsuccessfully. Getting sued for libel/defamation is certainly a worry, I’ve taken precautions but the risk remains. People in PNG tackling this problem certainly face much bigger dangers, including assassination.

-What’s next for the PNG case? Has Koim made any prosecutions? Have Australian banks/government institutions stepped up their vigilance?

Koim has made good progress is getting a lot of publicity, political pressure, arrests and has also got a lot of money back, but the problem is huge. He is also in a great deal of danger personally.

-How important is stopping these corrupt financial outflows to PNG’s stability? How serious are PNG’s financial and humanitarian issues?

Having 40% of your budget stolen is a serious problem, PNG seems to be a classic case of the resource curse, with great wealth but also very large sections of the population living in poverty. Elsewhere this type of problem has led to serial political instability and even state collapse.

-What advice do you have for academics who want to take a more active role in fighting corruption?

Don’t expect any help from local or foreign governments, though individual officials are often incredibly helpful, and NGOs and the media are also crucial.

Impact Interviews

Prof. Jason Sharman on Pressuring Governments and Banks on Corruption

This latest ASAP Impact Story profiles Prof. Jason Sharman of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, whose recent work has been instrumental in exposing widespread corruption among Papua New Guinea (PNG) government officials. Millions of dollars, Sharman has found, are being siphoned from PNG government accounts into private bank accounts and investments in Australia, many of which belong to government officials.

Impact Interviews

Impact Interview: Robtel Neajai Pailey

Robtel Neajai Pailey

In this latest Impact Interview, Elaine Kellman speaks with Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, who is battling corruption in Liberia. Read more of our Impact Interviews.

While still a doctoral student, Robtel Neajai Pailey has emerged as a globally influential voice on poverty, corruption and related issues. In a career that already spans work as a practitioner, journalist, government staff member and academic, she has published articles or comment pieces in The New York Times, Africa Today, The Guardian and many other outlets. She has also covered news out of Africa as an assistant editor of the Washington Informer Newspaper, worked in capacity building for the Foundation for International Dignity (a refugee rights organisation), taught and developed curriculum at the Robben Island Musem in Cape Town, South Africa and the Buduburam Refugee Camp School in Ghana, and has collaborated with or consulted for a range of NGOs and philanthropic agencies.

It was while working as a government aide in Liberia that Pailey became aware of allegations that Liberia’s government-administered scholarships were being sold to the highest bidder and / or given to relatives of government officials. Outraged, she formulated a transparent system of awarding scholarships to the best applicants, which has now been fully implemented by the Liberian government.

In addition, Pailey has devised and written a children’s book, Gbagba which was published by in 2013. Exploring issues of integrity, accountability and corruption, Gbagba (loosely translated in the Bassa language as ‘trickery’) follows a few days in the life of Liberian twins, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, who leave their hometown of Buchanan to visit their aunt in Monrovia, facing tough decisions and challenges along the way.

Last year, Pailey’s research on Liberia and her work to tackle corruption was formally recognised, as she was selected as one of the most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33 by global affairs magazine Diplomatic Courier and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Pailey was recognized in this list as a “shaper”: that is, someone who changes the public discourse on an aspect of foreign policy or raises awareness of a critical issue.

Here, Pailey discusses with ASAP the challenges and rewards of her impact work in Liberia, as well as her future plans, and offers advice to others who may be seeking to make an impact through their research.

Details on ASAP’s Impact: Global Poverty project are available at: link:

If you would like to nominate an impact-oriented academic for an Impact Stories profile, please contact Luis Cabrera at

ASAP: What made you decide to write a book like Gbagba, addressing corruption and aimed at children?

RNP: I got really frustrated with all the rhetoric about fighting corruption in Liberia, and wanted to start a national conversation with children. After teaching in two of Liberia’s universities and working in policy spaces in national government, I realised that integrity must be strengthened at the earliest stages in a child’s life in order to mitigate the practice of corruption in the next generation. So, I wrote Gbagba, creating a narrative that Liberian kids could see themselves reflected in, thereby increasing their love of reading. It’s virtually impossible to expect that an 18-year-old approaching adulthood is all of a sudden going to develop scruples, especially when his/her society does not value honesty. Eight to 10-year-old children are the perfect targets because it is at this stage that they begin to form an ethical core. In writing Gbagba, I imagined myself a proverbial anti-corruption pied piper, without the instrument of doom.

ASAP: What were the major challenges in getting Gbagba published?

RNP: I was very fortunate in that I didn’t have hurdles publishing Gbagba. My publisher, Wayetu Moore, of One Moore Book (OMB), approached me in early 2012 about a Liberia Signature Series that she was publishing in 2013 featuring Liberian veteran writers Stephanie Horton and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. Wayetu asked if I could be the third Signature Series author, and I jumped at the opportunity because I had already conjured up Gbagba in my head. Wayetu, a young Liberian social entrepreneur and writer based in New York, was enthusiastic about the concept of the book from the very beginning. She founded OMB in 2011 with her four siblings because they wanted to revolutionise the children’s book industry by producing stories for children from underrepresented cultures. Wayetu was the perfect ally in giving life to Gbagba. So, too, was Chase Walker, my illustrator, who had been drawing subversive cartoons for months in Frontpage Africa Newspaper, a local daily in Liberia. A self-taught graphic designer and artist, Chase provided such depth to my twin protagonists, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, that their personalities jumped off each page of the book!

ASAP: What has the response to Gbagba been like in Liberia?

RNP: Gbagba has received nothing but goodwill in Liberia. I’ve done readings of Gbagba followed by discussions with children in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and was struck by how astute they are. They understand issues of integrity better than we adults do, and are able to articulate themselves with such bright-eyed innocence. Before conducting a workshop and preview reading of Gbagba at a local elementary school in Monrovia, one girl told me, “Corruption is breaking the Ten Commandments and hurting people.” This young child understood so fundamentally the intrinsic value of accountability. This is why I wrote Gbagba, to give young children the verbal tools to question the confusing ethical codes of the adults around them. Beyond the children of Liberia, adults have also responded in kind. Most parents I come across want copies of the book in their homes, and teachers want to use it in their classrooms. In 2013, the Liberian Ministry of Education placed Gbagba on its list of supplemental texts for 3rd to 5th graders, although I am aiming to get the book in the formal curriculum for these grades. The UNESCO office in Liberia also devised a values education curriculum proposing Gbagba as a core text, and this proposal is under consideration. And most recently, the Open Society Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA) approved a grant to donate 1,500 copies of Gbagba to schools across the country. With this grant, we’ll be commissioning Luckay Buckay, one of Liberia’s premier Hip-co artists, to write and produce a Gbagba song that will be released sometime this year.

ASAP: What might you say to others who may want to pursue broadly similar projects in countries like Liberia?

RNP: Do your research. Countries like Liberia are not tabula rasa; they are incredibly complex with often competing realities. Understanding the local context is absolutely crucial in making positive inroads. Speak to a diverse range of stakeholders. Ask what the needs are, and try to figure out if your potential intervention is required or even desired. Too often, we conjure up grand plans that sound fantastic, but have no relevance for the contexts in which we want to work. It’s better to join forces with already existing local initiatives than to reinvent the wheel for personal aggrandizement.

ASAP: How did you become involved in Liberia\’s International Scholarships Scheme?

RNP: My involvement was based on a conversation that I initiated with Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2009. At the time, I worked as a mid-level aide in her office. I had been collecting news clippings from a recurring exposé in one of Liberia’s local dailies, In Profile Daily, alleging that Liberia’s bilateral, international scholarships were being sold to the highest bidder as well as given to the relatives of government officials. I approached the President concerned about the implications of this exposé, given that Liberia had major gaps in capacity in crucial areas that international scholarships could help fill, such as engineering, agriculture, and medicine. President Sirleaf noted my concern and asked me to do a formal investigation and come up with a list of recommendations, which I did. After discovering that the allegations in the exposé were true, I recommended that the government of Liberia appoint an ad-hoc scholarships committee to overhaul and reform the entire bilateral scholarships scheme, making it merit-based, transparent, and gender-balanced. The President appointed me chair of the committee, and within months we devised a bilateral scholarships policy and began vetting scholarships in a transparent manner. The first batch of scholarships under our supervision was awarded to some of the brightest young people I’ve ever met in Liberia.

ASAP: What made you decide to try to reform it?

RNP: I’ve been on merit-based academic scholarships in the US and UK since I was 15. My working class parents always stressed the value of hard work and scholastic achievement. They gifted me with an insatiable love of knowledge and ambition to succeed. If not for the scholarships I received from high school through my current Ph.D., I would not be where I am today. I thought it was incredibly important for the best and brightest in Liberia to have the same opportunities I had, so that they could meaningfully contribute to the country’s post-war reconstruction process upon completion of their studies.

ASAP: What were the major challenges you faced in your reform effort and how did you address those?

RNP: The first major challenge was gaining public confidence in the new scheme. The scholarships process had been hijacked by those with money and power for so long that the average Liberian had lost faith in it, thinking it was a foregone conclusion that you could pay your way through the system or use your political affiliations to secure awards. To address these negative public perceptions, I conducted a series of radio interviews with scholarships recipients who had gone through our new and improved system, to give people first-hand accounts of the many reforms we had made. The second major challenge was maintaining our high standards and ensuring the process was merit-based despite attempted interference from private citizens and government officials. To address this, my committee and I made it clear to anyone trying to intrude that our final decisions were final, and that only those who had passed our very rigid guidelines would be invited for interviews and written exams.

ASAP: Your reforms have now been adopted by the Liberian government. What are the biggest implementation challenges that you can see remaining?

RNP: The major challenges are maintaining the selection criteria and standards we set, and ensuring that those who return from studies are placed in government agencies where they can meaningfully contribute to Liberia’s development.

ASAP: Based on what you have learned in your research for the book and related work, what do you think are the key challenges facing Liberia, now and in the future?

RNP: Liberia’s historical and contemporary challenges are two-fold. First, we lack systems of true merit, where people are promoted or appointed (whether in school settings or in job settings) based on what they know not who they know. This leads to disincentives for personal achievement and low levels of productivity. It also fuels patronage and corruption. Our second major challenge is reconciling what I call an ‘external agenda for Liberia’—based on the whims of donors, multi-national corporations, and the UN—with a clearly defined ‘internal agenda for Liberia’—based on the aspirations of Liberians themselves. Too often, the external agenda supersedes the internal agenda, thereby fomenting domestic angst.

ASAP: You have been named one of the most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33. What do you think that kind of visibility might be for your impact work?

RNP: The award has definitely provided me with increased visibility and legitimacy to fulfill my life’s work, transforming Liberia for the better.

ASAP: How do you balance your impact and commentator work with your doctoral studies?

RNP: My doctoral thesis addresses the ways in which citizenship in Liberia has been reconfigured across time and space, and what implications this has for post-conflict reconstruction. My impact and commentator work are extensions of my doctoral studies and vice versa, so I don’t consider them mutually exclusive.

ASAP: How has your work outside academia figured in your research?

RNP: I was born in Liberia, but grew up in the U.S. because of the 14-year conflict in my country. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always had a metaphysical connection to Liberia, and have been obsessed with trying to figure out what it means to be Liberian across varying landscapes. Most of my life’s work inside and outside academia has focused on creating pockets of transformation for those who may not be able to speak truth to power, particularly in Liberia.

ASAP: What are your own aims and ambitions for the future, both in your research work and your impact work?

RNP: I plan to delve into a full-time writing and teaching career after completing my Ph.D., with a series of Gbagba books serving as my first major foray into book publishing. In addition to children’s books, I intend to write academic articles and books, beginning with the publication of a book version of my Ph.D. thesis. I also plan to freelance for magazines and newspapers on a range of contemporary development issues facing sub-Saharan Africa. And finally, I intend to teach qualitative research methodologies as well as English composition and literature in Liberia.

ASAP: What advice would you give to a university looking to encourage academics to make an impact at an early stage of their careers?

RNP: Universities should adopt SOAS’ ethos of encouraging academics to be fully engaged with the world around them, rather than just pontificating about it in the ivory tower. This can be done by placing an emphasis on evidence-based research that has policy relevance and ultimately affects practice.

Impact Interviews

Impact Stories: SOAS PhD Student Robtel Neajai Pailey Uses Innovative Methods to Tackle Corruption in Her Native Liberia

Elaine Kellman speaks with Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, who is battling corruption in Liberia.

Impact Interviews

Impact Interview: Nicole Hassoun

In this latest article, Rachel Payne profiles early-stage efforts by Binghamton University’s Nicole Hassoun to put public pressure on pharmaceutical firms to do more for people living in poverty. Read more of our Impact Interviews.

Nicole Hassoun, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Binghamton, is leading an ASAP-supported initiative to harness the power of socially conscious consumers to motivate pharmaceutical companies to meet the health needs of people in poverty. She has recently created an index that ranks drug companies according to their positive impact on global health. By informing consumers of which companies are making a difference and which are not, she hopes to stimulate demand for products linked to global health impact.

Hassoun’s Global Health Impact index ranks pharmaceutical companies by estimating the collective health impact of their malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS drugs and comparing it with that of other companies. In Hassoun’s model, a drug’s health impact is equal to need * access * efficacy—that is, the global amount of death and disability resulting from the disease the drug treats (need), the proportion of people who receive the drug out of those who need it (access), and the estimated effectiveness of the drug (efficacy).

The index is constructed so that companies have an incentive to invest in the development of medicines for neglected diseases and ensure that there is widespread access to and proper use of their products. Those companies with the best ranking would be entitled to display a Global Health Impact label, which would appear on all of their products—“everything from vitamins to cold medicine,” in Hassoun’s words. Like the Fair Trade label, the Global Health Impact label is intended to draw consumers towards more socially responsible companies.

Globally, one third of all deaths—18 million a year—are linked to poverty. People living in poverty often lack access to medicines both because they cannot afford them and because pharmaceutical companies lack adequate financial incentives to develop treatments for diseases that primarily affect poor people. Hassoun hopes that the Global Health Impact label will create a serious financial incentive for companies to make their products available to people in poverty and to invest in the development of new treatments for neglected diseases. She writes that if products with the Global Health Impact label capture just one percent of the market for generic and over-the-counter medicines, then there will be a $360 million incentive for companies to achieve Global Health Impact certification.

There are a number of other proposals for how to improve access to medicine for poor people, including grants to pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for neglected diseases, funding to deliver medicines to poor people at reduced prizes, and Thomas Pogge’s Health Impact Fund. The proposal that comes closest to Hassoun’s is the Access to Medicines Index, an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the governments of the UK and Netherlands, which ranks pharmaceutical companies on the basis of their efforts to improve access to medicines. This index takes into account a variety of activities carried out by pharmaceutical companies, including research and development, lobbying, patents and licensing, pricing, donations, public policy and market influence, and capacity building for product distribution.

Hassoun says that she is encouraged by the success of the Access to Medicines Index and adds that her own model has distinctive benefits. She argues that by focusing on the actual impact of pharmaceutical companies’ key innovations on the global burden of disease, using the best data available, her index gives a rigorous assessment of the extent to which companies’ drugs are improving the health of poor people.

Possible next steps for Hassoun’s project include a sensitivity analysis of the index and a pilot of the Global Health Impact label in grocery stores. In the pilot, Hassoun would measure the effect of the label on sales.

Hassoun put forward the idea of the Global Health Impact index in her 2012 paper, “Global Health Impact: A Basis for Labeling and Licensing Campaigns?”, which appeared in the journal Developing World Bioethics. In an article for the Council on Foreign Relations, Hassoun described the Global Health Impact project as presenting a middle path between condemnation of globalization on account of new global rules and institutions that, like the TRIPS Agreement, perpetuate poverty, and uncritical acceptance of globalized trade. Hassoun writes: “there are many coercive international institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, that should be doing much more to help people avoid severe poverty, which requires changing many international policies. But there is also a role for individual consumers and companies to play in improving people’s lives.”

Hassoun says that she was motivated to take on the project of ranking pharmaceutical companies because believes philosophers are in a position to contribute to the debate on measuring health impact, by virtue of their training in logic and critical analysis. When she first came up with the idea for the index, she imagined that someone else would carry out the project and presented the proposal to graduate students studying health policy, hoping that one of them would take it on. However, she says she quickly discovered that these students tended to have their own ideas for improving health access and that if she was to see the project executed in the way she wanted, then she would have to do it herself.

Asked about the challenges of carrying out an impact-focused project as an academic, she said that she had been surprised by how much work it has taken to realize her plan for the index. Nevertheless, she says she hopes more students and young academics will attempt to put the ideas they write about into practice. Asked to give a piece of advice for people at the beginning of their academic careers, she suggested asking a lot of questions. Unless you make a point of learning from people working in the field that interests you, she warned, it’s easy to wind up far from the work that you had hoped to do.

Impact Interviews

Nicole Hassoun: Harnessing Consumer Choice to Drive Global Health Impact

Nicole Hassoun, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Binghamton, is working to harness the power of socially conscious consumers to motivate pharmaceutical companies to meet the health needs of people in poverty. She has recently created an index that ranks drug companies according to their positive impact on global health. By informing consumers of which companies are making a difference and which are not, she hopes to stimulate demand for products linked to global health impact.

Impact Interviews

Impact Interview: Paul Jackson

In this article, Gabriel Neely-Streit interviews Professor Paul Jackson who heads the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Read more of our Impact Interviews.

Armed conflict, particularly in the domestic sphere, can have devastating effects not only in direct physical harms to individuals, but in its effects on poverty, health and in a range of related areas. When the fighting stops, an often precarious period of reconstruction ensues, involving also the re-integration of armed non-state groups into society. Over the past three years, conflict and reconstruction expert Prof. Paul Jackson has been advising authorities in Nepal on integrating some 20,000 Maoist former guerrillas into the Nepali Army or civilian life. Here, he discusses the challenges and rewards of his direct-impact work in Nepal and elsewhere, and how it has affected and been shaped by his academic research.

Q: How were you first approached about going to Nepal and what was your initial reaction?

I was a bit nervous mainly because I didn’t know very much about Nepal and I knew that the situation was sensitive. I was initially contacted by a couple of former students of mine who were involved in the peace process. They were both Nepali and had heard me talking about my work in Africa at some of the short courses we run at the university in security sector reform. One had been brought to the UK for a Chevening [scholarship] programme and the other for an SSR course. One of them worked for Saferworld at that time in Nepal and the other for a civil society organisation called Nepal Institute of Policy Studies (NIPS).

They invited me to come to Nepal because I could be regarded as neutral. The fact that I was an academic, that I was invited by the Nepalis themselves, and that I knew nothing about Nepal were all regarded as advantages in terms of being neutral.

Q: How did you prepare for your first trip?

Well, I read a pile of reports and published papers to try and get a handle on the historical development of the Maoist movement and the context of the war. Since then I think I have read pretty much everything written in English on Nepal, including poetry, history and politics. I also try to read Nepali papers to follow some of the main developments. Twitter is also useful in this in terms of sending me updates on Nepali news.

I should also point out that I also rely on my friends in Nepal. Geja Sharma Wagle in particular is a good friend of mine as well as a work colleague, and I trust his judgement absolutely. This close relationship has been invaluable.

Q: What sorts of work did you do or meetings did you have after you arrived?

There was a series of meetings set up to discuss my role. I started as the international adviser to the Secretariat of the Special Committee on the rehabilitation and integration of the Maoist combatants. This then morphed in to a technical committee, which consisted of technical appointees of political parties who were tasked with presenting the politicians with solutions. My role was to act as an independent arbiter, and I spent much of my time talking about examples from elsewhere, interpreting the international language used and liaising with the international community.

We devised a method of holding meetings over weekends at retreats where we could take people away to hotels where we would meet and stay with each other for a few days. This allowed members of the committee to get to know each other and build trust.

Over the course of two years we went from the situation where the Maoists distrusted everyone and would not really say anything, to meetings where there was very open discussion about the issues and even friendship across political boundaries. The informality of the weekend meetings was important in this.

Q: What do you see as the main obstacles to the integration of Maoist militants?

I think it depends on who you are talking about. In my view I don’t see many of the officers wanting to integrate. Many of them already have other roles either within the party or within society more broadly.

The rank and file are very mixed. Like every insurgent army, there is a hard core of seasoned fighters, and it should not be forgotten that the Maoists held back the police and military for ten years, emerging from the war undefeated. In the early days I kept having to remind the military of this, since they had determined not take any of this ‘rag tag’ of rebels. In some areas, the Maoists were very competent, including intelligence and ambush. There are some excellent soldiers here – something that the military has recognised.

The main obstacle to integration itself is whether the Maoists can cope with a regular military life. At the same time, the Nepali military is depoliticised, so mixing the Maoists with the rest is very important. There were a lot of discussions about keeping some of the Maoists together as a group, but this was regarded as dangerous because they could become a separate force within the army (and the whole idea was to reduce the number of alternative forces in Nepal).

There are also some specific issues, not least the fact that many of the Maoists do not conform to the recruitment norms of the Nepal army, but also that there are a large number of Maoists (anything up to 20%) who are women, and gender issues are critical in all of this.

Q: How does the situation in Nepal compare to those you have encountered in your previous work in Africa?

The first thing to say is that I cannot imagine any post-conflict situation in Africa where the rebels would stay peacefully in camps for so long with such a low level of violence. This is down to the discipline of the Maoists but also the power of their ideology.

The other main difference is the discipline and structure of society more broadly, which is very regulated and organised. This has advantages but also disadvantages in terms of changing some of the norms. However, the Maoists have managed to bring about some of their social changes – many laws in support of women’s rights, mixed caste marriages, etc.

At the same time, whilst Nepal might be more disciplined, there are still some features that remain very unhealthy, including extra-judicial killings, impunity of certain families and castes, gender bias and grinding poverty. Nepal is one of the most unequal societies in South Asia — only Afghanistan is worse — so those who fought for the Maoists have a long way to go.

Q: Describe the progress made during your last visit to Nepal

Well, we had changed control of the Maoist army to the Government. We had agreed the conditions by which Maoist combatants could be integrated, and we had agreed on how those who chose to leave would be treated. The main problem was that the international community seemed to think that they would all go for rehabilitation, but this was never going to happen. After five years in camps they were not going to opt for more training. The problem was that for most of international community, this is what they wanted to do – not what was best for the Nepalis. In the end hardly any opted for rehabilitation.

I should point out that one reason why I got on with all sides was that my position was very much one of giving individual Maoists a choice about what to do. For the Nepali army this meant that people were choosing to join and not being forced to, and for the Maoists this meant a genuine choice.

Q: How do you envision Nepal changing in the next 5 years? What will your role be going forward? How will it change?

I don’t really have an official role going forward, although I have bid for funding to do some tracing of former combatants to see where they end up and what they are doing. This is usually the least well done bit of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration). The aim is to take 300 former combatants and create a database of narratives of return to civilian lives.

The main challenges to Nepal are political really. Even issues with the police and justice are primarily political. The next five years will be dominated by what happens to the Maoist party, whether it can stay together and how it functions politically. Factionalism is a danger as is the main bugbear of Nepali politics – personal agendas.

However, the other political parties are not strong. The UML (Unified Marxist-Leninist party) has suffered from the Maoists eroding their traditional base, whilst the Nepali Congress has some good people but they all want to be leader and there is not a clear sense of direction or programme of reform. The NC is also handicapped by being regarded as close to the historical ruling class, which it is.

Politically, therefore, Nepal has a difficult landscape, further complicated by the social convulsions accompanying modernisation of what amounted to a feudal state.

Q: How well equipped did you feel as an academic for pursuing this sort of impact work – at the high levels of government, with a great deal at stake?

When I started, not at all. I have now being doing this for twenty years, and so I am more used to it and am probably regarded as someone who has opinions that are reasonably well founded on academic grounds, but also on practical experience. I find that I have a credibility with many people I work with because I have worked in many of the places I talk about, and that cannot be said for all of my colleagues. I also don’t tend to criticise things and then stop there – that’s easy. What is more difficult is developing ways forward, and I have always regarded my role as doing both rather than just carping from the sidelines.

Having said that, I am and have been critical of some approaches to state building, for example. The same can be said for the role of democracy and the way in which the international community operates democracy – goes in, intervenes, holds an election and then goes home. My criticism is not that democracy or the liberal state is wrong, but that you can’t just create a democracy in five years or less. Liberal states rely on underlying assumptions that do not hold in most of the world, but there are also real risks in alternatives to liberal approaches, [that is], there are lots of critics of liberal democracy, but just think about the alternatives. It is also worth pointing out that many of those critics benefit by living in liberal democracies.

I also have lots of moments where I sit back and think ‘what am I doing here?’ I have never been trained as a diplomat, but then again, whilst I draw on some similar skills and I work with diplomats, my role is to be an academic, and therefore to try to be as objective as possible.

Q: What lessons might you want to share with other academics who would be open to or interested in pursuing similar impact and outreach efforts?

I think I would always tell people to go for it if they are interested, but there are some things that academics might need to know:

* Policy makers do not all read academic papers. Find a way to translate complex ideas in accessible ways. This is not as easy as it sounds.

* It is immediate – you don’t have months to produce papers or reports. Learn to write quickly and concisely. I actually find this is a great discipline for clarity of ideas.

* I have never been told what to put in a report or had the experience of someone changing the wording, but this is partly because I avoid some things, not least compromising individuals whose jobs may be a risk. Depersonalise when you criticise and if you do criticise be willing to engage in discussion and defend your position. Policy makers might not all agree with you, but they are usually able and willing to engage in processes of improving approaches.

* Theory is not what policymakers want, but never forget that it is important. More than once I have stood up and explained aspects of Foucault to army officers. If you can explain why it is relevant (and do it in accessible English) then ideas remain really powerful. I have learned to do things like explain an idea and then only tell people afterwards that the idea is from a theorist.

* One invaluable aspect of doing his work is that I have access to more immediate and frequently more accurate information than most researchers. If I was a researcher then the chances of some of these people talking to me are remote. However, as someone who is an insider – as long as I use the information reasonably – then I get access to confidential information that is up to date, as well as the people actually engaged in this. What I mean by being reasonable is, for example, my promise to the Maoists that as long as the process was ongoing, then I wouldn’t write about them — but now they have said that they would like me to. This is about to allow me to write about them having spent a significant amount of time with the Maoist hierarchy and also the rank and file, which otherwise I would not have been able to do.

I think it might be difficult for someone to have the same career trajectory as me, particularly with the REF (Research Excellence Framework) system in the UK, but there are opportunities to engage. [The UK government allocates funding to universities in part based on the results of an assessment and ranking of their research produced, conducted about every six years.]

Q: Do you intend to pursue further your research into the effects of Glenfiddich on peace brokering?

There is always room for studying Glenfiddich! [Noted in a blog Prof. Jackson posted on his experiences in Nepal]

This came about because Nepalis drink whisky (usually bad whisky) in tumblers and they dilute it, i.e. they put in one finger of whisky and then fill the glass to the top with water. I used to take a different single malt for every meeting, and we would share it out. I banned them from using water and it made a great icebreaker!