Chance can seem an unforgiving and immutable constraint. Disease or accident can strike at any time; some are born into plenty, others struggle. But what if we could move the needle of chance toward greater equity and better outcomes for all? What if, by changing a person’s life chances, we could change the outcomes for an entire nation—and with enough changes at scale, the world?

Building a thriving world for all is the ambitious new mission of the Center for International Development (CID) under the leadership of Asim Ijaz Khwaja, its faculty director and the Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development. He believes deeply in the power of human potential to transform outcomes, to overcome circumstances with small shifts in conditions, because he has experienced it—and studied it.

Over the past two decades, Khwaja has led extensive fieldwork in Pakistan as a cofounder of the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP). His seminal projects include Learning and Educational Achievement in Pakistan Schools (LEAPS), the largest longitudinal study of Pakistan’s education system (and one of the most comprehensive such studies in the world); using school and student report cards and school grants to raise educational quality throughout the region; testing incentives to drive tax collectors’ productivity (one of the field’s first-ever personnel experiments in tax collection); and linking taxes to public benefits to enhance government credibility.

Pieces of a Puzzle

Tahir Andrabi, a cofounder of LEAPS and CERP and the Stedman-Sumner Professor of Economics at Pomona College, notes that at a time when most development researchers focusing on education were looking at school enrollment (the question of whether or not poor rural families were sending their kids to school), Khwaja was deeply embedded in the field, interviewing parents and local communities and using on-the-ground observations to guide completely different questions. The LEAPS team, led by Khwaja, Andrabi, and Jishnu Das, mapped out “the complete educational universe” of 120 villages, identifying all the relevant actors (children, parents, teachers, school and government officials, private tutors, textbook providers, and other educational actors) and the complex relationships among them. They saw a change in the rural landscape—the rise of low-cost private schools—and shifted their line of questioning to school choice. Over two decades the team conducted a series of vanguard experiments on improving school quality that are changing the entire field by demonstrating the power of a systems-based approach to research and reform.

Their landmark study on report cards showed that lowering an obstacle to decision-making—information on school performance and student outcomes—creates positive competitive pressure on all the schools in a region. Schools were pushed to improve quality; some poorly performing schools were forced to shut down; and, interestingly, the top schools were pressured to lower tuition costs. In effect, “quality went up, and price went down,” says Andrabi.
 

Woman seated highlighting content in a textbook
Active learning at low-cost private school in Kasur, Pakistan, 2014.

 

What the LEAPS work shows is that “when you change something in a school, the entire education environment changes, and it changes in ways that could potentially, massively amplify the effect of the original intervention,” says Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics and a cofounder and the director of the Abdul Latif Jamal Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT. Banerjee, who with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer won the Nobel Prize for economics of randomized controlled trials, was Khwaja’s doctoral thesis advisor. Khwaja “was always asking more-ambitious questions,” going a step further than others in the field, he says.

The questions LEAPS was asking—How do parents make decisions? Where should resources and funds be allocated? What kinds of regulation should be instituted? What is the role of competition in public services? What is the link between public and private providers?—would prove relevant to theorists and policymakers in any country.

“Talent shines. It’s hard to suppress. You just have to give it a little nudge, and it flourishes.”

Asim Khwaja

Khwaja’s systems approach to finance, likewise, “highlights that we cannot isolate actors or interventions in understanding how to solve big problems like increasing tax revenues and public goods provision,” says Oyebola Okunogbe, an economist at the World Bank and Khwaja’s former doctoral advisee. “We need to understand how the different pieces of the puzzle come together.”

Analyzing all those pieces is not the work of a single economist. To help Pakistan paint a clearer economic picture, Khwaja led the building of the country’s institutional research capacity through CERP. “Asim understands, on an organic level, the role of organizations,” says Andrabi. In the United States, which has rich and broad organizational research structures such as funding agencies, universities, regulatory bodies, and data collection agencies, “academics can focus on generating knowledge,” he explains. “In developing countries, you can’t take any of those elements [funding, peers, collaboration] for granted.” Over the past decade, CERP has grown to include more than 90 research fellows investigating diverse issues such as the environment, health, labor, gender, taxation, technology, and more.

“Asim has inspired talent at CERP in incredibly meaningful ways,” says Maroof A. Syed, the president and CEO of CERP. “He has cultivated many young minds and helped them thrive over time. Some of them came from the most remote areas of Pakistan and now are PhD candidates at top programs in the United States.”

As a mentor, Khwaja was encouraging and empathetic and demanding and disciplined, recalls Niharika Singh, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. As someone passionate about ideas, “he was often willing to engage with me on research topics that are outside mainstream economics,” she says. But “idea exploration was always structured to maximize learning.”

Today, Khwaja is applying the systems approach, his institution-building experience, and his dedication to training the next generation to build on and harness Harvard’s university-wide resources—its people, convening power, and extensive worldwide networks—to enable human flourishing on a global scale. This grand vision centers on a simple belief: The most crucial capital is human talent, and even the most under-resourced communities have talent in abundance.

Divergent Destinies

High in the Himalayas, cradling the peaks of K2 on the Pakistan side of the Ladakh range, lies a remote mountain community. Cold and barren, with few land endowments, the Shigar Valley in Baltistan is nevertheless richer and better educated than its neighbors.

Khwaja, who was studying communities in the region for his PhD thesis, wondered why this area, which started out worse, was so much better off. He discovered that it flourished precisely because, like other regions with few natural resources, such as Singapore and Taiwan, it had no choice but to invest in human capital. Again and again he has seen that investing in talent, when compounded across a community and over time, can accrue tremendous results. Within his own family, a single decision by his maternal grandfather to educate first himself and then his siblings and children created three generations of highly mobile and high-achieving individuals, including two Harvard faculty members.

The extended clan is originally from Kashmir, a region of artisans, makers of silk shawls and other crafts. There is a beauty and value in staying close to your roots and maintaining family ties, Khwaja reflects. But his family chose to move away. The youngest son of an ophthalmologist and a gynecologist, Khwaja was born in London and grew up in Nigeria and Pakistan. His brothers stayed in England for boarding school; one became a serial entrepreneur in London, and the other was a transplant surgeon and a Harvard Medical School professor. An HMS award recognizing those who foster talent is named for him.
 

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Left to right: Khwaja with parents and elder brothers, Kano, Nigeria, 1976; Receiving academic achievement awards at high school graduation from president of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, 1991.

 

Early on, Khwaja’s parents instilled the importance of education and public service in their children, modeling the call to use one’s talents to serve others. When Asim was 2 years old, the family moved from Gujranwala, a town in the Punjab, to the city of Kano, in northern Nigeria, which at the time was experiencing rapid growth and importing talent (doctors, engineers, educators) from around the world to build its capacities.

“Nigeria was in its heyday,” says Khwaja. He was surrounded by “amazing talent,” with Nigerians and immigrants from all over coming together to make an impact. There was vitality in the air.

“We would joke that the Nigerian currency, the naira, was as strong as the British pound,” he recollects. “We’d say, Look how strong we are! Nigeria had some of the best runners in the world in the 100-meter dash. Its soccer team was really good. It was a place of growth and vibrancy.”

He recalls an idyllic childhood of lasting friendships and meandering exploration. His parents were at the peak of their careers. It was through their work that he first glimpsed the effects of poverty, along with the possibility of alleviating them.

“I remember, very distinctly, one day my dad showed me this little glass vial with tiny legs of flies,” he says. “These parasitic flies cause onchocerciasis, or river blindness. He said, ‘Asim, this can create blindness, but we can cure it. Without our cures, people would go blind.’” His mother, long retired, still helps run free medical-specialist service programs for disadvantaged people with alums of her medical school. These early powerful realizations that even tragic outcomes can be changed with science have stayed with him.

In early adolescence, Khwaja moved with his parents to Pakistan, where he came into his own academically, attending the prestigious Aitchison College, a sprawling colonial institution in the center of Lahore, built by the British in the 1800s to train “princely elites” and, later, professional classes. It was a difficult transition, not only because of the change in place. In Kano, he had roamed freely, the jungle was his backyard, and wildlife was integrated with domestic life in a natural way. Lahore was a densely populated city full of cars and noise. He had to learn a new alphabet, and although “I looked Pakistani,” he says, “I felt African.” That sensation of simultaneously being an outsider and an insider, and the realization that “physical appearances need not exclusively define your sense of belonging,” unlocked a kind of double sight that has become a hallmark of his work: an ability to look beyond the surface to grasp the underlying mechanisms, the guts of a system, and see both the mechanisms and the big picture.
 

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Left to right: Teaching mathematics in an Islamabad public school, 2023; Khwaja conducting a focus group with tutors in Faisalabad, Pakistan, 2018.

Khwaja went on to MIT, where he studied economics, mathematics, and computer science with a minor in theater arts, and to Harvard for his PhD in economics. As he refined his studies, he remarked that “an outsider’s view gives you something critical as a researcher.” There’s a danger to familiarity, he says, because the more familiar you are, the less curious you are and the more you take things for granted. At the same time, “in any conversation, you need to be familiar enough, comfortable enough, to ask revealing questions.” The balance between the two is crucial.

In development fieldwork, there is sometimes a tendency to exoticize the rural village. “But communities are not that different,” he says. “How people get sad, what makes them happy, their sorrow and their laughter, there’s a deep commonality. Out of that commonality, we can start to help each other.”

Reimagining Development

The energy at CID is palpable: It is the start of year two of a grand five-year plan, and a new executive team has been hired to build on the strong programming the center is known for.

“There’s a hunger at CID to think differently, to do differently,” says Fatema Z. Sumar, CID’s executive director, a former diplomat and development professional, and most recently the vice president of compact operations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation under the Biden administration. “Having been on the front lines of development and diplomacy, I have seen firsthand how most of our international-aid architecture is outdated and colonial,” she says. “I came to CID to partner with Asim because he sees we need a fundamental shift in how we think about poverty.”

On the surface, Khwaja and Sumar come from separate worlds: He’s an academic teaching in Cambridge and doing research in development; she’s a D.C.-based practitioner with literally a million miles under her belt in dozens of countries. But although they took different journeys, they ended up in the same place, wanting to train the next generation of development leaders and doers to think and lead in new ways. And their unique partnership is already producing results. More than 120 faculty affiliates are conducting research in more than 115 countries; new experiential learning programs and global internships are being scaled up; and innovative collaborations are being forged among students, researchers, alumni, practitioners, local communities, and the media.

“We’re not here just to end poverty, which is the focus of most development organizations,” observes Sumar. “That’s the floor. But at CID we are reaching for the ceiling. We want people to go beyond surviving to thriving.” Success requires seeing the full potential of people wherever they are in the world. “Too often,” she says, “people associate innovation and opportunity with what is happening in the global North—New York, London, Tel Aviv, or Tokyo. Asim realizes that the real play is making connections between Harvard and the rest of the world, where some of the most exciting breakthrough solutions are happening. Because he comes from Nigeria and Pakistan, he understands the richness in places often associated with the poor.”
 

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Left to right: Addressing guests and discussing global food security at the welcome dinner of CID’s Global Empowerment Meeting, May 2023; Khwaja welcoming Dr. Osmani-Sadriu, president of the Republic of Kosovo, to HKS to deliver the keynote address at CID’s Global Empowerment Meeting, May 2023.

It’s a deeply egalitarian vision, shaped in part by personal tragedy in the midst of a historic global pandemic. Khwaja’s appointment to faculty director of CID, in 2020, coincided with the unexpected losses of his father, his father-in-law, a brother, and a childhood friend in the span of a few months. At a particularly dark moment, he recalls, he had a conversation with his wife—a miniature artist inspired by Islamic Sufi traditions—about how sharing the grief of others can lessen one’s own. For Khwaja, grief crystallized truths about what really matters—our impact on other people’s lives—and solidified his belief that the biggest impact comes from investing in and enabling people.

During a recent trip to a primary school in a low-income settlement near Islamabad, Khwaja met two siblings, a sister who was academically precocious and her younger brother, who did less well in school. The sister wanted to be a doctor but was told by peers that it was impossible, because her family had little money. The brother had no discernible aspirations, but it turned out he was already a savvy entrepreneur: He salvaged discarded toys, repaired them, and sold them. He had sold toys to almost every child in the school. Khwaja, wanting both of them to recognize their own potential, suggested that the boy promise to one day pay for his sister’s schooling, and the girl promise to treat her brother’s kids free. Laughing, they agreed.

“Talent shines,” says Khwaja. “It’s hard to suppress. You just have to give it a little nudge, and it flourishes.”

We may never know the outcome for those siblings. Chance landed them in a place where talent often goes unseen. That’s the CID challenge: to create pathways for talent of all kinds to be recognized and thrive.

“Luck matters,” Khwaja says. “But we can change luck.”
 


This piece was also featured in the Summer 2023 Harvard Kennedy School Magazine.

Image attributions (from top to bottom): CID’s Evidence for Policy Design research program (CERP), personal images provided by Asim Ijaz Khwaja, Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP), and 2023 GEM conference images by Matt Teuten.

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