Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri’s name is synonymous with the Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SDPI) — the largest think tank of Pakistan, where he works as an executive director. As a social policy analyst and development practitioner, he has been working on different issues ranging from food security, environment and sustainable development in South Asia to non-traditional security issues, international trade, World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, globalisation, and South Asian economic integration, as well as poverty and marginalisation in the Pakistani context and raising awareness about them. Under his stewardship the SDPI has established itself as a national institution with significant influence over public policy and social research.
When I met him on the sidelines of an international conference, he seemed to be really busy as his organisation was holding the consultation on the green economy. This tête-à-tête was conducted between his numerous TV interviews and different sessions. It proved difficult to believe that such an unassuming and down-to-earth person has accomplished as much as he did at a relatively young age. His drive and commitment to serve the disadvantaged sections of society is immeasurable and as he himself proclaims, he has a one-point agenda, i.e. distributive justice.
Starting the conversation from his early life, he states, “I was born in Lahore and belong to a border village of Sialkot. I received my early education in Lahore and Sialkot and joined FC College Lahore for my FSc. The blend of rural-urban upbringing took me to the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad where I achieved my BSc (Hons) and masters.
“During the Gen Zia ul-Haq regime when there was a prevailing discontent and resentment against his exploitive and oppressive policies, especially in the student community, I became part of the broader pro-democracy movement and actively participated in left-wing student politics. I believe that it was this period in which my political thinking and social dedication took form, which had later profoundly influenced my career choices and life decisions.”
Coming to his professional life, he articulates, “After completing my masters, I joined a multinational corporation as a research and development officer but soon became disillusioned and left it. I then joined Punjab Food Department as an Assistant Controller of Inspections in 1993. On the basis of my academic background — I topped at my department — received Commonwealth scholarship for a PhD in food security.”
It was a turning point in his life as the international community had started taking interest in the subject by that time. In 1996, a UN conference was held in Rome in which the term ‘food security’ was coined and it was the same year when he left for his doctorate at the University of Greenwich, UK.
When I asked Suleri, if it was a case of being ‘in the right place at the right time’, he answers, “No, I have always been interested in the subject and there are many reasons for it. Firstly, I have a rural background and wanted to bridge the rural-urban divide; secondly, I had acquired my formal education in the field; thirdly, due to my political activism I am conscious of the factors and ground realities which are responsible for creating food scarcity; and lastly, as a rights-based activist, I believe in social justice which includes access to food, too.”
About his student life in England, he explains, “I learned more out of campus. I worked in many odd jobs as I wanted to explore the British society and my employment history included working as a cab driver, delivery boy for tandoori restaurants and sales person at a grocery shop.” Moreover, I started the Chapter of Amnesty International in my campus and celebrated the Pak-India Peace Day when both countries detonated their nuclear bombs to promote peace and solidarity, adds the social policy analyst.
After coming back, he had a brief stint in the public sector and then joined the SDPI as a researcher and looked after globalisation and rural livelihood issues and worked extensively on the WTO and related concerns. He rejoined the SDPI after a brief stay at Oxfam in 2004.
Charting further his career, Suleri states, “Since 2007, I have been working as an executive director in the think tank. When I took over, it was heading for bankruptcy — not due to any fault of my predecessors — but because of the changing priorities of the partner organisations and donors. We were under heavy debt and a going entity concern. We took many hard and voluntary decisions, such as, right sizing, slashing salaries and other perks, etc. The turn around came in 2010 and the organisation became self-reliant. We reduced our staff from 60 to 25 in 2007 and these days we have a workforce of 100-plus members.”
The development practitioner cites the dedication of his team as the reason behind this success and he asserts, “We have achieved all this success because of collective efforts. We took several new initiatives as SDTV and started research on new themes, for instance, non-traditional security issues, revising history, inclusive growth and climate change, among others.
Working at SDPI is not just a nine to five job, it is a mission for us. As a team leader, I have facilitated new initiatives and promoted their out-of-the-box ideas (read crazy plans) which give the confidence, bring innovative changes and generate interest.”
Explaining his role in the formation of the food ministry, he states, “Food security and ensuring right to food is one of the key areas the SDPI has been working on. As part of my work on food security, I have always advocated that it is not about merely achieving bumper crop of wheat but I rather hold the view that the food and agriculture ministry with a mandate of enhancing food production can't ensure food security.
“There is a need of an umbrella ministry which may provide vision and support to other ministries and departments and create conducive conditions for physical availability of food, socio-economic access to food and food absorption. When new ministries were being created after the 18th amendment, the SDPI made deliberations at the highest level of decision-making highlighting the importance of food security and a need for a dedicated ministry for this purpose,” adds Suleri.
A self-proclaimed avid reader, he states that he has always been interested in reading. “I can skip my breakfast but not my morning newspapers. Human psychology, international relations and political economy are my favourite subjects.”
Journalism is another passion as he writes regular columns for many publications. Suleri adds, “After my retirement I will switch over to this profession. Even now my work is related to journalism, as policy think tanks and the Fourth Estate are like siblings since both require thorough research and disseminating that knowledge in a lay person’s language.”
The social policy analyst says that his parents have had a great influence on him and whatever position he has achieved is because of their upbringing and support from his wife. Coming to his kinfolk, the father of the three young boys, states that the dilemma of development-sector practitioners is that their family life suffers as they have a broader human agenda and tend to ignore their folks (though inadvertently).
“I have taken certain measures like cutting down my foreign and local travels, keeping my cell phone silent at home and giving full time to kids on weekends to balance my professional and personal life,” concludes Suleri.