11 minute read
Amir Jilani has extensive, cross-continental experience working on the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection, human development, and women’s empowerment projects. He is a Social Sector Economist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where he promotes the use of rigorous evidence to inform country partnership strategies as well as knowledge, technical assistance, and operational projects in human and social development.
In 2011, Amir completed a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Commerce (Finance) at the ANU College of Business and Economics (CBE).
In this interview, he discusses the human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, social protection at the forefront of government efforts around the world and his formative years at CBE.
Q. Can you tell us about your career path and what led you to the role you're in today?
I have always been drawn to economics and questions surrounding poverty, inequality, and vulnerability in low and middle-income countries. After graduating from ANU, I joined the Centre for International Economics (CIE), a boutique economic consulting firm in Canberra, as an Economist. My time at CIE helped me significantly on two fronts. Firstly, it equipped me with the analytical tools to apply economic insights to real-world problems and queries that could ultimately support practical and sound decision-making. Secondly, it provided me my first glimpse at a career in international development, after working on projects where I helped evaluate the impact of Australian-funded agriculture research and development projects in Afghanistan, Indonesia and PNG, as well as education and reintegration programs for disaffected youth in the Caribbean islands.
To advance my knowledge and skills in economic development, I completed a postgraduate degree from Georgetown University, where I specialised in applied microeconomics and international development. This was an important steppingstone for my career, allowing me to develop a rich set of technical and analytical skills in economics as well as a better understanding of human and social development issues around the world. I then joined the International Food Policy Research Institute as an applied microeconomist, working on research and development projects to generate evidence on effective interventions to address poverty, inequality, vulnerability, and food and nutritional security in East Africa and South Asia. In 2018, I was accepted into the ADB Young Professionals Program and have been fortunate enough to work on social protection and human development projects across countries in the Asia Pacific. This has been an invaluable opportunity to help countries in the region address some of their most pressing development challenges including persistent poverty, inequality, unemployment, and poor human capital development.
We should recognise that an inclusive recovery will require smarter policies that are informed by research, data, and evidence, and a reinvigorated sense of urgency to protect those most susceptible among us.
Q. In your opinion, what are some of the lessons that low and middle-income countries should take away from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Globally, over the last 25 years, we have been making steady progress in the fight against poverty. The number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has declined from nearly two billion in 1990 to 689 million in 2017. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is estimated to push an additional 110-150 million people into extreme poverty, representing the first global rise in poverty since the 1990s. This is being accompanied by an increase in inequality in much of the world, with the crisis exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities for those who were disadvantaged even before the pandemic hit. This includes women, who are overrepresented among the poor globally and lack access to equal opportunities, children, many of whom were already out of school, informal workers, migrants, refugees, minority groups, the elderly, and those living with disabilities.
Given the immense human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic and the amplified risks for these groups, returning to the old normal is not and should not be an option. In my opinion, countries must use this crisis as an opportunity to reset their development priorities, focusing on inclusion, building resilience of all citizens and especially those most vulnerable, providing equal opportunities to women and girls, promoting sustainable economic growth, investing in human capital, and ensuring that public service delivery is people-centred. As a social sector economist, I am somewhat biased about the role that education, health, and social protection can play in protecting lives and livelihoods, but I am also driven by data and evidence, which consistently shows the long-term positive impacts of human capital investments for individuals and economies. As we look beyond the immediate crisis period, we should recognise that an inclusive recovery will require smarter policies that are informed by research, data, and evidence, and a reinvigorated sense of urgency to protect those most susceptible among us from all future national and global shocks.
An important question for policymakers during the COVID-19 crisis has been – how do you identify the poorest and most vulnerable for the purposes of delivering social protection effectively?
Q. At an event in November 2020, you discussed how governments can identify and reach the poor in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is your assessment of the support and protection that has now been provided to these people?
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly put social protection at the forefront of government response efforts around the world to mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of the crisis. As of December 2020, a total of 215 countries or territories announced plans for or implemented 1,414 social protection measures. Social assistance, including direct cash transfers, account for the bulk of global social protection responses. Recent evidence suggests that in the early phases of the pandemic, these cash transfers and other social protection programs helped avoid 3.6 million additional COVID-19 cases and saved over 150,000 lives. In other words, social protection measures can not only help build resilience, protect incomes, and promote human capital development, but they can also reduce the risk of transmission and mortality in the event of a disease outbreak.
An important question for policymakers during the COVID-19 crisis has been – how do you identify the poorest and most vulnerable for the purposes of delivering social protection effectively? Some countries used new sources of data and technology for the first time including spatial poverty maps and statistics from the private sector, while others have relied on existing socioeconomic registries of poor households to identify beneficiaries. However, COVID-19 has demonstrated that countries with more advanced social protection systems, including digital identification and payment systems, were in a much stronger position to respond quickly and efficiently to deliver timely and predictable support to those most in need. Nevertheless, I have been impressed and encouraged by the efforts of governments around the world to leverage social protection as an instrument for shielding incomes, lives, and livelihoods, and hope that this momentum can be used to upgrade social protection infrastructure and coverage moving forward.
The practical skills and knowledge I developed at CBE have served me well in every professional opportunity since then, allowing me to apply economic insights to key issues in international development.
Q. How did your degree at CBE prepare you for your career?
My time at CBE provided me with rigorous training in economics and exposed me to the fields of behavioural and development economics. The practical skills and knowledge I developed have served me well in every professional opportunity since then, allowing me to apply economic insights to key issues in international development. However, perhaps more importantly, CBE taught me to think, question, and critically analyse issues before arriving at conclusions. The repeated emphasis on developing a logical approach to problem solving encouraged me to think carefully about causality and develop a clear theory-of-change when diagnosing problems and offering solutions to clients, including governments striving to improve economic development outcomes.
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