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Diplomacy & World Affairs

Meet Syeda ShahBano Ijaz of Diplomacy & World Affairs, a scholar of the political economy of development, with a regional focus on South Asia. Her research, teaching, and public scholarship is situated at the cusp of international and comparative politics.

Syeda ShahBano Ijaz

Assistant Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs Syeda ShahBano Ijaz comes to Occidental from UC San Diego, where she completed her Ph.D. in political science. Prior to that, she completed an M.A. in politics from New York University and an MSc. in economics for development from the University of Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar. Ijaz is a scholar of the political economy of development, with a regional focus on South Asia. Her research, teaching, and public scholarship is situated at the cusp of international and comparative politics: she is most interested in the domestic consequences of foreign aid. At Occidental, she teaches courses on international development, globalization, foreign aid, and democratic processes in South Asia. 
What attracted you to Occidental?
Occidental is a unique liberal arts college in many aspects. What impressed me the most was the College’s commitment to equity and justice as part of its core mission. There are few educational institutions that embrace equity as a generator of—not a hindrance to—merit, and I found Occidental to be one of them. Also, during my visit, I first-hand witnessed students’ passion for ensuring social justice on campus: from creating body-inclusive groups to supporting a union for the College’s non-tenure track employees. Of course, the College’s faculty and administration are the ones responsible for providing the safe space that amplifies diverse voices. I knew then that I wanted to be part of such a community. Finally, I was also attracted by Occidental’s very vibrant urban campus and the possibility of extending the classroom to the city of Los Angeles via the LA Encounters program. Hopefully, I will be using the latter to create immersive experiences for my students!

What will you be teaching at Oxy?
At DWA, I will be teaching Introduction to Global Political Economy. I’m also teaching First Year Seminars on Foreign Aid & Imperialism and Globalization & Development. Next year, I will be teaching courses on the Politics of International Development as well as Democracy and Development in South Asia.

When did you develop an interest in the political economy of development?
As someone who grew up in a developing country, I was interested in the broad field of development studies, and then development economics, from the very beginning of my educational career. I followed my undergraduate in economics with a graduate degree in development economics. It was then, as a graduate student at Oxford, that I became fascinated by how much of the variation in the world (such as why some countries are poorer than others) could be explained by economic models and numbers. Of course, I became critical of Eurocentric models of growth and development later in my career, but at that time, the sheer simplicity of economic models really appealed to me. There’s something about the predictability embedded in models and theories: they have a calming effect on a student otherwise flustered by the state of the world. My favorite aspect was studying comparative dynamics: how would prices or wages shift if you tinkered with demand just a little ‘keeping all else equal,’ as is the mantra in economics. The journey from there to political economy came about through the realization that even when something improves welfare – or is profitable – the resulting profit or welfare may not be equitably distributed. Political economy is fundamentally concerned with the distributive effects of policies: who will free trade benefit and who will it hurt, or who will taxation benefit and who will it hurt. Also, even when everyone benefits, it is important to ask who benefits disproportionately more and who benefits much less. As someone who was experiencing immigration and being a person of color in the U.S. during graduate school, these questions became more than just academic concerns for me. I realized that much of my understanding of the distributive effects of policies was driven by understanding theories that were essentially Eurocentric. My Ph.D. then became an endeavor to understand the political economy of foreign aid in South Asia from a more intimate lens: conducting fieldwork in Pakistan to find out who does aid really benefit, who it hurts, and along what dimensions.

You’ve done more than two years of fieldwork in Pakistan. Can you talk about your book project, Aiding Accountability: The Politics of Last-Mile Service Delivery in Pakistan?
Aiding Accountability centers the agency of foreign aid recipients in determining whether aid benefits them and how. Much of the literature on foreign aid is skeptical about the benefits of aid because it focuses on elite cooptation and corruption in developing countries. Reading this literature always unsettled me slightly. Not because I don’t understand the level and extent of corruption that is present in developing countries, but because I found this to be the exclusive focus of most scholarship. Whereas elites were seen as the only people with agency in developing states, voters – or ordinary citizens – were conceptualized as exploited, and essentially helpless. Yet, I have also witnessed strong citizen action in developing countries, unparalleled mobilization, and a deep understanding of rights and entitlements.

Aiding Accountability tells a story of how citizens—entitled to receive the benefits of foreign aid through Pakistan’s largest social safety net, the Benazir Income Support Program—actively demand facilitation from their local politicians to obtain the benefits. They need these facilitative – or what I term ‘last-mile’ – services, because often programs require potential beneficiaries to jump through multiple bureaucratic and mobility hoops. They need legal documentation, knowledge of their household poverty score, and a host of other information to even enroll in the program. From there to finally obtaining the cash is a whole different story. For example, women beneficiaries need to undergo fingerprinting before they can retrieve payments via ATMs. But how do poor women—who are often not able to travel alone, and might’ve blurred fingerprints due to washing dishes and clothes—get to an ATM and successfully get fingerprinted? This is where they seek help from their local politicians who will provide them with fingerprinting waivers, and sometimes public transportation.

The book shows what I firsthand witnessed in my fieldwork: voters are aware that these program benefits are intended for them, and they don’t just sit helplessly while the elite skim the money away. Instead, they actively ask their political representatives about the money and demand the kind of targeted services that will help them obtain it. A key objective of the book is to show that we cannot fully understand the political economy of foreign aid—who it benefits and who it doesn’t—without understanding the stories, and agency, of those it seeks to benefit. In some ways, aid helps previously disenfranchised citizens become politically engaged by making them beneficiaries of a public program. And even if aid is failing at a macro-level, perhaps this presents a silver lining to where aid might bring about improvement. It also has direct policy implications for what donor agencies can focus on if political liberalization is an objective.

Anything else you would like to add?
As a Muslim and an immigrant woman of color, I am cognizant of the differential challenges that minoritized and first-generation students must face in U.S. institutions. I fully embrace my representational role and want to let students know—minoritized or otherwise—that my aim is to challenge conventional knowledge in the classroom while offering support in navigating the hidden curriculum outside the classroom. During my time here, I remain committed to encouraging respectful debate and making sure everyone’s voices and viewpoints are heard. Finally, I am excited to be a part of Oxy’s community and look forward to getting to know many of you throughout the year.