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It's OK to want to change the world


by Kurt Kleiner

When Aisha Ahmad was three years old she told her father she wanted to help the mujahideen fight the invading Soviets in Afghanistan.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Actually, they have enough fighters. But there’s something they don’t have. When this war is over they’re going to need people with expertise to help rebuild the country. You should be one of those people.’ ”

Ahmad followed his advice. The newly hired assistant professor of political science at UTSC has traveled through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia talking to intelligence officials, warlords, mujahideen and business people in an effort to understand failed states and how to improve conditions for people living in them.

Her PhD thesis, which she hopes to turn into a book, is titled Holy Men and Money Lords: An Economic Explanation of State Failure and State Formation in Afghanistan and Somalia.  In it, she looks at the collapse of centralized states in Afghanistan and Somalia, and how economic considerations caused business people to align themselves with warlords, Islamists, or other political factions.

In chaotic and war-torn countries, a strong government of any kind can be an attractive alternative for the business community, since it promises stability. Extremists may therefore win support less on ideological than on practical grounds, Ahmad says.

“I found that most people, even those that we would consider to be extremists, respond to economic incentives,” Ahmad says. “When the business community allies with x warlord or y Islamist group, it’s largely because it has become economically beneficial for them to do so. I watched this when I was young, and I heard it from the mouths of people who made these decisions themselves.”

Ahmad grew up in Toronto, the daughter of Pashtun immigrants from Pakistan. Although her father was a botanist, he came from a family of traders and merchants, and as a child Ahmad went to Peshawar frequently for visits. She remembers playing near the open-air arms bazaars that sprang up during the Soviet-Afghan war. “You could get a bazooka for fifty bucks,” she recalls.

Ahmad majored in political science at the University of Toronto, and was a teaching assistant for a year at UTSC. She received her PhD from McGill University, and was a fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy Harvard School.

While researching her thesis, Ahmad trekked through mountains and deserts, suffered dysentery, and spoke with warlords, military and intelligence officials, business people, and others who might have seemed intimidating or even dangerous. But Ahmad says that as a Muslim woman she was always treated with respect and courtesy during her research.

“People ask me if I traveled with armed guards,” Ahmad laughs. “And I say no. That would have been discourteous.”

Ahmad published a paper this spring in the International Journal arguing that international aid to Somalia has worsened the situation there and should be stopped. The huge aid shipments strengthen warlords who pilfer, extort, or simply bid for distribution contracts. This new income makes them stronger, encourages them to further take advantage of the population under their control, and makes it more difficult for a strong central state to emerge.

For Ahmad, the work isn’t simply academic. She says she feels a responsibility to actually try to change the world for the better, partly through research and partly through her own advocacy and actions. For instance, she is chief operating officer for the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, a Somali relief organization that seeks local solutions to Somalia’s problems.

“I would not be in this business if I did not believe there was a chance for a positive outcome,” she says. “I’d love to work myself out of a job. This is the goal. To not be required anymore.”

Ahmad says that she’s excited to be teaching at UTSC.

“I found the students at UTSC when I TA’ed there to be among the most passionate and driven students that I’ve ever encountered, and the ones that are likely to change the world they live in. I like people like that.

“I met this wonderful student at UTSC. She’s a young Somali-Canadian woman who wanted to hear about my work. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she was a little shy to say it, but I told her, ‘It’s OK to say that your life goal is to stop the war in your country.’ She looked at me and said, ‘That’s the only reason I’m here.’ 

" ‘Great,’ I told her. ‘Welcome aboard.’ ”

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