Author Archives: mpournik

About mpournik

Milad Pournik is pursuing a Masters Degree in Global Policy Studies at the LBJ School of UT at Austin after getting his Bachelors Degree in International Relations and Economics from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He was born in Iran but bred all over the globe – spending time in the United States, Nepal, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt, and the United Kingdom. Milad is now 23 years young and hopes to work for the United Nations in the near future.

Lindo maravilhoso! (Beautiful, marvelous!)

Trip to Rio: I don’t have much space to write here but Rio is truly a remarkable city. I went there with some degree of fear given the hype about it being an unsafe place but I was lucky enough to witness only the best of the city. It really helped that we had a local carioca (thank you Luiza) organize our itinerary as well as to take us for some authentic carioca experiences (e.g. for a football game & to a reserve beach with amazing waves). Rio has beaches, beautiful nature, amazing views, samba, a Christ overlooking the city and much much more. I don’t like big cities in general but I took to the energy and diversity of Rio. We even managed to visit a favela through a tour. It did feel a bit weird but I highly recommend this experience. I won’t go into details but I will say that it is like nothing else I have seen in all my travels.

Staying active: Sports are one of my main passions. It has been difficult not playing tennis for so long but at least I got the chance to go running several times around the city park. Moreover, I played football on two occasions with a few colleagues and many skilled Brazilians. I was worried that I would be made to look a fool but I think I preserved Iranian pride to some extent… Staying active is so important, especially when you are working in an office environment, sitting behind a computer all day (Baba – this one is a hint for you….).

Ramadan: Ramadan (the month that Muslims fast) began on August 1st. It is never easy to fast when you are not ‘home’ but I am thankful that I have made a great Iranian friend here who takes me for iftar (breaking the fast) to either the Mosque or the Iranian embassy. Ramadan is a great month regardless but when you can share the experience with others it makes it all the more rewarding. It is a month that never fails to humble me. Of course we all have problems but through fasting we get a small taste of the tribulations that almost one billion people are suffering today. It strengthens my resolve to do something about global hunger. Unfortunately, I think it is so true that we don’t know the true value of something until we lose it. Here is to hoping that we cherish the good things in our life. We remain content but this doesn’t stop us from striving for a better life for ourselves and for others (Toshi – this one’s for you).

Inclusive Growth and the Arab Spring: An interesting question came up the other day in a meeting we had here. Are the uprisings in the Middle East a result of the failure, or presence, of inclusive growth? In other words, are people now more educated and aware of their rights due to some level of development OR is it just that they are fed up with the failures of development to include them? I think that growth in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region has not been very inclusive but that people are now more aware of their rights and sub-optimal situation. For me, the Egyptian example clearly is one that demonstrates the failure of growth to necessarily be inclusive. They witnessed what is called “jobless growth” and the problems with this were exposed through the revolution. The fact that the Egyptian youth were at the forefront of protest is profound. Yet, the fear that I have is that many autocrats will see the recent developments in the MENA region and think that the best way to consolidate their rule is to keep their country backwards as to not empower their people, who might later use this new found education and human security to topple their regimes. If they do, it will only be at their peril though. I feel that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. What do you think?

Final thought: This is my fourth internship now and like the previous internships, I leave feeling that I could have done much more. I am conflicted. I leave more aware of the scale of the problems confronting us – much bigger than I had thought. But I also leave more aware of uplifting success stories, which suggest that there is hope. The question I have (and I think maybe others share) is whether all the UN (and other big organization) reports actually make a difference. Are the diagnostics sound? Are the solutions offered appropriate, adequate, and practical? If so, will policy makers seriously considering following that advice? Will they implement the solutions effectively? There are many unknowns but I guess that one thing that is clear is that these reports have the potential to raise public awareness and open space for dialogue on important development questions.


Peace and Happiness: About a month ago I went on a weekend trip to a town called Pirenopolis. It was a two hour drive from Brasilia and a welcome getaway from the administrative capital of Brazil. Pirenopolis is famous for its waterfalls and beautiful landscape. The first morning we woke up and went hiking in the mountains. It had been so long since I had been hiking and reaching the summit was a truly pleasant experience. Sitting on a rock at the top of the mountain gave me a chance to find my inner peace. It gave me a chance to remove myself from the material world and focus on strengthening my character. This leads me to a discussion I had with friends in my travel to Rio (which I will write about in my next blog entry). What is more important finding peace or happiness? For me it is categorically the former. I believe that they are not mutually exclusive, and in fact probably mutually supportive, yet still I believe that finding peace is the priority in life. I have come to an interesting conflict with the Brazilian insistence on doing whatever makes you happy. I disagree with this philosophy. I believe that sometimes we need to show restraint or better judgment given that happiness is not the end all be all. I am sorry to get all philosophical but I was hoping that by writing this I would spark this question in your minds and hopefully hear your thoughts.

Simplicity of the past: About a month ago, a couple of fellow interns and I went to watch Midnight in Paris. The movie was enjoyable and was centered on a yearning for the past. Many times in my life I have felt that life was just much more simple and tranquil in the past before all the technological advancements we have today. After the movie we watched the clip called The Story of Stuff, which raises issues with the capitalist economic model’s effect on the environment. There is simply too much consumption and irresponsible consumption taking place today. Let us hope that things may change. This is not to say that all technology is bad but I somehow feel that we humans have not necessarily made use of the positive aspects of technology as much as of the negative aspects or unintended consequences. The starkest example is probably how the television and computer have decreased the amount of quality time that families spend interacting with one another. Sometimes I really believe that “less is more”. What are your thoughts?

An inspiration: I just got in touch with Hooria, the ex-Deputy Chairperson of the Women’s National Committee (WNC) of Yemen, whom I had the honor to intern with for one month a few summers ago. I truly admire her courage and perseverance. She has been at the front of protests in Yemen and is tirelessly struggling to liberate Yemen. Her anger towards Arab autocrats is so strong that she told me not to say the usual Ramadan Mubarak (Happy Ramadan) – instead we should say Ramadan Kareem (Holy Ramadan). This is because of her disgust with Egypt’s ex-‘president’. I remember my time with the WNC and how different it was from the three UN internships I have done. Their office was poorly equipped and they only had local staff. But somehow I felt a strong sense of resolve in that office. In my month at the WNC I had more chances to go to meeting with government officials, donors, media, and Western NGOs then I have had in my other internships combined. Going to meet both higher level officials and those from civil society is crucial for development practitioners in my estimation. Theory and reading reports are useful but there is something intangible gained from human interaction. I believe that my travels have given me plenty of field experience and helped me in my work in these UN offices. I think back to the touching story of Nujood Ali who was divorced at the age of ten. Her courage to break away from her husband, who was more than two decades her senior, is inspiring. But sadly, her story is the exception rather that the rule. According to a 2007 report by the International Centre for Research on Women, 48.4 percent of women under 18 in Yemen were married. Roughly half of those girls become pregnant before turning 18. These figures are appalling. Nonetheless, I feel better knowing that there are people like Nujood and Hooria who are determined to change the status quo. They believe in a better future and actively work to make that future a reality.

Subsidy Reform

I warn you – this is going to be long. I hope it will be worth your while…

Subsidy Reform : As I mentioned before, I am mainly focusing on a report on subsidy reform. This is an important issue that I have recently become interested in. I have come to the conclusion that the subsidy regimes today are generally used to cover up development failures. Very rarely are they used to spur on development. I came in to this internship thinking that it is all about applying the knowledge I have gained through my academic experiences. But soon I realized that internships are also about furthering learning. There is always room to learn more and I have never been exposed to readings on subsidy reform in my academic life. Still though, I have written quite a lot already and am anxious to finalize my report on subsidy reform. I am hoping that the IPC will help me to publish it! I have now been working on this for almost two months and am still getting lost in all the details. I keep finding new papers and can’t resist the urge to read them. At least now I have a concrete structure but still this experience has made me aware of the difficulties of a writing a thorough policy paper. I don’t just want to criticize subsidies. I also want to offer alternatives. I want to delve into the no-go land of political economy of reform. I am tired of reading diagnosis of problems – I am now at a stage where I want to know solutions and paths to implementing those solutions. I hope my paper can make some contribution in this pursuit.

I identify four main development challenges today apart from important challenges highlighted in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They are: unemployment/lack of decent work, inequality, resilience, and food & energy security. Food and especially fuel subsidies often exacerbate inequality because they are regressive in nature. Additionally, they may help to create some employment but often in inefficient industries or the jobs related to smuggling cheap goods to countries where they are much more costly. Subsidies can enhance resilience as well as food and energy security but sadly, in practice they often undermine these virtues.

In my time at IPC, I have had the chance to read much into the impossibly broad yet fundamentally important topic of “social protection”. I have been exposed innovative new measures to deliver effective social protection. Public employment guarantees are one of my favorites. The Indian example is perhaps the most notable in this regard. Did you know that, as of 2005, people living in rural India were guaranteed 100 days of work through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)? This provides much needed seasonal employment outside of harvest time. It also improves the infrastructure in India, thus hopefully attracting more foreign and domestic investment.

I look at three case studies: Iran, Indonesia, and Egypt to provide a more applied angle to my work. Indonesia embarked on subsidy reform since 2000 but is still providing substantial fossil-fuel subsides. Iran just recently decreased subsidies in December 2010 and it is still early days but we can gain much but analyzing its example. Egypt is my center-piece to illustrate the folly of relying on universal consumption subsidies as the main pillar of social protection. Coincidentally, the Egyptian example is also a great example of the failure of inclusive growth. Despite having an impressive average growth rate of 5% since 2000, child malnourishment and youth unemployment have been steadily rising. The Saudi response to the recent wave of unrest is particularly telling. They simply threw money at their people (including through raising subsidies). The recent Women’s Driving Campaign is one sign that Saudis are no longer content with living of patronage politics. They desire fundamental freedom, which money can’t necessarily provide. I don’t really delve much into the infamous agricultural subsidies provided by the United States and E.U. to their farmers but this is obviously a serious area of concern when thinking about food security for developing countries. It is absurd that when the Brazilians took the U.S. Government to the WTO dispute “court”, instead of removing their cotton subsidies, the U.S. Government is now also subsidizing Brazilian cotton farmers! There is clearly something wrong here that requires mass action given the dominance of concentrated interest groups over the mass public who ultimately are paying for these inefficient subsidies through tax money. Moreover, it is hypocritical to call on developing countries to remove their own subsidies, while developed countries employ their own subsidies (albeit in a subtle manner).

By the way, did you know that malnourishment is the “forgotten MDG”? Less than a quarter of countries are likely to reach the nutrition MDG by 2015! Therefore, while we have been praising work to alleviate income poverty, children have been left to starve. Food subsidies may help to make food more affordable for those in and around poverty. Yet, the food that is subsidized is often not the most nutritious. Additionally, food subsidies promote an unbalanced diet focused around certain subsidized goods, which may further undermine proper nourishment. The lack of a diversified diet is also problematic if there is a supply or demand side shock, which puts extra strain on those who are most dependent on that particular foodstuff.   This lead to me to food security, a topic of great importance in light of recent developments in the Horn of Africa. It is an absolute failure of humanity that there could be as many as 1 billion people today suffering from hunger. To read a great report on the issue of food security please see OXFAM’s Grow Campaign ( The positive news is that there is much scope for reforming the current world food supply and distribution system in order to strengthen food security where most needed.

My punch line: The recent Arab Spring has created a perfect opening for extensive subsidy reform in a region where food and fuel subsidies are so pervasive. The Arab Spring is rooted in calls for dignity. While subsidies may be useful stop-gap measures, they are both unsustainable and ineffective in delivering prosperity. Those in or near poverty don’t need price support. They need decent jobs. They need better public services. Government budgets can clearly not stand the strain of universal subsidies. The environment cannot withstand brazen food and fuel consumption. Most importantly, cheap food and fuel cannot deliver basic sustenance – let alone dignity.

Here is too hoping that my work here can have a modestly positive impact on development discourse, if not development policy…

Obrigado (thank you) and Parabéns (congratulations) for getting through this heavy blog post!

Random Thoughts

A few more observations to share:

–          Crime: I was walking around exploring the city on a Saturday afternoon when I ran into a group of three dodgy people. I saw that there was a girl with them and thought that all would be fine but soon realized that was not the case. One of the guys asked me the time and I tried to say something in broken French. Then he knew I wasn’t Brazilian and thus grabbed my watch to see the time. Luckily, they let me go without harm and without taking anything but this experience exposed me to the possible dangers of Brazil. When I asked my Brazilian friends if inequality was the main reason for the crime problem here, they emphatically said claro (for sure). It is great that Brazil has been witnessing such impressive growth but there are clearly many people not benefiting or participating in this process. “Inclusive growth” is meant to address this. Anyways, I guess my upcoming trip to Rio should be interesting and I hope that I can use my street smarts to avoid provoking trouble!

–          Reading: Another great opportunity that my summer internship has provided me with is the chance to do more reading. I already managed to finish Development as Freedom by Amaryta Sen. In short, a great book that is already influencing the way I see the work of international development. I highly recommend this book. I am also finished reading The Kite Runner. A great book – even better than the movie, which I rate highly. I rarely read fiction and that is a real shame. There is actually so much we can learn and gain from reading fiction – in fact sometimes much more that we learn from academic journals or books! We can obviously learn from the content of the stories but can also learn from the beautiful style of writing. My writing is improving (after 3 writing courses at LBJ) but I still have much room for improvement – as you can gather from the writing in this blog!

–          Touristy Stuff: I went out around town with Cecilia (the Brasilian intern who I share a house with) and her mom. We went to the feira (market) and walked around. I later went back by myself and had a fun time exploring all the various Brazilian food stuffs. Then we went to the TV tower and got to see Brasilia from atop. After that, we went to an exhibition on Islamic art. Almost half of the things were from Iran and it nice to see Brazilian exposure to “my part of the world”. Finally, we went to an upscale part of the city that had a beautiful pier along the lake. Just this past weekend, I got a chance to go to the famous Cathedral here but I have still yet to tour the Foreign Affairs Palace or the Congress building.

–          Really? You learn new things everyday and one of these days I learned that Brazil and Australia both have compulsory voting! I like to think of myself as quite well informed but I had no idea that there was compulsory voting anywhere – let alone in Australia. I am still not sure what to think of this but my first thought is that this is not a good policy. What do you think? Does it help to increase political involvement or is it an infringement of freedom and mockery of democracy?

–          Citizen of the World?: I went to a party hosted by one of our office colleagues at her house. It was nice to see some other expats living in Brasilia and to hear their experiences. There was an intriguing Costa Rican couple there. The husband had worked for the UN for over twenty years and he was curious to hear how I felt about constantly moving. I told him that although it was difficult, I feel it has greatly enriched my life. His children have also been through a similar experience and he also thought that the moving was more beneficial than harmful. Still, my experience in Brazil is humbling. I realize that despite having had the privilege of living in (and visiting) so many places, I am still ignorant of the great diversity in the world.  Despite feeling like a citizen of the world and a nomad, I still feel my Iranian heritage. So I got in touch with the Iranian embassy here and went there on a Thursday night for some special prayer we do. The Embassy was crazy big = 20 acres! Apparently, the Brazilian government provided each country with 20 acres for free (except Russia, China, and the US which got 40 acres). It was nice to see fellow Iranians and speak Farsi. I was just at the Iranian Embassy this past Saturday for a celebration and it was great to get a chance to talk to the kids here who are roughly my age. I was particularly struck by one kid who asked me that with all my traveling have I never questioned my own religious beliefs and thought about adopting another religion. I answered him honestly: my travels have exposed me to different religious but I am still fairly ignorant of the details of world religions. Yet, I feel happy with my current religion and believe that it has served me well to keep me grounded despite all the changes in social as well as physical environment.

Next time I will try to share more work related details…

Eu não falo Português

A few more experiences to share:

LANGUAGE & SETTLING IN: I assumed that Brasilia is full of embassies and consequently that most Brazilians here speak English but I guess that most diplomats don’t really integrate all that much with the Brasilia ‘street’. I have been to Portugal but I was spoiled there as I stayed at my friend’s house and he did all the talking for me. I did learn to say ‘obrigado’ = thank you. The first two words I asked my IPC colleagues to teach me where sorry and excuse me. Interestingly enough though it turns out that my semblance of French helps me to understand some Portuguese, especially the numbers. Although I can use hand gestures quite well to get my point across, I feel quite helpless in communicating. However, it does have its positives as I receive friendly smiles/laughs from the ladies working in the drugstore as I explain that I am looking for shaving razors by gesticulating to my face. They must be fascinated that someone who they think looks Brazilian has no idea how to speak Portuguese.

Chinese delegation visit: In my first week here I attended a meeting with a delegation working in the Chinese Ministry of Labor and Social Protection. They were interested to learn about Brazilian social protection schemes, especially Bolsa Familla (Family Allowance), which is a conditional cash transfer providing financial aid to poor Brazilian families; if they have children, families must ensure that their children attend school and are vaccinated. It is actually the biggest conditional cash transfer in the world! (Check out this World Bank site for more information:,,contentMDK:21447054~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:322341,00.html) Anyway, these Chinese guys asked us so many questions that there was barely time for us to get any information on the complex Chinese social protection system. All in all though it was nice to see their interest in learning from the Brazilian model. I guess that is what South-South cooperation is all about. There are many common problems that developing countries face. Although the solutions need to be tailored to a particular context, there is great scope for learning from others’ past successes and failures.

World Bank VC: I also got a chance to attend a University of Brasilia economics class that was held through a video conference with a World Bank official working on African economies. The lecturer, Shanta Devarajan, first laid out all the worrying signs in Africa but then recollected some anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is much room for optimism. It was refreshing and inspiring in some ways. However, his focus on macroeconomic issues demonstrated the danger of relying too heavily on data. A fellow intern originally from Rwanda shared some wisdom that the Rwandan government is too often unduly praised. For example, in order to increase urbanization figures, they force rural folk to move to urban slums! The devil is truly in the details. Nonetheless, I still appreciate data gatherers but maybe the real unsung heroes are data analysts.

Brazilian Style Busking: I have seen a lot of creative ways of begging in my time but I was impressed with the innovation of the Brazilian poor. Here, kids come into supermarket, pick out something they want (usually a sweet of some kind), and ask people to buy it for them. My mom is personally a big fan of giving food as opposed to money to beggars. I am not sure what I think about this but I am sure that something should be done so that these kids will be able to buy whatever they wish (within reason). Another more predictable yet still unique busking technique was juggling a football in the middle of the street behind a red light. That is Brazilian style busking for you. But seriously, seeing that guy with all this talents in juggling the football in unbelievable ways made me think how much potential is left untapped throughout the world. I am not saying that that particular person could have been the next Messi, but I do know that those living in dire situations rarely get to develop their potential. I hope that my work here and down the line can help to identify, foster, and harness some of this untapped potential.

Sabor do Brazil (Taste of Brazil)

I feel like a citizen of the world given my international experiences but at the same time I realize that there is so much of the world that I am ignorant of. I am grateful to have this opportunity to spend some time in South America.

I have several observations to share:

FOOD: Because this is a planned city everything is in its own sector – hotels, embassies, apartments, etc – and we work in the governmental sector where all the ministries are. Thus, there are no restaurants and very few shops to get stuff. So what do people do? They eat in the government subsidized canteens in each of the different ministries. From 12-1 the workers of a particular ministry can eat in their own canteen and from 1 onwards everywhere is fair game. The buffet here though is not the typical all you can eat deal but rather you weigh your plate after taking whatever you like and then pay accordingly. I appreciate this system because it seems to encourage less waste and over consumption. Economic theory may say sunk costs but how many of you have had this terrible feeling of eating too much after coming out of an all-you-can eat buffet? Another beauty of working in a ministry building is the government provision of a little goodie box (with a sandwich, juice, fruit, and chocolate) for those that stay until seven in the night. Justin tells me that he knows of some companies who provide free taxi rides home and dinner for employees who work late but it is the first time I have been exposed to this incentive system!

WORK ENVIRONMENT: It feels weird working in an International Policy Center. We are carrying out research on important global issues and could be stationed anywhere in the world. Yet, the office environment and preeminence of local Brazilian employees is something else. The headquarters of the various perfunctory bodies of the United Nations are mostly in New York or somewhere in Western Europe. As part of an initiative to elicit more knowledge from developing countries, the UN decided to open international policy centers based in the developing world.

DATA WORK: Telling the IPC guys that I like working with data = big mistake! Note to self: tell them that you like working with data when they are at the data analysis stage – NOT the data gathering phase. I was tasked with the extremely tedious task of pulling data on different social security schemes onto an excel database. This involved lots of control c & control v. After getting this, and struggling to get other data, I was once again reminded of the relatively paucity of data. We have a lot of data for macro variables but much less when it comes to more nuanced considerations such as the content of social security schemes. I am still not sure if this is the problem though. My dad is convinced that we know what the problems are (i.e. we have adequate data), we know the general solutions, and the main obstacle hindering development is political will to pursue the appropriate policies. I think he is largely right and I am hoping to address how to overcome this problem with regards to subsidy reform at the moment. I will write more about this later. Still though, I appreciate the amount of data that we have but think there is still a long way to go. Also, I wonder how difficult it must be to collect some of this data but how important it is. I think data gatherers are unsung heroes. Back to my data work. After getting the data I was exposed to some new tools on STATA, which will undoubtedly serve me well in the future. Moreover, I was introduced to a statistical technique based on fuzzy logic theory called ‘grade of membership’. I am still a bit fuzzy about it but it sure seems interesting. We are trying to run the GoM model at the moment and hopefully the picture will be clearer soon!

Bon Dia Brasilia

I am interning in Brasilia for the United Nations Development Programme’s International Policy Center, which carries out research on inclusive growth. The UN developed the concept “inclusive growth” to identify a growth process and growth outcomes in which most citizens are actively involved. I will be a research intern with the social protection team – trying to think about mechanisms that provide protection but also foster initiative.

This summer I hope to get a better sense of international practices (both good and bad) of social protection. I recognize that it is an extremely difficult task to develop appropriate social protection measures and possibly even more difficult job of trying to reform measures that have been in place for sometime. I hope that my research can help to identify some applicable lessons that can be considered when developing or reforming social protection schemes.

I look forward to staying in Brazil for almost three months. Although I have had the privilege of living in and visiting so many places, I have never been to South or Central America. In fact, it is a region that I know very little about. I certainly have no grasp of Spanish let alone Portuguese. Nevertheless, my international experience will hopefully help me to integrate with locals and make for a rewarding experience. Throughout all my travels I have come to appreciate the universal language of kindness. We Iranians are famous for our superb hospitality – thus my standards are probably quite high – but people around the world never fail to amaze me with their kindness and humanity.

Some guy suddenly left Brasilia, so a room opened up in a five bedroom apartment where one of the Brazilian interns is staying. I got really lucky in my flat hunting. I can remember all the problems my family has had when we moved to find a suitable place. I am so grateful that I got it easy this time. The four others are all amazingly friendly Brazilians who speak great English. The neighborhood is also solid and it is only a 30 minute walk or 10 minute bus ride to the office. The cool thing is that I get to pass the “Three Powers Square” on the way – it is where the Supreme Court, Senate, and Presidential Palace are.  Our office is on the 7th floor of the Ministry of the Army and we have a great view of the “esplanada” (the big boulevard with all the ministries and the Three Powers Square). However, it is a bit weird to enter the building and elevators that are packed with soldiers.

Anyway, I will try to write more soon but I hope this first post gives you a decent basic introduction before I get into the fun details!