MIP Feature Friday: Abuzar Royesh

Abuzar is a Knight-Hennessy Scholar and a student in the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy Program (MIP).

Abuzar is originally from Ghazni, Afghanistan. He graduated with the Presidential Award for Citizenship and Public Service from Tufts University, has worked as a Senior Researcher for the Afghanistan Holding Group, and is the founder of education programs in Afghanistan. He’s a leader, a data scientist, aspiring social entrepreneur — and he is a student in the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy (MIP) program.

A life shaped by politics

Abuzar credits much of his interest in international politics to his childhood. Growing up partly in Pakistan during a time of political turmoil and violence and under the Taliban regime, and returning to Afghanistan in 2002, meant that his life was very much shaped by politics.

“Almost everyone in Afghanistan is very politically involved, or at least politically aware, and so is my family,” Abuzar said. “My dad is a teacher who is very interested in politics, and I think that coming from that background [formed my] interest in international relations.”

This initial interest would develop into a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where Abuzar focused specifically on the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia.

Even so, Abuzar said he first had a little trouble finding his niche within international relations and foreign policy. Eventually, during his senior year at Tufts, he became more interested in development and governance. After graduating, he returned to Afghanistan, working for two years at a research firm on projects from the Afghan government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and other development actors in Afghanistan.

For one of these projects, Abuzar worked with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to look at the impact of cash grants given by the UNHCR to refugees for reintegration and resettlement. Another research effort saw Abuzar working with the Office of the President of Afghanistan to survey a thousand schools across Afghanistan, comparing their data with data from the Ministry of Education to look into reports of corruption or discrepancies in data.

The intersection of data and development

His studies in development and his experience in research led Abuzar to develop an interest in quantitative methodology — specifically, the ways in which data can be used to reform governance.

Now, he’s studying that intersection of data and development at Stanford, where he is not only an MIP student but a recipient of the prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholarship.

“Given that my background was exclusively in policy, and not so much in technical skills, Stanford has been a very good compliment.

Abuzar pointed to the opportunities MIP students have to not only take classes offered as part of the MIP curriculum, but also courses taught in disciplines across Stanford. Specifically, he highlighted a course called Data Challenge Lab, taught in spring quarter, for teaching him the skills and tools needed for working with large datasets and developing an analytical and exploratory approach to data. For him, the class — which seeks applicants from all academic backgrounds — was also an example of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“One reason [that I chose Stanford] was because the different schools within this University collaborate a lot more than in other schools. And that’s definitely one factor that was very important for me and what I wanted to study.”

Furthering education and transparency in Afghanistan

Despite living and studying in California, Abuzar has continued to stay involved in research and education efforts in Afghanistan. As part of a partnership Abuzar is organizing between Stanford School of Education and the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan, he helped to arrange a meeting between Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Education and Stanford leadership and faculty.

Abuzar pointed to the ways in which the collaboration could help the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan, which has been struggling with a lack of technical capacity, corruption, and lack of staff.

“But there are people within the Ministry who want to reform — they just don’t know exactly how to do that because they lack the capacity,” Abuzar said.

Abuzar also mentioned the ways in which the partnership could be truly symbiotic.

“On the part of Stanford, there may be professors who do a lot of incredible research in developing countries, but may not get the chance to see their research being implemented,” he added. “So, instead of staying at a very academic, ivory tower sort of place, [they] can see their findings … being used in actual policymaking.”

When asked what drew him to the issue of education reform, Abuzar noted that his focus is broader — finding ways to use data science to encourage better governance as a whole. But, he added, if he were to pick one aspect that is most important in that effort, it would be education.

“Above security, above economy, above anything else, I think it’s education.”

Looking forward

Abuzar hopes to eventually establish a research institution in Afghanistan, and specifically one that departs from the usual client-driven work that can sometimes produce less-than-diligent results that can often be altered to omit aspects of the assessment.

“I think that research institutions should remember their role in reforming governments.” he said. “They are are a very important component of civil society in any country, and they need to have a responsibility to hold the government accountable through their research.”

He said that in Afghanistan, it would be important to start simple. Right now, they still collect data with pen and paper, storing documents in boxes that nobody opens. For many of these researchers and leaders, it’s not about artificial intelligence or machine learning or fancy programming languages — what’s needed is something as simple as encouraging people to enter their data into Excel.

For Abuzar, MIP and Stanford have helped him think much bigger than he used too — “I’ve seen that some of the things that I thought were dreams to me, could be very easy to accomplish.”

“It’s more than just classes. It’s the analytic thinking, learning how to get your hands dirty, questioning some of the assumptions that I, myself, had from the very beginning,” Abuzar added. “Because knowledge — you’ll learn new things, some things you forget, some will stick with you. But what’s important is the mindset with which you approach a problem.”