NTI, The real life superheroes

“Nuclear Threat Initiative?!….sounds like scary stuff,” said my Uber driver with a tone of suspicion while swerving through D.C. traffic.

My office at NTI

We spent the next 20 minutes discussing how the nuclear apocalypse storylines he has seen in the movies like the Avengers, the Dark Knight Rises, and X-Men, are not entirely fictional threats. Sure, we will likely not witness a superhero flying over midtown Manhattan, intercepting the nuclear missile, and launching it through a wormhole into a different dimension. The only real life superheroes are organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) that strive to bring the world community together to make it a safer place for us all to live in.

As the Uber driver dropped me off at the entrance to my new office, I could see that he was deep in thought. However, today was not about making other people question the threats of nuclear weapons; it was about learning how other threats in the realm of biological warfare are equally, if not a more devastating possibility. Imagine the possibility of having another Ebola outbreak in Africa, and this time it’s an even more conflict ridden country like South Sudan. Imagine that the rebel group in South Sudan starts using the dead bodies of Ebola victims as weapons of war. Imagine U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan flying off with Ebola to highly populated third world countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan. Imagine that it was not Ebola but an engineered highly lethal influenza virus. As we think about these scenarios in the light of the recent Ebola outbreak, one should not forget that there is a high possibility of such future occurrences.

At NTI, there is not only enough imagination, but also ample drive to challenge the limited imagination of our policymakers who do not feel that much can be done to solve the biggest security challenges facing world today. This is what the biosecurity program division at NTI is well on its way to developing. In the past, it has worked on supporting regional biosurveillance networks, establishing the WHO emergency outbreak response fund, and bolstering support for the international global health security architecture. In an effort to reenergize the biological threats space, they have a pilot project toward developing a Global Health Security Index, which aims to assess countries’ health security and create an incentive for them to improve their health security standards. This is just one piece of a number of projects and initiatives that are in the works.

Almost 2 weeks in, my experience at NTI can be summed as being eye-opening, inspirational, and empowering. Working under Dr. Beth Cameron has been a great opportunity for me to compare and contrast my learnings from the nuclear field with the existing frameworks and mechanisms in biosecurity and countering biological warfare. If weaponized, biological agents are a relatively inexpensive method of inflicting mass casualties. I cannot help but think about how chemical weapons were not taken seriously enough until after they started being used in Syria. However, being scared has no value if you cannot find a productive way to help reduce these threats.

Beenish Pervaiz (L) and Dr. Beth Cameron (R) at NTI office in Washington D.C.

Apart from the eye-opening work itself, the welcoming and open environment at NTI has been inspirational. There is no doubt that they tackle some really hard challenges, but the way in which they operate is both lean and efficient. What surprised me early on was the large number of women working on security issues. Realizing that the impact of any conflict or threat disproportionately affects women is key in informing the thinking that they must be a part of the solution. Being from Pakistan, I feel really inspired about the role women can play in producing change. Beyond being inclusive, NTI fosters a spirit of empowering every individual in the organization to tackle complex challenges. Even in the two weeks I have been here, I have been a part of several conversations, whether relating to broader strategy, specific programs, or even meetings with key partners in the field of health security. As one NTI employee told me “good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone and we are equally appreciative of them”. And I do not plan to hold back.

What is the most inspirational though is the enthusiasm and energy to push the envelope further and not only raise awareness, but make tangible efforts to affect policy at both the national and international level. It is very much akin to working in the team of Avengers, who use a diverse set of superpowers such as academic expertise, networks, or strategic skills to be better prepared to fight and prevent security threats from reaching fruition.

Written by Beenish Pervaiz, M.A. International Policy Studies 2017, FSI Global Policy Intern at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.