Kayum Ahmed (Ph.D. ’19) on Open Societies, the University, and Social Movements

Khayum Ahmed
Kayum Ahmed, a Ph.D. student in the International & Comparative Education program, who now works at the Open Society Foundation.

Last semester, Kayum Ahmed took some time away from his dissertation writing and his work at the Open Society Foundation to talk with the TC Anthropology blog.

Kayum was a Ph.D. student in the International & Comparative Education program, but he also concentrated in Anthropology.

Read the transcript of our conversation below to learn about the work Kayum is doing at the Open Society Foundation, and the research he’s doing about the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

What are you doing in your career right now?

I recently joined the Open Society Foundations and was appointed a divisional director responsible for access to medicines and accountability, within the public health program at OSF.

OSF is a large philanthropic organization started by George Soros, which has a global footprint, and its aim is really to advance social justice and human rights through grantmaking.

That essentially means giving money to civil society organizations and social justice movements, to try to create what Soros refers to as “open societies.”

Can you explain the idea of an open society in more detail?

Soros draws on Karl Popper’s work to describe an open society as one in which there’s free-thinking underscored by individual rights, compared to “closed societies,” which he describes as more authoritarian. But also, problematically, Popper describes closed societies as more “tribal” societies.

So, within this discourse of open and closed societies, I find myself in an organization that politically I can certainly identify with, but also has some challenges in how it defines itself philosophically.

How does this discourse relate to your work?

My primary responsibility is really about taking on big pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of medicines.

I do have some ideological debates with my colleague about whether we should be focused on reducing the cost of healthcare, or making healthcare free, since it is a public good. So I hope to inject a little bit more of… well, I guess it’s seen as radical thinking.

I hope to learn a lot, as I’ve just started this work in philanthropy. We’re really trying to focus on public health as a public good, as a human right, from a social justice lens. And we’re working with people on the ground, grassroots organizations, to assist them and to learn from them in how these struggles should be forged.

What parts of your work feel related to anthropology?

I feel like everything is related to anthropology! In philanthropy they have this idea called “theories of change,” and we use these theories of change as a way of framing discourses that we employ to change the world, or create these open societies.

Within that whole conceptualization of a theory of change, I think about my anthropological training (which is very much ongoing) and how my training has assisted me with critiquing and enhancing these frameworks that are employed within the organization.

Can you give an example of how you make this critique?

So just last week, I was in Bogota to attend an anti-corruption convening led by Open Society. Strangely enough, I noticed that when you apply an anti-corruption framing as a theory of change, all of the countries that you then use as examples happen to be from the global south.

So, using my anthropological critical lens, I ask, “What about shifting the lens that we use to look at anti-corruption from corruption to economic justice?” This could allow us to consider, for example, how the United States has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, and that must be inherently corrupt. But if you use an anti-corruption lens, you can’t see that because the high drug prices in the US are legally instituted.

What made you interested in anthropology?

I come from a very strong legal background. My training has thus far predominantly been in law, human rights law, international law, and domestic law. When I applied for the Ph.D. program, my advisor was a sociologist. So, I was thinking about doing a more sociological project.

But once I started doing some reading on the differences between sociology and anthropology, I was inherently attracted to a more anthropological approach. Despite all of anthropology’s own issues and historical challenges, I found it to be a lens that connected me in deeper ways with what was going on in the spaces I was interested in.

What stands out as your favorite professor or class?

I really love Nicholas Limerick’s class on ethnography. He constructed the class in such a way that we learned about methods, the critique of those methods, and by having to draft an application for the Wenner-Gren fellowship. It just connected the dots for me. It allowed us to take advantage of him having been awarded the fellowship, to construct and frame my own thinking.

I didn’t get the Wenner-Gren fellowship, but the application formed the basis of my Spencer fellowship application, which I ended up getting! So I thank Nicholas Limerick for his class, which was the foundational basis for me to approach these applications very practically. But also, once I went into the field for my dissertation research, I found his research training very helpful as well.

Can you tell us about your dissertation?

It’s really about challenging the paradoxical nature of the university as an institution. The university creates the space for empowerment and emancipation, particularly for Black bodies on the margins. But at the same time, it creates spaces that reinforce some of what’s been described as oppressions that many Black students and those on the margins face within these spaces.

So it’s about the paradoxical nature of an institution, one that’s responsible for learning and helping you influence the world, but simultaneously entrenches the epistemic coloniality that’s embedded in the knowledge that we acquire through these institutions.

In some ways, it’s also a personal reflection on my own experience at universities, but more specifically on the work of a radical student movement called #RhodesMustFall, that emerged at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015.

#RhodesMustFall influenced the global movement of decolonial scholars and activists at the universities of Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, and now in the Caribbean, and wanted to challenge the epistemic basis of university curricula as a way of trying to change how the university operates.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?

One of the most important decisions I made was finding an advisor, Susan Garnett Russell, who was incredibly supportive. She gave me the space to explore stuff that even she was unfamiliar with, but reined me in when I needed to be reined in.

So, developing that relationship — a really solid, trusting relationship — with my advisor was the key to a successful Ph.D. experience. I would say that’s probably even more important to me than choosing a good school. Work with someone who you can learn from, but who you can also challenge, who will be willing and open to those challenges.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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