Mohseen: Bringing about positive change
18 April, 2021, 8:30 pm
Doctor Mohseen Riaz- Ud Dean (PhD) is the head of communication research and ethnographic solutions mapping at the UNDP accelerator lab-Pacific in Fiji and is an anthropologist.
Name: Dr. Mohseen Riaz-Ud-Dean (PhD)
Occupation: Head of Community Research and Ethnographic Solutions Mapping at UNDP, Pacific Office in Suva
What sort of upbringing did you have as a child and how has it have an impact on your life?
I was born and brought up in a rural village-like setting at Hangar Rd, Nausori. My dad was also brought up there where he started his career in an extended family business as a fisherman. He later took up the trade of cabinet making and joinery at J. S. Hill and Associates in Lami. My mum was born in Lakeba, Lau and moved with my grandparents to Chadwick Rd in Nakasi. Currently I am living with my wife and a toddler daughter, my parents and my youngest sibling in Vuci South Rd, Nausori and I’m the eldest of four siblings. Life had been a struggle when I was growing up because my parents had four children to look after, but at the same time it was rewarding thanks to the Almighty. I was fortunate to have always excelled in studies from my primary school days and my mum always had a stick behind my back during my early school days. Likewise, I always have this search for knowledge from cradle to grave motto in mind that was taught to us at Suva Muslin College. Similarly, I knew from the beginning that for a better life, you need education and education doesn’t come walking towards you, you have to work towards it and you have to work hard to achieve it.
You have just completed your PhD in Anthropology. Why the anthropology?
I took the offer of having my research conducted at anthropology program of studies because of many reasons. In particular, I was going to learn some new research methodologies and of course, it was a completely new discipline of study. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I took it on board. I think it is also because I believe that social scientists are more connected to the lives of communities and the natural environment in which we live in.
Where did you study for your doctorate and how long did it take for you to complete it?
I studied at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. It took me three years to complete it, and then I took a year off to revitalise and rejuvenate myself before I could work on the suggestions and recommendations of the thesis examination panel.
What was it like being able to complete your PhD, especially in a field such as anthropology?
Actually, I was really happy that I completed my PhD in anthropology which was something out of the ordinary and something unique. There is no tertiary institute in Fiji that actually offers this program of study so I should consider myself lucky to have specialised in this field and to have been trained under some great anthropologists from the University of Waikato. I had to do a great deal of research myself on anthropology before joining the program of study. Traditionally anthropology was considered more a white persons discipline of study that would self-displace themselves into a non-white community usually for two years or more and utilise qualitative methods of participant observation to study them and as well master their language, etc. However, the discipline has evolved and transformed considerably. In my case, it was a different type of anthropology altogether. I was positioned in my research both as an insider and also as an outsider and I had utilised mixed methodology of both qualitative and quantitative to gather insights to my research. As a direct descendant of the Girmit community in Fiji, I was, to a large extent positioned in the research as an insider. I shared in many of the cultural values and ideals of the cane farming Girmitiya community, and the benefits of this were that I already had an understanding of the Girmitiya culture
What reaction did your family have when you wanted to pursue your study in anthropology and when you completed it?
Honestly, my family was like why anthropology…what will you do with anthropology in Fiji. When I had completed my studies, however, my families both in Fiji and outside were happy for me, but they also had some unanswered questions about me and anthropology. My parents and my wife who was pregnant at the time of my graduation had accompanied me to the day of my graduation in Hamilton. Some close friends and family members residing there had also come to support.
Were there any challenges associated with achieving your PhD that has also pushed your capability as an academic?
Yes, there were many. There were days when I would tell myself that this is it. I should pack my bags and leave for Fiji. The field work in Fiji was always tiring and highly energy consuming because I had to tread the mountains, flat lands, and sloppy terrains of the sugarcane fields. In addition, during the write-up of the thesis, the process itself was demanding. My supervisors, especially my chief supervisor, Dr. Keith Barber was always there for me, and I will always be indebted to him for the advice, support, and the warm gestures towards me. Without him and the amount of time he had spent reviewing, checking, and making sense of my chapters, I don’t think I would have managed. Many times, I also faced financial challenges, as I already had prior commitments before joining the study, and I was supporting myself in New Zealand and also my family back in Fiji with whatever possible way through the monthly scholarship allowance.
How did you manage to overcome such challenges?
I guess the biggest gift that I had was my extended families and school friends residing in New Zealand, my flat mate, other doctoral candidates, and my thesis supervisors who were always there to support me, in both the good and the times when I needed them the most.
We understand you’re the head of communication research and ethnographic solutions mapping at the UNDP Accelerator Lab-Pacific in Fiji? Tell us a little about that and what sort of work or projects do you look after with your team?
This position is quite technical as most of my work is centred on community and grassroots solutions. Since joining the UNDP, I have been actively involved in the traditional knowledge, climate change adaptation and mitigation, COVID-19 Rapid Policy Appraisal, and the food security space. During my onboarding for the Accelerator Labs in Quito, Ecuador with the UNDP, we were told that we represent UNDP’s new strategy and thinking in relation to development and advocating bolder innovation. At the accelerator Lab, we believe that traditional approaches to development are struggling to keep up with today’s social and environmental challenges. Essentially the Pacific Lab moves innovation from the margins to the centre of UNDP’s programming work. Its been more than a year and a half here at UNDP and I sincerely like what I am doing. I am also a designated peer counsellor for the Pacific office. We are a great team.
We don’t often hear about anthropologists in Fiji, can you please enlighten us a little on this?
Anthropology, as a discipline of study is under-represented in Fiji, and I am not too sure if I may be the only individual who would be holding such a qualification in the country. There are various types of anthropology that one can specialise in, for example, social anthropology, cultural anthropology, ecological anthropology, medical anthropology. In my experience, while a few anthropology postgraduates go on to work as lecturers or researchers within academia, a significant number often also find employment in a variety of sectors, ranging from education, charity and development agencies, to medicine and health-related professions, film and business. Also, anthropologists do not follow linear career trajectories, but become involved in various projects in frequently overlapping career sectors.
Who has helped you achieve your goal?
I guess it will be the motivation to grow, and the aspiration to have your name appear in Google Search, in addition to the circle that I hang with, and of-course those great teachers and masters who taught me from my kindergarten days up until now and to those who have impacted and touched my life so far.
Please share with us a memory you have at work that has made you push yourself to do more for communities?
It would be the urge to bring about positive change through an interdisciplinary approach which I am a big fan of. I always felt that grassroots and communities should have a stake in any development that concerns them. There should be a bottom-up approach to development, and communities should have a voice on the table of discussion. But for this to happen, we need to understand who we are serving, what our purpose is and what would be the results of our actions.
Did you ever see yourself working in that sort of environment when growing up as a child or did you have a completely different dream back then?
As a child, I always wanted to be a pilot, but my mum said no because she was afraid that the plane may come down, then she pushed me towards medicine, but I ended up doing environmental science and later anthropology. In fact at some point in time while being employed by FNU as an academic, I again wanted to join the aviation industry, but this time as a steward. But the transition in life came when after various levels of examination and interview, I received an appointment letter from UNDP in mid-2019. My colleagues and my former supervisors at NTPC were instrumental in supporting my transition from the FNU as an academic to my current role at the UNDP.
What would you say to young individuals who want to pursue a career in this field of work?
My advice to young individuals is never to feel yourself short of anything. Don’t leave any stones unturned in life. Work smart, not hard, and aim for the greatest. Stay away from negative energies and give your best.