Al-Ahram Weekly Online
23 - 29 August 2001
Issue No.548
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photos: Randa Shaath

Hoda Rashad:

Looking in all the right places

She doesn't believe in heroics; she just makes them possible

Profile by Reem Saad


Hoda Rashad
'I, for example, prefer smaller meetings to larger ones. It is not just the temperament, it is achieving depth, and I have a belief that good work gets recognised in the end. People serve differently. The best thing to do is to know where you excel'
Hoda Rashad, director of the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo (AUC), is my boss. This is one key reason why writing about her is not easy. If I said all I wanted to say, it would certainly sound sycophantic. It would also probably annoy her -- not just because she is averse to being the centre of media attention, but because she might find some of my words "unscientific," "inaccurate," "unnecessary" or "irrelevant." These are things she really looks down upon.

A graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, with a specialisation in applied statistics, Rashad has never shied away from the tougher course. Early in her career she taught at the Institute of Statistical Studies and Research at Cairo University, before heading to England with her colleague and husband, Mohamed Mahmoud, who had received a scholarship to do his doctorate. Rashad decided to register for her own PhD, which she funded herself, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London.

Upon completing her degree, Rashad went on to take a number of impressive posts and assignments at the national, regional and international levels. After returning to the Institute of Statistical Studies and Research at Cairo University, she spent four years in the United Arab Emirates teaching at the Faculty of Science. Her next step was to join the International Population Council's regional office for West Asia and North Africa.

It is not enough to speak of Rashad in terms of her achievements alone, however. Her work is significant not only for its breadth, but for its depth, and it is necessary to move beyond a brief outline of her career and look more closely at a scientist and a humanist who has shunned the limelight for a methodical examination of what society needs. She is a demographer who has taken issue with her discipline's focus on fertility; a statistician who tries to understand the meaning behind the numbers; a member of the National Council for Women (NCW) who thinks the real struggle is about integrating women into the development process, rather than debating what "feminism" is.

Rashad's work has long centred on the issue of health, and early on she was increasingly dissatisfied with demography's narrow focus on family planning and fertility. Most funding was directed exclusively to this area, and there was often very little support for researchers outside the field. "Everybody was focusing on fertility only. I felt that health, as health, did not receive the attention it deserves," she explains. "In my case, from the beginning, my PhD was on estimation of mortality, which is the other side of the demographic process that was not receiving enough attention."

Moreover, she adds, "whatever focus on mortality that did exist was concerned only with quick fixes, like immunisation and other curative measures. I felt that this really made us lose sight of the type of programme and intervention that a developing country needs. This approach did not address issues such as women's education, for example. But when you talk of health as health, you open it up. You talk about social health, you talk about mental health, you talk about morbidity that is affected by social factors..."

Opting for this broader, deeper, long- term approach implies its own comprehensive way of looking at development indicators, interpreting statistics and designing appropriate means of intervention. Not only does this path require greater creativity and a lot more work, but its achievements are not always immediately felt; nor is its impact easily measurable. "One issue here is trying to understand what is behind the statistics," says Rashad. "For example, when you have high mortality in a country, one way of looking at it is you have lives that are being lost. You want to save those lives, so you go in for sophisticated medical intervention that treats people, avoids their death and saves their lives. This approach is dominant in most developing countries -- they look at the problem and they more or less deal with its manifestations, rather than addressing its root causes. With the mortality issue you have to go for the curative [measures], of course, but, more importantly, you need a broader vision, a holistic approach to what makes mortality high -- and usually these types of intervention are slower in their response. They don't make for striking headlines. When you save lives quickly, that catches attention."

Rashad stresses the need for "long-term impact," noting that developing countries should invest more in avoiding disease and morbidity, "rather than ignoring these and then coming in later to save lives." This means a significant shift in the way we look at development. "Sometimes people say that immunisation is a preventive measure," she notes. "However, when you think of it, immunisation is still a curative means for some environmental problems. You have, for example, an infection spreading and you try to avoid [contamination]. But if you move into a more broad-based kind of intervention, dealing with hygiene in general and with people's knowledge of how they should manage their health, it is then that you ensure a much longer-term impact on people's health. If your strategies aren't targeting the long-term impact, it may be that you are not saving lives, but postponing death by a very short period."

This vision of social research was not just an intellectual stand, but was translated into action at many levels. In the mid-1980s, and with the help of colleagues who shared the same ideas, a regional working group was formed focusing on three themes: children's health (coordinated by Rashad), reproductive health (coordinated by Hoda Zurayk), and family resources (coordinated by Fred Shorter). "We were one of the first groups to focus and work extensively on health in the region," says Rashad. "At that time, this was not the area you worked on. This was not what was driving the focus of the field."

She refuses, though, to be called a pioneer. "Hoda Zurayk may have influenced the agenda on reproductive health, but we did not influence the agenda for child's health, because it shifted on its own," Rashad insists. "There were other players who came in, like UNICEF, who worked on children." Rashad adds that at the time, immunisation and oral rehydration therapy (ORT) acted as twin engines in the child survival revolution. "This came independently and had nothing to do with us. Egypt was one of the countries that adopted ORT, health intervention that was experimental internationally. I then became engaged in that activity because, by chance, they came into a country and found somebody already working on mortality, already working on health. Not many people were working on this, so I became involved in that activity and I started to focus on evaluation of the impact of health interventions."

It was not only within Egypt that Rashad's call for shifting the focus of the discipline and broadening the concerns of demography was heard. Her contributions were recognised at the international level with her appointment in 1990 as chair of the first Committee on Population and Health, established by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.

She went on to manage the regional Arab project known as the Pan-Arab Project for Child Development, following its first manager, Atef Khalifa. The project focused on trying to develop an information base for the whole of the Arab world by collecting comparable, standardised information on health. This pioneering activity was supported by a number of organisations and international funding agencies, but the executive agency was the Arab League. Rashad worked there for a number of years as UN chief technical advisor responsible for this activity. It was her last post before moving on to become director of the AUC's Social Research Center.

One of Rashad's special qualities is her ability to combine scientific rigour with a sense of how to make science socially useful. She is thus a social scientist in more ways than one. As director of the Social Research Center, she manages to strike a balance between the requirements of proper scientific practice and those of addressing a larger, non-specialised audience. But sometimes this is like walking a tightrope. She uses the case of research on child labour in Egypt to illustrate the kind of dilemma she and other social scientists sometimes face. "The statistics and results of social research about the situation regarding child labour do not show a good picture at all. On one hand, strict rules of science require that we publicise these results, which are also important to alert society to the magnitude of the problem. On the other, you realise that sometimes the [issue] of child labour is used by outside forces to exert pressure on the country in ways that you would not choose, and possibly do not approve of, and you also realise that this pressure is not necessarily helping alleviate poverty, which is the underlying cause of the problem. It is in such cases that, as a scientist, you find yourself in a difficult position."

One way she tries to deal with this type of dilemma is her choice of audience. "I prefer working with those responsible for change, doing it more quietly, rather than publicising certain things. Of course, we have a responsibility to press for change, but we have to do it in such a way that it doesn't backfire."

This tendency also happens to be in harmony with her preferred "style" of serving society. Rashad is very clear: contributing to the public good shouldn't be equated with visibility to the public eye. "There are two styles of working. One style is to spread yourself thin and to disseminate [information] widely, and sometimes it works. Another is to go deep and to be selective -- to be appreciated by a few. I, for example, prefer smaller meetings to larger ones. It is not just the temperament, it is achieving depth, and I have a belief that good work gets recognised in the end. People serve differently. The best thing to do is to know where you excel."

Last year, Rashad was selected as a member of the National Council for Women. Even in this position of high visibility, she sticks to her style of work. "I see my contribution in the NCW as utilising my knowledge and talents to serve the objectives of the council," she says. "My talents are more academic, more scientific, more to do with evaluating what's happening in society. So I use them to do the groundwork that is behind the NCW, like engaging in some of the training activities for creating awareness of the importance of integrating women in society's development."

Her work, she explains, is informed by concrete evidence, not by an ideological position. "I do this by looking at the findings and data in Egypt. I do this by discussing the experiments and experiences of other developing countries and how countries manage to develop by utilising the efforts of all members of the society. Any good work requires hard and quiet effort, and I am a believer in gradual, slow linking with the public and with the public eye. I do have points I want to make, but I feel that I don't want to spread them widely." She is not preaching to the lay individual, she argues; she is more comfortable discussing what needs to be done with an executive familiar with her field of work. "I think this is much more helpful, and I draw on my resources much better. It is very tempting to try to be in the public eye, but it is not necessarily helpful, and does not necessarily contribute to anything."

It is probably accurate to describe Rashad as a pragmatist -- a principled pragmatist. This is clearest in her response to a question on whether she considers herself a feminist. "Feminism stands for a hundred things for a hundred people, so everyone reacts to something they have on their mind. What I think is very important and also relates very much to the approach and vision of the NCW is that we are not confrontational. We are working hard to establish the fact that we are not a group of women who are fighting against men. We want to draw on the strengths of our society, which appreciates very much relations between individuals, and we try to build on that."

Rashad is not keen to step into the debate about feminism for another reason: the reliance on concepts and expressions that developed in the West. "For example, we [at the NCW] know what 'gender' means and we know the proper meaning of the term. It is acceptable and everything, but we also know that most individuals in Egyptian society do not have a clue what you're talking about when you say 'gender.' When you use alien expressions, they do not strike a chord with the individuals you are trying to address. If we talk about the role of women in society, [people] understand what it is. So the whole idea of not being confrontational, of not using expressions that are foreign to the Egyptian and Arab ear, is part of a whole philosophy and is a means to achieving our objectives. I don't really care what feminism is, but I have a certain understanding of the challenges in my society, a certain way of going about it, and great sensitivity to the need to be convincing to people and the need to have people on board with you."

Rashad reminds us, too, that the establishment of the NCW does not mean things will change overnight. "The first day the council met, [NCW head] Mrs Suzanne Mubarak told us: 'This is going to be a long-term process.' It is very important to understand that if you have a long-term problem, one that has been with you for years and years, it does need political commitment to change it, but it also takes a process."

And how does change come about? On this, Rashad has changed her mind. "I used to say: 'Talk, talk, talk and there is no action. This is bad.' I am starting to think that talking in the right tone and insisting on talking in the right tone changes the discourse one step, and it is an important step towards moving into action. So I started to be much more tolerant of talk."

And finally we have to know something about what she thinks of the state of scientific research, and especially the social sciences, in Egypt. "The positive thing in that area is that you still have a niche of good scientists and good researchers. However, there are very few places that provide a nurturing atmosphere, because one of the main problems in scientific research is that it takes a long period of incubation and there aren't that many institutions that allow this period. For the social sciences, a main problem is the very big divide between research and the utilisation of research in guiding policy."

In developed countries, she says, the link between research and action is much stronger and more direct. "They draw on their resources. Our resources are not drawn upon. One can say that the responsibility falls on both the scientists and the policymakers, but obviously the latter have more responsibility because they can engage the researcher if they want to. But they don't have the drive to do so. If they were more accountable to the people they'd be very interested to get the findings. But as long as they are not, then they'd rather close their eyes and avoid the pressure. This, unfortunately, is the issue."

The sciences are strong in Rashad's family. Her husband is currently a professor of statistics at Ain Shams University's Faculty of Science. Of the couple's two sons, one graduated from AUC as an engineer and now works at ExxonMobil, while the other is studying economics at AUC and is about to graduate.

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