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Q&A with political scientist and faculty affiliate Saad Gulzar

Saad Gulzar, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Faculty Affiliate, shares more about his background and research agenda.

Saad Gulzar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and a Faculty Affiliate of the Center on Global Poverty and Development and at the Center for South Asia at Stanford.

How did you become interested in comparative politics & the political economy of development in South Asia?

Saad Gulzar
Saad Gulzar

I’m from Pakistan so a lot of the questions I think about are informed by having grown up in the region, as well as through the cumulative experience of working on these topics over time. At Lahore University of Management Sciences, I worked for my undergraduate thesis supervisor as a research assistant on one of his projects, which was about the intergenerational mobility of education in rural Punjab. It was this early work that initially got me thinking about these development questions.

When I started working after graduate school, my job was basically to connect academics who were working on similar topics with actual policymakers in Pakistan. That got me really interested in how all of these things are put into practice from the very top, and that is very similar to what I do now in my own research.

What are your current research interests?

The broad area that I’m interested in right now is how to make politics more inclusive. How to get the voices of the unheard heard through the formal process. Within that, I’m interested in affirmative action in politics and getting regular people to think about joining politics, so making politics something that’s for everyone.

The main projects I’m working on have to do with getting regular people to run for office. There was a big reform in Pakistan in 2015 where they introduced elections at the village level for the first time in the country’s history. To give you a sense of the scale of this reform, the province that I’m working in has a population of about 30 million people and previously, they were only directly electing 125 people to the provincial assembly. Now they have elected more than 40,000 people. It was a huge democratizing reform and I was interested in thinking about how one might encourage regular people to participate in this reform. One might expect that even if you devolve politics down to the village level, it will likely be elites within the village who are going to run for office. So I was interested in how to make that process even more inclusive.

In 2015, I conducted a field experiment canvasing neighborhoods and asking regular people if they would be interested in running for office. The big result was that just asking regular people if they would run for office increases the probability that they will run five-fold. Just having that conversation has a massive effect on people’s willingness to run for office. It’s also the case that they end up winning office, so these are viable candidates who are not running just because nobody asked them.

In the summer of 2019, those who were elected in this reform are ending their tenure, and my hope is to trace these people over time, to see which of them run for office again and follow their careers as first-time politicians. For future work, I’m trying to design experiments to engage more women in politics.  

What do you hope to achieve through your work?

In my research, I try to partner with policy counterparts as much as possible. For example, I’m doing some work in India and Nepal, where I’m working specifically with political parties and some government agencies. The hope is that by partnering with these policy counterparts, the work automatically feeds into the policy process.

For example, often in South Asia, many or most political parties don’t engage with women directly and they go through the head of the household. So, for some of the work I’m doing with these political parties, if it’s the case that engaging with women directly is also politically expedient, then it’s a win-win for the party and for democracy because women are half of the population, and they are participating more and represented more in the political process and hopefully this creates a positive feedback loop.

What courses are you teaching at Stanford?

I teach Causal Inference for Social Science, one of the courses for the data science track in the political science major. I also teach a seminar course for PhD students on experiments in political economy research, where students get to read and critique the work of other scholars.  The authors are also invited to participate in the class, so the hope is that students are trained in how to be critical, yet respectful colleagues, and that the authors can actually incorporate the feedback into their work.

What inspires and motivates you in your work?

I really enjoy the intellectual exercise of working with a wide set of colleagues, who share similar interests. Because I’m from South Asia, there’s an extra motivation that hopefully, my work contributes to improving the policymaking processes in the region. In Pakistan, in particular, there are very few researchers who work in this field, so the idea is also to hopefully further develop that space and increase the pool of researchers interested in Pakistan.

Please note that prior to May 2019, the Stanford King Center on Global Development was known as the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development.