Muhammad Irfan took a circuitous route to his current career in international trade. Although his main interests have always been the Humanities and Social Sciences, it was not until he had completed a medical degree that he decided that it was not for him and embarked on a career in the Pakistan Civil Service.
Born in Iran, Irfan came to Pakistan when he was three and grew up in Lahore. His father, who was a postgraduate at Edinburgh and worked in hospitals in London, Surrey and Wales, is a professor of neurology and was principal of a medical college. His mother has a masters in English literature and teaches English.
Irfan attended Aitchison College, a local public school which was set up in the 1800s by the British and whose alumni include the cricketer Imran Khan and lots of well-known political personalities. Irfan was part of the college’s gymnastics team and played cricket for his house team besides enjoying horse riding during junior years. He says the school was quite traditional with uniforms, morning runs, and afternoon sports [for which you were fined if you didn’t turn up].
He describes himself as “quite studious” and took Secondary School Certificate examinations [equivalent to O Levels] in English, Urdu, Pakistan Affairs and Islamic Studies. He was then given a choice of whether to do a pre-medical, pre-engineering or general sciences course in high-school (A-level equivalent). There were no Humanities on offer at the time. He opted for the pre-medical course since he was interested in Biology and it was considered a good career, although he was more generally inclined towards the Humanities and Social Sciences. Getting into medical school was very competitive so it was not something you gave up on easily.
Irfan loved the Arts and was in the school debating, dramatic and literature societies besides being editor of the college magazine. At Allama Iqbal Medical College in Lahore he had more freedom to do all the activities he loved. He was President of the debating society in his fourth year and Vice President of the literary society. He was also in the dramatic society and did cricket, squash and athletics. “My inclination was towards poetry and literature,” he says. “I grew up reading my mum’s books. I read Dickens and Hardy. She was very interested in poetry so I read the Romantic poets.”
Because Irfan was interested in so many things, he did a separate BA in political science while he was at medical college. Some people said he was wasting his energies as he was working round the clock, but his parents were very supportive. The BA covered English, Pakistan Affairs, Islamic Affairs, Political Science, French and Journalism. His medical course lasted six years and his BA was completed by the end of the third year. When he had finished his medical degree he felt he didn’t want to take it any further. “I felt I had done it. My dad told me that I had gone the distance and tried to convince me to stay, but I was not too keen on working as a doctor,” he says. He was more interested in a career in international diplomacy.
He joined the Civil Service Academy in 2000 after passing the entrance exam and having done his research in his final year. The entrance exam was very competitive and included psychological and intelligence examinations besides rigorous interviews. Irfan was trained in areas such as economics, trade and economic diplomacy, and international trade legislation. By August 2001, he was working in the Ministry of Commerce in Islamabad as a desk officer for textile trade. In 2003, he won the JICA (Japan international Cooperation Agency) scholarship to do a masters in development studies in Japan.
He returned to Pakistan in 2005 and worked on the World Trade Organisation desk for two years before applying to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Development Studies with funding from a Pakistani government organisation. He decided to opt for a PhD in 2008 and applied for a Gates scholarship.
He says the interview was “interesting”. “There were five people on the panel and they asked some tricky questions,” he says. “They were looking for how robust my arguments were, whether what I proposed to study was worthwhile and would have an impact and what my broader thinking was.”
He was asked about his work in the civil service and what role the civil service played in development. His interviewers also wanted evidence of his leadership potential, his involvement in organising high profile international conferences in Pakistan and his involvement in extracurricular activities such as rowing, working on College committees and other societies. Irfan is the Dining and Family rep of St John’s College student council and is an alumni officer on the Gates Scholars Council. He plays cricket and squash for St John’s College and also rowed during his first year.
He lives in Cambridge with his wife, whom he married in 2005 and she is doing an MPhil in development studies.
Irfan says he loves development studies as it caters for his passion for international diplomacy, particularly trade diplomacy. For his PhD he is looking at issues of trade liberalisation with an emphasis on developing countries and will interview leading diplomats involved in international trade negotiations. He wants to investigate what kind of trade policies can help developing countries develop faster. To do this, he is examining the history of trade negotiations, how countries agreed to certain sets of rules, whether countries succumbed to certain pressures and the lessons to be drawn for further negotiations.
He says, for instance, that, although Pakistan was one of the founding members of GATT, it has not benefited to the same extent as some other countries. “Some countries have made the best out of what they have available, such as Korea, but some could perhaps use the policy space available in a cleverer way,” he says. Those countries that have profited have built their economic strength which has, in turn, given them greater political clout internationally. He lists Brazil and China as success stories and Malaysia and Turkey as moderate successes. Irfan will look at how the relatively recent policy of developing countries adopting a united front in trade negotiations has helped make them stronger.
When he completes his PhD, Irfan, plans to return to the civil service and to look at the possibility of working in an embassy abroad. In the long term, he says he would like to work for an international organisation such as the World Trade Organisation and “have a wider impact”.