Aamir Ashraf Khawaja

Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People   //    Written by Talha A. Khawaja

Weigh what you want from life.

What's your current role and how do you like it so far?

I am presently an Additional Secretary to the Government of Pakistan, which is the second highest position in civil service. I have put twenty nine years in to the government. I like what I do, and I take pride in it.

How and when did you develop your interest in your field?

My coming into civil service was more of an accident than anything that I planned for. I was initially studying to be an engineer, and I realized fairly early on that I had no interest in engineering. I was only in the program because my parents had decided at an early age that I was to be an engineer. My academic results before I got into engineering were brilliant. I was a top student and obtained the second position at the Sub-province level. I missed first place by just 3 marks. It was inevitable that I would get into the top engineering university of the country. Once I was in though, my grades started slipping, which was disconcerting to say the least. My heart was not in it. Human beings and human emotions interested me much more than the steel structures I was studying. My poor showing also hurt my pride as I was fiercely competitive by nature. It was then, that I started looking for alternatives as a twenty-year-old who found himself in a habitat that did not inspire him.

It was then, that I started looking for alternatives as a twenty-year-old who found himself in a habitat that did not inspire him.

A childhood friend of mine, who has remained close to me to this day, had started preparing for the premier civil service exam at the time. He asked me to consider civil service as he knew that arts subjects were my forte. Since I had a decent expression and my articles had been accepted in newspapers previously, I agreed, embarking on this path alongside my engineering education.

There was one final thing which pushed me towards this path. Civil service was considered to be the greatest job in the public sector, and was considered much more prestigious than engineering. Incidentally, around those days, there was this girl who I wanted to impress, and getting into the civil service seemed to be a good way of doing that. It took me a couple of years to do my graduation after which I finally appeared in the Civil service exam. I was placed 4th in the entire country and it allowed me to get my pick of the elitist of the civil service groups available. By that time, my interest in the girl had withered but my career as a civil servant was ensured.

Looking back, what has been the defining moment of your career so far, the one that you are most proud of?

There were many phases in my career that I can take pride in. My stints as Assistant Commissioner in far off areas of the country, running a multi-sec- tor, rural based, UN-funded poverty alleviation project, and my stint as head of the nascent counter-terrorism authority of the government during its formative phase were all extremely intense assignments with little respite. At times, I was working sixteen to eighteen hours a day, for months on end. But perhaps the most satisfying of my assignments was as Pakistan's Alternate Permanent Representative to United Nations Organizations at Rome from 2005 to 2009. It was a great responsibility to represent ones' country in three different UN organizations literally as a one-man army. Some of the more affluent countries had a staff of more than one hundred to do the same job along with professional help available from their capitals. I had no such luxuries. I used to run from one organization to the next and one from one meeting to the other but even in this intensely competitive scenario, I was able to excel.

I used to run from one organization to the next and one from one meeting to the other but even in this intensely competitive scenario, I was able to excel.

What has been the hardest phase you've gone through in your career?

Civil Service has not been a bed of roses. I have seen my ups and downs. One particularly tough period was the one year when I fell out of favor with some local politicians in a District. An informal enquiry was held against me to appease them, which gave me a clean chit at the end of the day, but I was disappointed at being victimized and had to go through that listless phase for no fault of mine.

But the greatest disappointment of my career so far was also where I achieved the most; Rome. Because of me being extremely well-placed there, I planned for Pakistan to contest the elections to head IFAD. I managed to convince a very worthy candidate to contest. The government approved his candidature and we started preparing for the elections. I literally was a workaholic during the one year that we were working on behalf of Pakistan. Most of my grey hairs are from that time. I won the support of most of the developing as well as some of the developed countries at Rome. It was a labor of love for me to see Pakistan heading a UN Organization for the first time but after all that hard work, unfortunately, Pakistan decided to withdraw its candidature only a day before the elections. The news that we were not contesting is the greatest disappointment of my career to date.

If you could give one piece of advice to people intending to join the civil service, what would it be?

To those who are considering a career in public service, my advice would be to consider their options carefully, and decide what they want to do in life. All top students have an option of joining either private or public sectors. Private sector pays much more to a top draw than the public sector. The public sector pays you less but compensates you by giving you more purpose and added perks. Weigh what you want from life. As a public servant in Pakistan, you would have to balance your budget throughout your career.

This story was first published in Issue 4: Purpose.