An Early-Career Researcher’s Remarkable Journey to Winning a DECRA Fellowship

26th August 2021

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He completed his PhD at the School of Culture, History & Language in 2018. He released his first book, Animal Enthusiasms as a CHL-affiliated Post-Doctoral Fellow in early 2021. His journey from ANU to the University of Toronto, Canada earlier this year was not easy with family in tow, especially in a pandemic environment, but according to Dr Muhammed Kavesh, ANU gave him the ideal platform for exploring new avenues. Most recently, this CHL academic has done the School proud once again with his latest achievement—he has just become the recipient of a 2022 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Fellowship, for his project, Donkey Politics: How China’s Belt & Road shapes everyday life in Pakistan.

We recently caught up with Kavesh to congratulate him and to hear more about his DECRA journey, as well as the new chapter in his academic story in Toronto…

Tell us a bit about what you’re currently doing, and your journey from ANU to Toronto.

Currently I am working on a project at the University of Toronto, which looks into the ethics of governing more than human life in contemporary South Asia, particularly spy pigeons on the India-Pakistan border; I am interested in the multifaceted aspects of animal espionage from a historical, philosophical, ethical, and ethnographical standpoint. It’s about exploring the borders human have made way back in colonial times, and how even today, in post-colonial times, they are still maintaining such structures. Pigeons don’t understand political borders or nation states. What does it mean to blame pigeons for espionage?

I came here in 2014 and started my PhD, which I completed in 2018. At ANU I completed my first book, Animal Enthusiams; the University has provided a great environment for learning and achieving, as well as wonderful intellectual stimulation for me. Toronto has definitely been challenging, with a young family in a pandemic scenario, but ANU prepared me to explore new avenues from the outset. The ANU experience has also enabled my successes to date—I have been extremely lucky and blessed to receive this DECRA grant, given that 140 applicants were in the running for the fellowship.

How was your experience with the DECRA application process, and what’s your advice to other early career researchers who want to tread this path?

Honestly, I’m very new in the research space, so I am learning. I listened to all the amazing people who mentored me. I’m very grateful to Professor Assa Doron, who organised different workshops, internal reviews, and mentoring sessions to prepare me; I found an extremely helpful mentor in Dr Tanya Jakimow too, who helped me a lot with multiple draft reviews and the overall application; I also received very sound and significant guidance from the Research team, especially Sean Downes and Dharani Sabba; Dr Kirin Narayan, Dr Natasha Fijn, Dr Eva Nisa and Dr Tom Cliff also helped me in so many ways, so I am really thankful to them.

In terms of advice to other early career researchers, follow the deadlines provided by the Research office. Take their advice, especially when it comes to aspects such as the right language to use, how to phrase things to suit the ARC’s expectations; listen to and act on your mentors’ advice; and finally, believe in yourself and in your project.

Tell us more about your DECRA project.

My current project is titled Donkey Politics: How China’s Belt & Road shapes everyday life in Pakistan. The objective is to develop a sociocultural understanding of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship, $60 million-project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through an ethnographic examination of the donkey trade with China. Through my research I aim to produce fine-grained data on the impact of the massive export of donkeys on the work, livelihoods, and health-seeking behaviour of marginalised populations in Pakistan. I hope to enhance people’s understanding of Chinese mega projects on host countries. I believe this will greatly benefit both Australian and international policymakers seeking to develop a grounded understanding of BRI and its broader implications for the Indo-Pacific region.

Among these broader implications is the risk of zoonotic diseases associated with animal trade. One major objective of my DECRA project is to explore how animal exports can cause viruses in the future. This, I think is critical in the wake of a COVID-changed world and era. The Chinese traditional medicine practice known as ejiao involves boiling donkey skin for gelatine; my research will look into the mass export of donkeys from Pakistan to China and how this affects marginalised sections who depend on donkeys for their livelihood.

What fascinates you most about the subject of your project?

When we see policy makers taking decisions for the future of Pakistani society, they often make these without thinking of the long-term consequences, especially on marginalised poor people. For example, the mass export of donkeys would make donkeys less accessible to such people. The duties performed by donkeys would then most probably have to be performed by women and children in the absence of donkeys. Imagine the life-changing repercussions of this on these women and children. What drives me is the urge to really do something to help these kind of people, who struggle on the margins of society.

Can you share something unusual or fascinating about your subject matter?

There’s always something fascinating about things we research. More often than not, we don’t get the real picture about things—we rely on somewhat cosmetic or politically influenced media coverage of issues. We get analysis that is not complete and can get misinterpreted. With respect to spy pigeons, what I am trying to do is create a concrete philosophical and ethical analysis around spy pigeons, which will provide answers for what is happening but also tell us where we stand right now in the 21st century in our relationship with our neighbours. People often ask me whether I take Pakistan’s side or India’s side—I tell them neither; rather, I take the pigeons’ side! How ethical is it to make a pigeon a spy or blame them for the act? They don’t support Pakistan or India. They only know how to fly.

Donkeys—well, they are loving creatures that protect their communities and families; they have been highly respected in certain cultures, beasts of burden in other cultures, and they even have a holy status in some countries. Another thing many people don’t know is that China currently consumes 3 million donkeys a year for medicine production. The global population of donkeys is declining, and if we do the maths, they could become extinct in the next 25–30 years. There are only about 38 million donkeys left in the world. Australia has about 5 million donkeys, and the Government is killing these feral animals via helicopters. There is talk about exporting them to China instead of killing them. This is still ongoing, and one of my research objectives is also to give policy recommendations on these donkey problems in Australia.

COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. How might this impact your research? Do you have a contingency plan?

At the University of Toronto, my research methodology will employ virtual ethnography, social media, and the like. This will enable me to be less dependent on COVID-directed changes in travel and movement. If the situation doesn’t improve in the future, I can therefore use techniques like virtual ethnography and digital ethnography; prior to my PhD I was also working with United Nations, where I have acquaintances who could support my research. My many local Pakistani connections will also likely come in handy.

Well done, Kavesh, on securing this significant award, and we look forward to journeying with you through your latest research project and beyond. We hope to see you back in Australia soon!

Watch this space for an update on Kavesh’s research experience, sometime in the future.

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