Dr. Elsa Talat Khwaja is an independent research scholar, international development consultant, and writer. She received her Ph.D. in Public Policy, specializing in international development policy at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government in August, 2021.

Dr. Khwaja’s research involves foreign aid effectiveness in fragile and conflict-affected areas (FCAS). Exploring the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan through an enhanced understanding of the social capital-aid effectiveness-fragility nexus, her main concern is how material and/or non-material exchanges among social networks of international donor agencies and recipient organizations potentially help or hinder aid-delivery processes in fragile and conflict-afflicted spaces. Dr. Khwaja was awarded the Smith Foundation’s World Politics and Statecraft Fellowship for her doctoral fieldwork in Pakistan, as well as the Daniel Druckman Fellowship for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Dr. Khwaja recently served as a Senior Development Officer at the American Councils for International Education Strategic Development Department, where she coordinated the proposal development of various educational programs in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, and other countries. She supported the development of education program models centered on academic exchange, youth employment, English acquisition, training of trainers and educators, social entrepreneurship, and leadership and professional development. She was an integral part of a team that submitted more proposals (130+), for a higher dollar value (over $85m), in the department’s history. Additionally, she led the first Positive Youth Development (PYD) learning subgroup, which comprised program and country directors at American Councils, advancing the promulgation of youth programming in the international education space. She was a member of two American Councils Committees on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Previously, Dr. Khwaja served as a graduate research scholar at George Mason University. During her tenure at George Mason, she completed diverse research opportunities under senior-level professors. She co-organized one of the most successful conferences at the Schar School in 2018, the APSA Political Networks Section Conference and Workshops, which convened over 150 junior and senior scholars of political and social science. Additionally, she co-authored a peer-reviewed article in Policy Futures in Education and a book chapter on “Network Analysis: Theory and Testing,” in the SAGE Handbook for Research Methods in Political Science and International Relations.

Dr. Khwaja has worked at Chemonics International, an international development consulting firm in Washington, DC, as a New Business Associate in the Southern Africa Division, and a Project Management Associate in the Afghanistan and Pakistan Division. In the Afghanistan and Pakistan Division, she supported the Pakistan FIRMS project, a USAID private sector development initiative to improve government service delivery and develop dynamic, internationally competitive firms in order to strengthen the economy, by accelerating sales, investment, and job growth, and to undercut the basis of extremism.

Prior to that, Dr. Khwaja was a 2010 Brent Scowcroft Award Fellow at the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Strategy Group, where she co-organized workshops to convene national security and foreign policy experts, (including Nicholas Burns, Madeleign Albright, Codileezza Rice, Joseph Nye, Brent Scowcroft, Anne Marie Slaughter, and several others) on “American Interests in South Asia,” in Washington, DC and Aspen, Colorado. She also worked at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, DC, as a research associate to the 2008 Pakistani Ambassador to the United States. She received her Masters in Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), where she was awarded the Fred C. Bruhns Nationality Room’s scholarship to research gender-based violence and gender disparities in development for Pakistan. Alongside her Master’s research, Dr. Khwaja worked at two NGOs in Karachi, Pakistan: the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Dr. Khwaja received her Bachelors at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a double major in Global Studies and Political Science.

Dr. Khwaja has professional memberships and affiliations with the Comparative International Education Society, American Pakistan Foundation National Leadership Council, International Studies Association, Association for Public Policy and Management, American Political Science Association, International Public Policy Association, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, Women in International Security, Society for International Development (SID) – USA, United Nations Association, National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), American Institute of Pakistan Studies, and the American Insitute of Afghanistan Studies.

Dr. Khwaja’s research interests and specializations include:

  • International Development
  • Foreign Policy
  • Human Security
  • Fragile and Failing States
  • Poverty Alleviation
  • Post-conflict Reconstruction
  • Gendered Disparities and Impacts on Development
  • Social Capital
  • Social Network Analysis
  • Qualitative and Mixed Social Science Research Methods
  • Mental Health Advocacy, Awareness, and Stigma

Dr. Khwaja’s primary regional specializations include the Middle East and South Asia.  She has various proficiencies in Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, and Spanish.

In addition to her academic and professional experience in international development policy, public policy, and global affairs, Dr. Khwaja is an artist, painter, blogger, and mental health advocate. In 2022-23, Dr. Khwaja created an independent initiative called “Painting Heals Pakistan.” She aims to expand this initiative (originally for flood relief in Pakistan) to countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, and Sudan (among others). You can read about the initiative in this blog post here. For 10 years, Dr. Khwaja has been independently raising funds for suicide prevention and mental health awareness through such initiatives as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and UNRWA Gaza 5K.  Alongside her professional and academic pursuits in international affairs and public policy, She aspires to connect her work in poverty alleviation to the topic of mental health at a global level and continue to support mental health awareness scholarship, campaigns, and programs in fragile and conflict-affected countries.


At the Sultan Mosque in Singapore, during IPPA Conference, June 2017.