Andhyta Utami On Pioneering Social Initiatives As An Environmental Economist

Andhyta Utami is a critical thinker. After earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Universitas Indonesia (UI) and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, Andhyta started working as an environmental economist at the World Bank in Indonesia. Andhyta, who usually goes by Afu, also pioneered social initiatives like Think Policy Society, a network of public sector professionals, and Frame & Sentences, a Youtube channel she started with Wikan Anantabrata, her husband, to introduce frameworks to critically discuss various social and political issues. Through these platforms, Afu hopes to educate young adults and help them emerge as leaders.

Afu’s experience proves there is no limit to what you can pursue. Outspoken and opinionated, she is aware that change takes take time and commitment. She considers her work as long term investments that will hopefully help more young Indonesian leaders emerge in their respective fields. 

On developing her interests

1. So what first sparked your interest to become an environmental economist for the World Bank?

When I studied international relations as an undergraduate, I learned about climate change for the first time. I was surprised that climate change is such a big issue, and how not enough people talked about it. I was also surprised how people saw protecting the environment as a trade off for economic growth.  

In environmental economics, you can assess how economic activities affect the environment, and vice versa. The environment is seen as integral to the economy. To put it simply, the money you earn doesn’t matter if you’re breathing polluted air from coal-powered mines. Environmental economics tries to assign an economic value to various environmental services, by asking questions like, “how much would you pay for clean air.” I notice people often associate climate change with this hippie, tree-hugging narrative, which makes it hard for people to take the topic of climate change seriously. But when we talk about “welfare” or “well-being,” we can’t ignore the environmental aspects. 

2. How would you compare your education in Indonesia and the United States? 

My time at Harvard trained me to develop problem-solving skills. The curriculum required students to read policy case studies before each class. We were pushed to immerse in the material because the professor would call the students out in class. What made this so effective were the breadth of examples, both in countries and sectors, as well as the repetition — we would go through case studies multiple times. 

While there were assigned readings in UI, the experience wasn’t the same because we didn’t even go through the readings. Another thing I notice in Indonesia is that students don’t have the chance to talk with professors one-on-one. In the United States, professors have office hours where students can receive direct feedback or follow up on questions they had in the classroom.

On starting her social initiatives

3. Tell us more about your work with Frames & Sentences. What motivated you to start Frames & Sentences?

When I was at Harvard I spent a lot of my free time going through my timeline and Whatsapp group chats. People were discussing issues and I wanted to contribute to the conversation. I first thought of contributing through writing, but people in Indonesia don’t read as much. So for Frames & Sentences, we chose to do videos and podcasts, where Indonesians typically spend a lot of time. 

4. By your definition, what constitutes a productive conversation? 

First I have to clarify that public discussions don’t always have to be productive. Democracy is supposed to be noisy, and it’s fine if people disagree. That said, in Frames & Sentences we encourage our audience to participate with an open mind and consider other perspectives.

5. How do you measure the impact of Think Policy Society? 

When we started Think Policy Society we wanted to create a space where people can upgrade their policy analysis, hone their problem-solving skills, and build their peer network in the public sector. 

Therefore, we measure impact based on whether or not our participants learn something new, and whether they are able to leverage their network further to fulfill their aspirations. We are investing in young people for the long run, so it is difficult to measure their immediate impact. Nevertheless, we hope that our guidance can help them emerge as leaders in the public sector in the next 10-20 years.

On building confidence

6. Have you ever felt belittled/underestimated because of your identity and background  (this may be your gender, nationality, ethnicity, anything) either in the US or Indonesia?

When I was a younger researcher, there were definitely times when people would undermine me. For example, when I attended meetings in a room with older men, the government official would ask me to take notes, ignore me and talk to my colleague instead even when I was the one presenting. But over time, I learned to assert myself. I would say that having a mentor with you in the meeting helps establish your credibility as a young professional. I also think my education helps in the way I perceive and carry myself. Even if people undermine me, I don’t let their opinions bother me anymore. 

On Voicing her opinions online

7.  Amid all the noises on Twitter and Instagram, how do you assert your opinion? 

I think I was lucky because I was able to build an audience back when social media was a more peaceful space. The audience that has been with me a long time usually understands where I’m coming from. It’s also important that social media only captures one to two dimensions of our ‘three-dimensional’ beings. Whatever people say about us in 280 characters shouldn’t define who you are. For the most part, I try to be reasonable by considering all sides of an argument.

8. We listened to your podcast with Thirty Days of Lunch on Critical Thinking. You emphasized on the importance of critical thinking for productive conversations. What is the best way to encourage young Indonesians to think critically? 

If we’re thinking about this problem in a big scale, then we need to fix the Indonesian education system. In the past, I remember we were rewarded for memorizing the right answer. Instead, I think our education system should encourage students to come up with their own creative solutions. Having an environment in school where you can discuss and disagree is still missing.

On relationships and success

9. Most young adults think you can have only one or the other: a successful career or relationship. You seem to have both. What is your advice to succeed in maintaining both? 

The main thing is knowing or having some idea about what you want to do in life. It always helps to have a clear vision. My vision is to work and contribute to the public sector, specifically the climate change space. It’s not always a clear goal, but I have some ideas of what I want to do with my life. 

When you know what you want, you know the kind of relationship you need to achieve your goals.  At the start of the relationship, it is important for both parties to establish their expectations. Otherwise you might end up having to choose between your partner and your personal ambition. 

10. Personally, what does success mean to you? 

I think success is a process not an end goal. Success is being content with what you have. I often joke that it means looking at other people’s perfectly curated Instagram and preferring to live your messy life instead. It is living the life you want and working towards what you believe in. I’m most grateful for the support system I love around me because they are the ones who make ‘success’ possible in the first place. 

If you have any further questions or would like to be in touch, feel free to email us at — Read our interview with Brurce Mecca an environmental activist. Follow us on instagram for updates!

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