Profile with Salma Omar

Salma Omar (Pakistan & Somerville 1987) is Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank. She has previously worked at UNICEF, the Department for International Development and the World Wide Fund for Nature. She earned an MSC in Social Research Methods from the London School of Economics, an MSC in Environmental Policy from Imperial College London and a BA in is Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Oxford.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Salma Omar: Pakistan.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite memory from your childhood?

Salma Omar: Running wild in my grandfather’s huge garden.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job ever held?

Salma Omar: The first job I held was as a school assistant to earn some pocket money.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your current job?

Salma Omar: My job consists of providing technical advice and project managing World Bank supported community driven development initiatives in Pakistan’s conflict ridden areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is rewarding because it means working at the cutting edge of grassroots development to design initiatives that have the capacity to truly involve local people in identifying, implementing and managing small projects in their areas that can make a tangible difference in ordinary lives. Often it means working with people who are in dire need of support, but whose problems we don’t understand very well. I work in a lot of conflict-ridden areas bordering on Pakistan. I enjoy the challenge of making a difference in the lives of ordinary people who live in a very difficult and conflict-driven environment .

Rhodes Project: What motivates you?

Salma Omar: It’s the fun aspect of learning that gives my life a shine, a glow. I am learning to play the sitar. It is a very difficult instrument, but the struggle and the joy of learning to do something that is difficult and that you’ve never done gives life the spice that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Generally, what motivates me is continuing to learn. With my job, the motivational aspect is the challenge; there are going to be some failures and some successes, but carrying on working, adapting and finding solutions is what gives me the most satisfaction.

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you in life?

Salma Omar: I think that I can communicate better and handle pressure better than some, but communicating and coordinating effectively between various stakeholders can be challenging and frustrating. Juggling the various aspects of being a daughter, being a wife, having a job and finding perfection in all of them can be very frustrating. I am taking care of an aging mother at the moment, and I took care of my father when he was terminally ill. My frustration is in the challenge that I face in terms of balancing a career with my personal requirements.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to solve one issue, what would it be and why?

Salma Omar: I would address health and education in Pakistan. There are huge issues to do with that within this country. I would also deal with conflict management and creating a tolerant society from the bottom up. This would mean increasing ordinary people’s capacity to communicate with others, raise their voice and reach out to other people who may appear to be different but who, in fact, struggle with the same challenges. I believe creating a tolerant society is the glue that can support the uptake of crucial services such as health and education. On a global level, there is an inability to speak across cultures, to understand other cultures and to find the tolerance in other cultures.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Salma Omar: I swim, write short stories and also occasional travel –related articles for newspapers.  I love visiting places that are rich in history. I go for holidays, and I visit the northern areas of Pakistan often – it’s very beautiful there. I travel a lot if I can, both for work and pleasure. I like immersing myself in Hindustani classical music. These days I am researching the reconstruction of personal histories and identity by female classical vocalists in Pakistan. I hope that one day I can write a book on the subject.

Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?

Salma Omar: Seeing a new generation, my nieces and nephews, embrace life with a lot of positivity. Being there and being able to support them gives me a lot of joy.  I also find heart in seeing my country strive to overcome challenges and ordinary people supporting each other in times of crisis such as during the devastating earthquake in 2005.  A few days after the earthquake, I was airlifted inside a National Park to help fly out critically injured people from a remote village where I had been working on a community forestry project prior to the tragedy.  In the course of relief work, I met scores of people who gave up comfortable urban lives to reach out to many such villages and contribute to the relief effort. The phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” took on a whole new meaning!

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