Duaa Sayed

Duaa Sayed is a Food Security Analysis Expert at The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Pakistan.

*This series of ANH Academy career journeys were taken from real interviews, carried out by Lauren McIntyre, IMMANA Research Uptake Manager.

Tell us about your background. Where, when, and what did you study at university for your undergraduate and graduate studies?

I did my undergraduate there at a school called Lahore University of Management sciences, or as we call it LUMS. It's very good for social sciences, but career wise the focus tends to be heavily on working in banks or FMCGs. After I graduated with my bachelors in economics, I did an MPA (Masters in Public Administration) with a focus in economic and political development at Columbia University. I was kind of lost, full disclosure, post undergrad. I thought I wanted to go into the banking sector like my peers, but I tried it and was unhappy. Then the Fulbright scholarship at Columbia University came up, and that was my ticket out of whatever slump I was in. That was my first step into the not for profit sector, an MPA with a focus in economic and political development. I don’t have an educational background per se in agriculture, food security or nutrition. That came later whilst learning on the job.

Did you move straight into your field of work?

I loved my time at Columbia University, but I still didn't have a clear sense of what I wanted to do. I graduated and came back to Pakistan as per the requirement of the scholarship. Then I started working at this Think Tank called the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. There were two projects that caught my interest, one was related to gender-based violence and the other was a food security project. It was just like a happy accident and I loved it. I didn't even know what food security was at that point, but it was the best decision I've ever made.

What does your current role involve day-to-day?

I work with the IPC, which is a food security analysis platform. We support various countries in implementing our particular tools for analysing food insecurity. My role is within quality assurance. I started off in Asia as and now my role is global. I support different countries in implementing the tools and the food security analysis process of the IPC framework. We hold analysis workshops, where we meet people from all different sectors in one room.

What are the biggest challenges in your work?

It's a global role, so you're working with multiple countries and every country has its own particular challenges. Some are cultural, some are more procedural. I've been doing this for some time now, so I don't have those nitty gritty technical challenges. It's more like, okay, this country has these insurmountable food security challenges that I'm aware of. To support countries effectively I have to be adaptive, and recognise that a solution that works in one place might not work in another.

What changes do you predict in your field of work in the next 5 years?

There’s a bigger push towards new technologies, especially with an eye towards artificial intelligence and modelling. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the core of the food security problems we’re trying to identify are changing. I think the root causes remain the same. There are places that we analyse that really have not changed, for example conflict elements persist or they get worse. Similarly, with climatic shocks.

What impacts on your work have you seen from COVID-19?

When I joined this position, I was travelling at least 60 to 70% of the time. Now we're doing everything remotely, which is not easy. Obviously, there's a greater efficiency, you're doing the same work producing the same output with the lower cost. But you're not interacting with people in the same way, and you’re not engaging with countries in the same way over Zoom. Sometimes videos are off. Of course, within the food security the puzzle has changed a lot, with economic shocks, impact on people's livelihoods and their overall food security level.

If you did not have the job that you have now, what would you do and would it be ANH-related?

I don't see myself doing anything that's not within the food security spectrum. It took some time for me to come to terms with that, and not to look around. Food security is such a broad field, you cover a huge range of topics, from nutrition to WASH to agriculture. You're looking at every possible element impacting food security. I don't think there's another a field of study that would give me that much to play with.

What's most satisfying aspect of ANH work?

I think of agriculture, nutrition and health under the umbrella of food security. What's most satisfying for me is that, I have to analyse data on a whole range of subjects because every discipline is relevant. Everything ties into food security; health factors, nutrition factors, economic factors. That’s what’s most satisfying for me and why I would encourage other people to enter the field. Definitely the biggest regret in my education is that I didn't know about this field earlier. For me it was food security equals agriculture. Nutrition was a whole other thing that only medical professionals did. I just didn't know enough about it and I wish I did.

Was there a time in your career where you had to learn a great deal in a short amount of time (a learning curve)?

I think with every new job you start that's kind of a given. When I joined the World Food Programme in Pakistan I was assigned the role of the vulnerability analysis and mapping officer, which required food security analysis and complex research skills. I was still fairly new, but I was the focal point for the entire province, and it was a steep learning curve. I had to learn not just to keep the technical things in mind, but also the contextual elements. I had to figure out how the program operated and how my technical knowledge could feed into that and how we could go forward. I felt the learning curve challenge more at that time because it was so early in my career. I think now, even if I'm thrown into a situation that's unfamiliar I'm a little bit quicker to adapt. The earlier on you are in your career, the more you can get overwhelmed by the newness of a position or situation.

Did you have any experience of rejection or failure in your career path?

The biggest was after my undergraduate when I started working in a bank, and I quit after two months. And after that, there was a two-year gap when I could not find work. I applied for so many jobs, I tried to network, just nothing worked. It was really debilitating and it takes a toll on your confidence. You really think, I had good grades, I know I'm doing everything right but it's not working. I still don't know if I’m fully over that period although it happened so long ago. That's why the Fulbright scholarship was like, okay, this is my shot. Once I go for my Masters, things will change. And rightly so they did change. The failure leading up to it was so acute that I put all my hopes into that world. I couldn't really afford to go abroad for my masters, so I knew that I had to be a scholarship. The Fulbright scholarship in Pakistan is 100% funded. I remember I was so invested in that position that I actually started having a panic attack in the middle of the interview. I had to pause the interview because I was hyperventilating, I was just so nervous. I was speaking but I didn’t have control over what I was saying. I don’t know if people have had that experience where you’re just talking and saying what you rehearsed, but it’s not the answer to the questions you’re being asked, it’s just a script. They gave me some water and let me take a break. I showed my weakness because in interviews you are always told to be confident and show them that you're that you got this, but I didn't have it. I was honest, and they were very receptive and kind and I think that it showed I really wanted the scholarship, that it was really important to me. Then I got the scholarship! When you're in that slump, keep persevering because there is a way out. You just need to find a crack. Don't be afraid to be a little weak. You don’t have to be strong all the time, we're all human.

How do you manage stress at work and what advice would you give others?

Stress at work is tricky, it's a never-ending thing. I've never been particularly good at stress management, to be perfectly honest. It's something that it's part and parcel of what you do. What I would say is, be honest about it. There's manageable stress and the stress that's completely out of your control. You need to be honest with yourself and with the people you work with, to communicate that you’re officially reaching boiling point. Especially in this COVID era where we're working from home and the lines between office hours and leisure time are getting blurred.

Have your family played a role in choosing your career path?

They have influenced it by being supportive. I didn't have an ANH mold from within my family for career trajectories. My father is a hydrogeologist, my mother is a homemaker. My older siblings, one is an engineer and two are doctors which is very sort of ‘the mode’ in Pakistan. Then I went to a social sciences college and the expectation was banks or FMCG. My family was fairly progressive for families and within Pakistan. They gave me space to flounder and figure out what I want to do.

What have you learned from role models in your life?

Not as many as I would have liked. I have this conversation with friends often, it's like where are the mentors? I've never established that bond with anyone where I receive mentorship. There are various people I do look up to, especially women from the part of the world that I'm from who do their own thing, who aren't fitting into the mould of marriage and kids. There is a certain societal expectation that is a little bit hindering. I look up to any woman who has clout and is proud. Once I started working in the UN, I looked up to women that were working there, especially the older women because I knew they must have had challenges. I imagine if they had started 20 odd years earlier, it must have been tougher for them than it was for me to be entering the field.

If you were a mentor, do you think the possible challenges faced by your mentees working your field would be different from yours? If yes, in what way?

Firstly, whoever wants to get into this work, you have to recognise that at least for the kind of specific work that I do you need to either be traveling a lot or based in some kind of field location. I'm sure you can do a job that's fully HQ based. But if you want to learn then you need to have some boots on the ground. You need to be there and have hands on experience. It's not for everyone, there's a lot of personal sacrifices you have to make. I remember when I had just moved to Bangkok, and I didn't know anybody. I was traveling constantly and I would just be back for the weekend and had to put a lot of effort into to making friends and building a network. It was difficult, but it was worth it. For me personally, fieldwork was one of the most fundamental things that I've ever done to really contextualise. It's one thing to see information, but it's another thing to actually see what a malnourished child looks like, to see what a food insecure person may look like, their houses, how they work, how they live. I can't imagine doing this work without that experience, and I wish I'd had more time. But very quickly I got a regional position.

What is one piece of advice you could give to someone beginning their career in your field?

I would really encourage people to get into food security. Getting a job that's travel heavy is obviously not a requirement, but spend some time in the field at the start. It could even be in your home country. I started in home province speaking my native language, which was incredible because my native language is something I don't get to speak at work ever now. Hands on experience is what I would encourage, other than just studying.


If you have any questions or feedback about this career journey, please contact l[email protected].