• Name: Amal Aslam
• Role: Senior Manager, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme (KESP)
• Location: Islamabad, Pakistan
What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so?
I started my career in think tanks and research centres, both in the microfinance and education sectors. I was part of some pretty exciting teams and projects that were testing innovative solutions to tackle the barriers to financial inclusion and education challenges in Pakistan. It felt like a natural progression to go from understanding exactly what was going on, to testing what can work on a small scale – and finally to implementing policies and interventions on a large-scale programme such as KESP. The programme has a huge footprint: the work we have supported benefits over four million children across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s state-funded schools!
In terms of challenges, I’d say that selling solutions to government is not always easy – especially when they are ‘unsexy’ or take years to come to fruition (often the case when it comes to improving student learning in public schools) – so it feels especially good when our determination pays off.
If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be?
Firefighter? (Laughs). Working on KESP has been equal parts stressful and exciting. As with any large programme, there are many bumps along the way. I’d say problem solving is a huge part of my role. There are so many variables at play (COVID-19 being the latest addition!). My approach is to keep the maximum number of people happy at any given time and to do what I can to help my team work well. I hope that the result is both a satisfied client, and a motivated team.
What do you like about working in a global development company?
Learning about ASI’s work around the globe is one of the most interesting aspects – it’s been pretty educational. I suppose another thing about working in a global development company is having certain resources at our disposal – being able to bid for and win large programmes that are able to deliver impact at scale is something that’s not always possible when working for smaller organisations.
One other great thing about ASI is that there are so many bright people, especially women, across the organisation. I’ve also really enjoyed the movement of people from other offices in and out of Pakistan, some of whom have become very good friends of mine. And it’s always a bonus when you can put a face to a name!
What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now?
KESP recently got extended for another year. It was exciting to move from being on the verge of programme closeout to having 12 more months, especially since it’s a chance to work with government to shape its response to COVID-19 challenges for education in KP. Now I’m thinking about it, exciting is perhaps the wrong word! But it’s a big motivating factor for the team to do what we can, to mitigate against learning losses and school dropouts. Dropouts are unfortunately to be expected in the current context, when schools have been closed as long as they have – so we are working hard to support the government’s response to that.
What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now?
I’m really inspired by discussions around mental health in Pakistan – something which was taboo even until a couple of years ago. There’s so much more openness on the subject now, even if only across a particular segment of society. I still think it is a start. I’m also really happy that this change has been reflected within ASI Pakistan as well. Thanks to the work done by several people over the last year and a half, there is now a new health policy for ASI Pakistan, that for the first time covers mental health treatment and therapy costs (over and above regular health insurance).
I also feel there’s a lot more conversation on the subject of self-care amongst those around me and on social media, as well as on the importance of saying no and drawing boundaries – which for a collectivist culture like Pakistan’s is pretty out there. I came across a post on social media recently that said ‘you can all thank millennials for putting in the work to change generational narratives, normalise therapy and set boundaries. The generations to come will all reap those benefits,’ and I totally agree.
What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work?
I love watching old black and white films. I must have seen His Girl Friday 20 times. There is an Incredibly Strange Cinema Club run by a local joint here in the winter that screens obscure old films. I remember discovering this old Lollywood film there (Lollywood is the Pakistan film industry equivalent of Holly/Bollywood) – a 1960s black and white adaptation of Dracula which was quite entertaining!
What’s a quality a game changer should have and what’s your ambition to be one?
I think perseverance is the main thing for me. It’s as simple as just sticking it out, while keeping the big picture in mind – and not getting stuck in the weeds. It’s not always easy, but it’s something I try to apply in my work every day. And of course the bigger picture is motivation in itself to keep going.