Introducing PhD Student Omar Elkharouf

Omar has a background in human geography and a passion for social justice, and we are thrilled to welcome him to SEI’s Foodlab Sydney as a Research Assistant and PhD candidate.

Image by Isaiah Rusted, Myanmar. Via Unsplash.

Could you tell us about your background and previous research?

I completed my degree in Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science, with a Diploma of Languages in Indonesian and Honours in Human Geography at the University of Sydney in 2017. During my degree I had the privilege of gaining field-based experience across the Asia-Pacific region through several merit-based scholarship programs.

In 2014, I was selected for a New Colombo Mobility pilot program to undertake interdisciplinary fieldwork study assessing public housing policy in Singapore. This work propelled my interest in Southeast Asia, forming the basis of my involvement in a semester-long Indonesian Immersion Program, funded through a second New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant. Through this program, I undertook extensive training in Bahasa Indonesia at the University of Indonesia, built qualitative research skills in my field work in both Lombok and Java, and participated in an internship at a transnational environmental consultancy firm. In my final undergraduate year, I participated in an exchange program at Fudan University International Summer School on a Sydney Abroad Exchange Scholarship, where I examined the ways public perceptions of environmental issues are contextualised within East Asian societies.

Building on these experiences, I deepened my engagement in the field of development studies within the context of Southeast Asia as a Faculty of Science Summer Scholar during January to February 2017. During this time, I contributed to an ARC Discovery Project lead by Professor Bill Pritchard, entitled ‘Explaining food and nutrition insecurity under conditions of rapid economic and social change: A nutrition-sensitive analysis of livelihood decision-making in rural Myanmar’. Here, I travelled to selected villages in rural Myanmar to assist Professor Pritchard in the collation of primary qualitative data.

The summer research program not only built upon my existing skills as a young aspiring researcher, but more significantly, firmly propelled my interest within the academic niche of the food studies field. My honours thesis aimed to assess the ways that civil society actors based in Myanmar conceive and describe the food problems in their rural agrarian communities, and therefore, the best means to address them. Deriving theories from relational geography, these findings aimed to shed insight into the merit of a ‘place-based’ rapprochement of the ‘food security vs. food sovereignty’ binary currently pervasive within food studies literature. Such an exchange aimed to assist in resisting the simplistic narrative wherein food security is assumed to speak to ‘the global’ and food sovereignty to speak to ‘the local’. To this end, I completed my honours degree with First Class Honours.

What are the environmental issues or problems that most interest you?

The current global food system is rife with inequalities and issues that prevent adequate food security for all, and raise consequences for individuals as well as our global environment. But like many other environmental issues, it hits communities of colour and low-income communities hardest of all. Driven in part by my personal intersectional identity (as a middle-class Circassian-Arab Australian Queer with a Muslim name), I am interested in the systemic injustice and inequity across the food chain, and more particularly, how multiple dimensions of marginalised identities shape individual’s barriers in accessing the current food system.

What will you be working on as an SEI researcher?

Taking these experiences and passion together, I am currently a PhD candidate with the Department of Government and International Relations, as well as a Research Assistant on the Australian Research Council funded project FoodLab Sydney here in SEI. FoodLab Sydney seeks to explore how food incubators can address food insecurity, how public engagement of the food insecure can be brought into the design of such responses, and how new research methods that examine complexity can help us understand the impact of food policy interventions.

The Research Assistant role will primarily involve assisting in the review of global evidence to develop a best practice guide of how local government actors can promote food security through policy and programs, including food incubators. My PhD seeks to build on this by undertaking a comparative study and intersectional analysis of how different policy environments worked to enable or constrain the development of food-related social enterprises.

What inspired your interest in working with SEI?

The interdisciplinary nature of the Sydney Environment Institute appeals to me. My time as an undergraduate and Honours student at the School of Geosciences involved constant emphasis on theory and practice, and the relational approach across place and space, between environment and society. This allowed me to recognize the importance of in situ study and interdisciplinary nature of development.

Food Systems is one of Sydney Environment Institute’s research area, and this thus befits both my inherent interest in the academic niche of food studies, and my past experience in the field. More importantly, the Institute’s emphasis on bridging the natural and social sciences and humanities as a pretext to combatting contemporary environmental/social challenges speaks to my ethos as a young, aspiring activist-researcher.

Omar Elkharouf is a PhD student with the Department of Government and International Relations and a Research Assistant for FoodLab Sydney. Omar holds a Bachelor degree in Arts /Sciences and an Honours degree in Human Geography at the University of Sydney. Omar has a passion for social/environmental justice, urban geographies, sustainable food systems and intersectionality. His PhD seeks to build on this passion by assessing the ways that local government actors can promote food security through policy and programs, including food incubators, through the lens of intersectional discourse.