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Empowering leaders for development in South and West Asia

Posted: 8 July 2019

Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Experience, In Australia, Scholar,

Australia Awards scholars from South and West Asia got the opportunity to learn more about being leaders for development at a Scholars Forum held in Melbourne in April 2019.

The two-day Forum brought together 69 scholars from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, selected through a competitive process. The aim of the event was to give scholars the opportunity to learn more about change making, development innovation and international development, as well as an opportunity to network with other Australia Awards stakeholders, partners and international development practitioners.

This was the second Scholars Forum to be delivered for Australia Awards scholars from South and West Asia, with the first taking place in Canberra in October 2018.

Welcome Reception

The Forum began with a Welcome Reception at the Melbourne Museum, hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The reception was attended by Australia Awards scholars and alumni, academics, international development practitioners, and other stakeholders.

Delivering the welcome address, Ms Susan Coles, Deputy Director of DFAT’s Victoria State Office, noted that she envisages scholars from South and West Asia continuing the tradition of Australia Awards alumni using the cutting-edge knowledge and skills they acquired in Australia to lead social and economic reforms in their own countries.

In an inspirational message, Daizy Maan—a young social entrepreneur, a former Australian Youth Ambassador for Development, an alumna of the Australia India Youth Dialogue (2019), and the current Program Manager of SPARK Deakin—encouraged scholars to adopt a ‘can–if’ thinking approach as leaders for development. She highlighted that this perspective has the potential to generate breakthrough solutions and innovations, which are important when dealing with development challenges.

Scholars Mahpara Farrukh from Pakistan and Julekha Nusrat from Bangladesh

Scholars Forum

Mr Ben Power, Director – South Asia Regional Section at DFAT, delivered the opening remarks at the second day of the event. He highlighted the trailblazing accomplishments of the Australian Government scholarships program, which started 60 years ago, and the key role Australian alumni play in the relationship between Australia and its partner countries.

Dr Helen Szoke AO, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia, delivered the keynote address. She spoke about innovation, focusing on the importance of people, institutions and processes harnessing technology and innovation for social good. Dr Szoke stressed that “innovation is nothing without a deep understanding of power, systems and institutions”.

Following the keynote address were a series of panel discussions, with the first having the theme ‘Tools for Development Leaders’. The panellists were Assoc. Prof Chris Roche, Deputy Director (Impact) for the Development Leadership Program at La Trobe University, and Ms Sakshi Thakur, founder of Humanism, a company which aims to provide sustainable and safe work for people living in poverty.

Assoc. Prof Roche spoke about the importance of education in shaping the motivation, values and networks of leaders; the political and collective nature of leadership; and how leaders can facilitate change. He also emphasised the crucial role of coalitions and networks in the reform process and the importance of understanding social and power relations for those leading and initiating change.

Ms Thakur spoke about social entrepreneurship; she shared her personal journey and the story of Humanism as a social enterprise.

The second panel discussion had the theme ‘Development For All: Policy to Practice’. The panellists were Dr Fara Azmat – Associate Professor at Deakin University, Ms Julie Smith from CBM Australia and Australia Awards scholar from Bangladesh Ms Nupur Nurunnahar.

Dr Azmat focused on gender as a basis for social exclusion and showed data and examples on why gender inclusion is good development practice. Ms Smith explained CBM’s two-pronged approach—providing specific services and mainstreaming inclusion principles and practices—to promoting social inclusion. Ms Nupur shared how her dissatisfaction at being treated differently and being disadvantaged due to her gender and disability has motivated her to work on inclusive education.

Dr Helen Szoke AO (Chief Executive, Oxfam Australia), delivering the keynote address

Development Impact Plans and success stories

The first session after lunch showcased Australia Awards alumni success stories with presentations by alumni Dr Shashini Gamage (Sri Lanka), Ms Fatima Anila (Pakistan), Mr Avhishek Malla (Nepal) and a video from Dr Mohammod Jobayer Chisti (Bangladesh).

“It was truly awe-inspiring to hear the stories from many successful people during the Forum,” an attendee said. “I learnt that no matter how small an initiative may be, if it is pursued with passion and hard work, it can have a significant impact.”

In the following session, scholars Ms Mehak Masood (Pakistan), Ms Ushaa Moosa (Maldives), Mr Sajal Kanti Ghosh (Bangladesh) and Mr Sonam Rigzin (Bhutan) shared their draft Development Impact Plans.

These plans focused on, respectively:

  • establishing a global research institute for environment and sustainable development in Pakistan
  • women in leadership in the Maldives
  • improving prevention and management of diabetes
  • strengthening the ecotourism industry and practices in Bhutan.

After a break for afternoon tea, Dr Karen Medica – Lecturer at Monash University facilitated a series of interactive sessions to assist scholars to reflect on what they had learned from the other sessions during the Forum. The scholars were also given an opportunity to revise/update their Development Impact Plans and were challenged to communicate a summary of their plan to other scholars within a two-minute time limit.

“Hearing about alumni experiences and scholar development plans, which I can potentially use for the improvement of my own Development Impact Plan, was a highlight of the Forum for me,” said a participating scholar.

Media and communications  

Media and communications initiatives were integrated carefully throughout the Forum. Initiatives included real-time image sharing and polling. Participants were given the opportunity to receive their professional images immediately, aiding them in their social media efforts. This unique technology, together with the integration of a social media competition, resulted in Australia Awards trending on Twitter.


Dr Michele Forster, DFAT Director for Sri Lanka and Maldives, delivered the closing remarks. She encouraged scholars to continue refining and improving their development impact ideas and to be active members of the Australia Awards alumni network once they have completed their studies. This wrapped up the second and final day of the Forum, and participants left energised and motivated to continue their development journey.

The event followed the success of the inaugural Australia Awards Scholars Forum for South and West Asia, held in Canberra in October 2018, supporting institutional and people-to-people links between Australia and the region.

Scholars Forum (May, 2019) photo gallery