It takes a lot of motivation and drive to do what Dr Abdul Basir had done in the 15 years before coming to Monash to study his Masters of International Development Program (MIDP) in 2015.
In 2002 and the years that followed Dr Basir officially began his humanitarian journey, establishing several health and education programs in some of Afghanistan’s most insecure and remote regions.
In 2010, he joined Save the Children International Afghanistan as the deputy chief for a program to help educate and empower girls and women in Urozgan, the home of many notable Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar.
“The program was one of the most ambitious to be funded by DFAT,” Dr Basir explained.
There was an unforgettable moment when I saw there was 280 girls enrolled in a [local] school. The first time I visited that school, there weren’t any girls.
And if you take a look at Dr Basir’s life it’s not difficult to see where his drive to make a change comes from.
Dr Basir was only five years old when war ravaged his home country of Afghanistan. The insecurity that followed forced Dr Basir and his family to flee to a refugee camp where he would spend the next 15 years of his life.
The major injustices he witnessed there would become a powerful motivational force in the years to come.
“We experienced and suffered a lot of hardships and difficulties in the refugee camps,” Dr Basir said. “Mainly the women and children, they are the two groups that suffer the most.”
But he still considers himself lucky. Although access to education was limited, poorly resourced and with its own set of dangers, Dr Basir and the children at the refugee camp were able to attend primary school.
“We were lucky we had a school … two primary schools for over 3,000 kids, but we had a shortage of resources like water, food, and shelter, and sometimes we would go to school with the bare feet,” Dr Basir said.
“Some students died because of very easily preventable and treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhea because of the low sanitation status.”
These experiences strongly influenced Dr Basir to develop programs from a grassroots level where it was most needed and for those who needed it the most.
Upon graduating from University as a doctor, Dr Basir was offered a position in the capital, Kabul.
But I did not [go]. I went to the remotest province of Afghanistan, called Badghis, where there were no female teachers, no female midwives and it reminded me of the refugee camp and what I saw there.
“I stayed there for some time and we established a community-based health and education program for mid-wives.”
“From that, I started my career in creating community-based education and health programs.”
And it was in a later project working in the province of Urozgan (begun in 2010) where Dr Basir saw horrors that really shocked him, and which made him want to stay in remote Afghanistan to help women desperately in need of health programs and support.
“I heard that one woman’s husband had cut off her nose and ears because she went to her father’s house without her husband’s permission. You can read the story in Time magazine … her name is Aesha Mohammadzai,” Dr Basir recounted.
“Another time, a woman in labour was being taken to the shrine. The shrine was on the top of the hill and on the way back the woman died due to bleeding.”
When Dr Basir first started working there, there were no female health professionals. By the time he left they had trained almost 300 men and women, the first ever program in Afghanistan that ensured the equal number of male and female health workers.
To establish such programs, he had to liaise extensively with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, community and religious leaders and the Afghanistan government.
He was something of a bridge between worlds, but during such projects he realised he still lacked fundamental skills essential in the program development process.
Dr Basir said he had to outsource foreigners for tasks his team was not equipped to deal with such as designing tours for external evaluations, monitoring standards and other essential skills needed in the successful development of programs.
“Although I was the head for operations of the program, we still needed some international staff for skills… that I couldn’t do,” Dr Basir said.
Dr Basir wanted to close this gap in knowledge so in future projects they would no longer need to outsource; he also wanted to learn from the best.
Ultimately, it was Monash’s status as Australia’s most international university and the MIDP’s pragmatic course structure that convinced him where to go.
“I searched other universities, their program and program content … I chose Monash because one, Monash is the most internationally exposed and diverse university in Australia,” Dr Basir explained.
“Second, the content of the course, was designed in such a way which was practical – it was applicable to the field.”
“[The Monash program] was designed with a bottom to top approach. We learnt the theory based off of the idea that development starts from the individual … This grassroots approach focusing on how we reach women is the most important because [women] play the most important role in development.”
“The curriculum is designed so you can respond to the needs of the poorest people in developing country and communities.”
Dr Basir said it was important that the locals were up-skilled, because they understood the cultural complexities of the land, which is why he pursued the MIDP at Monash.
“It's very important to develop the human resource in that area because the expatriates, they come and go.”
“We must improve the system and train the people that are there, so the intellectual assets [stay] there. They are working for their community, they work for their people.”
Director of the Masters of International Development Program, Samanthi Gunawardana, explained the motivation behind the programs design.
“The MIDP is a flexible program and by instilling reflective practice early on in the degree through units such as our mentoring program (APG5100 Colab m), students are encouraged to work towards their full potential, in a way that is meaningful to them and their experience.” Dr Gunawardana said.
“Dr Basir's contributions in class based on his experiences were enormously valuable and inspiring for other students while deepening his own skills and knowledge.”
“Bringing together such diverse learners means that at Monash, we are building a community of practice which extends beyond Melbourne to communities around the world.”
Currently Dr Basir is residing in Australia, having just recently graduated late last year, but longs to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible.
“My passion and love is driving me to return to my beloved country as soon as possible, but the current insecurities, targeted killings, widespread explosions and unrest is [reason for] me to stay here for a couple more months.” Dr Abdul explained.
But for now, he is in the conceptualisation stage of new education programs that will change the lives of girls and women in Afghanistan, where he will get to apply what he has learnt and his changed perspectives.
“While studying in Monash, I got to see the development world from different angles. While I was working in Afghanistan I only saw it from the Afghanistan perspective, now I have a world perspective because we had students from all of world.” Dr Basir said.
“[The Masters has] enabled me to be more useful and I can apply these skills in my job, for my country.”