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  1. Ritesh Shah
    Ritesh Shah April 27, 2016 at 7:00 am

    Dear Ashlee,

    Thanks for your critique of the recent ODE evaluation on the Australia Awards’ contribution to women’s leadership. As one of the authors of that evaluation, I read what you had to say with great interest, and acknowledge and agree with some of the limitations you note with this evaluation. That stated, I did want to point out that one of the biggest criticisms you raise– the issue of scholarships going to the elite, rather that fostering new leaders–is a bigger issue about the purpose of the Australia Awards within the Australian government’s aid architecture.

    Specifically, scholarships have, and continue to be as much (if not more) about public diplomacy as they are about strengthening development outcomes within partner countries. The goal of the awards, according to a 2014 policy statement is to ensure, “Partner countries achieve their development goals, and have positive relationships with Australia, enhanced by the contribution of men and women with Australian qualifications, experience and networks, thereby contributing to security and economic growth in our region.” In essence the awards are as much, if not more about Australia’s interests, as they are about the interest of the partner countries these awards target. This presents some challenges from a women’s leadership perspective, and particularly in terms of whom receives such awards, and why awards are targeted the way they are. As we found in the evaluation, awards go in the main to those within the public service, with prior overseas study experience, high levels of English and a prerequisite tertiary qualification. If the aim was to truly support development outcomes then the award programme would be structured entirely different, and might look more like what the Ford Foundation’s award programme looked like. Unfortunately, given the leverage these awards often offer Australia with partner governments, that is unlikely to happen.

    As we note in the report, Australia Awards are one of the few forms of development assistance that goes to individuals, under the premise that investing in these key individuals has “trickle down” effects on society. This a questionable, and possibly flawed hypothesis. Our case studies do provide examples of women (and men) returning to their countries and becoming champions for change on a broader level, but often this is impeded by structural and institutional barriers that can demoralise and challenge such agency in the medium to long term. For that reason our evaluation does make a strong argument for post-award support to strengthening leadership outcomes that benefit broader constituencies, whether it be within or outside the formal workplace (noting that often it is often outside the formal workplace that these women are doing incredible stuff as I observed from my small case study into the Women in Leadership group in Africa). I believe Joel Negin and his team have come to a similar conclusion from their own study.

    Undoubtedly more can and should be done with the tracer studies in terms of the questions they ask. Most tracer studies do now ask about leadership outside the workplace setting. Unfortunately, our evaluation team faced significant challenges in obtaining raw tracer study data from various DFAT posts, and working to consolidate and analyse it under one master set. This precluded looking at this dimension of leadership from the tracer study data itself, but hopefully with the move to a global tracing approach, this can be done in the future. There are significant issues though with looking tracer study alone as they are based on self-report, often have low response rates, and do seem to capture the voices of metropolitan elites more than anything else.

    Fundamentally though, questions might and should be asked about whether Australia Awards are the most appropriate way to support and strengthen women’s leadership outcomes. As you note, they do have an important role to play in shaping the “hearts and minds” of the recipients (men and women) and influencing gender norms. But this is on a very small scale, and ultimately is more about soft power and diplomacy than strengthening development outcomes for women and men in partner countries. From a value for money perspective, I might argue that if the Australian government is serious about strengthening women’s leadership, it should go about doing so through vehicles other than the Australia Awards.

    Regards,
    Ritesh

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