Local knowledge at the heart of sustainable development

Whether it’s sitting at global tables of influence or walking the streets of his home town in Pakistan, Monash alumnus Sikander Bizenjo is working to bridge gaps between rich and poor.

When COVID-19 struck Pakistan, Sikander Bizenjo’s first thoughts were of his home province of Balochistan, a remote, rugged region dotted with rural villages – many without road access. He knew government relief would be slow to reach people struggling without their daily wages.

Bizenjo and a friend sought donations and, using local knowledge and village volunteers, organised monthly supplies of food and soap for over 15,000 families. They made some deliveries themselves, traversing the inhospitable terrain in four-wheel drives, on motorbikes or on foot.

Their group, Balochistan Youth Action Committee (BYAC), subsequently delivered more than 4000 medical kits to hospitals where some doctors were working, at the peak of the pandemic, without protective equipment or gloves.

Bizenjo’s efforts came to the attention of Bill Gates, who wrote a blog post dubbing him one of seven “unsung heroes of the pandemic”. The Pakistani media ran profiles of him. But Bizenjo says: “We were just doing what was needed in an emergency.”

Sikander Bizenjo
For Bizenjo, education is one pillar underpinning progress towards a more sustainable world.

Education advantage

Indeed, the initiative was nothing new for the 30-year-old, who began volunteering during his Bachelor of Business and Commerce at Monash University Malaysia. He worked with refugee children, in aged care homes and with school students from challenged backgrounds.

“That’s where I found my passion to work in the development sector,” says Bizenjo. “I saw that a tiny impact can go a long way.” He also credits his opportunities at Monash – in particular, an exchange program to Copenhagen and selection for an international debating forum in Brussels – with broadening his outlook and shaping his future career.

Malaysia was his first time out of Pakistan, but Monash “made it feel so like home for me”, he says. He travelled widely in Europe while completing a master’s in development economics in England.

Bizenjo always planned to return to Pakistan, though. “Balochistan is the least developed province and very few people there get a chance to get out, so I thought that, with my understanding of the local grassroots, I have this huge responsibility of bringing back that global knowledge and bridging the gap.”

His first job was coordinator of an education advocacy campaign, Alif Ailaan in Karachi. Having attended a government school with no roof in his home village before moving to a private school in Karachi, Bizenjo is committed to universal access to quality education.

Pakistan’s government schools are substandard, he says, but most village families cannot afford private schooling. In Balochistan, fewer than 20 per cent of girls are educated.

“I’ve seen myself change through education, I’ve seen so many other people change, but unfortunately, basic education has become a privilege in Pakistan.”

Think globally, act locally

For Bizenjo, education is one pillar underpinning progress towards a more sustainable world. He sees gender equality – particularly in leadership roles – and climate consciousness as other key pillars.

From Alif Ailaan, Bizenjo moved to the Ministry of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives in 2018, where he worked with Pakistan’s chief economist. The job brought new connections, including with the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the WEF’s Global Shapers community, which links over 13,000 young ’change shapers’ committed to positive dialogue and initiatives in 150 countries.

Bizenjo sits on the advisory council of Global Shapers, and he was a co-chair of the WEF’s Davos Lab, which in August produced a youth-driven COVID-19 recovery plan, setting out a vision for the next 10 years based on the insights of young people around the world.

My job is to bring global knowledge and learning into the group, and help it lead the way in Pakistan and the region for a more sustainable world.”

In 2020 at the Karachi School of Business and Leadership, he led a program teaching micro-entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds to grow their businesses. He then joined the private investment corporation Dawood Hercules as its external engagements manager.

His role at the company, which holds substantial investments in numerous industries, is to engage with global thought leaders and external partners. These include UK Cabinet Office officials who addressed executives in 2021 ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.

“My job is to bring global knowledge and learning into the group, and help it lead the way in Pakistan and the region for a more sustainable world,” he says.

Most important for Bizenjo is the empowerment of local youth. “We are engaging young leaders to champion these causes themselves and work on the ground,” he says.

What drives him is what initially inspired him to volunteer at Monash. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the opportunities I’ve had, and everyone deserves to get these opportunities,” he says. “Basic education and three meals a day should be a human right, and working towards ending this massive divide is what motivates me.”

Lockdown heroes

BYAC has set up ‘reading rooms’ for school students in 62 Balochistan villages, supplying 140,000 donated books. Its local volunteer network is expanding, with plans for health, education, livelihoods and climate change initiatives.

Picture source: @BYACBalochistan

Most important for Bizenjo is the empowerment of local youth. “We are engaging young leaders to champion these causes themselves and work on the ground,” he says.

What drives him is what initially inspired him to volunteer at Monash. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the opportunities I’ve had, and everyone deserves to get these opportunities,” he says. “Basic education and three meals a day should be a human right, and working towards ending this massive divide is what motivates me.”