Reflections on the ProSPER.Net Leadership Programme 2015

by Sachiko Yasuda, UNU-IAS

Building capacities of individuals especially those of the young generation is crucial for the effective and successful implementation of sustainability initiatives. The ESD Programme of the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) has been undertaking the ProSPER.Net Leadership Programme since 2013, targeting early carrier researchers and young professionals who work in diverse sustainability-related research and projects. The aim of the ProSPER.Net Leadership Programme is to provide an opportunity for developing and practicing skills to enable participants to become agents of change through a transformational and experiential learning process.

The 2015 ProSper.Net Leadership Programme was held from 23 to 29 August in Sabah, Malaysia under the theme of “Transformational Leadership in Implementing and Assessing Sustainability Projects”.  It was co-organized by UNU-IAS, the Higher Education Leadership Academy (AKEPT) under the Ministry of Education, Malaysia, University Malaysia Sabah (UMS), and University College of Technology Sarawak (UCTS). A total number of 21 selected participants gathered from all around the Asia-Pacific region including Australia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia (based in China), Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The one-week intensive programme offered a series of lectures by academics and local experts on sustainability and leadership as well as the international sustainable development processes concerning the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Following the lectures, five field trips were arranged to the case study sites through which the participants learned about local sustainability challenges and how local communities address those challenges. At each site, participants interacted with community leaders and exchanged information about their activities, what was successful and what was not, and what solutions would be applicable. Based on in-depth observation and interview as well as focus group discussion, participants have developed five case studies: (1) Role of transformational leadership in the promotion of sustainable agricultural practice: A case study of Palace Hotel; (2) Sustainability in a marginalized urban area through education development: A case study of Numbak Vision Center; (3) Sustainable island development: A case study of Gaya Island; (4) Sustainable Highland development: A case study of Bundu Tuan; and (5) Integrating the principle of sustainability in higher education: A case study of University Malaysia Sabah.

Brief but on-site experiences enabled participants to better understand the complexity of local sustainability challenges and the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement in negotiating solutions to sustainable development. Providing the multi-stakeholder and trans-disciplinary dialogue, the programme aimed to nurture skills that could facilitate the generation of innovative ideas and alternative options for addressing sustainability challenges through effective collaborations and partnership.

The last day was allocated for debriefing sessions in which participants, divided into five groups, presented their reflections on respective case studies and shared their critical insights. By bring together participants from different fields, the programme replicated a unique setting where participants would recognize diversity, learn from differences, and realize the importance of understanding different perspectives in implementing and assessing sustainability projects. This exercise made the participants not only seek possible solutions in the case studies but also think how they can apply what they have learned in their own fields by looking into skills, knowledge and values needed for a leadership role in order to bring positive changes to the communities towards sustainable development.

By the time the programme came to an end, participants had formed a bond of trust and a sense of partnership. The one-week programme could only plant a seed. Yet, the hope is that the participants will take a step forward by further nurturing collaborative partnership and putting knowledge into action in whatever ways possible and capacities they are in.