Wetenschap - 31 oktober 1996

Ambitious Africa conference yields meagre results

Ambitious Africa conference yields meagre results

A group of African MSc and PhD students organized a conference on democratisation and food security in Africa. The Dean's Office also played a support role. Over two hundred foreign students came to Wageningen with the hope of learning in more detail about this complex issue, but many returned home dissatisfied after two days. They had met other students, but the contents of the conference did not live up to the academic standards they encounter in their studies.


On Saturday October 19 at three o'clock sharp Jan Pronk, minister for development cooperation, enters the Mathematics building in Wageningen. Pronk is one of the five presidents of the Global Coalition for Africa (GCA) and was invited in this capacity to the conference entitled Democracy and Democratization in Africa: the challenge of food security, which was sponsored by GCA. The audience, which consists mainly of African MSc and PhD students and alumni takes its chances and questions the minister firmly about Dutch development cooperation. Subjects covered include globalisation, corruption, participation of target groups in projects and the amount of money spent on Eastern Europe. Pronk gives detailed answers: I'm not looking for the political but the intellectual debate". The lively discussion is appreciated by the participants, but unfortunately serves to emphasize the lack of substance in previous sessions.

The conference started the day before with FAO-representative Omar, who stressed the importance of the theme food security, referring to the World Food Summit which will be held in November this year in Rome. Many world leaders will gather and sign a declaration stating that hunger should be eliminated. According to Omar, achieving this objective will be a major task. At present approximately 700 million people are underfed, and unless appropriate action is taken this number will increase. Moreover nearly half of the countries facing problems of undernutrition and food insecurity are located in sub-Saharan Africa. The following speakers Bulus Baba and Titus Lanyasunya point out the main causes of this African crisis: both natural and manmade disasters such as the genocide in Rwanda, population growth, lack of democratic control, disruption caused by several centuries of colonial rule, debt crises, an unequal balance of trade and an ever increasing arms trade that escalates con
flicts.

Capacity building

Some of the listeners get restless. We know all that," one exclaims, The question is what can we do, what kind of practical solutions can we work out at this conference?" Most listeners show their approval but the discord lingers on. During the remainder of the conference many issues are touched upon: the position of women, low external input agriculture, land reform, the impact of top-down emergency interventions and more, but they are not treated in depth. In addition the introduction of many speakers and other notables proves time consuming. This makes it difficult for the organizers to stick to the time schedule. On Saturday morning they are even forced to skip a series of workshops.

Nevertheless the organizers are relieved after the closing session and the discussion with Pronk. Most of them are proud of having managed to prepare the whole thing from scratch in only five months: inviting African students, who are scattered all over the Netherlands, setting up a competition for writing papers on the conference theme, appointing a jury to judge these, finding cheap accommodation and transport, and compiling the programme. Too many things to be done in too little time. However, Michel van Hulten, head of the Dutch GCA office says GCA wants Africans to organize the conference next time, even if they lack time. This is not only to prevent the Dutch from dominating the discussions, but also to develop the organizational skills of the organizers who, as Van Hulten points out, may become Africa's future leaders. In this respect getting Africans to organize a conference can be seen as a form of capacity building, which is GCA's overall objective.

Solace

In practice, however, the organizers were in dire need of the help they received from the Dean's Office. Members of staff provided assistance in renting the venue, organizing the catering and many other practical aspects. According to Dean Jeanine Hermans this turned out to be a heavy burden as the conference coincided with the enrolment of new MSc students and the move of the office to WAU's main building. It is hardly surprising then that the members of staff involved were pleased that the conference was a success in organizational terms. The participants dissatisfied by the meagre results could find solace in the fact that they had acquired lots of new addresses of fellow students in other parts of the Netherlands.

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