Wetenschap - 27 april 1995

Refresher courses tastier in the tropics

Refresher courses tastier in the tropics

Western scientists demonstrate their skills away from home

Since the 1950's various Dutch educational establishments, including WAU, have received a steady stream of students from tropical countries who come to the lowlands to increase their technical knowledge. For the past couple of years previous course participants have been able to brush up this knowledge through refresher courses held locally, by courtesy of Development Minister Pronk. This trial has been deemed successful, but plans for expansion and better pay have run aground due to tight budgets.


It makes more sense to send two teachers to Africa, than bring twenty students over here. They also prefer to be in their own setting with other Africans and their own problems." Dr. P.M. Driessen, from the Department of Soil Science and Geology is a staunch supporter of the refresher-course programme. Together with his college N.T. Konijn he gave such a course on Soil and Water to former MSc graduates in Gaborone, Botswana in December 1993. The two soil scientists managed to bring twenty Africans up-to-date with the latest developments in the field, and returned home with tears in their eyes. Due to the unprecedented success a similar course has been organised by the same duo in Beijing this month, so that the Asian MSc alumni can brush up their knowledge as well.

DGIS, the Dutch Ministry for Development Cooperation, has been offering grants to students from tropical countries since the 1950's. The reasoning goes that after a solid training in the Netherlands these people will then be capable of supporting the development process in their own countries. Surveys carried out among participants have indicated, however, that such an approach is not sufficient.

Many felt the need to bring their knowledge up-to-date, preferably in their home country, so that state of the art information could be tested directly against the contemporary situation. This was a clear request which found its way into Pronk's Education Paper. In this he announced the initiation of refresher courses; these would be intended for previous grant receivers from tropical countries who had received training at any of the fifteen establishments which provide international education. These establishments are united under the body Fion (Dutch Federation of International Education Institutes), and include WAU. Fion members were invited to submit proposals to DGIS, which has since financed some thirty courses. The experiment started in 1993, and is currently being evaluated.

Digital refresher

The soil and water course held in Botswana was one such trial run. The MSc Soil and Water programme in Wageningen has been attended by many DGIS funded students. Another DGIS requirement for setting up a refresher course is that the course offered in the Netherlands has been running for longer than five years. This applies to the Soil and Water programme. Other MSc programmes offered by AUW will only qualify in a few years time. The programme content has also changed substantially. The most significant change according to both Wageningers is the introduction of policy-oriented computer models for land use surveys. Ten years ago such surveys were largely qualitative in nature. Geological, hydrological, meteorological and other sorts of data were mapped for a particular area, which was then divided up according to suitability for a particular form of land use. For example, vegetable cultivation should take place on flat land, and trees should be planted in areas susceptible to e
rosion.

According to Driessen, the disadvantage of this method is that, although you may be able to determine whether a certain area is reasonably suited to a certain type of land use, you are unlikely to have much idea of the costs involved. In order to facilitate this aspect the department in Wageningen has spent the better part of the previous decade developing a series of computer programmes which, even with limited meteorological and geological data, are capable of generating figures on potential crop yields. By offsetting extra costs against increased yields it should be possible to calculate which interventions will enable costs to be recovered.

Such an approach can only be beneficial, continues Driessen, because irrigation projects in particular are extremely expensive. For this reason, according to the soil scientist, this decision-oriented model is very popular. They have demonstrated their wares as far afield as Greece, Brazil and Vietnam, and have had no problems filling a hotel with interested parties". In Gaborone twenty Africans followed a digital refresher course. After familiarizing themselves with the programme they were able to take the software (written in Quickbasic, a computer language widely used in developing countries) home with them at the end of the course.

Cockroaches

What about the logistic hurdles encountered in organizing such a course? How do you ensure the availability of a room full of computers, where do you obtain all the necessary meteorological data, and how do you ensure that all participants receive their visa? The responsibility for these and many other problems fell to Dr. M. Donkor. He also organized a field trip to northern Botswana where the students were able to put into practice what they had learned about simulated land use. Dr. Donkor, a Ghanaian, is himself a graduate of the soil and water course. At the time of the refresher course he was working through DGIS at the Botswana Agricultural University, and he organized the planning in such a way that the two course leaders themselves would not have to arrive in Botswana too long before the start of the course itself.

Upon their arrival the Wageningers found a room already equipped with ventilators and computers at the Crest Hotel. We were able to jump about like cockroaches between ventilators and computers. The audience was enthusiastic, and would have gladly stayed longer. For us it was also a unique opportunity to meet government representatives from nearly all African countries."

Despite all the positive experiences to emerge from the refresher experiment there remains one major drawback: lack of money. DGIS contributes about 160,000 guilders per course, out of which all personnel, travel and accommodation costs have to be paid. According to Dr. Jacobs of Bureau Buitenland the course in Botswana ran up a deficit of 18,000 guilders. WAU covered the deficit on this occasion, recounts Jacobs, because in times of cutbacks it is important to extend the range of skills offered. However, Jacobs also warns that departments would be wise to stay within the budget in future, to ensure continued participation in the scheme.

Wonderful

I am very much in favour of the refresher courses," offers Van de Weg, director of the IAC, and also treasurer of Fion. It is an excellent programme, but Fion itself supports the principle of total cost reimbursement. I understand that this may lead to a reduction in the number of courses offered; but we can't really expect to have it both ways."

Further enquiry at DGIS, however, yields information that the civil servants involved are themselves considering extending the number of courses offered, rather than increasing costs per course. They reason that Fion establishments should expect to contribute to costs, given that they stand to benefit from the wide range of contacts they are able to make. The Department of Soil Science recognizes these potential benefits. Driessen adds: We reckon we have a wonderful product, and of course we want to sell that. The Department offered no resistance to our proposal for the trip to Beijing. Hopefully we will reap the rewards later in the form of project funding. And of course it's wonderful that we'll be eating for four weeks with chopsticks."

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