Last Thursday, the Study Circle for Development Issues SKOV held a meeting on agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. Resource-blogger Camilla found the mix of old and young visitors especially inspiring.
The speakers were Wageningen professors as well as senior experts who brought their perspectives, from Angola to Vietnam, from Tanzania to Peru. The public was an interesting blend of current Wageningen students, whose career is yet to begin, and Wageningen graduates, mostly grey-haired with a whole practitioner’s career behind. This generational blend, more than the content of the seminar, gave me some insights in how the debate can move forward.
On one hand, senior practitioners have a capital of experience. With the years, experience makes them mostly unable to take in new standpoints. Example: as different perspectives on agricultural development in Africa were brought on stage, some of these grey-haired gentlemen (seems like at that time women did not consider a career in tropical agriculture very sexy) got pretty heated. For every guest that intervened, there was one who followed up to correct him as a matter of personal pride. In a word, seniors seemed to find it very hard to just listen to each other before arguing.
On the other hand, current students have great creativity but no first-hand experience. A lot has been done in the past four decades, and we the youngsters should know it, to understand what could be innovated (and why many projects have not really worked in Africa...). It was great to have the chance to approach senior guests and speakers one-on-one with a drink. We could talk openly of all sort of provocative topics and solution like sponges eager to absorb and process information. Perhaps, because the world in which we are growing requires a number of different qualities, and the capacity to reconcile extremely different information is one of them.
Remembering George Orwell’s lesson, that ‘who controls the past controls the future’, I think that opportunities for mingling between these generations are crucial for learning and improvement. Whereas most problems in the field of agricultural development are similar to 40 years ago, the approach of the new cohort of developers to these challenges might, hopefully, bring about something new, as long as they are able to learn from who preceded them.