Don’t forget about the little people
Let us not underestimate the value of the common man – not all knowledge is lying in books or research papers
IT’S NOT very often that I get a chance to attend an event as a participant. As your proverbial hack, a journalist, I’m just an observer on the outside looking in. But recently I had the privilege of being selected as one of 55 participants from across the continent in the very first Afrique Avenir Forum held in Paris in February. The forum was organised at the request of French President Jacques Chirac to precede the African Heads of States Summit in Cannes that same week. It was arranged as a sort of “think tank” to serve as what would provide a platform of expression for a dynamic and successful Africa: one that’s poorly reflected in the world at large.
To that end, 55 Africans from various industries, backgrounds and experiences, who were having a positive effect on their environment, were assembled to share their stories and perhaps identify ways in which such successes on the continent could be replicated and spread. Participants ranged from entrepreneurs, academics, chemists, nuclear physicists, doctors, lawyers, artists, filmmakers, journalists, environmentalists and engineers, to name but a few. What made this forum special was the fact that it completely excluded all government officials, ambassadors and celebrity businessmen. Only ordinary people were invited, people who probably wouldn’t be regarded as high profile in their respective countries but who were identified by civil society as people who were succeeding in their own right.
This decision to include only the testimonies of ordinary people and exclude politicians and high profile businessmen made the forum all the more exceptional. People shared their simple experiences with profound impact. When we engaged each other in the open panel sessions, the debates were more honest and frank and above all… real. The stories told were those of people on the ground, who dealt with the real impact of lofty government policies and strategies. They provided realistic case studies of what was happening on a day-to-day basis in all the various sectors and areas of economic and social development in numerous African states. The sessions lacked that annoying diplomatic jargon and sidestep- ping that usually accompany conferences and gatherings of this nature. There were no flowery introductions, no attempts of unwarranted flattery or criticism between speakers, no policy driving, no grandstanding or political manoeuvring, no elaborate speech making or grandiose announcements.
Because none of us were politicians, there were no political agendas to push – all we could do was share our personal experiences and try to figure out what it all meant. The only fanfare in the occasion was a 20-minute visit by Chirac, which required us all to meet and greet him in a long procession line, which took an hour to assemble. Apart from this short political interlude, the experience was refreshing and rewarding.
At the end of the forum, scribes who had been recording comments throughout the proceedings formulated a message that was conveyed to the African Heads of States in Cannes. The only identifiable failure of the forum was the fact that the final message was not entirely satisfactory to many delegates – myself included – who felt that it failed to capture the spirit of the forum and the discussions that took place. But despite this conferences of late, is that they rarely have any real effect on the bottom line. And perhaps more importantly, they fail to capture an accurate portrait. Industry leaders in attendance are often prone to painting a picture that is sometimes far removed from reality in fear of losing their “top job” or interfering with agendas. Often these conferences lack input from the very people who would be implementing, or who are affected by, the decisions that are taken.
Sometimes, it’s not enough to engage the cream at the top for strategy building; I believe it is crucial to engage ordinary people as well: the nurse who runs a small clinic in a rural town, the farmer who employs 10 labourers on his small dairy farm and the 5th grade teacher in the township school. These are the people who really know what’s going on, who can give the truest account of the reality of life in South Africa and can tell us what is working and what is not working. Perhaps it’s time we realised that even ordinary people have knowledge to impart and some experience to share. Typically communities are only consulted at the end of the process, once the policy or solution has been formu-
Sometimes, it’s not enough to engage the cream at the top for strategy building; I believe it is
crucial to engage ordinary people as well
disappointing hitch, the experience itself was worthwhile. In fact, I found it so enriching that I would recommend a similar model of conferencing to our own President and other decision makers in dealing with other national or international challenges. Until now, the basic model for any convention or indaba in this country is to: identify all the major stakeholders, invite all the top decision makers within those stakeholder groups and convene. Conferences are biased towards commerce and politics and rarely include creative players in arts and culture.
And although the current model is sometimes valuable, my general experience with lated and established.
One of the participants in the conference was a cotton farmer from Burkina Faso. Despite the fact that he had never finished school, François Traore is President of the Association of African Cotton Producers. During our session, he explained to us how on many occasions he had instructed men with far superior education than he on various aspects of cotton farming. He explained that even though he was an uneducated man, his experience as a farmer, which spanned his entire childhood and adult life, had taught him many things that people couldn’t learn from a book.