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The View from Here: Time for a change

Mike Gangwer Published on 30 August 2013

Editor’s note: The following report was submitted prior to recent violence and political upheaval in Egypt after the removal of Pres. Mohamed Morsi from office.

I am one of many scientists, educators and engineers working here in Egypt. We are all from the U.S., and our funding source is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

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In this article, I write why this model is flawed enough that we can do better. Not everyone agrees. So I lay out my case and buttress it with now five years of working overseas.

Some readers may have heard or read of the kingmaker and the king model, simply making the case that someone working behind the scenes, out of the limelight and away from the podium or lectern is responsible for training and supporting the king.

It is, after all, the king that is in the scene, in the limelight, at the podium and at the lectern.

The purpose of this model is to align the interests of the general public with the capacities of those who govern.

And from my perspective, the interests of the general public are usually aligned with one of their own as king, not someone from afar, like me or my U.S. colleagues.

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This is an important concept because we Americans come to a foreign land, are well received, do our usually short-term work and do it though the western model (how things are done in Kansas, for instance), and then we go home. What remains?

Not much. If we have not worked in the role of the kingmaker, then we fail at training and supporting the king, or the person that will carry on after us.

Nearly every day, I am taken to a group of farmers sitting in a large room. They are attentive and generally interested in learning and perhaps even changing how they farm.

We visit a few crop fields or orchards, we dig a few soil cores, we examine leaves, touch roots, examine drip irrigation hoses, place cans under a center-pivot sprinkler package, measure electrical conductivity of water, taste fruit, smell the soil, feel the organic matter and count earthworms.

All eyes are upon us. Every move we make is examined and mimicked. We are the center of attention. I have placed many examples of this very classroom and field visit on my Facebook site, photos and all.

At nearly all visits like these, a Ministry of Agriculture official, or several of them, is with the group. They are willing participants – but participants only.

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Nearly all of them have some training, albeit book training. Rarely do they tell me they have worked in the field as an apprentice under the tutelage of a mentor. Yet these are the very folks who should be the kings.

I have written (extensively) about the problems of just delivering training to these extension officers or ministerial officials.

They are trained but lack the support of their supervisor to equip them, empower them and give them the tools they need to go out to farms and engage with farmers.

We call this a lack of legitimacy, and it is uniformly the great constraint in every country I have worked in. Again, just delivering training is an incomplete role for us as kingmakers … we must also engage their supervisors so the trained worker has his or her supervisorial support.

The role of the kingmaker is much harder than the role of the king. We enter the room and go to the field and suggest this or answer that, and then we get back in the vehicle after taking some photographs and say to ourselves, “Good stop; I did my job.”

What I am suggesting here is that we can do much better. For example, I am given one month to work in Egypt, my current assignment. I arrive and spend a few days in the field getting some semblance of the farm and farmer inventory.

But I spend the bulk of my time talking with those who will be kings (extension and ministerial staff) and showing them how to do their work in the field.

And something else: making sure their supervisor fully supports them. This all falls apart if these folks go back to their workplace and their supervisor does not or will not support them.

Three support items are required: the tools to do their job, the financial support and a business plan that lists what they are to-do tasks and how they will be evaluated in terms of completing these listed tasks.

Too often, we train people only to have them go back to a work environment that does not include this support. Obviously, they are frustrated.

My entire point here is simple: We can do our work behind the scenes and therefore help bring legitimacy to those paid to do their work. They are the ones who live and work locally, and if what they have to offer is useful, then they are legitimate long after we are gone.

This is a very different model than our current one. We are just delivering an output model … answer questions, give digital or written material, and then we are gone.

An outcome model is far more desirable … we are empowering a local extension or ministerial worker to engage with those he or she is hired to help, and the result of this engagement is a positive change in human behavior.

Let me be clear: We do some good, or I would not go back again and again. What I am suggesting is quite a different role for us, and in my opinion USAID and the NGO community are not ready to think like this.

One often-heard comment is the capacity building model I ask for (kingmaker role) takes more time and assumes an already existing competency that proves wrong or incomplete.

Yes, I think this is true in some cases. But we can handle that right from the beginning by designing our outcome model based upon the inventory factors for the people themselves, including the supervisors, and attempting to make sure the host government leadership is on board with support.

If we do not have this, then we have enduring numbers of people just like me coming for a short period of time and then going home.

Finally, the kingmaker model is at the core of an empowering model based upon increasing the knowledge base for these workers and enabling them to earn the legitimacy they so desperately seek.

Legitimacy in the workplace is not granted or given, but earned. Self-respect and dignity at career performance and completion of tasks in a business plan are not given or handed out; they are earned.

I was not given a doctorate; I had to earn it. I was not given my career; I had to earn it. And so on.

In the end, therefore, this approach is all about empowerment and weaning ourselves away from the egocentric model of providing entitlements to someone in far-away lands.

Besides, we just don’t have the money to support any kind of entitlement program. Such enslavement is not in the host country’s best interest, and it is certainly not in ours. Time for a change. PD

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Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist
USDA-NRCS

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