Beyond Passion

Author: Vremudia O Irikefe

Day 5 USLS2015

This post represents the last in a series from the University Scholars Leadership Symposium being covered on the ground by the GLOSS’s team. Please check in regularly to keep up to date with the latest news from the symposium.

The USLS 2015 symposium ended on the 6th of August 2015 and it was not unusual to hear the following catch phrases ‘’be passionate’’, ‘’you need to have a passion, ‘’you can change the world’’ ‘’Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King changed the world’’ during the sessions. It gradually began to resonate like a clanging cymbal in my ears and truthfully I did not want to hear any more change the world speeches. In my opinion it is high time we moved away from these trite examples and instead give young people opportunities to develop practical skills needed to thrive in the real world; especially in a competitive field like the field of development.

In 2007, I attended the African Business Leadership Forum, which was similar to this symposium although it focused on Africa. I left this forum filled with the “I have a passion to change the world narrative’’. However eight years later, I am yet to change the world. On the contrary, my two month placement, a part of my Masters in International Development, has equipped me with  “world changing’’ skills  albeit in a different way not raised during the symposium. Through this experience, I have instead learned that providing easily accessible data on which quality development finance decisions are made can equally be life changing without having to contribute to the proliferation of development interventions.

To summarise Chris Blattman, in order to “change the world’’ it is necessary to have hard core and technical skills to thrive in the field of development. Recognition of this was however lacking in most of the speeches except the speech by Dr Thomas Chan. The first plenary I attended  was, according to the programme, to do with sustainable development, however the talk had nothing related to sustainable development but followed the same pattern of attempting to stir up our passion and  encourage us to start an initiative in order to change the world . A cursory look at the development sector shows a proliferation of projects and initiatives that have been set up by well-meaning passionate people who lacked the technical know-how. Sustainable projects which outlast the present generation are more needed rather than projects set up as a result of only a nudging passion.

Whilst the speaker spoke about budgeting and project management, a further step into the details of effective budgeting and project planning would have made the speech more rounded. A Malaysian delegate in my own opinion was the only one who gave an example related to sustainable development. He spoke about an instance in his community where; wealthier community members funded the education of the less privileged. This sort of intervention goes beyond just sending a child to school to fostering community cohesion and inclusive development. A simple act like this is more effective than having world changing grandiose ideas.

Providing a refreshing change of tone, in the next session, Dr Thomas Chan spoke about serving beyond borders. His speech ticked all the boxes for me and it was obvious he was well grounded in the field of development.  He spoke about every country having unique developmental needs; however the spatial patterns of these needs varied across borders. The interesting twist however was that according to him these borders did not necessarily have to be geographical in nature. It could be social borders created by a class system in the society. Using the example of China, he stated that despite its high economic growth and development, the high poverty rates was a border that needed to be addressed.

He further stated that to be taken seriously in our ‘’quest to change the world’’, we need to possess technical skill sets beyond having the passion and desire to make a difference. Using himself as an example of a successful neurosurgeon before heading World Vision in China, he insinuated that his successful career made it easy for him to convince the Chinese government to allow World Vision to act as an independent NGO without government intervention after China opened its borders.  In his response to a participant who had a passion for education and wanted to start his own initiative, Mr Chan advised, ‘’find out what the government policies in the country are, most development initiatives fail because they are not aligned to the policies of the country and sometimes schools end up being warehouses’’.

Whilst the idea of doing more, reaching out to others and being passionate is critical, the widely used clichés of towing the path of Mother Theresa and being the modern Martin Luther King without technical skills and understanding the different contexts of development would lead to fitting square pegs in round holes.

The event closed with a closing speech by the Minister of Education who reiterated the importance of education and the need for young people to take a leap and become great in their endeavours. Citing examples from management books in a way typical of a Wall Street investment banker, he attributed the growth in Hong Kong’s economy to its ability to harness its human capital.  The venue of the next USLS was announced to hold in Vietnam next year and hopefully the participants including myself would have ‘’changed the world’’ in a way that fits their individual contexts.

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