In praise of learning

Development Policy12 Mar 2010Mari-Lise du Preez

“When I was 17, my parents didn’t know a thing. It’s amazing how much they’ve learnt in 10 years!”

Now is not a good time to draw me into the blogosphere. You should have gotten hold of me five years ago, when I still knew everything. When Professor James C. Scott and I could have told you why certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Five years ago I could have awed you into silence with my grand theory of everything, and then told you how to fix it. Just like that. What a pity you didn’t ask me then. Because today… Well, today, I’m not so sure anymore.

Today, I realise that I’m but a newbie in the big world of international development. Every time I speak to stakeholders – to government, to business, and especially to individuals at the grass roots level – I am reminded that these are the people who live the issues I write about every day. And every time I surf on Google Scholar, I am reminded that I am riding on the shoulders of giants. I now realise that there are people, like Prof. Scott, who have been at it for far longer than I have. I realise that finding one’s voice takes time and that I will not be writing that big book. Not yet, anyway.

In the meantime, however, I already call myself a researcher. That is how I put bread on my table. And I guess being in the business of knowing things and then arguing that you don’t know anything can be a bit of a problem. So, I will follow the lead of the queen bee of talk and rack my brains to find something I now know for sure:

I have learnt that putting all the experts in one room does not guarantee that you will get good answers. Not unless you start by asking good questions. In the past five years, I have become a big believer in asking the right questions. In today’s world, I believe it to be even more important than knowing all the answers.

In the spirit of asking questions, therefore, I throw the ball in your court: Is there anything you want to know? Well, I don’t mean anything exactly, but anything to do with this strange and other world of which we speak and even form a part of – that of international development. I’m sure my fellow bloggers will have an answer for you. You might not consider it the right answer and that will be even better. Because then we can discuss it. Or we might well follow the example of those teachers admired through the ages and throw a question back at you. And then we can discuss it.