When a farmer takes the stage

by Guido Rutten

“Treat us as equal citizens – don’t forget that it’s us who feed you in the city!” 

Abdelwahab El Haddad knew what he had to do when taking the stage – he had to shake things up a little. Moments before, this water conference had looked like any other. A luxury venue, a plenary session and a crowd full of senior managers, policy makers and engineers.

When Abdelwahab speaks, the crowd looks up. The friendly Egyptian does not hold titles of academic importance. He does not have a fancy powerpoint with graphs that indicate daunting futures on water scarcity. He is a farmer, and he has a clear and simple message: your solutions won’t work without us – so you’ll have to work with us.

A few minutes later, Zahida Detho asks the farmers in the room to raise their hands. People in the front curiously turn around, their gazes meeting other eyes that scan for hands. There are no farmers. When Zahida asks the women in the room to raise their hands, the truth is already uncomfortably known to all. Zahida, a farmer from Pakistan, doesn’t need to say any more.

Somewhere in the large auditorium, a group of 14 young African high potentials in water management nervously listen to Abdelwahab and Zahida’s speech. They know that they will have to take the stage the next day, and expose another uncomfortable truth: that we have forgotten to invest in human capital.
When their moment comes, these young professionals seize the opportunity. Senior experts gather round the sheets of paper on which the youngsters have sketched their challenges. How do you prevent migrant workers from carrying out illegal, water-polluting mining activities in Burkina Faso? How can we build up long-term ownership of irrigation infrastructure amongst farmers, if donor money needs to be spent so quickly?

Initial hesitation is quickly overcome and heated debates follow, where the young professionals hurriedly take notes and collect business cards. Because this rare case of knowledge transfer between senior and junior professionals should not stop here. It should only grow bigger, before we lose a wealth of knowledge as seniors start to retire.

The people in this story are the forgotten stakeholders. During the First World Irrigation Forum in Mardin, Turkey, they took their chance to come out of the shadows. IFAD supports these forgotten stakeholders in their quest to bring the uncomfortable truths to daylight.