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Is there space for young professionals in international agricultural development?

I have turned 40 recently. No cause for alarm: it all went well.

Nevertheless, within the YPARD community, I have instantly changed from being a “young” professional to becoming an “old” one.

Furthermore, I have also just changed job: after seventeen years working on agricultural policies and development at national and international levels, I am now in charge of a team of twenty-eight colleagues who process the claims for subsidies of ten thousand farmers in the State government’s office of a local French territory.

At this milestone in my professional career, I wanted to reflect on the space for youth in the different institutions I have worked with up to now. In particular, I have already mentioned in this blog how different countries defined a “young farmer”. Likewise, I have noticed during this first part of my professional life that, depending on the sociocultural context, it was more or less easy for talented young experts to highlight their work achievements, be recognized, and collect praise and promotions.

My experience within European institutions is rather positive for young professionals. I have worked for the French government and for a French research institute for international agricultural development. I have undertaken research in a British university and tried several times to get a job with the UK civil service. I have also collaborated with Dutch organizations. Each time, I have felt that the young could indeed put forward their ideas and have their expertise recognized. In my case, I was able to bring the projects I was in charge of to fruition with great independence and to be rewarded directly for a job well done. However, I also think that I have been lucky to be overseen by bosses and research directors who were comfortable with letting their young colleagues experiment and take charge.

In the French and British civil service, I have the feeling that promotions and recruitments are mainly decided given the demonstrated capabilities and successes of the candidate, although it is also fundamental to develop one’s network and get to be known by decision makers and potential recruiters to increase one’s chances of being chosen for a managerial position. 

In Asia, I would say that the professional space left for young experts in governmental administrations and development institutions reflects these countries’ sociocultural systems based on the respect for the elders. I have worked with several talented young partners across many Asian countries. However, in some of these countries, they were not often in charge of the project on which we were collaborating, and the credit for their good work would probably go mainly to their boss. (The major means of gaining some independence was to set up their own private firm to get their expertise recognized and have it bear fruit.) 

Nonetheless, I have worked in three Asian countries where my young work partners were just as independent and free-thinking as I, under the benevolent supervision of our respective bosses. Rather surprisingly given their Confucian tradition, I have found that young professionals could blossom out quite freely in the milieu of Chinese and Vietnamese agricultural development; they could also seize opportunities to move quickly up along their career paths. 

Perhaps the socialist systems as implemented in these two countries have something to do with this state of things. Finally, in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, I have also worked with partners of my generation who were already managing projects or teams despite their relatively young age.

During the three years, I have spent in Africa I have discovered an unfortunate and rather generalized lack of good-quality managers. I think this situation can explain how talented young experts and managers can be called upon to take on important decision-making positions quite early on in their career because there is no real competition from more elderly colleagues who are not always as technically competent. I would say that choosing to study for a good-quality university degree will enable young Africans to be recruited successfully for very interesting managerial positions in the field of agricultural development on the continent.

Finally, I have also worked in international organizations. All those that I have collaborated with would put forward the rights to independence and to an equitable attribution of the work done by all the contributors in a team. However, I have noticed that the potential for young professionals to blossom in these international organizations was also related to the nationality of their supervisor. I have been lucky to work with bosses from Australia, China, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand: free reign for the young professionals. Other young colleagues were working for bosses coming from countries with very hierarchical professional cultures; they found it more difficult to get fulfillment at work.

As I have gained experience, I have also increasingly enjoyed mentoring young professionals who were fresh out of school, helping them think independently, in the same way as I had been nurtured myself, and even if I could see that this was sometimes difficult for those who had not been used to this in their usual sociocultural environment. I hope to continue to play this mentoring role for young experts and professionals in the field of agricultural development.

However, my main professional challenge today is to find myself the boss of a large team of colleagues who are much more knowledgeable than I, and who for many, have more years of professional experience than I have. It is thus a completely new skill that I am now meant to master: being a manager.

Blog post by Jo Cadilhon, Head of Service – Agricultural Commodities and Economics, Departmental Directorate for Territories and the Sea of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France.The views expressed are personal, and cannot be attributed to the French government or YPARD.

 

Photo credit:  Flickr ILRI/Sara Quinn of CIP