Like so many bloggers I have neglected this one far too long. But for good reason. Over 9 weeks I had the pleasure of coordinating an exchange program on behalf of the NTCA for 20 Indonesian Ag-science students. They flew home a couple of weeks ago and I have just finished writing the evaluation report. Some of it was easy, a checklist of numbers of students who were assessed as competent in each of the training models and scores from different stakeholders on our selection process, training modules and how well each student adapted to life on an outback cattle station.
But this tells only a tiny portion of the story.
The students come to Australia not only to learn practical skills about working on an Australian cattle station but also to share their culture and Indonesian way of life with the Australian people they meet and vice versa.
The fact that the program has a positive impact not only on the lives of the students but on those of the host stations, trainers and others involved in the project is obvious, measuring it and communicating it to those not there to witness it is more difficult.
How do you measure the grin on a student’s face when they get a joy flight in a mustering helicopter or when they master the art of getting not only their horse but the cattle as well to go where they want?
As an economist I was taught to break costs and benefits down to comparable units so they can be ordered and the ‘best’ one chosen.
But spending time with these students reminds me of the importance of valuing the intangible-things. As the Indonesian Consul in Darwin said in his farewell speech the students arrived a little nervous and unsure what lay ahead yet were brimming with a new confidence (and some new muscles!) by the time they were due to leave.
In their final presentations the students without exception spoke of their new ‘Aussie families’ and two commented that along with their new nicknames they were now ‘Brunchilly brothers’ – Brunchilly being one of the host stations newly involved in the program for 2015. These presentations showed in pictures what is hard to describe in words, how by bringing 53 students from 14 universities to the Northern Territory since 2012 has helped to repair some off the tangible & intangible costs to the Australian cattle industry caused by the live export ban in 2011.
The students spend time living, working & learning on cattle stations. They learn practical skills like horse-riding, mustering & drafting but they also learn the culture & ways of the Northern beef industry, the long dusty days, of working harder than you ever have before, a whole new language, bosses who are tough but above all the sense of family that comes when you eat, sleep & breathe cattle with the same small group of people every day.
Equally the Aussie staff on these stations learn about Indonesian culture, language, religion & food. The relationships & understandings formed in this way cannot be measured by boxes ticked or scores evaluated. Their value though will be felt over the next decades as these students go on to become the importers, animal welfare officers, lecturers & ministers of tomorrow’s Indonesia. The staff here may be the managers or exporters of tomorrow & they too will be better at understanding their customers and how to produce a better product to meet that market.
Now, I’m off to plan the next adventure, taking 15 station staff on a 10 day tour of Indonesia. On this trip we will visit some of the students at their universities and tour feedlots and abattoirs which import and process Australian cattle. In this way we continue the understanding and relationships built by this amazing program.