Saturday, March 28, 2009


I woke up in a different place. After 23 hours of travel you can completely change your environment; your accent; your approach; your diet; your clothing; your expectations; your feelings. You can change all of these things and fit right in to your surroundings such that nobody notices anything out of the ordinary. It somehow seems foreign to not be in a foreign environment. I can hear Canadian accents all around me from people I don’t know, and won’t make the effort to know. I can’t believe how much stuff women carry with them when they travel with infants. The stroller is a like a vehicle with a glove box, cup holder, and cruise control. Their arms are overloaded with goods that could neatly sit on their heads if they just coiled up one of those little blankets they have stuffed into the side compartment. Such an inefficient use of transportation surfaces.

Leaving Ghana was relatively easy. I bought a ticket. I packed some things, including a multitude of gifts from my friends and neighbours. I gave gifts to my friends and neighbours. We talked about how relatively easy it will be to keep in touch – especially if they can sign up for an email account. We talked about the time-zones and how calling me when they first get up in the morning won’t be well received. I boarded a bus that in true Ghanaian style took 5 additional hours and 1 additional bus than it required to get to Accra. I left Tamale, the dust, the sun, the heat, the rowdy children instinctively calling to me when they see me pass. I left Stephen, Esther, Alice, and their soon to arrive little son. I left my sisters Patience, Grace, Maggie, Amashetu and a compound full of activity, laughing, worries, song. I left Greg, Habib, Eric, Timothy, Zulfawu, Bertha and Yvonne to continue everything we had started in a year of assessing and planning for a stronger more deliberate approach to managing development in the Northern Region. I left Vida, Mahmud, Peter, Priscilla, Lydia, Amshawu, Stephen, Ibrahim, Matthew, Adam, Kobiru, and so many other faces that accompanied along my paths through Tamale, through 13 months of knowing that there was so much more to understand everything around me. I laughed, I cried.

Sleep Walking

I came back to an unfamiliar familiarity. Box stores, box restaurants, and recycled ideas that appear “out of the box.” It’s easy to see only what you want to see. I can stare at houses, furniture, flatware, and imagine making a completely comfortable home. I can imagine adopting a life like so many people, doing the same things everyday without much awareness of the majority of the world around them. Who would want to crush themselves by carrying the weight of the world when you don’t have to and you can’t solve it all anyway?

So much seems the same, yet of course I can’t see it that way. While I was away from Canada America elected its first visibly black president; Canadian politics had a temper tantrum and prorogued itself. Gas prices skyrocketed; the world briefly recognized a food crisis, the stock market crashed. Canada decided to “focus” its aid efforts on countries with easier markets to access and natural resources to mine. China went into space, and hosted a fabulously flashy and controversial Olympic Games. A lot happened, and so much didn’t. I can be angry and disappointed, but I can’t let it overwhelm me. Canada is no more a single attitude, a single background or a single outlook than Africa is a single country, a single culture, or a single destiny. There’s hope all around me in the hearts and minds of those swimming through all of the distractions, determined to do something.


I’ve really come to appreciate that the bigger picture always seems to present more problems than solutions. Digging deeper only complicates it all, and it’s easy to fall prey to cynicism or worse, apathy. But I’ve also come to appreciate that worrying about macro scales is only helpful if I recognize that all I can ever hope to do is make a difference in the sphere of people right around me. If I can do that well, and in a way that helps them to do the same, then despite not being able to truly attribute any change to myself, I believe I can still do more than anybody who from a distance tried to apply a far reaching policy or formula to stimulate change. For me it’s only about people, and it only ever has to be.

Real People

Sister Maggie: my next door neighbour
Mahmud: my tailor made friend
Yvonne, Zulfawu, Bertha independent women from the RPCU
Stephen and Esther: my Ghana family
Esther: my princess
The EWB Governance & Rural Infrastructure Team in Ghana
Timothy: friend and colleague from the RPCU
Greg: boss, mentor and inspiration & friend
Zulfawu: friend and sister on the move
Habib: friend, colleague and new father
Yvonne, Zeblim, new smock: memories of northern Ghana
Peter: friend and confidant for life
Sister Amashetu, Sister Patience: warmth for my soul

I left the work in Ghana in the very capable hands of my Ghanaian colleagues and another EWB volunteer, Dan, along with the 3 other team members working with the districts in Northern Region, to support them in implementing everything we’ve aspired to do. I’ve come back determined to support the work in any way I can from Canada.

The faces of the RPCU and development in Northern Region

I don’t know exactly what’s next. I expect this will be my last post on this blog as it is. At least until I have another story to write. My truly supportive father commented to me on my last day in Ghana that he was happy to have me coming home, yet feeling sadness that this part of my life was closing; that neither he nor I would be hearing about Ghanaians in the same way anymore.

Thank you for joining me in this incredible year. Thank you for supporting me, for filling me in on news at home. Thank you for asking questions, for reflecting on thoughts and ideas. Thank you, for believing in me and everyone you’ve come to know through my writing. I don’t know if any of this will inspire you to think or do anything different. It doesn’t have to. It’s changed me, as I knew it would.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Happy Anniversary Vida – the story of an entrepreneur

Vida was born into a family with five children; two boys, three girls. Her mother and father were both educated, her father had 2 scholarships to study in USA, her mother went to teachers college but stopped before she graduated to get married and raise a family. Vida attended middle school in Bolgatanga, northern Ghana. When she reached Senior Secondary School she knew that she didn’t like taking notes, and she liked to be creative. Upon this realization she quickly shifted her courses to home economics where she scored good grades.

With a supportive family, and determined to become more than proficient in a kitchen, Vida studied at Domestic Sciences and Catering in Accra, a top quality school. "If you go to La Palm or Labodi Hotel in Accra, and you ask in the kitchens who went to Domestic Science and Catering at least three people will raise their hands,” she told me proudly one day. She studied two years there, and then furthered her education at Tamale Polytechnic, and then at Kumasi Polytechnic for her higher degree in catering.

During that time she started to think about what she wanted to do, where should she get a job? Accra? Kumasi? Tamale? Bolga? She realized she had a vision. Throughout this period her friends would worry about her because oftentimes, while they were all out talking and enjoying themselves, Vida would be staring off somewhere else—her mind adrift with ideas and aspirations.

Of her own volition, Vida prepared a traditional Thanks Giving dinner for all of the Canadians in town!

After graduating Tamale Polytechnic, Vida needed a job. She applied at the largest hotels in town, but they weren’t looking for anybody. Finally a friend told her about GILLBT, a Christian guesthouse and conference centre that was looking for a catering supervisor. Vida went for the interview and before she could even leave the property she was offered the job! Even though the salary was far too small (60GH¢/mo) she knew she had to start somewhere, so she readily accepted.

It was tough to save money, even when she needed to find a place to live and GILLBT allowed her to stay in one of their rooms, Vida still struggled to put anything in her savings. She knew she needed her own space, to experiment and react to everything she was learning, so in her evenings she would walk around and look for a place that she might be able to set up for her own. Some evenings she would get in a shared taxi—not going anywhere—to look around for a good place to call her own.

Most businesses here start with a container. An iron freight container like the kind you see rail cars made from. One of these containers would cost her 7000GH¢ at the time. On her small salary it would take forever for her to save that amount. So she talked to her employer and they agreed to guarantee her on a bank loan for 7000Gh¢. Now she had her restaurant – she just needed a place to put it!

Then one day she found a place she liked near a washing bay. She found out that to get this land she would have to talk to the chief and the elders of that area. Following a discussion with them they agreed that they would like to develop that area, and that a restaurant would employ local people, so if she could pay them 30GH¢ she could use the place.

Finally things started to look like they were happening and Vida placed her little container looking toward the road with a small patio in front. She bought 4 little tables and 12 chairs. It was enough to start. She made a banner for the road that read “Luxury Catering, Now Open!” and began to serve her first customers. By this time she was making more money at GILLBT, but working the two jobs was getting a bit tough. She needed to take the risk and invest more. But before she could expand her shop she needed electricity. To get connected to the electricity network she would have to buy a pole, and get the lines extended to her place. That would be another 2000GH¢. She’d maxed out her loan at the bank and her savings were now going to her restaurant… they wouldn’t have been enough anyway. So like so many Ghanaians, she turned to family friends.

A lawyer in Bolgatanga got a call one morning from Vida, she apologized for her situation and what she was about to do, but also felt that she couldn’t stop now. After she finished her story she waited to see what he would think. To her great relief he laughed at her anxiety and told her that of course he would help her, and he asked her when she needed the money by. 2 weeks later on a trip to Tamale he met Vida in the parking lot of GILLBT. She jumped in his vehicle and asked him to take her straight to the electric company. “Vida! You really are serious about this!” he exclaimed. And she was.

Feeling that the time was right, Vida said goodbye to the friends and support at GILLBT and set out on her own. Her restaurant is in the area where a lot of NGOs have their offices. She started by selling the typical fare: plan rice, fried rice and jollof rice, with some other traditional dishes. But Vida’s approach was a bit different. One of the Canadian volunteers in the area started coming to Luxury Catering, and instead of just repeating the menu Vida asked her “What would you like?” To which she was told “Beef stroganoff.” “Okay, I can make that,” she responded and she hurried off to the kitchen. One tasty continental meal later, her customer was thoroughly impressed! “Vida! You can make these things?!” And that’s how it started. The expat community is fairly connected in Tamale, and soon enough the word started to spread that Vida could make special orders of traditional and continental food.

Things started to take off from there. Yam balls – a traditional food, but not commonly offered – were next to feature on Vida’s menu, again they were a hit! That’s when I got the call – “Jen you have to taste these yam balls and pasta salad! It’s amazing!” It was then that I met this dynamic woman, and soon to become close friend. It wasn’t just that her dedication to customers and service were unparalleled from everything I’d experienced so far in Ghana, but it was that she was genuine; one of those people who always leave you feeling in a better mood.

Next came apple pie, chocolate cake, brownies!! Pizza, hamburgers, salads!! And it didn’t stop there. When Vida was back in Bolga visiting her family she saw the traditional painted walls and knew she had to bring this back to her restaurant. She asked around for local artists and soon her little container had a face-lift! Then came a deep-freezer, a glass fronted fridge, wines, a display case, lounge chairs, fancy table cloths. As Vida’s popularity started to grow, her busy kitchen needed to expand, so she built a brick walled kitchen attached to the back of the restaurant, added another gas range, a pantry.

Every time I came to the restaurant I found something new. Vida’s dreams are being realized one component at a time, and it’s obvious from each culinary experience that Luxury Catering is more than an income; more than a restaurant. It’s Vida’s. When I asked her about her ideas for the future she didn’t hesitate to talk about her next ambition. She’d like to open a training school in Tamale for school dropouts that would teach cooking hygiene and nutrition, and the art of catering. I probed her a bit to see how serious she was. After a quick mental calculation she told me that she should be in a position to start her school around 2012-2013. It’s not often that I run into people who can so readily express their 3-5 year plan in Canada, never mind in Ghana where opportunities are fewer and farther between. For women like Vida, life doesn’t just happen, she drives it, makes it her own.

Looking around Tamale you see so many of the same chop bars, the same kenke sellers, tailors selling the same clothes, the same provision stores offering the same goods. What makes Vida different? It would be short-sighted to point to one or two few things, but it’s obvious that Vida has an internal drive that fuels her entrepreneurialism and creates opportunity in a world that offers so few lucky breaks.

I’ll be leaving Ghana soon, likes so many other “development workers” who come and go from Tamale, I’m sad to be leaving friends like Vida, but also inspired, and I can’t help but be excited for the future of Ghana built upon the efforts of women and men like Vida. In her elemental way, she’s more of a development worker here than I could ever be. To me she embodies the restless spirit that refuses to give in, the tenacity that will find a way despite obstacles at every turn, and the genuineness to make it enduring.

Cheers to you Vida! To your first anniversary: celebrating everything you are and to everything you are sure to become!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Generation X-Y

In response to my last post I had a friend ask me “What do the men do? I've hardly ever read about the work the men do.”

It’s a good point. Being immersed in this culture I’ve been struck by “old fashioned thinking” and at times outraged by downright sexist behaviour. Development projects are always looking for gender disaggregated data, and focusing on gender issues, and gender equity. Obviously this means a lot of focus on women and their traditional roles in society. It’s easy to become so taken by the plight of women; one that is so visible in my work, home and social life here.

Well obviously it goes both ways. As much as women are discouraged from taking on more productive roles (building things, growing staple crops, earning an income, etc.), men are also discouraged from taking on more reproductive roles (cleaning, cooking, fetching water, fetching firewood, rearing children, etc.). I’ve heard men talk about how they stay in the house to cook instead of cooking out in the compound because he and his wife would be ridiculed if he was seen cooking for them both. I’ve heard of other men threatening to beat men who are seen to let their wife have too much power in the relationship, because she may start causing trouble by encouraging other women to rise up and disrespect their husbands.

Despite the social pressures against change and gender equity, I am inspired by men and women who are pushing against the norm. The last post was about a young woman. In this post I want to tell you about a 68-year-old man. Mr. John Nachomwa isn’t campaigning against gender inequity, or protesting against women’s injustices – or at least that’s not what I saw when I visited him in Gbaln. Yet what I recognized came closer to mainstreaming gender (a term that features prominently in development conversation) than a good number of manuals, guidelines, reports and strategies from various authors that I’ve seen floating across the desks of regional and district government.

John used to be an Agricultural Extension Agent, which means that he was employed by the government to visit farmers and support them in best practices for farming. John learned a lot during that time about different farming techniques, and he also learned a lot about people. In a village setting where school is often seen as the pathway to professional jobs in other towns and cities, he recognized how critical it was that farmers have an education. He saw that it enabled them to better calculate risk, and to make educated decisions. Those who weren’t used to critically assessing options were much more risk averse and less willing to change their practices. He himself was the first of his family to be educated so he is fulfilling a duty he feels to give back to the village and people that gave to his future.

John and his family

Because of John’s education and past career in the public service, he is now the community liaison with local government. When he first came to the community to begin building his home and his farm, none of the children were in school. The only school at that time was about 8km away – a difficult walk, especially during the rainy season (now there is a school 3km away, which is still a fair distance for a 6 year old). So he found support to build a church that also serves as a primary school. Not a formal primary school, but an informal school supported through the School For Life programme which teaches the local language, and prepares them to learn in a formal school environment once they are old enough to walk to the formal school. To supply this informal school with the necessary items like chalk, books and soap. Going to the district capital and back to petition for programmes and services on a bicycle can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on your stamina. Waiting for the coordinators to see you and provide you with what you are seeking can take another 2-4 hours depending on your patience. John said in the last couple of years he had to give up making the ride to town and pass it off to his son. At 68 he’s getting just a bit tired.

Home-school blackboards are created by rubbing spent lead batteries on the wall.

Besides promoting and supporting basic education in his community, John also works with the farmers by trying new things and demonstrating their viability. John showed me his farm and we saw cashews, palm nuts, plantains, pineapples, teak trees, and beans in addition to his staple cassava, maize, and yams. What I was really excited to see, however, was his dry season farming. We walked through the fields of dry grass and gradually began to see more green as we descended toward the river. This is where we found John’s tomato farm on the dried river bed that he cultivated after the rainy season banks receded into the dry season. This means that John can grow crops to sustain his family and even earn a little income all year round. Yet despite his successes, not many farmers are following his example. Instead they chide him for wasting his time; working so hard when he is so old. To that he answers that he is not working for himself, but for his grandchildren.

John's small cashew plantation

“I see so many men sitting under a tree playing owari during the dry season,” John lamented. It’s not that male farmers don’t work hard – digging yam mounds and farming cassava is back-breaking work, but when the season is over, much of their work ends too.

John's tomato crop

Why do I say that the work John is doing can be recognized as gender mainstreaming? Let’s look at productive and reproductive roles a little more. Productive roles tend to look a little more like projects with beginnings and ends. They are often seasonal. Reproductive roles are so named because they must be done all year round indefinitely. Both are critical to a balanced society. To me, gender mainstreaming doesn’t get captured in gender disaggregated data or in talking to women and finding out their needs (while they are both important). To me mainstreaming gender means men are enabled to take on more reproductive roles and women are enabled to take on more productive roles. Vegetable growing is typically the responsibility of women, and when John started growing tomatoes in the dry season he was adopting a reproductive role. Naturally, in addition to approaching the men he approached the women to encourage them engage in similar farming practices. “Somehow the women prefer to make charcoal as they have always done,” he told me. But making charcoal is a much more labour intensive activity that everyone else is doing so the price for it isn’t high, and it doesn’t add to the nutritional content of meals like vegetables do.

Why do his ideas and efforts not spread? It’s my theory that gender issues are at the core of every culture, and as such gender disparity is at the core of every inequity that encumbers development. Because gender issues are at the core of it all, it means that we can never really directly influence them. I think the best we can do is to indirectly influence them by creating an enabling environment for change. For results-driven donors this is unacceptable, but for sustainability I think this approach is essential.

So when I see a 68 year old man adopting new behaviours and demonstrating to those around him a more equitable lifestyle, I see a start. I see opportunity. I see change.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Generation "Why?"

Young women like Elizabeth inspire me more than any rhetoric about “working ourselves out of a job” or other platitudes can.

Elizabeth is 19 years old. She’s living with her aunt and uncle, a life she says is better than it was with her parents in Volta Region. Elizabeth accompanied me throughout my stay with her family in Gbaln. I cooked with her, fetched water, swept the compound, cut guinea corn, sat up late talking with her, and slept alongside her at the end of a long day. She came to Gbaln about 6 months previous. Her parents sent her to live with her aunt and uncle because it would be easier for them to support her to finish senior secondary school (SSS) in Saboba than it would in Volta Region. She’s the only girl in Gbaln to have completed SSS so far, but she wasn’t happy with her marks so she’s going to attend another year to bring them up and grant her entrance into what she hopes will be a nursing school in Tamale.

The steep river bank that women have to climb while carrying water.

She recalled her first day in Gbaln. May was just the start of the rainy season, so the natural and hand-dug wells were still dry near the village. This meant that women had to walk 40 minutes each way to the River Oti to fetch water. The river banks are extremely steep during the dry season, and soon become slippery after the streams of women begin fetching water and clamouring up the slope with their load perched expertly on their heads. Elizabeth said she only fetched water twice that first day, and still her legs were so sore she could barely walk the next day. “How could I say anything? So I just kept to myself… all the other women did this everyday.” she told me. Although the work is harder, she says she likes it with her family in the village, and most importantly, they help her to go to school in Saboba. Each day I was there Elizabeth took the lead in preparing the meals, and serving the family: men first, then male children, followed by young women, and lastly her aunt (the matron of the home) would eat what was left from other people’s portions. She said she was happy to do this during her break from school to show her appreciation for her uncle and aunt’s generosity.

Elizabeth threshing guinea corn with her sister Wapu

“How many children do families have in Canada?” she asked me one day on our way to fetch water (thankfully from the natural well only an 8 minute walk away).

“Two” I said, “though sometimes three.”

“That’s what I’d like,” she said confidently “three, but two would be okay. If you have more than that, you’re not being fair to your children. There would be no way to pay for them all to go to school, and the girls would be the first to be told that there was no money to send them.”

“Do you have many girl friends in SSS?” I asked.

“Many of them had to stop attending; their fathers said there was no money. Most girls still stop after JSS [junior secondary school].” She paused “But if there is trouble sending a son to school the fathers will somehow find a way for them to continue. They don’t sacrifice like that for the girls; they feel they would be just sacrificing for their future in-laws to benefit.”

Elizabeth gets her hair straightened by the traveling hairdresser.

It’s such a shame, and carries such a consequence on the next generation when a girl is kept from school. The next generation starts from where their parents started, which reinforces a sort of your time will come justice, but also devastatingly reinforces the cycle of poverty that grips so many families in Ghana. I believe gender issues are at the heart of every obstacle to development, but the fact that it’s so deeply rooted in tradition and culture makes it only able to affect indirectly. Young women like Elizabeth, and the men that join them to create new norms and challenge old ideas will be the greatest pioneers of change that help countries like Ghana live up to their full potential.

These girls fetch water at least 6 times a day. They're happy because right now the well still has water so it's only an 8 minute walk away.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Learning to Learn

Give a man a directive and you occupy him for a day. Give a man an analogy and some space to grow and you give him options for life.

We all know the fish analogy: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” It’s a theme that runs throughout the development context which differentiates it from humanitarian aid. This isn’t going to be a post that talks about hand-outs versus hand-ups however. Instead I want to talk about what I learned when I attended a Community Experience Sharing Festival.

In Yendi District, 25 communities have been taken into a project that helps them to write community plans and to select food security projects from those plans. For a rural community largely isolated from government centres it requires a mindset shift to start organizing a community local government alongside the traditional elders and chiefs. Other countries have either abolished chieftaincy, or not recognized it within the legal framework. Ghana and a few others are trying to retain some of the rights and responsibilities of chiefs while at the same time developing a democratic local government. It's often a complicated balance, but it does offer a better chance for communities to protect some of their customs and traditions.

These communities brought their traditional dance to the festival to accompany a song about their experience.

Inspiring trust in a government and a bureaucratic system to deliver services requires a real leap of faith on the part of community members. Illiteracy, language barriers, and development jargon don’t help the situation any. To help communities understand the principles behind planning and advocacy in government an analogy was adopted.

In each community that we visited to ask about the project, they related how they came together to weave a net. If that net was good, then the community would be able to catch many fish with it. The district government, we were told, is a pond, with many different kinds of fish in it. The net could be cast many times for different fish.

The net of course was the community plan that they wrote together, the fishermen are the community members contacting the district government. The fish are programmes and services available through the government.


I was struck by the effectiveness of the analogy and the power of a concept versus a process. This is certainly not the first time I’ve run into analogies. Growing up reading scriptures I became quite familiar with parables and analogies to convey ideas. What I really came to appreciate was not the ability to transcend cultural and language barriers, but rather the freedom that an analogy gave as opposed to a set of instructions or directives.

The evening featured a movie night where videos of entire communities sharing their experiences were displayed for the participants in the district festival.

Somewhere along the line as I waded my way through academia and began reading books by really intelligent people, I started seeing less and less analogies and more and more jargon, Venn diagrams and philosophical debates with the odd metaphor. Somehow it started to seem like analogies were old fashioned, or at least more useful in a context where the receiving party is not familiar with the idea or likely not to understand it at first.

Yet in my experiences in Canada, and from what I’ve observed here in Ghana, rote learning, while often more detailed and specific, is debilitating. It gets people locked into processes, afraid to make mistakes, and less able to do self-guided learning. The cycle reinforces a “wise and knowledgeable teacher” and “unknowing, incapable student” relationship. This in turn encourages small simple directives from the directors to the subordinates instead of engaging them in large complicated systems. The intention is to teach and build capacity, but the reality is rather condescending and limiting.

In the case of this project, communities didn’t have to learn about civil rights and bureaucratic processes, so much as recognize their role and feel empowered in their relationship with government. This understanding and power dynamic can be readily transferred to other programmes, on a small scale community level, and on a large scale international level for farmers looking to export their crops to foreign markets.

A documented plan enables you to take advantage of more programmes and services.

The power of sharing

The other lesson I learned was about sharing the experiences. The favoured mode of transferring information in the industrialized world is THE REPORT. The trouble with this is that usually reports are boring and not many people read them. Even if the subject they’re reporting on is exciting, it takes a certain amount of skill to get things to leap up off the page. PowerPoint animations and fancy fonts aside, people like stories, and stories outlive any rhetoric. Telling a story encourages reflection in the story teller and the listener. In that way, both have the opportunity to learn.
These communities prepared a play to share how they came to involve disabled persons and "lower caste" tribes in decision making.

With this project, communities are encouraged to include women as an equal decision making power and even to prioritize their needs when it comes to food security as they are largely responsible for the family's needs. As you can imagine this is a new concept for many communities, and it takes some time to not only accept it but to recognize the benefits.

I've been on monitoring trips for this project and others like it before. Inevitably things get lost in translation, and some things never get revealed because we just don't know how to ask the right questions. To add to that, communities still aren't sure what to expect but their primary objective is to have projects like this return in the future, so their priority is to tell us everything we want to hear. I often leave these visits wondering if some of it is too good to be true.

In this festival however, instead of answering the "outsider's" questions, communities were given the space to express what they wanted to share with other communities, through whatever means they liked. The result was a far richer discussion than I've ever witnessed before.

We learned of the nitty-gritty details of communities arguing that disabled people can't care for livestock anyway, so there's no need to include them. Then through the project they are surprised to learn just how capable these people are, and how much they all benefit from these people being more independent.

This community sang of how the plans they developed were like a walking stick, and now each of them are moving forward with it.

We learned about the communities where women began farming soy to provide nutritious food for their families, and sell the surplus to the market in order to earn money for other family needs. The trick was, the farming was only profitable if the men of the household helped their wives and their mothers to have a good yield. Some men didn't want to support their wives in this way as they had their own obligations to attend to. Others saw the importance and the personal benefits they would receive from their wives earning an income, so they learned how to plant the soy and helped the women to farm.

This man helped his wife and other women farmers to sew their soy field.

This woman laments to her son how she will not have a good yield from her soy field because she did not have help from his father.

It was real, and it was in their own words. I have to say that it's extremely humbling to see communities being so open and honest about how difficult it can be to adopt a different system of planning and decision making. That shift would be difficult for anyone, never mind those who are so risk averse because they've never been able to count on much outside of their family.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Public Service

It can be damned frustrating when everyone knows things aren’t working, and they even know why, but nothing gets done about it.

Having worked for the government in Canada, I’m familiar with the animosity, prejudices and disenfranchisement felt between the public and private sector and citizens. A common sentiment is that the government exists largely to serve its own purposes rather than the public’s, and that its offices are filled with unproductive, unmotivated staff. While I can admit that the government is guilty of the inefficiencies that are inherent to most large organisations, I have worked with more than enough dedicated hardworking public servants (in Ghana and Canada) to allow me to label this blanket statement as a misrepresentation of the truth. It is true, however, that oftentimes motivation and productivity seems to be in spite of the atmosphere that is created amidst satisfying the mandates of a powerful union, top-heavy management, and political waffling. I had accepted this work environment as part-and-parcel with the government deal, but here in Ghana as I witness the challenges that her public servants face in the decentralization process I’m learning so much more about this delicate balance between accountability and stifling bureaucracy, strong leadership and political tangents, innovation and compliance.

I’ve had plenty of conversations with public servants about the situation, but when it comes to planning for action, many of these shared opinions and ideas for change never make it to the table. I and my colleagues in the EWB Good Governance Team have heard enough stories and even witnessed the repercussions of challenging norms and pushing for change. The results are often humiliating and can even result in your being transferred all over the country because you get labelled as insubordinate and a loose-cannon by the upper echelons. There is a staunch deference to hierarchy here that coming from my Canadian culture I often find cumbersome and even debilitating. I’m not calling for a lack of respect for years of experience and wisdom, but I am validating the need for a safe-place that ideas can be shared without risking your reputation or even your job.

How do you create change in an environment that inherently resists it?

This doesn’t foster any incentive for the technocrats and bureaucrats that are intended to be the architects and implementers of development in Ghana. So how can we create an enabling environment in Ghana’s public service? And what is a western development worker’s role in this? Well leadership has a lot to do with it. We’ve seen the extreme of coups in the past, and people’s love for Flt. Lieut Rawlings aside, there are less volatile ways for bringing about change through leadership. Amongst the middle ranks of the civil service there are some positive deviants who despite the norms, decide that not only is it right to do things in a responsible way, but recognize that it’s also in their best interest.

I recently hit what felt like a brick wall after presenting to the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit (RPCU, where I work) what I thought we could do to improve the District level planning and implementation of development programs. I seemed to be shut-down on every side because in the end our office has no power. We don’t manage a budget and we don’t manage the human resources, so we’re left with little to reinforce any change from “business-as-usual.” Ultimately we’re left only with cajoling and strongly worded recommendations in reports that don’t have to be followed up on. “What’s the point,” I was beginning to think, “if nobody has to listen to us?” Yet somehow when I sit in mid-term and annual reviews of programmes in the region I see my boss command a respect beyond his rank.

Talking about people

Where I was lamenting how we had no tools or processes to leverage our ideas and influence the district planning, I realized that I had again succumbed (to what I think is an engineer’s enduring temptation) to look at things from a systems approach rather than a people approach. When I was discussing this with my EWB coach he reminded me how laws and procedures can reinforce good ideas, but people will always find their way around them if they care to. What people won’t work around is good leadership, and if we can foster that from a regional level, and use that mechanism to create a culture of good planning, then that’s a far more effective use of time and energy than what it would take to change the system head-on.

Looking at the sustainable livelihoods framework, developed by the Institute for Development Studies, I began to see that in this context the RPCU can actually have a lot of influence, if we’re thoughtful about how we present ourselves and how we relate to the district level planners. Put bluntly, public shaming is a surprisingly effective way of getting Ghanaians to take action because their ‘social capital’ is often worth more than any of their other capitals. Of course a public shaming of everyone and all things done wrong wouldn’t be constructive, but I’ve observed my boss and other Ghanaians put criticisms in a way that doesn’t sound direct, but everyone in the room understands. What’s left is to follow-up.

Anyway you look at it this is only the beginning of something very long-term. Ghana hasn’t finished decentralizing yet, and the higher levels of government are hesitant to pass down more fiscal and managerial control. Eventually the local government should have more power to exercise the checks and balances in order to provide better services and be accountable to communities. In the mean time, change marches on toward a more hospitable environment for the stewards of Ghana’s development, through one positive deviant at a time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Dash of Development

“Please I’ll take 4 tomatoes.”
“Okay, 4, and I’ll dash you 1.”

I get dashed something every week. From ladies selling vegetables in the market, from my neighbour frying meat pies and bofroot, from my tailor. A dash is a freebie, or a service given without charge, usually after a sale or service. The dash is added at the end and is never large, but is over and above what is necessary. Admittedly it keeps me coming back to the same sellers, but looking at their humble settings I always feel a bit guilty because I feel that proportionally it’s costing them more than it’s saving me. It’s only the insult that I would be offending them with by refusing the dash that brings me to accept it.

It has caused me to reflect on the entrepreneurialism and small business style that I see here around Tamale. Without much deviance, each bike fitter offers the same services. Each chopbar offers the same foods:

......................Jollof rice

Each tailor sews the same styles. Each movie vendor sells the same pirated collections. Location and the interaction with the seller or service person are about the only things that small formal and informal business owners can use to persuade customers to return to them. Sure, some bike fitters and tailors are much more skilled than others, but there’s a limit to how much added quality you can allow when the prices are kept so competitively low. The luxury of paying more for a higher quality service isn’t so common here, as there’s not much of a market for specialties.

Of course, I still routinely get charged the “white price” for things so the opportunistic spirit is still there, but ripping off white people is not a sustainable business model to drive an economy on (unless you’re well positioned to do so, which Tamale is not).

Business as usual

From what I’ve come to understand though is that the dash, and the interaction with the shop keeper is routed in something much deeper than business motives. I find that people are much more interested in being your friend here, or in recognizing more than a casual business relationship. This may be amplified in my case because I’m a foreigner, but I observe it in the relationships of my Ghanaian friends as well. If I travel and am not seen for a while, people who I interact with mainly as a client lament that I didn’t tell them I was going. When my boyfriend came to visit me I was reprimanded on several accounts for not brining him around to everyone we met to say good-bye before he left. It’s well-meaning, and I believe genuine, but there are cases when I wonder how much room it leaves for competitive business savvy. How can you refuse a favour to your friend in the name of profit?

This all became a little more personal when it was rumoured that someone who I’ve come to know and love here was waiting to move from Tamale until I left because they were hoping to take a lot of my things when I go back to Canada. I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t believe it’s worth risking our friendship over by asking and essentially accusing her of this, and ultimately I had to question if it’s that offensive. Some of my things will be going to other EWB volunteers because I know they’ll need them, but many of my things I’m hoping to give away to the people who’ve been so kind to me. Still I must admit that the more I thought about this, the more I was hurt. I was hurt by the idea that somebody who I thought I shared a genuine friendship with could really be staying in my regular life for the purposes of getting my things.

kola nuts

The dash is so common, it can pretty much be expected… and often times it is. Kola (named after the nut) is another practice often expected, it’s a tip or a payment in appreciation for a favour, or as an expression of respect. Kola is a controversial issue in Ghana because it’s deeply rooted in tradition, but can often verge on bribery. Especially when the divisions between professional and personal relationships are so loose.

Good Governance

EWB’s Good Governance team, of which I’m a part, is working in the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit, and the District Planning and Coordinating Units of Northern Region. We often hear and see of kola, protocol, and leakages which are terms representing increasing forms of corruption. Our work in large part aims to create more rigorous systems of planning and decision making that make it more difficult to have leakages, or other things gone unaccounted for. It’s a well known problem, and it’s quickly identified as the cause of many project inefficiencies and even failures, yet it’s rarely combated except in the most grievous cases.

Canadians can tell you that Ghana isn’t the only government that suffers from corruption, so my intent is not to preach repentance from high places. I do, however, find this an interesting problem to deal with when I begin to look at interpersonal relationships, rather than formal or organizational ones. Corruption is evil and I’ve met so many Ghanaians who are suffering under it. Yet it seems that some are clear cases, and others are not. The more I try to understand and integrate with the culture, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish cases on a smaller scale. It’s wrong if it happens to the government, is it wrong if it happens to me?

"kola" goats riding back with us to Tamale

Is it corrupt for a Dagomba village to offer a goat to a project committee that is already working in the community? It’s not corrupt for a vegetable vendor to dash me vegetables so that I keep patronizing her store over others... or is it, because my stipend is made up of donations from individuals and corporations in Canada? Is it wrong for my friend to hope that I leave her my things when I go? Does that make her a less genuine friend?

At the root of all systems and problems are people. I can’t help but feel that there are a few biases and personal values that shade our view of the problems, making solutions a little trickier to design and implement.