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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Getting out into the field.

It’s a popular phrase in development. It means getting in touch with reality, meeting beneficiaries, stakeholders…people. It means testing hypotheses, gathering new insights, verifying old assumptions. It means getting a different perspective. It means uprooting myself from my office chair, and loosening my vice-grip on my laptop and walking around. That’s what it means to me anyway.

We met with communities for a CIDA funded programme review to discuss how the project was implemented, and the changes in the community that have resulted from it.

It’s hard working for the planning and coordinating units in the regional and district government to have a real connection to “the field.” We spend 80% of our time in an office, so that those who are in the field can hopefully be better supported. It’s an important role, and it’s difficult to get around it with all of the necessary documentation that goes into managing a program with any transparency and accountability. But as I start to meld into a spreadsheet, and my vocabulary starts to reflect a user manual for MS Excel, I begin to feel a little separated from it all.

Throughout my day I endeavour to keep in mind who we’re working for at the various levels of “the field.” It’s really important that I don’t become part of the “problem” by being a resource intensive guest who is more interested about completing my project than in the people I’m working with and for. At the end of my placement if my colleagues can’t point to some positive change that has occurred, supported by my placement, then I’ll have failed in achieving my goals. This change is to be more than an added tool. I’m talking about behaviour change; sustainable change, in people.

That’s right, as controversial as it may sound, I’m trying to change the way people do things through targeting their behaviours, not just the system that they operate in. Sure it’s biased, and based on my values. But I believe that as long as I’m open and honest about them people will be able to make informed decisions and I’ll be an influence rather than manipulative. I believe the sort of analysis it entails also helps me to identify with my colleagues.

I had an interesting experience when I went to Akosombo for a mid-term review on Development Partner efforts around monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of programmes and data storage and analysis. There my boss (the Regional Economic Planning Officer) and I presented on behalf of the 3 nothern regions on the challenges we face at a regional and district level with M&E and data storage and analysis.

We stood in front of heads of departments from UN Agencies in Ghana, and National level representatives from the National Development Planning Commission (the commission that advices the President’s office on development), Ghana Statistical Service, Health, Education, and the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. As we talked about the operational challenges of implementing programmes, and throughout the 2-day review, the disparity became clearer between the different orbits that we’re circling in at the Regional level as compared to the National level.

I'm standing in front of the Akosombo Dam with a representative from UNFPA, and the Regional Economic Planning Officers of Upper West, Northern (my boss), and Upper East Regions.

Operating within a results based framework, most of the focus was on the desired impacts and outcomes of each of the programmes. This was rightfully so, as focusing on desired outcomes and impacts is key to the whole framework, but it’s not all. From what I see at the Regional and District level, attention to the activities and outputs is a critical component, and often miscalculated. It seems more attention is placed on identifying the types of results we’re looking for, and not enough placed on designing interventions that will produce those results. The operational project management of these District and Regional planning and coordinating units is under resourced in terms of operational budgets, staff and skills, which makes it extremely challenging to accomplish the work that they do. The offered support is usually a 3 day workshop, and you can read in my last post about how effective those are.

As my boss and I endeavoured to present these realities to the delegation from Accra, it struck me that I am in the field—at least compared to the point of view of the rest of the delegation. Suddenly the urgency of bringing the field realities at the Regional and District offices to the understanding of National level offices became all the more apparent, because it has everything to do with reaching the community field level – where it all counts.

It’s all relative I guess. Still, I’m going to have to get away from this laptop for a little while.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Workin’ the Workshops

Work: 1 the use of physical strength or mental power to make or do something
Shop: 2 a place where things are manufactured or repaired

In the middle of the year workshops come into season. Fiscal years run on the calendar year in Ghana, so wrap-up from the previous year and planning for the next year happens in the first 6 months, and activities that aim to address the areas for improvement brought out in the previous review are slated for the last 6 months.

What this means for the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit where I work, is amongst scheduled field reviews with programme secretariats, quarterly monitoring requirements, monthly tender review meetings for project implementation and special projects from the Minister’s office, our senior staff of 2 and newly hired junior officer are called out for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks for workshops and training. You can imagine how progress on any projects during these months is compromised and that it becomes a fierce competition to get any dedicated time and effort on anything.

The stated objectives of these workshops usually cover the introduction of new tools, refining of old tools, retraining on processes, or skill development. Most times there are 2 or more of these objectives crammed into a 2-3 day workshop.

After decades of workshops in the development sector we still see the same issues being covered, the same skills focused on, and the same gaps in institutional capacity. Part of this is to be expected as people move on and there becomes a need to train new staff, but it’s fairly safe to say that workshops in general don’t produce the desired level of results.

To find the nearest workshop look for the white SUVs.

Work: 2 tasks that need to be done
Shop: 3 to go to a shop or shops to buy things

This situation begs a few questions:

Why aren’t workshops producing the desired level of results?
If workshops are so ineffective why are they continually showing up in annual plans and budgets so incessantly?

I’ll answer the second question first. The attributes of a workshop are very attractive. It’s a way to reach a broad range of people at once in a short period of time. They’re one-offs with an open-closed feature that fits nicely into timelines and budgets. They also end up allowing national and regional offices to reach rural areas without having to go there themselves.

NGOs and Donors also tend to find themselves with budget surpluses at the end of the year because ambitious annual plans run out of time to be fully implemented. A quick and easy way to spend money without a lot of overhead time or energy required is to hold a workshop.

Work: 3 thing or things produced as a result of work
Shop: 1 a building or part of a building where goods or services are sold to the public

A whole industry has evolved to support workshops. Professional facilitators and event planners make a livelihood out of planning agendas, orchestrating break-out discussions, and mapping out ideas on flip-charts. I don’t mean to devalue any of those tools, but I can definitely say that there is a thriving business made out of analyzing, strategizing, and systematizing other people’s business. It makes workshops a more accessible option with a few customizable bells and whistles thrown in.

Work: 4 what a person does as an occupation especially to earn money

Having a myriad of workshops offered is one thing, but trying to attend them all is another. You could ask why people don’t just refuse to attend some workshops in order to focus on something and maintain some level of operation in the office during these months. Or you could ask why the same people will attend the same type of training in the same year offered by different organisations. The answer is a reality that becomes apparent as soon as you do the math.

My co-workers in the civil service don’t make enough in their salary to support a small family, never mind plan for the future or support the extended family as they are so often called on to do. I haven’t seen the salary brackets in print yet so I’m hesitant to put down an exact figure, but my counterpart makes around 2/3 of my volunteer stipend, with no benefits. Workshop per-diems which I’ve seen range from 7-15 GH¢/day can double a daily wage. This does more than provide incentive to attend, it makes it possible to keep their day job.

Any organization considering cancelling workshops on the basis that they achieve little results, but who at the same time want to support decentralisation in Ghana by building the capacity of the public service at the District and Regional levels, needs to consider that they are in fact supplementing salaries in order to keep good people doing a good job.

Work: 5 a book, a piece of music, a painting

Looking at the second question: why don’t workshops work? We need to analyze what the problems are that we’re trying to solve by holding a workshop, and we need to identify what workshops produce, and make sure that the two align. Typical workshop outputs are reports, manuals, statements of commitment, and pretty much any type of document you can imagine. These are the tangible results. If we follow a Results Based Management framework and look at the outcomes of workshops: decisions made, skills developed etc. the connection becomes a lot less evident.

The trouble is that many times the problem is not one that can be solved by written information or instruction. Rather, a change in behaviour is required.

My boss opens a workshop by acknowledging common challenges.

Work: 6 (physics) the use of force to produce movement
Shop: 2 a place where things are manufactured or repaired

Behaviour Change is certainly not a novel term, you can argue that it is the essence of development work. It can make people uncomfortable to admit that that is what they are trying to do, and instead they’ll opt for terms like skill development, while leaving it implicit that those skills will then be employed. It can sound manipulative, but on some level you have to allow that people in the end will make their own decisions, and as long as you are honest with yourself and them it’s perfectly ethical.

There are a number of behaviour change models out there and volumes of research and documentation available on the subject. A common misconception that development workers fall prey to is: the reason something is not currently being down is because there is not enough knowledge or awareness on the subject. Or put another way, if you educate people on germ theory and show them how to wash their hands, they will begin washing their hands. As with most things, the problem is not nearly so simple, and neither is the solution.

The more successful behaviour change models recognize that there are several stages to it. Just like changing your diet or forming a new habit, a person has to feel the need to change, go through a transition period to make the change, and then stay changed. Rarely is education or awareness alone enough to make this happen. Recognizing this puts workshops alone at a serious disadvantage in terms of stimulating a behaviour change.

“Business as usual won’t cut it”

This is something my boss told me on our way back from a workshop before returning to business (as usual). This time we’re trying to put our time and (UNICEF’s) money where our mouth is. As we wade through the flood of workshops and reviews and gear up for some training from UNICEF, the RPCU is playing a much more active role in determining what that will look like. We’ve recognized that we’re trying to influence a behaviour change, not develop a slick tool for monitoring and evaluation. These next couple of months will be spent looking at the things holding back the districts from carrying out the necessary monitoring and evaluation of projects, and the incorporation of that knowledge into evidence-based decision making. From this we will develop an on-the-job training program that will be able to address the specific needs of each District and allow for follow-up and refinement of the overall monitoring and evaluation system across the Northern Region. The initial component of the training will still be a workshop, but the primary component will be the planned follow-up training at each of the District offices.

One of the program coordinators wrapping up a workshop with a list of next steps.

I’m excited about the potential change in the power dynamic that exists between the RPCU and Development Partners (the Donor organisations who fund projects through the government). Despite the organisational mandates that put the RPCU in the driver’s seat, in practicality there is simply not enough time, resources, or people to provide the required input into Development Partner activities. Usually this means they have to make their best guess coming from an outside perspective, and they usually miss the subtleties that contribute to the overall outcome of a programme. I hope that through my position with the RPCU I can put time and energy into facilitating a much more interactive relationship with the Development Partners, in a way that makes it easier to maintain when I leave.

* All definitions taken from Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 1995

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Paying it Forward

Development, more than a thriving sector… but a labour of love? Speaking of labour…

One thing that has continually surprised me here is the cost of labour. It’s virtually nil. Sorry, let me qualify that, highly skilled labour comes at a price, but honest to goodness sweat-of-the-brow, back-breaking labour is worth next to nothing.

According to a capitalist economic set up this makes sense. If you invest in an education and training then your earning potential goes up. It’s a way to reward people for the effort they put in—it’s a special type of effort, mind you, that requires you to have the access to funding to invest in this education—but it’s a way to be fair and not communist.

I’m sensitive to how much profit people are accruing in part because EWB encourages us to ask these questions, and really try to understand and empathize when possible. The end result often is that I feel somewhat guilty taking advantage of low prices in the market. I try to keep this in perspective, because going around paying what I would pay in Canada for things (which in some cases is less than what you’d pay here) isn’t likely to precipitate a significant difference in any household. Still, I can’t ignore the principle that my complacency is upholding.

Kpalu chinchini; weavers of traditional cloth is a more skilled labour. One of these rolls takes about a day to weave. Then the strips are sewn along the length to make yards of cloth, and then they are sewn into the traditional smocks which takes a full day on a machine to 3 full days or more if sewn by hand (the prefered method) sell for around 45 GH¢ depending on the weight of the weave.

I work on a stipend of approximately 10 GH¢/day. It’s more than many of my colleagues at work who have families to care for, and definitely more than most of my neighbours. But it’s not enough for me to live like a typical expat with air conditioning and an SUV. It’s also not enough for me to deliver monetary charity to every worthy person that I meet (there are many) unless I risk sacrificing my own health, which I believe compromises my greater objectives for being here. So, like everybody else here, I’m faced with ethical dilemmas of prioritizing people and choosing between myself and others on various levels.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post “How can I come to Canada?” the familial obligations that tend to spread scant resources even more thinly to make up for the lack in social services, so I’ll not go into them now. I do, however, want to illustrate my point about the price of labour a bit more with my neighbour Sister Patience.

Sister Akwia!

Patience is probably the closest thing I have to family here. She welcomes me with a bold “SISTER JENNIFER! YOU ARE WELCOME!” just about every time I come home. She wakes me at 2:30am when the tap that the compound shares randomly starts flowing and we can all race to fill our buckets before it randomly stops. She explains many of the subtleties of Ghanaian culture which often render me perplexed or misunderstood. She insists on helping me at 5am when it’s my turn to scrub the latrines and bath-houses in the compound. She shares her cooking, and builds my appreciation for hot pepper. She samples my renditions of Canadian food with local ingredients, and remarks how much we whites like our sugar. She teases me that I’m a bit fat but that “it’s okay,” and I tease her about how quiet it is when she’s not around. We enjoy learning about each other. Recently she has given me the Ghanaian name “Akwia” since I was born on a Wednesday, which I think reflects my adoption into her family. I love calling her “sister.”

Patience is a primary school teacher at the largest public school in Tamale. There she teaches the kindergarten children, preparing them for the instructional years ahead and, and not to misbehave or fall asleep in her class! With a teaching diploma and 18 years of experience she collects a public school teacher salary of around 200 GH¢/month, which sometimes comes on time and sometimes in its entirety, and oftentimes not. She could earn a bit more if she took a certified teaching course, but for now she can’t afford the costs. Patience is the only one of her siblings who could not go to university because she was the eldest, and thus it fell upon her to help her parents, who nearing retirement at that time, would have been unable to raise enough money to send her younger brothers to tertiary school without her help. One of her income generating activities was making soy chips that she would sell in the market.

Sister Patience frying her soy chips

One Sunday I was drawn out into the compound by the sweet smell of groundnut oil and much to my delight I found Patience frying soy chips! Earlier I had watched her carry a 40kg bag of charcoal over her head into the compound, and I had seen her grinding and drying soy flour for hours the previous day so I knew something was in the works. I found her rolling out the dough with an empty bottle on her little workbench while she fried the chips over her small charcoal stove. It’s a long process, as I write this she has been out there rolling and frying for 7 hours, but business has been good so she’s now added egg pies, meat pies, and doughnuts to the mix. I’ve found her cleaning up her work at 3am in preparation for rising at 6 the next day to sell them at the school in order to supplement her latent income. From a batch of about 200 chips she nets around GH¢1.50. Despite having a government job, which in Canada I would equate with more stability, here in Ghana it means unreliable pay cheques unless you’re high enough on the food chain.

Everything has its price

So I’ve been struggling with my scruples over low-cost, economically sustainable living versus fair compensation and social responsibility. While volunteering in Canada I put in many hours promoting fair trade, corporate social responsibility, and global citizenship. Here I bargain with taxi drivers and market sellers to pay the local price for things rather than the white price. Often the difference ranges from 20 pesewas to a cedi or two, which I argue for in order to fit in and integrate more with my community. I can’t help but wonder if I find myself living in a way that maintains current conditions, while at the same time working to promote positive change and growth. Is my weekend life at odds with my weekday pursuits?

Where is the balance? EWB, like many charities, is compelled to maintain a low overhead. This means that most of the staff are volunteers, and those that are paid salaries aren’t earning a pension, or afforded any savings to put away for the future. The motivation is obvious—as much donor money as possible should benefit as many people struggling in poverty as possible, rather than supporting westerners spending a year or more away from their relatively comfortable lifestyle. The type of living that results, is much more humble, and in that way makes it easier to integrate within our community by avoiding the disparity that climbing out of a white SUV and returning home to housekeepers and air conditioning would reinforce. Like all good things, this comes at a cost. It often means high turn-over rates in staff looking to start families or continue school (which requires higher incomes), and it means paying as little as possible for things. This fiscal pressure comes internally from individuals committed to sacrificing in order to give, and also from donors justifiably fed up with the enormous amount of money given in aid over the years for unsatisfactory results overall. Different development strategies and approaches try to produce greater results for lower costs yet they are often confounded by the myriad of complicated factors at play here.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day…

I’m touching on something big that reflects the trends in aid, international apathy, and basic human nature so I don’t think I’ve wrapped my head around it all. At least at the level I’m at, I think the question I’m struggling with more is not over giving a fish, or how nice of a fish to give versus teaching someone to fish. I think I’m struggling over teaching a person to fish, and paying them a few peswas a fish—because really if they want to make money they should buy a boat and troll the oceans for as many fish as possible. There’s an ecological debate.

Catching about 1/4 of the fish here took 30mins, smoking them will take a few days, and then once they exchange hands (each taking their cut) on their trip to market they sell for around 1 or 2 GH¢ each depending on the size - much more than she makes...

How can I help most? Should I pay people for their labour? How do I justify compensation for unskilled labour in a world that values management over base productivity? Would I be just artificially subsidizing a situation rather than solving any problems sustainably? Is it also a question of scale? Or can my individual choice be just as important as trade agreements?

I paid Sister Patience 10 peswas a chip instead of the 5 she was charging because school children can't afford more than that, was I paying for a chip or her labour? My motivation for not paying her more is that the way I hope to repay her and her country back for the generosity I’m shown every day here is not through paying more for soy chips. Then again, maybe I’m just cheap.

(1GH¢ hovers around $1CAD)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Championing Development

“It’s always easier to help those who can help themselves than to help those who are helpless.” – Schumacher, 1973

This is a tricky subject. Engineers Without Borders, like so many NGOs and other organizations working in development, works with local people who are entrepreneurs and have some skills and ambition that sets them apart as leaders. In NGO jargon we call them “champions” and we support them by helping them gain access to more opportunities. This could come in the form of training, education, infrastructure, technology, micro-credit, or organizational support (ie. helping farmers to form cooperatives) to name a few. The hope is that by supporting the entrepreneurs of the community it will pave the way for people in more vulnerable circumstances, who are naturally more risk-averse, to follow in their footsteps and eventually make the climb out of poverty as well. This means that we’re directly helping the people who are already making the climb out of poverty (or at least not living hand-to-mouth), and only indirectly helping those in the direst poverty. This trend is partly a product of donors trying to get the most results for their limited dollars, and partly a conscious decision made based on economic growth models. The really poor are often sick, uneducated and hard to reach, so what this discussion also brings forward is the difference between humanitarian aid and development aid.

  • Humanitarian aid is a hand-out meant to establish a steady baseline condition for people who are going to die if they don’t get immediate help; of which there’s a critical role for.
  • Development aid is meant to stimulate a steady climb of growth and prosperity from a relatively stable baseline condition, or at least one that is only slowly declining and rather than spiralling out of control.

The motivation for development aid sounds fairly straightforward in principle. In practicality it’s of course more difficult to achieve the clean linear (let alone exponential) incline out of poverty, theory might encourage us to imagine.

Too much of a good thing…

Meet my friend Francis. Francis is a junior high school teacher in the small village of Kitare.

I met Francis at a workshop that was training people to supervise a water and sanitation mapping project in their respective communities and in the neighbouring villages. As is often the case, Francis received a letter the night before the training requesting his attendance to this 3 day workshop. So the next morning he got up early to make the 2 hour bumpy motor-bike drive into the town where the workshop was being held. (I’m sure there was a substitute teacher for his class…sic) When he arrived he found out that the workshop was for water and sanitation project supervisory training—something that Francis is not really qualified in except for one critical skill—he can read and write well. This puts Francis and so many school teachers in villages as a target for development project implementation.

Our champion, who is a teacher, a yam and cassava farmer, and small provisions store owner by day, and development project worker by drop-of-the-hat, finds himself torn between all of the opportunities to improve life for his family and community. Thus we have some competing forces.

There really are few arguments against the importance of education, which ironically is one of the lower paid jobs here in Ghana (unless you’re at a private school). My neighbour, who is a primary school teacher at a local public school in Tamale, is still waiting for her government salary that was due a week and a half ago. Several times now I’ve been reminded by teachers that the well respected professions: doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. were all students first, yet teachers and the education system are continually under-resourced.

So here we have our “champions,” who we are so eager to work with. In a small village where we have the highest levels of poverty and the lowest levels of infrastructure, we also find many development projects. That’s where the greatest need is. Often times, only a few people can read and write. So we go to a school to find a teacher to help us work with the community. This tactic isn’t necessarily flawed, except that everyone is doing it.

From needs based to assets based…

Development projects often start with a needs assessment, but the problem with a needs assessment is that it only tells you one half of the story. It misses out by putting the focus on what is lacking instead of what is there. More and more an “assets based approach” is the becoming adopted in community projects, which facilitates planning and resource management as opposed to just gap filling. Who will do this planning and resource management?

If you want something done right, you do it yourself. But if you want it done sustainably, perhaps you shouldn’t be the one doing it…

Let me tell you about my placement and what we’re trying to do. I am now partnered with the regional government, in the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit (RPCU). I still correspond with UNICEF on their supported programs, but my placement is officially with the RPCU. In the end it appears more appropriate that I am with the government and not with UNICEF, because UNICEF is trying to primarily be a funding partner to governments and community organisations, rather than be responsible for any project design and implementation.

The RPCU works with the District Assemblies (the next level of government down) and the Development Partners (NGO’s, international organisations, donors) in the Region. Some Development Partners are working through the Regional Governments and are somewhat managed by them, others in the name of efficiency are not. These other Development Partners prefer to contact the communities directly, or to work directly with community organizations and by-pass the under-resourced, sometimes corrupt, slow moving governments. The problem with this efficiency is that so many of them are doing the same thing. So Francis and other community leaders get many urgent invitations to help with an efficient project where the dollars are moving quickly. The Development Partners aren’t all aware of who is doing what where, and frankly, they don’t view knowing that as a priority for their efforts.
The trouble is that the government is the best positioned to be managing all of these different players in the region, but they are undermined in their efforts when they are taken out of the process. It’s true that limited staff, under-developed capacity, and corruption don’t make the government an attractive partner to work with, but looking to the future how is it going to improve? The fact is that there are skilled hard working people working for the government within its ranks, and positive change is happening all the time.

The staff of 4 in the RPCU, which serves 20 District Assemblies and over 1.8 million people, have welcomed me to their office and will be my colleagues for this next year. I hope that I can learn the right lessons and grow with them so that ultimately Francis will see improvements in his community, and not have to compromise his important calling of teaching tomorrow’s champions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Our Precious Earth - Part 1

"One man’s waste is another man’s treasure"… but sometimes it’s just waste

I'd never even heard of Earth Hour. Talking to a friend from Canada she told me how they celebrated Earth Hour last month by unplugging absolutely everything for an hour. At the time she was paying tribute to the planet’s generous outpouring of finite resources I was probably drinking pure water from a 500mL bag that's likely going to get burned in some rubbish pile later while pointing the fan at me, wishing that I had a refrigerator to plug into the wall. I’ve since heard that you can sell back the empty pure water sachets after you collect a lot of them – so I’ve been collecting them but I’m not sure where to bring them yet.

500ml Water Sachet

Below are some comments on the use of the environment and resources that I see here. It’s in no way complete, and represents life in the Northern Region as that’s where I’ve spent most of my time. It’s a topic I expect I’ll come back to as there is a lot to it, but here’s my start based on every day practices that I observe.

Here I am able to conserve water quite well. The water that I use to wash my hair and body goes into another bucket that we use to flush the toilet (if there is that luxury, I’m now with a latrine), and the toilet is only flushed when necessary. Dish water if it's not too bad can get used for the same thing. I can bath with about 7 litres of water if I’m washing my hair, 5 if I’m not, 3 if I need to.

My recycled gerri cans for fetching water

Household and small business electricity is used fairly conservatively from what I can tell. Every outlet has a switch that people seem to dutifully turn off when not in use, and I get the impression that people are generally power conscious because of the cost. Appliances are all small, making them more efficient usually. Air conditioners are only found in NGO offices, and important government official’s offices as a rule – but I’m not speaking of Accra (the capital city) which seems to be a separate entity at times. All clothes are hand washed and line dried. (30 min in the mid-day sun!)

My compound centre

Most things outside of plastic bags are recycled or repaired. Used clothing is sold everywhere (courtesy EU and North America). The main cereals are still traditional crops that require less inputs to grow (yams, cassava, maize rather than wheat), although imported spaghetti noodles seem to be inserting themselves pretty aggressively into the standard diet.

The favoured transport is the motorbike. Not only does it traverse the unpaved roads better, but it uses at most 1/5th of the gas (which costs about the same as in Canada 5GH¢ / gallon, and 1GH¢~$1CDN). Many people still ride bicycles. Car exhaust systems generally aren’t well maintained and as a result exhaust fumes are generally noxious along the main roads. The cars themselves though seem to be fixed and run until their components disintegrate back to elemental form. In Tamale public transit around town is provided “shared taxi” which has typical destinations and routes around town. You can pick it up anywhere along route and “alight” anywhere along route for a fraction of the cost it would be to charter a taxi there yourself. There are no meters but the prices are standard. (30 peswas for about 5km if my estimate of distance is correct)

My public transit from the village

“One man’s waste is another man’s fertilizer.”

Men and women use urinals to pee and women don't use toilet paper after they pee. In the north where Islamism is common you’ll often find a little plastic kettle which is also the kind used for washing before prayers, this is used to splash on yourself which I feel like I've got the hang of. I’m teased by my Christian friends here for having one of these, but I think the Muslims have a pretty good system for hygiene so I’m happy to adopt this practice!! If you have to “free yourself” often recycled newspapers or notebook paper is used for toilet paper. THE LEFT HAND IS ONLY FOR WIPING. When I was working with the East Gonja district I learned of their program encouraging the building of Kumasi ventilated pit latrines (KVIP’s) that are able to decompose naturally and be used for fertilizer after 6 years. They are more sustainable and currently more appropriate that flush toilets here. You have 2 tanks with a ventilation shaft, and you alternate use of them every 6-8 years.
My bidet

Most things are packaged to keep it from the dust, and all bought things come in these black plastic bags which are designed to get holes and tear after a single use. I try to reuse as many as I can or bring my own cloth bags, but re-using a plastic bag meant that when one broke the other day I lost an avocado on the way home :( The discarded bags are EVERYWHERE. There are only a few public trash cans in Tamale. Most garbage is thrown on the ground. If it's edible, the goats clean it up. If it's plastic I've been told "somebody comes round to pick it up." I feel like a piece of me dies if I end up throwing something plastic on the ground – most times I can carry my trash home.

The dump/sewar behind my room and The Waste Management Team

Wood is a major source of fuel especially in rural areas and deforestation is a growing concern (pardon the pun). There's also the nasty habit of bush burning here because it's believed that the bush and trees compete for the water the crops use. In actuality bush burning drops the water table about 50cm on average, making it more difficult for everyone, plants and humans alike to access water.

“One man’s waste is everyone’s problem”

Conservation is out of necessity rather than wisdom I fear, but can necessity the mother of invention create tools and practices that make it easier for wise decisions to be made in future? By finding ways to live on less, could we manage living on more? I say live on more because that’s the result of economic development it seems. Understanding is key, but is that knowledge enough to change behaviour?

My neighbourhood dump, walled in with the public toilets

I’m reading “Small is Beautiful” right now by Shumacher, and he suggests that what’s needed right now more than education or greater understanding about this subject is a strong sense of societal morals. Morals influence behaviour. I feel there is no shortage of societal morals here in Ghana. There is a social justice system that seems to keep a lot of things in check in a way that we’ve replaced with enforced laws and formal judicial systems in Canada. Perhaps it is possible to work with communities to achieve a common goal in a way that doesn’t come quite so easily in the individualist society that I grew up in. It seems to be the approach that a lot of NGOs and community groups are taking here. I certainly can’t deny the sense of community here. This is one area where I think Canada may have a lot to learn from the solutions developed in Ghana.

Monday, March 31, 2008

“How can I come to Canada?”

One of the things that have come up in conversation with local Ghanaians is “how can you help me…will you help me get to Canada?”

I spent the afternoon with my new friend, Pricilla. While I was enjoying her generous hospitality, a TV program came on showing typical streets of America. Many shots were of people asking for change, living under bridges, and working low wage jobs. She began to translate for me and I discovered that the program was talking about the lives of many immigrants living in the US. It featured Ghanaian Diaspora, talking about how hard it is to get started and make a life in America. It explained that after emigrating many people find themselves struggling with low-skill jobs that pay low wages. People talked about working long hours to make ends meet to send a little money home, only to find that everyone in the village thinks you’re rich now, so instead of using the money to build a house, they just spend it all, thinking there’s plenty more where that came from. A woman living in Texas explained that she is afraid to return to her home in Accra because during previous visits she has been followed, and she is afraid that she will be robbed.

This program seemed to want to do 2 things:

  • dispel the myth that America is all milk and honey and that everyone is living well, and
  • encourage Ghanaians to stay in Ghana and make a living contributing to the development of their country.

Priscilla and I in her home

Hmm. I can see why Ghana is spreading this message, not only is it dispelling many misconceptions about life in America, but keeping skilled, educated people in Ghana is good for development! Yet, I also see competing messages when I look at Canada’s immigration site where it reports welcoming record numbers of immigrants to satisfy its demand for skilled labour. (

I asked Pricilla her opinion of this program and she said that it is common for people to believe that just by living in Canada or the US you will have so much more. She said that is silly, and that she is happy to be Ghanaian and living in Ghana. Pricilla has finished university, and is looking to find a job now – she is talented and a hard worker, and from what she tells me of her mother, she comes from a stock of strong women. I have no doubt that Pricilla is happy living in Ghana, and will work to create the life that she wants. She’s not afraid to dream, and she’s got the determination to see them come true. I wonder what percentage of her classmates from primary school she represents.

Our discussion made me think of many that I have had in Canada with my friends and colleagues about the “brain drain” that flows to urban centres and western countries. It is a pattern that evolves among educated young adults who are looking for more opportunities for a better life – and deservedly so – that leaves the communities with a lack of professionals with higher educations. Nick Jimenez, who is from the same EWB sending group as myself, just spent a week in a rural village. There, he had his whole stay interpreted through the only person who could speak fluent English. Nick shared stories of several evenings spent talking with Joshua (his interpreter) where the conversation would turn to Joshua asking him how he could help him get to Canada. Nick struggled to explain that getting to Canada is very difficult, and just getting there doesn’t solve his problems of poverty.

In many ways, comfort and affluence still seem to be a birthright; in that it is easier for some to secure that hard earned reward than others. Because I was born in Canada, the system was setup to help me. New Canadians still have a difficult time getting professionally certified and trained to enter the workforce. From my friends in school it seems that in many ways, it is only through children growing up in Canada that they begin to fully take advantage of the benefits of a western society. But who am I to question people where they live? And why should people settle somewhere, and not move? A study of international migration at Georgetown University( states that migratory living was the way of many African tribes before colonization. So this idea of settling in one area and making things work there as opposed to moving somewhere for more opportunities is a bit of a construct in itself. Is migration a natural evolution of society? Is regarding the “brain drain” as negative only because we’re using a short term perspective rather than a long-term one?

So many questions. I hope to learn more about this during my time in the rural Districts.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Dad: “It’s about -20 degC here and there are still 5 foot snow banks.”
Jen: “I have a monkey tied to a tree in my back yard.”

Things sure are different here.

Our first week was spent in Tamale, which is the capital of the Northern Region in Ghana. It gave us time to get used to the heat, the food, the new environment, and talking to strangers. This way when we actually start working with our partners it’s not everything at once that we’re dealing with. Assignments for the week included a scavenger hunt that had me searching the market for fabric, someone who had been affected or known someone affected by Juju (black magic), maggi (an all-in-one spice, kind of like oxo), and much more. I have to say that I was much more comfortable in my surroundings in Tamale (~300 000 people) than when we first arrived to Ghana in Accra (~2.5 million people). Maybe when things are so new the small town girl inside me comes back and I’m much more comfortable when the world around me is just a bit smaller.

Greetings, how did you sleep?

Dagbane is the language spoken in the Northern Region. All exchanges begin first with a series of 3 or 4 standard greetings. They start with either good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, then proceed to asking how is the heat, how are your travels, how is work, how is your family. In most all cases the answer is “Naa!” which means “fine” except for “A gbihira” which means “how did you sleep” to which the answer is “Gom beni” which means “slept fine” They’ll get you rolling on a series of Naa’s and try to trip you up with that last one, testing to see if you’re really paying attention. A fail results in eruption of laughter, a pass results in cheers and laughter. I’d have to say everyone is really quite friendly! For someone like me, who tends to try to launch into things pretty quickly, it’s taken some adjustment to observe the pace and proper exchanges before getting to the purpose of the conversation. I am learning to slow down, take my time, and pay more attention to how I am doing and how others are doing. It’s surprising how simple conversational shifts can lead to a change in mindset.

Things aren’t that different after all.

After a week of acclimatizing I’m back in Accra to meet with the main UNICEF office here and set things up for my year working in the Northern Region with the office there. It’s been good to spend some more time in the city and get to know the people in the office here. As I’ve begun to learn about the challenges faced by the government in the districts, I’m quickly learning that these departments face many of the same fiscal, political, and managerial challenges that we face in the Canadian government especially in the northern rural areas of the provinces.

Some background: Ghana is continuing through the process of decentralizing all of its decision making power from Accra. This means more power to the regional governments (similar to provincial) and district governments (almost like a constituency, with around 250 000 people). The farther north you go the more rural it gets and the less infrastructure there is. This means there is a huge lack of access to basic services and an equally large demand. The district level of elected government is more directly in contact with the actual communities, thus UNICEF supports several programs that the districts are running in effort to build the capacity of the government to meet the needs of its constituents.

Where I fit in.

The plan is that I will stay with one of the District Assemblies for a few months, working along side the public servants there, learning first hand about the difficulties faced, and hoping to find ways that I can assist in further developing their programs. Special attention will be paid to the UNICEF supported programs, in order to share particular lessons learned and best practices that can be replicated to the other districts where UNICEF is supporting similar programs.

I don’t know exactly what this means yet, and I expect it will change somewhat as we go along and learn more about the needs and where I can best fit. I excited by the opportunities I see, and I hope to get started soon. (And part of me can’t WAIT to unpack somewhere and stop living out of a backpack!)


PS. The troubles with everyone posting to the newsgroup should be solved now! Thank you for your patience!

Monday, February 25, 2008


Welcome to my blog. Here I'll share with my friends, family and collegues my experiences in Ghana over these next 13 months. I've titled the blog, 'from my point of view' because that's all I can truly represent. Please bear with me during this time, as I expect I'll discover new ways of thinking about things, and may even change my mind about things along the way.

This placement isn't about getting a project finished, it isn't about getting a good mark, and it isn't about putting in a set amount of time. It's about people, and it's like nothing I've ever done before; or at least not in such a dedicated way.

I hope you will have the chance to get to know a few people through my writing.

I hope you have the chance to find out more about a place that seems so far away.

I hope you can gain a better understanding of this complex world of human development.

I hope something will inspire you to ask questions and make comments on my blog so that this can feel like your journey as well. Each of you have supported me so much in coming this far, it is the least I can give back to you.

So here we go! I'm excited. I've spent 5 weeks learning about what I really don't know anything about. I've been humbled, I've been motivated, and I can't wait to get started.

Next post will be from Ghana!