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)