Monday, October 12, 2009

"Planners aren't implementers": Development Wisdom from the Field

I had the great privilege to spend a week in the field with Tahiru, an amazing AEA (Agricultural Extension Agent= field worker) at the Tamale District MoFA (Ghana's Ministry of Food and Agriculture) office.

EWB works with MoFA for many reason, one being that they have excellent reach and breadth- they provide extension services to most farmers throughout the entire Northern Region, and will likely be a sustainable actor in the sector in the long run. Unfortunately, for these same reasons, MoFA ends up being approached by many donor projects to implement in the field.

This week, Tahiru was completing a project called "The Good Life of Maize" (from a massive donor whose name I will not mention). Basically, his task was to come to various farmer groups in different communities to take attendance, and provide a poster to each person in attendance. The poster was pretty substantial, larger than Full Scap paper, colour, with many small pictures, and not just laminated- actual colour printed paper. The poster explained the good and bad practices of maize- bad practices down left, good practices down the right, all in all there were 15 key steps in the table, front and back.
Initially, being my first week in the field, I was mostly observing and taking it all in. But by the time numerous hours had past, and I was still asking people their names, and having them stamp their finger print (because they can't sign their name), I realized that not only was this inefficient and a waste of time, it was not achieving (what I assume to be) their objectives. Yes- people were thrilled to receive the poster, but looking at it, I felt that there was far too much text (all English), and the pictures were far too small to be understood independent of the text. I soon asked Tahiru, after seeing people holding the poster upside down, "How many of them do you think can read English?", Tahiru laughed..

"You see, Robin, planners aren't implementers" Problem number one.

In one statement, Tahiru succinctly addressed one of the biggest reasons trillions of dollars have been spent on development and we still live in a world with extreme poverty- those planning development projects are often sitting in nice offices in North America and Europe, while those implementing- working on the ground with an authentic understanding of the poor- are not consulted but merely execute what is instructed from the top; whether it makes sense or not.

Looking at the big package the posters came in, I saw the bill: $240 Ghana Cedis (just under $300 CAD) just to mail it from Accra to Tamale. Each poster, I'm guessing, cost between 6-10 Ghana Cedis, plus the labour to research and design the poster, potentially mail it from US to Ghana, and the time field staff spent distributing, and other extraneous costs.. what I'm trying to say is that A LOT OF MONEY WAS SPENT... and for what outcome?

It appears that the result is perhaps a few people in each community who can read, and hundreds of others who now hold posters they don't understand.

Further, Tahiru addressed another key challenge in development "But they love it, Robin. Look how happy they are to have the poster". Problem number two: Handouts are sexy. To farmers, receiving something, anything, is well pleasing, desirable, and creates excitement.

The challenge is a complex, multifaceted one; how do development planners gain greater insight into field realities to create projects that will actually help the poor? How do implementers, those with the deepest understanding of field realities, contribute their vast knowledge to the larger development sector? How do we make the intangible stuff (learning how to make a business plan, how to function as a farmer group and apply for a loan) as exciting as the tangible stuff (a colourful poster) to farmers?

Here's to hoping that the amazing Ghanaians like Tahiru continue to have an impact in the lives of farmers in Ghana and beyond, and that Canadian and other foreigners continue to leverage all they learn to create greater impact within our own sphere of influence elsewhere in the world.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Home, sweet home": Wamale

After a weekend in Tamale for our EWB Ghana Country Meeting, I was happy to return home, lay down my bag and recognize that nice, warm feeling: "it feels good to be home".

After explaining to Wayne and AEA's at the office that I was looking for a place to live outside of Tamale, a village with a family, but not too far from the office, on Monday there was a lead; Tahiru (an amazing AEA) informed me that we could go to visit the Chief of Wamale to discuss the matter; by the end of the evening, I had moved into my new home.

Wamale is a small village outside of Tamale, on the road to Yendi (for those familiar with Ghana's Northern Region, or those who love to examine maps). A few months ago, the village got electricity so I am happy to say that I am living in a thatched-roof mud hut, concrete floors, but I am capable of working on my laptop at night or charging my cell phone- it really is the best of both worlds!
I am staying with the Chief's family, not directly in Chiefs compound, but with his nephew, 1 min outside of compound. They are Muslim, so Chief has 3 wives, and 26+ children and countless grandchildren (new meaning to the term "large family"). He is a kind chief, very well respected in the community. I am learning so much about Dagomba culture. Formality, respect and hierarchy are very important- before anyone goes/does anything (including me) they come in to his "Palace" (a large, circular mud hut), crouch down, greet him, and inform him of their plans.
I really love him. He has been very welcoming and that makes a huge difference when the Chief is on your side- everyone else in the community follows suit. One morning, one of my brothers, Mohammed, was leaving and said "Madame, I am now going to school", and walked away. A minute later Chief called him back and said "Mohammed, don't call her "Madame", call her "sister". (And this was on my second morning in Wamale). He has been very clear on the fact that I am now part of the family, that I am his Canadian daughter, and so he treats me very well. He can speak some English which makes it nice for us to get to know one another.
The most helpful person in Wamale by far has been Mustapha- the nephew, a middle aged man, who I am staying with. He is educated, can speak English fluently, and he is teaching me Dagbani. Our mud huts are side by side, and we share an outdoor space where we can bath, and he also has a homemade latrine type of deal that we use to go to the bathroom. Water is fetched up the street from near the School by the young boys who go on their bicycles and return with jugs filled.
Culturally, in some ways, things seem backwards to family life in Canada: in Canada, the eldest often has to do more of the work and the younger ones are served and babied. In Wamale hierarchy is very important, so the older you are, the less housework you do: the more you are served by your juniors.
One of my favourite people and greatest sources of joy and laughter in Wamale is Sulemana- a 3 year old boy here (Grandson of Chief), who I adore! He is with me nonstop, as soon as I ride in on my moto from work he runs to me giggling, I carry him around everywhere, sing and dance with him, feed him, kiss him; he is too cute!
Finally, I am very excited because my birthday is tomorrow! And it is going to be amazing! In Wamale we are having a BIG celebration, and it's my official naming ceremony: Njallawuni (in- gel-LA-wu-knee, it means "I have laid myself against God")! I am so grateful- people from all surrounding villages have been invited, the youth are performing a drama, we are dancing, there will be delicious food and drumming; I'm confident it will be a birthday I'll never forget.
That's all for now: look forward to lots of pictures/videos to come!


"Rain, rain, go away" Abokobiisi Part 2

Being in Abokobiisi really illuminated the fact that the rain is both a blessing and a curse for Ghanaians.

For a farmer, the rains- completely unpredictable and out of your control-determine your ability to thrive or suffer. Beyond this, the rains can be deadly.
In this post, I will highlight some few anecdotes to demonstrate how the rain affects the lives of some of the incredible Ghanaians I have met so far.
"The rains, Ah! They have been TOO much!"- (in Ghana-speak). None are unaffected; for the children, if it rains, they do not attend school that day. Can you imagine in Canada if school was canceled every day it rained or snowed? The amount of time and knowledge lost must be incredible, especially during the rainy season.

*Quality of education is greatly hindered by the rains.*

For the womens' group in Abokobiisi, when I inquired of the status of their Soya fields (funded by Ryan's Loan Program), they said things haven't gone as well as they expected. Due to the rains, and the fact that the field is a great distance from the home, they were prevented from weeding and applying fertilizer at the right times. The path to get to the field currently requires you to trench through rivers, puddles, and mud; not very practical for middle aged women, or anyone for that matter, and not conducive to high yields.

*So in this case, the success of this womens' group loan (a big business risk) is now in jeopardy.*

In Bongo, a woman's mud hut collapsed on her during a storm, breaking her leg. She returned from the hospital, feeling okay, and the next morning she was found dead. Similarly upsetting in nature, in Tugu a woman's mud hut was struck by lightning, setting fire to all of her belongings, and knocking her unconscious.
*With less than structurally sound housing, the rain can be fatal.*
Less seriously, the rain simply decreases the overall productivity of Ghanaians. Take this example: I was scheduled to go to the field at 5:45 am, and due to the rains, we could not leave until after 11. Further, many Ghanaians are petty traders eking out a living in markets and along the streets, selling from small stalls and shops. However, when it is raining, you are hard pressed to find a single place to buy any food or products. The success of any farmer's harvest is obviously dependent on the rains; when it is too rainy, fields flood and completely wash away all potential crops, or other fields are simply inundated with weeds, requiring farmers to weed more frequently if they are to prosper.

*The rain prevents Ghanaians from earning more money.*

I regret the fact that this post appears to be very negative; I merely wanted to elucidate how something that all humans experience- rain- can have a drastically variant effects on peoples' lives, prescribed only by your place of birth/residence. To me, it has been very eye opening... in Canada, the worst side effect rain has had on my life has been a bad hair day.

So the next time it rains, I hope you will join me in singing "Rain, rain, go away, come again another day"!