Thursday, November 26, 2009

"There are villages, but no villagers".... What is poverty?

As we transition into the Dry season in Ghana, I felt compelled to step back and examine what I have learned in the past months living in Wamale.
I ask myself: What is poverty?

A very broad, esoteric question- one you'd think I'd already have the answer to, considering the fact that I am here, in Ghana, motivated and driven by a desire to reduce this big word we call "poverty".

I wanted to live in a village to gain a deep understanding of rural life and poverty. That was my main motivation- and the other benefits, like having a loving, fun family around, were simply cherries on top.

However, I didn't intend to live with the Chief's family. Due to hierarchy and cultural formality, we first had to meet with the Chief to discuss that I wanted a place to stay in Wamale. I later found out that Chief took it upon himself and said that if I was to be in Wamale, I should live with them to ensure my safety and happiness. I am blessed to live here and am exceedingly grateful.
But at times I would ask myself- is THIS poverty? Being the Chief's family, they are the "wealthiest" in the community, and more importantly, they receive great prestige and honour- even the children have special privileges in the community because they come from "Chief's Palace".

Chief is an excellent farmer and manages to support a family that it too large to count (imagine 4 wives, plus 26 children, plus countless grandchildren and even great grandchildren- I am still very confused and longing for a family tree).
Nevertheless, I would say they are still in poverty. But you know poverty is not what you may think- it is definitely not what I had thought. Even after having been in Ghana previously, and working in development for the past years, studying and reading about it, only recently- amazingly- it truly struck me just how complex poverty really is.

I'm sure we can all sit back and picture EXTREME POVERTY: the type that is sickening and disturbing- people literally starving to death. (Please: I don't for one second intend to claim that extreme poverty does not exist in Ghana, that it is not an atrocity of our times and an issue that should have been adequately addressed decades ago- but for the sake of this post, I will remain focused on the poverty that I encounter face to face.)

If you came to Wamale, one of the first things you might note in your head is that my mothers are fat and the family eats well. The family is very well-fed, no one is going hungry. Ever. Another perception I had was that many "villagers" would be going hungry, but I've observed that because most "villagers" are farmers, the problem is often not food but capital- actual cash.

You look at a village like Wamale here, and you will understand what my colleague told me "Robin, there are villages, but there are no villagers".
Though you find many, many people sleeping in mud huts with thatch roofs, you will be hard pressed to find any village here that does not have it least one person with a cell phone. I was amazed one day when my Chief was talking about Global Warming. And the name/face of Barack Obama plasters shirts, bracelets, and even school notebooks across the region. My family in Wamale- due to radio and even a television in Chief's room, and proximity to Tamale- are very exposed to the outside world and technology, though they are in a village with no running water. Though they have never used one, they know what a laptop and IPOD are. Further, nearly every village will have it least one English speaker, and a swarm of children who can shout HOW ARE YOU!?

I look at my family in Wamale, well-fed, no car or moto but a few bicycles, a few cell phones, a TV, radio, and many children in school, and I can question whether THIS is poverty... but then I remember that this same family doesn't have money for toilet paper, tooth brushes, tooth paste, hand soap... things I have always taken completely for granted in Canada.

I look at someone like Mustapha, who went to harvest his field, slept there 3 nights to complete it before returning, and realized he didn't even have enough money for food or to pay for a taxi to return home. So he sold his cell phone for 25 Ghana cedis.

I think of my younger brother here called, Abie. I told him about a cell phone promotion where if you buy 2 cedis of credit you get triple the talk time. He became very excited. But then asked, what if you buy only 1 cedi? I said no, the promotion is for 2 cedis. His face sunk. "Oh, well I'll never have the money to buy 2 cedis at one time. Even 1 cedi would have been hard".

Sometimes, in mid conversation, as they are speaking to me very casually I stop for a moment, and tried to imagine what it would be like to sit down and realize that I have no money- I have to sell something on my person, or that I don't have even 2 cedis.

I think about one of my elder sisters who sits all day, if she tries to walk she uses a cane. She has been to a doctor. They know the problem. They know the solution: an operation. But due to lack of funds, she sits, all day every day, without reprieve.

I think of the alarming number of incidences of malaria in my family (weekly, it least one person has malaria) and the fact that I have yet to see a single one enter a hospital or a doctor.

I think about my brother who was playing football, 5 days a week, without football boots.

My other brother who missed a week of school because his uniform was torn and he didn't have money to buy more cloth and sew a new one.

I think of a farmer who expected to get 15 bags of maize from his field and, due to rains and flooding, only got 4. Can you imagine? Can you imagine working all year, expecting to receive $150,000 and in the end, you get a cheque for 40,000?

I think of a colleage who went to the bank to take out money so that he could celebrate a Muslim holiday with his family by buying some animals to slaughter, but went and realized there was nothing in his account- he didn't have the 20 Cedis he needed to provide for his family....

I think of the many, many different vignettes, snapshots or revelations I've come across in the past months and I know that this, too, is poverty. It may be a well-fed poverty, but they are still lacking the opportunities to thrive, meet their needs, be resilient to external shocks, and propel themselves to a more prosperous future.

This is why I am here. It is simply not fair. It doesn't sit well with me inside. That propels me to create change.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Our Teams Strategy to Move Farmers from Poverty to Prosperity

**When you think about TEAM MoFA's work in Ghana, what comes to mind??**

The Agriculture as a Business Curriculum??

Eat Ghana Rice Campaign?

Rice that is "so clean, clean, cleeeean"? (Ghana Rice Radio Jingle)

In my entirely unbiased opinion, I feel Team MoFA's strategy has **never been more sophisticated and exciting**, so I felt we just had to share it- hot off the press!

**WHY are we doing what we are doing?**

In the eloquent words of Sarah Grant: "We are driven by the injustices of poverty and by the untapped potential of humans in Africa. We are in this line of work for as long as this situation exists.
Specifically, for the farmers we work with, **we are driven by the idea of helping these farmers make more from their farm so that they can invest in their children and live the life they choose full of dignity and opportunity.**"

In my own words: we love and respect farmers and want to see them with more money in hand and more smiles on their faces.

**So... WHAT exactly we doing??**

We are now driven by 3 OUTCOME AREAS:

1. Quality extension services
2. Market level interventions
3. Learning systems within the Ministry

By **"Quality Extension Services"**, we envision AEAs (Field Staff) that have the capacity and resources to provide quality extension services to farmers; A quality extension program has AEAs enabled with the time to do extension work (instead of just fertilizer coupon distribution and data collection), a means of transportation (fueled up motorcycle) and the opportunity to continue developing the skills, knowledge and attitude to **do it well** (more than just technical skills, **a coach**, facilitator, linker wise in the ways of the market).

An example of what we are doing to achieve this outcome is the Agriculture as a Business curriculum which many of you are probably familiar with; we now see it as the BREAD AND BUTTER of our work- all OVS/JFS are implementing AAB within their districts because we feel the curriculum is a very tangible tool that AEA's can implement in the field with their farmer groups that truly helps farmers tackle farming as a profitable business venture.
However, we have recognized that we are capable of far greater changes within MoFA so we are moving above and beyond just AAB. Something I am very pumped about is our initiatives in Agricultural Colleges in Ghana. **On the Job Training with AEAs is great, but why not tackle the root cause- how AEAs are educated??** We are now working in the colleges to influence the curriculum to be more farmer-first, to equip graduates with business/market approach, and a teaching pedagogy that is more participatory- so we can see graduates enter the workforce with the skills and attitudes needed to best serve farmers.

The second outcome area, deals with MoFA implementing **""Market-Level Interventions""**... this stuff is super sexy in development- talk right now, but its still pretty intangible. So far, examples of this work include our promotion of the local consumption of Ghana rice, providing Market Information to AEAs and farmers so they know the most profitable market to sell their produce, and Ryan's Farmer Group Business Development Fund- as an OVS he recognized that AAB was great, but farmers still lacked the initial start up capital to implement new projects, so he is now providing small loans to qualified farmer groups.

Finally, lucky number 3 is institutionalizing ways for MoFA to be a **""Learning Organization""** . In order for MoFA to be a cutting-edge Ministry defined by revolutionizing extension that is bringing farmers from **poverty to prosperity**, they need to be reflexive, adaptable and innovative. We need to ensure that MoFA staff have the means (ie. Fuel Money to moto to field), opportunity (training on skill building), and motivation (internal and external) to perform.

Some of our new and exciting initiatives to accomplish this objective include experimenting with Performance Based Incentives - currently, rewards are non-existent so there is little/no external motivation to work hard; those select AEAs who are outstanding seem to be internally motivated... we feel that incentives linked to how an AEA actually performs, and public recognition and celebration of excellency in extension will drive higher motivation, pride and performance. Who doesn't love to be recognized? Be the Employee of the Month? Or receive a prize for their hard work?

Another really exciting initiative is the DDA Fellowship- a fellowship program to bring together District Directors from across the region to educate on leadership development, and diffuse best practices on how to lead a district to results, success and impact.

By developing and magnifying strong leadership at District offices, we feel **we are tackling the system from nearly every possible angle: with students before they graduate and become employed, on the ground with farmers being coached by well-trained, highly motivated and well-equipped AEAs, who are being led by outstanding Directors that recognize and encourage high performance!**

I could go on for 10 pages but for the sake of "brevity" (and so I don't further confuse you) I will end here! I hope this clearly outlined what is driving our work within MoFA in Ghana, and some of the new and exciting initiatives we are piloting as we head into 2010.

Please feel free to shoot us any questions/comments around this strategy.

With lots of love and warmth (literally) from Ghana,

Robin and the rest of Team MoFA

What did I do today?

I feel the best way to describe an EWB Overseas Volunteer Staff's (OVS) daily life is that it is dynamic and full of contrast- Wayne and I were recently remarking on the fact that in one day you can go from the field- wearing wellington boots, knee high in water, working with farmers, to an office- in high heels, typing on a laptop. Our days are anything but "ordinary" (in Canadian terms), and this day is by no means indicative of what every OVS does, or what I always do, but I thought it might be interesting to share with you nonetheless.

Hopefully this helps to demystify what it is actually like to be living and working in a country foreign to our Canadian upbringing.

**Time** **Activity**

530-630 Wake up, go from hut to hut to greet my whole family, the chief, the 3 wives, and countless children. Eat breakfast, take a bucket bath.
630-7 Moto to meet Mustapha- a very dedicated and inspiring Extension Agent **(MoFA OVS get to ride motos!!)**
7-720 Travel to Taha (OVS spend a lot of time moto-ing here and there, which results in an incredible(?) moto-tan)
740-840 Coach AEA through the facilitation of Agriculture as a Business Card 2: improving group meetings
8:40-10 Moto to another community to monitor the harvesting of Expanded Rice program, walk through fields, observe farmers harvesting, thrashing, hear their concerns about the low yield, take a video of the AEA and farmer describing the effects of flooding. **(OVS get to work hand in hand with farmers, in beautiful fields, and try their best to relay these experiences to engage Canadians- and need SERIOUS patience to actually upload these videos)**
10-1045 Travel back to town, eat some egg and bread
1045-1110 Travel to MoFA district office
11-12 Greet everyone at the office, sit in on an emergency meeting re: the rice surveys, where Director informed everyone that the next few months will be extremely busy before National Farmers Day and that there are still no funds for fuel money- but they should all be encouraged and continue to go to the field as much as possible to complete projects **(OVS can (and DO)go from being dirty and sweaty in the field, to dressy and formal in an office meeting)**
1-2 Go home and wash some clothes by hand so I can be "clean" tomorrow when I travel to pong-tamale to work with Carissa (ProJF) at the Vet. College **(OVS can have poor time management skills, and often wear clothes that aren't entirely clean)**
2-3 Back at office, work on computer- set goals for the week- what do I need to accomplish by weeks end? what needs to happen to get me there? **(OVS placements are pretty self directed and you have to drive your own schedule and accomplishments)**
3-6 Meet with Sarah Grant-our team MoFA incredible Team Lead, for coaching and feedback on my current strategy and initiatives **(OVS excel when they have great coaches, and EWBers are overly reflective and OVS can think and analyze as much, (sometimes more), than they DO)** .
6-8 Moto home, greet everyone again, spend time singing and clapping with kids, have a quick nap with Sule- my fav. little baby boy, take a refreshingly cool bucket shower, and eat a big bowl of TZ with my VERY BIG (and incredible) family in Wamale. **(OVS, though they are physically separated from their biological family members in Canada, can form incredibly close bonds with their local family members)**
8-10 Work in my mud hut (that has electricity!) on some presentations, and talk on the phone to my best friend in Canada. **(Straddling Canadian/Ghanaian relationships is an interesting balance but allows for beautiful interactions with very unique and diverse people; a 2 year old Ghanaian boy who knows 10 English words, to a 23 year old Masters student in Canada)**
10- Fall asleep comfortably- with my fan blowing on my face and my mosquito net engulfing my still-sweaty body.

So what do you think? What have you been up to lately in Canada, or wherever you find yourself on this vast earth? Were you surprised by anything above or was this pretty much in line with your perception of what I've been doing?

Love Robin