Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Development Work; A Wild Ride

I have been working with EWB Canada in Ghana, partnered with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) since August 2009.. A short while, compared to some, but when I look back on the past 20 months, it's been quite the ride.

People ask me what I do, and I still hesitate and take a deep breath before trying to explain. Being a "Development Worker" is not as easy to explain as a teacher, a lawyer, an engineer, a nurse. Maybe because we (are privileged to) have less first hand experience with "Development Workers" in Canada. It seems to be an elusive job to many, and when I look back its hard for me to concisely articulate what I've been doing onto a compelling CV… it seems like I've had 3 or 4 different jobs.

As I looked through random childhood pictures from my mom, I fell upon a picture of me on a rocking horse (don't I look happy?) and it struck me that much of what I'm doing in development can be compared riding a horse..

It can be a lot of fun. But it can also be pretty scary. Sometimes you fall down, and if you're like me; you cry. But hopefully you get back up again. I think about "successes and failures" in the past 20 months and can confidently say I've been on a rocky journey.

Sometimes I've felt in control of the horse I was riding; like I knew where I was going and how to get there. Working as Human Resources Director for EWB in Ghana has been like that, at times. I've gotten used to training new staff, to organizing retreats and team meetings and am feeling like I finally have the hang of it. This is fun. I can do this.

But other times, you're riding this horse and no matter what you do, nothing seems to be working. You're kicking the horse with your heel for it to stop, please let it stop; I've had enough, but you find you are still moving. You are pulling the reins back, the pace is too much to bear and you feel if you don't slow down you might have to jump off. A difficult part of my job is the goodbyes. In this work, there is incredibly high turnover, and yet a strong family culture. Staff can be here for just 3 months, a year, 2 years… at almost every point new staff are being integrated and old staff are departing.. In the past 20 mths I have said goodbye to over 30 (incredible) staff. This is hard.

Most of our staff, thankfully, leave Ghana but don't get off the development horse, per se; they continue this type of work somewhere else, still contributing to creating positive change. But many others in development can't take the turbulent path. They overdose on cynicism and pessimism. They can be frustrated for different reasons; the horse is just moving too slow, the pace of change is far too slow and too frustrating; does this horse even want to move? Are we standing still? If this horse doesn't want to move, I'll get off and ride a different one; one that is more willing and ready to move. Others ride so long, so far, continue to jump hurdle after hurdle after hurdle until they realize they are out of steam and can't take the pressure any longer. They give up riding the horse and move to something more stable, less demanding, more predictable.

Truly I look back and see that at times I really was running; working in MoFA's Agricultural Colleges has been a great source of motivation for me, and I feel great about how far we've come with promoting Entrepreneurship and equipping the youth for greater success post graduation- though I still smile more as I face forward, where we are going, than where we have come from.

Other times I look back and I was just trotting, maybe even trotting in circles, finding myself back where I started from. Working in a MoFA district office, trying to institutionalize the Agriculture As A Business Program was trying- and after so much effort, the field staff still ended up being pulled in far too many directions for the program to impact farmers in the way I hoped for; they were pulled by projects and in directions with more incentives than ours. The pace of change was frustrating. Maybe that’s why I was so happy to jump on the College horse, of course its to be expected that the younger, more motivated people will be easier to work with and create change through. And I get more energy trotting down the "invest in the youth" path.

In development, I've also seen that sometimes its hard to teach old dogs, or old horses, new tricks; maybe it’s a special gift that some people have, or particular types of tricks. Maybe we have to keep pressing on to work on some of those bigger, deeper challenges. Maybe we can't always hop off when things are difficult and every other avenue looks more expedient. Maybe we don't always see accurately all that is left in our wakes. Or we don't take the time to look back before planning the way forward.

My overall feeling is that I'm still happy to be riding the horse; I'm still looking forward, and though I can't see very far ahead, with what I can see I am excited, and with what we've already overcome, I am assured that every success and failure ahead is a necessary part of this journey.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Social Entrepreneurship: "the last thing a fish would ever notice would be water"

Last week I was blessed to be back at Kwadaso Agricultural College. My work with the colleges, with youth and entrepreneurship, continues to be a great source of motivation and inspiration for me so I decided to share another glimpse into my day to day life.

I have spoken previously about the fact that I am not a teacher in the colleges, but more of a consultant. I aim to collaborate with existing staff, co-develop and co-implement interventions that are important and have lasting effects beyond my immediate presence. My focus has primarily been on an Agribusiness and Entrepreneurship Project, but for the sake of this post I'll entertain a side interest; Social Entrepreneurship and building of pro-poor agriculturalists.

This semester we have started working with a new group of students; mature Extension staff, with a minimum of 5 years field experience who have come to upgrade their education. They are quite different from the other students and it is always refreshing to visit them, and discuss issues of extension and farmer behaviour change. The last time I was here, about a month ago, I mentioned in passing "Social Entrepreneurship" only to receive a wall of 50+ blank stares. I then repeated it again; maybe I was speaking too fast. Still nothing. After a brief explanation, they were very intrigued to learn more, and the lecturer himself was curious; so we agreed to do something I don't often do; I would come back to facilitate a guest lecture on Social Entrepreneurship.

I agreed with reluctance, not because I don't love teaching; because I am hesitant to merely fill temporary gaps. I am more motivated by building Ghanaian capacity to create change. Nevertheless, knowing that the students were equally as passionate as I, and that the lecturer was not in a position to learn and teach this topic before the close of the semester, I agreed I would come back to facilitate a discussion on Social Entrepreneurship..

Am I ever glad I did. The discussion was incredibly interesting; we didn't want to leave the classroom. I find it hard to summarize the main highlights of the discussion, but needless to say the extension staff were engaged and intrigued. I will briefly quote that: A social entrepreneur is a person with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. If there is one thing I believe deeply, it is that Ghana needs social entrepreneurs. Across Ghana I see people who are very rich, and people who are very poor.

Interestingly, I don't often see a lot of agriculturally driven youth who I would define as "pro poor" in their innovations. Many student projects are centered around making profit, which surely is important- we need job creators, not job seekers. But I began asking myself; why is Ghana defined by immeasurable numbers of foreign NGO's, short term volunteers, and Development Partners… why aren't there more Ghanaian change agents?

In speaking with this group, asking about challenges they see in Ghana, not one mentioned poverty; the very reason I came to Ghana. Another phenomenon I've seen is a level of "Ghanaian blindness" to poverty. Suddenly this proverb came to me: "The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water" -Ralph Linton. After sharing with the class, I delicately pointed out that I found it interesting that none of them mentioned the fact that Ghana is an impoverished country and that many, many farmers are suffering. We explored that social entrepreneurs do not wait passively when the public and private sectors are failing to address social problems; they take initiative to create systemic changes.

Through the course of the discussion we also explored the skills needed to be an effective social entrepreneur, the important role in society (and especially developing countries) of social entrepreneurs, opportunities and success stories within agriculture, and finally each person reflected on what is holding them back from being a social entrepreneur.

After reading through the Ashoka website in the recent past, I continue to be inspired by the concept of "everyone a change maker". Diana Wells, President of Ashoka states, “Aligned with Ashoka’s vision of forming an Everyone a Changemaker ™ world, this partnership underscores that the most important change must be to empower humans from passive recipients of solutions to initiators and champions of innovation in the social sector. I am confident that the people in that room are well positioned to create meaningful changes for and with farmers as they graduate and re-enter the workforce. This is my hope for them.

Our discussion also included how change agents understand their spheres of influence and spheres of control, and take action.. I believe that becoming "a change agent" is a process, and does not take place over night or as a result of 1 lecture; but maybe it starts somewhere with a mindset shift; a renewed awareness that we as limited human beings are still capable of creating positive, lasting change in our communities.. And a belief that change is needed, and that change is possible.

Though my work in MoFA's Agricultural Colleges is focused on promoting Agricultural Entrepreneurship more generally, I would be dishonest if I said I am not deeply passionate about social entrepreneurship; about raising a generation of Ghanaians committed to using their skills and creativity to address systemic social problems plaguing this nation.

This opportunity was a privilege. Another great day in Ghana.