I’ve just added a new Agricultural Extension team publication to the “Publications” tab on this blog – head on over to take a look!
This excellent paper was written by AgEx team member Miriam Hird-Younger (who also happens to have a fantastic blog). It’s a great overview of some of the current views on global food systems and recommendations for how EWB can engage going forward. In a nutshell, there is no consensus about the “way forward” in agriculture. Some people promote high-intensity commercial farming, others encourage organic, while still others support small-scale producers.
EWB does not have the answer (or the expertise to ascertain an answer) to this highly complex problem of ongoing food production. But I believe it’s important to stay on top of the debate and make sure that we continue to ask ourselves, “what type of agricultural model are we working toward?” It would be a shame to look back in 20 years and realize that although we were promoting human development, it was at the expense of the long-term sustainability of food production in Africa.
So head on over and take a look at this thought-provoking paper! Link is here.
It’s been several months since I’ve written here. There have been ups and downs and rough patches, but I haven’t felt compelled to share these with the wider world. Just suffice to say it’s been a bit crazy around here since November.
Loyal readers will remember that I was writing last year about my EWB team’s strategy development process. A lot has changed since I last wrote, but I’m not going to try to summarize all of it today – I’m sure it will keep changing at a rapid pace. Instead, I want to write about my personal reflections on this process.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on our strategy lately, and on my role in developing it. I’m now a Team Leader for the Agricultural Extension (AgEx) team in EWB. With this leadership role comes a lot of responsibility, and I’ve been learning a lot about what kind of responsibility I thrive with and where I think I fall short. For example, I love the administrative responsibilities of managing a team. I also love the opportunity to invest in the personal and professional growth of every member of my team. Those aspects of my job are thrilling! I am also thrilled by thinking about the “big picture” of the sector we’re working in and how we’re making change in that sector. But that is also where I struggle the most.
I was told when I took this role that one of my challenges would be developing a strong vision and leading people toward it. That prediction has proven to be very true. I am someone who has always excelled more at poking holes in ideas than in building them up myself. I always chalked it up to a lack of creativity, but there’s more to it than that. My naturally critical mind can think of a million different ways for a project to fail. That makes it pretty damn hard to design a solution that I truly believe in, and even harder to sell it to a whole team of people who are here to commit years of their lives to realizing that vision.
Our team has landed on a ~20-year vision of an agricultural extension sector that is innovative, coordinated and customer-service oriented. We’ve imagined a competitive market where extension service providers come from the public, private and civil society sectors to meet the needs of different segments of customers (farmers) to promote socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. We see quality being added to these extension services at many points, from training and education, to a strong management structure, to well-developed field tools and approaches, to a strong enabling policy environment. And this vision has me PUMPED UP!!
But how do we get there? That’s where it gets a bit more messy. To dig into that question, our team has been designing a Theory of Change (see some great posts on Theory of Change by Duncan Green from Oxfam). We started by identifying 8 key changes that need to happen in order for our vision to be realized, then worked backward to understand the steps needed to realize these changes. We are still working on that part, but the hope is that the Theory of Change will define where our team needs to work in order to realize our vision in 20 years.
So we have a strong vision, we have a Theory of Change, now we need to get started. And this is where I get stuck. How do we, the five members of EWB’s AgEx team, create the change we want to see in the extension sector? There are seeeeeerious challenges ahead. Most of the major changes in the agric sector are created by those with money, power, political influence, or (more often) a mix of all three. We have none of those things. So how do we change the system?
We need to build a solution. Not just a theory, not just our assumptions and hypotheses, but an actual work-plan for how to move forward. Where should I post the new staff I’ll be getting in June and September? Who can they work with? Will their placements be based on learning, or experimenting, or scaling, or influencing? What about the staff on the ground right now? Who are the most influential partners we should be working with? How do we get others to start thinking about extension in the same way we’re thinking about it? Questions swirling in my mind… and very few answers.
Now, back to my struggles as a (non-)visionary leader. What does this mean for my ability to lead my team toward our exciting-yet-difficult-to-attain future? (Stick with me, I’ll land soon.)
I remember someone asking me a few years ago about my Principle of Leadership. At the time, I stammered and mumbled and generally had no idea. But the question has stuck with me and now I know my answer: my strength as a leader is defined by my ability to leverage the strengths of my team. This is really the principle I rely on in all situations. I have some strengths, but I also have lots of weaknesses, and it is only be relying on my team that I am able to bring the best out of us as a whole.
I look to Robin for bringing unbridled passion for the public sector and making sure we always connect our work to poor farmers. I rely on Miriam to bring insights and approaches from her background in development studies. I lean on Siera for a connection to current field realities from being embedded with extension staff and farmers. I depend on Don for his selfless work ethic and insane networking skills to find new partners for our team.
I am grateful for all of these people, and all those I have worked with in the past in EWB. There is so much talent around me, it’s overwhelming! I feel privileged to be in a position to harness all this potential and move us toward an impactful change in the agricultural extension sector. I may not be leading the way with my vision, but I have no doubt that we’ll get there. How could I, when I have an amazing team-ful of talents at my fingertips?
Challenging Perspectives is EWB Canada’s annual holiday campaign to combine fundraising and outreach. You can also read my Perspective below here and make a donation. Click here to browse some of the other perspectives.
When I first came to Ghana in March 2010, I lived with a host family in a village called Zuo. The head of the family is a farmer named Salifo. He is more educated than most of his neighbours. He can read and write in English and do simple math. He is a teacher at the local kindergarten, a community health volunteer, and helps run the local shea butter soap production group.
But when it comes to farming, Salifo doesn’t do well. One day last summer, I sat down with him to analyze his farm from the previous year. He’d grown 3 main crops: maize, rice and groundnuts. I asked him how much money he’d spent on growing these crops. From his memory, he listed out precise figures of his investments in seed, fertilizer, tractor services and labour. I wrote each number down under the corresponding crop. Next, I asked him how many bags he’d harvested from each crop, and the price he’d sold them for. Again, he listed the numbers from memory, and I wrote them all down. Finally, we arrived at the crucial step, the one he’d been avoiding: calculating his profit.
In total, Salifo had lost 501GhC (about $375) on his farm that season. And that doesn’t include his own time and labour.
Why did Salifo lose so much money? There are three contributing problems:
- His farming skills and knowledge are poor. Salifo may be an educated man, but he doesn’t know how to get the most out of his farm. He needs to learn about the basic techniques that will improve his productivity: use improved seed, plant in rows, apply the right fertilizer at the right time, and respond quickly and appropriately to pests and disease.
- He doesn’t have a business mindset. Salifo is so many things, as I mentioned: a teacher, a community health worker, a volunteer, and a farmer. But he is not a business man, at least when it comes to his farm. He needs to learn some basic business skills: record-keeping, marketing, profit calculations and decision-making.
- He can’t control nature. Alright, this one isn’t his fault. He lives in an area with poor soil fertility and unreliable rains. But this means his risk management skills need to be even better – he cannot rely on his rain-fed farm to sustain his family.
This is a tragedy. Thousands, if not millions of farmers in Ghana are suffering from these same skill deficiencies. But there is a solution: effective agricultural extension services.
In order to profit from their farms, farmers need at least 2 things: 1) information on how to farm, and 2) business skills. Agricultural extension provides both of these things. (They also need input and output markets; see EWB’s Agricultural Markets team’s work for more!)
Traditionally, the government has hired Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) who go out to the villages to teach farmers about new technologies and practices. However, with new Information Communication Technologies (ICT) such as video and mobile phones, there is room for innovative new solutions to increase the reach and impact of extension services to farmers.
Ultimately, effective extension services come down to farmer behaviour change. This is an area where EWB has both experience and expertise. Drawing on our history of success with the Agriculture As a Business tool, we are developing new tools and approaches to improve technology adoption and behaviour change in farmers using innovative new technologies. Check out some examples here and here.
I know many of you have supported my work in the past. I sincerely thank you for that – your donation has made a difference! I have personally stepped up my commitment to the cause this year by becoming the Manager of EWB’s Public Sector Agriculture team in Ghana. I am asking you to also step up your commitment by contributing this year to my fundraising campaign!
Your donation to EWB will allow us to keep exploring and developing these tools to help farmers like Salifo to make a profitable living from their farms. I personally believe that we are making an impact through our work, from the farm right up to the policy-makers. But we need your donation to keep it up! Whether $5, $50 or $500, your donation will make a difference.
To make a donation, please visit my Perspectives page here.
Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!
This is a post for Blog Action Day (#bad11), a movement that aims to start a global discussion through thousands of blogs posted in one day on the same topic. This year, the topic is one dear to my heart: Food.I have been thinking about food a lot for the past 1.5 years through my work in agriculture with EWB. We are working closely with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to reach out to farmers, but what are we working toward? This question has nagged me more and more as time goes on, to the point that I ran a learning session at our last EWB retreat with the same name as the title of this post – Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century.I’ve been reading a lot on this topic in the past 8 months. I’m not sure if there’s a trend toward addressing this issue lately, or if I’m just noticing the articles because I’m finally looking for them, but there is a LOT of writing out there! I’ve summarized a few of my favourite articles in the “Further Reading” section at the end of this post.
First, let’s get to the heart of the issue: it’s a matter of food production vs. environmental sustainability. Traditional industrial agriculture has achieved record production through intensive farming practices, mechanized farming and petro-chemical inputs applied with machine-like precision. This has come at the expense of the environment, with corporate farms using up precious fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems in the quest for more food. However, viewing these as two opposing goals is a false dichotomy; if we want to achieve food security far into the future, we must find a way to fulfill both of these goals AT THE SAME TIME! My research into this topic has tried to answer this question: what model of agriculture will allow us to achieve sustainable global food security?
Development workers have a unique perspective on the problem of global food security because we must take into account an additional question, “what is good for poor farmers?” In this case, it’s not just about achieving adequate food production, or nutrition levels, or even environmental sustainability. We must also take into account the lifestyle of the poor Ghanaian farmer, who is being asked to adopt this model to continue providing food for his fellow citizens. What model of agriculture will spur human development in Ghana while also fulfilling the above two goals?
Though I mentioned that there are a lot of people writing on this topic right now, there is a relatively low level of consensus as to what the future model of global agriculture should be. There is a never-ending number of models being promoted (organic, agroecology, industrial, urban, etc.), each with its own convincing arguments and promoters. This is quite startling, and makes it very difficult to choose one agricultural model to promote in our work. So how can we plan for the future?
Let’s be very clear here: the following are my personal opinions, not those of EWB, Ghanaian farmers, or anyone else you might confuse me with. There is no right answer, only a series of thoughts and questions that remain to be determined.
Traditional agriculture in Ghana is somewhat organic, in the sense that there are no chemicals applied to the crops. Most farmers practicing these traditional methods also don’t use improved seeds, proper land preparation techniques or any other Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). As a result, they get low yields compared to their neighbours who use “modern” techniques – mechanized land preparation, chemical fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides, and better GAPs. This is leading Ghanaian farmers to see chemical agriculture as the way forward, when in fact many of these GAPs applied to their traditional organic fields would also increase yields significantly.
Right now, MoFA is steering Ghana toward a future of intensive industrial agriculture through credit-in-kind schemes and input subsidies. And why shouldn’t they? This is the path every other industrialized nation has taken to get out of poverty and push forward their economies. But I think it’s too late to take this path. The time has come when oil-based agriculture is getting too expensive (and oil prices are too volatile) to rely on. The price of oil will only increase in the next 20 years, so why are we promoting a model of dependence on these inputs in Ghana?
If things go ahead as MoFA wants them to, soon the majority of Ghanaian farmers will be using industrial agriculture methods. Food security in the country will be improved, but for how long? Soon fuel prices will be too high for Ghanaians to afford the food produced in this manner, and we will be thrown back into food insecurity. Ghana is at the brink of “maturity” in agriculture, about to choose a method to promote and follow for decades to come. Let’s help them make an appropriate and sustainable choice.
My colleague Mina works with an organic fertilizer company near Tamale and often cites a study that showed yields to be virtually the same when appropriate amounts of chemical and organic fertilizer were applied to test fields. In fact, the plot with the highest yields used a combination of both types of fertilizer. So why are these methods most often presented as mutually exclusive?
There are many sustainable practices being used in Ghana on a small scale – sustainable land management, soil fertility techniques, inter-cropping to naturally get rid of pests, organic fertilizers and weedicides and many other GAPs. What are the best ways for EWB to promote these techniques without being paternalistic and dictating the way forward for Ghana’s agricultural development? Tricky…
I think one of the key lessons here is that we need to be adaptive, changing our approach depending on the conditions (economic, social and environmental) in which we find ourselves. Of course, these conditions are changing all the time, so we need to be constantly testing our assumptions, checking if the information we gathered 1 year, 6 months or even 2 weeks ago is still relevant today. And we need to help the Government of Ghana to have the same resilient approach, adapting to new information and conditions as the world lumbers toward a new model for sustainable food security.
Different levels of thinking about this:
- Global food systems
- Consumers in Canada
- African agriculture
- EWB’s stance
- Our strategies
More questions to ponder…
- How do we bridge economic development & environmental sustainability in Africa?
- What are the pros and cons of each agricultural model?
- How do these changes in policy translate to realities on the ground?
- What stance should EWB and other NGOs take on these issues? How will this effect our work?
- African land grabs
- GM crops
- Foreign investment
- Food price volatility
- Climate change
- Farmers’ rights
Special report on the future of food – population, development, environment, politics, nutrition, food waste:
- ‘A Prospect of Plenty’. The Economist, Feb. 24, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18200642
Politics, global markets, demand for food:
- ‘The new geopolitics of food’. Foreign Policy, May/June, 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/25/the_new_geopolitics_of_food?page=full
Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and the concept of agroecology:
- ‘Save climate and double food production with eco-farming’. IPS, Mar. 8, 2011. http://www.ips.org/africa/2011/03/save-climate-and-double-food-production-with-eco-farming/
- ‘Sustainable farming can feed the world?’. New York Times, Mar. 8, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/sustainable-farming/
Agroecology and development:
- ‘Can the world feed 10 billion people?’. Foreign Policy, May 4, 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/05/04/can_the_world_feed_10_billion_people?page=full
- ‘Study debunks myths on organic farms’. Star Phoenix, Sept. 27, 2011. http://www.thestarphoenix.com/business/story.html?id=5462520
- ‘Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology’. Grist.org, Apr. 21, 2011. http://www.grist.org/sustainable-farming/2011-04-20-eliot-coleman-essay-organic
- ‘On agricultural productivity and food security’. Ed Carr, Open the Echo Chamber. Sept. 26, 2011. http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/2011/09/26/on-agricultural-production-and-food-security/
Concentrated industrial vs. wide-spread “nature-friendly” agriculture, which is better for the environment:
- ‘Farming: Thoughts on an intense debate’. BBC, Sept. 2, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14761015
Smallholder farmers and environmental sustainability:
- ‘Global food crisis: Smallholder agriculture can be good for the poor and the planet’. Guardian, June 1, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/01/smallholder-agriculture-farming-good-poor-planet
Findings of DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century:
- ‘Food security has global implications’. Politico.com, June 7, 2011. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56342.html
Moving from old to new models of agriculture:
- ‘A warming planet struggles to feed itself’. New York Times, June 4, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
- ‘The farms are not all right’. Walrus, October, 2011. http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2011.10-food-the-farms-are-not-all-right/
When I talk to people at home and tell them what I do these days, a lot of them comment on the sacrifice that I’m making. I often think to myself, am I really making a big sacrifice? Yes, I live far from my family and friends, but I live with the guy I love. Yes, I’m not making much money, but I’m not spending much either. Yes, I’m not building my career as an engineer, but was I ever goig to do that anyway? I’m 25 years old, managing a team of 9 people, determining the strategic direction of our work, building credible partnerships and interacting with major players in my industry. In what alternate world could I say all that 2 years after graduation from an undergraduate degree?
The truth is, I’m pretty lucky. This is a sweet job. I love my work, my colleagues, my hometown of Tamale. Of course I miss Canada sometimes, but for now I’m pretty happy where I am. And most importantly, I’m working at a job that is in line with my values, improving the lives of people living in poverty.
I have a lot of colleagues here in Ghana who are with me in the poverty-fighting business. In fact, NGOs are probably the largest industry in Tamale. I have more than a few friends with Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Development Studies in Ghana, and Master’s degrees in development-related studies from universities in Ghana and abroad. They are smart, well-educated and determined to help their fellow countrypeople. So are they making a sacrifice too?
The truth is, being a development worker in Ghana is also a pretty sweet job, in the more conventional sense. The pay is much better than any kind of government work, and tends to be more stable than business. It’s also a pretty safe career choice – in the job market, there are more positions for development workers than many other professions. I would compare the career path of a development worker in Ghana to that of an engineer in Canada in terms of prestige and compensation. In my opinion, these people are not making significant sacrifices in order to pursue their values. In fact, they’re pursuing a pretty stable and lucrative career path. But is this a bad thing?
On one hand, it makes me uncomfortable to see an industry that thrives solely on donated dollars. The basis of this business is people living in poverty; if this disappears, the entire industry disappears. But isn’t that what the industry is trying to do, eliminate poverty? This is a bit of a conflict of interest.
On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful that a career devoted to bettering the lives of others is so highly valued in this society. If I think about those careers back home – social work, non-profit sector, etc. – they aren’t valued nearly as much. Why is it that people who devote their lives to others are seen to be making a sacrifice? And why are they compensated accordingly? Shouldn’t we value more highly those who commit their lives to the service of others?
Ben put up his second post in the Strategy Development series yesterday. It’s a long one, but very interesting if you like start-ups, frameworks, strategy, or just cool new ideas! I suggest you head over to The Borrowed Bicycle and take a gander. And once again, we’re looking for TONS of feedback on this stuff – does it jive? What do you like or dislike about it? What are we doing well, and what are we totally forgetting about? Please leave your comments over there, it will be an immense help to us!! Thanks!
Once again, the link is http://theborrowedbicycle.ca/2011/04/customer-development-and-our-strategy-process/. Enjoy!
I’m writing this post to introduce a new concept we want to try over here at EWB. I’ve been hanging out in the “international development/aid online community” for a while now and while it’s fun to chat, I’d actually like to put this community to work! (And yes, family, friends and colleagues, I want you to help me out too!) One of the favourite conversation topics is poorly designed development projects. While it’s fun to bash these projects, it’s harder to design good ones. I’d like to use this opportunity to seek out feedback on our team’s next move in public sector agricultural development.
This is an experiment! The plan is to outline our team’s strategy development process and the various investment opportunities we have, then seek external feedback on where we can invest and how we can play a bigger role in the agric sector. I have no idea if this experiment will work out, but I think it will be interesting to try! In order to work, it relies on a few success factors:
- lots of readers – so please share widely so we can ask for widespread feedback!
- feedback from within and outside the sector – if you know people in the agric development sector, send them this way. If you know smart people who would just be interested in providing feedback, please also send them this way!
- sustained readership – unfortunately there is a lot of info, so it’ll be going up in a series of posts – you gotta keep reading to get to the meat! We’ll see whether people can hang in this long.
- understandable posts – we’re looking for feedback on whether you have any idea what we’re talking about… so let us know!
As I wrote in a previous post, our team is currently undergoing a rigorous strategy development process. Thanks to Ben‘s personal interest in the tech start-up world, we’re trying something very new: applying start-up business principles to our strategy development. For a bit of background on why we’re applying these principles, see Ben’s earlier post, Tech start-ups and human development: different worlds?. Ben will introduce you to the tech-world language, but it basically advocates a Searcher rather than a Planner mentality – figuring out what people want before scaling it to a broad level.
Ben will be writing a series of blog posts in the next few weeks describing our process, model and some of the initiatives we’re looking to invest in. I’ll post links here on my blog, but please comment over on his blog – we’re hoping to get tons of feedback and discussions going!
So, without further ado, I will guide you to the first post over on Ben’s blog: Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks. Enjoy!
Warning for my non-development-worker readers: this post is a bit technical. But I hope I’ve explained everything clearly, and please ask questions if I haven’t! I would love to hear some new perspectives on this topic.
Also, I started writing this post a few months ago, when two big themes in the aid blogosphere were complexity and impact evaluation. People seem to be writing about this a bit less these days, but they’re still important topics (and we don’t have any clear answers) so it’s my turn to weigh in!
Where does all the money go?
So what is impact evaluation? This is the attempt to use rigorous methods to understand what actually works, or has impact, in aid and development. Of course there is no “silver bullet” solution to global poverty, but which interventions are more effective than others? Which things have no impact at all, or a negative impact? Ultimately, rigorous impact evaluation should lead funders and policy-makers to direct funds towards interventions which are most effective and reliable in improving people’s lives.
There is a huge push right now to “show what works” in foreign aid. Citizens are seeing that the Western world has spent trillions of dollars on foreign aid in the past 50 years, yet global inequality is worse than ever before. Of course progress has been made, but have the results justified the spending? Citizens want accountability from their governments, and proof that their hard-earned tax dollars are actually having a positive impact on the lives of those they are targeting in the developing world.
Many agree that the most rigorous form of impact evaluation today is the Randomized Control Trial (RCT). This technique takes a statistically significant sample size and randomizes selection into two groups: control and treatment. The treatment group receives a development intervention, such as crop insurance, or microcredit, or whatever you are trying to test, while the control group receives nothing. Both groups are evaluated over the course of the study (usually 1-5 years) and the results come out somewhere along the spectrum of “yes this works” (how?) to “this has no effect”. Sometimes it’s inconclusive, or the results are not easily generalizable, or there is further research to be done, but RCTs are generally considered the gold standard in evaluating development interventions.
There is a lot of controversy around RCTs because of the high cost and time involved. These studies are not appropriate in all cases. They shouldn’t be used by organizations looking to evaluate past programs, or smallscale projects looking for continued funding. Instead, RCTs should be used to inform development and foreign policy on a large scale. Citizens giving foreign aid want to know, for a fact, which development interventions are the best bang for their buck – and RCTs should, in theory, be able to tell them.
Inside the black box
The second trend these days in the blogosphere is complexity, or complex adaptive systems. Aid on the Edge of Chaos has a good round-up on complexity posts. The bottom line here is that in a complex system, results are unpredictable. The system is not static, or linear, or deterministic; it evolves over time, adapting and growing based on both internal and external influences. When dealing with a complex system, you need to take a “systems approach” by monitoring the whole rather than the individual pieces.
What does this mean for development? Well, people and communities and indeed the world are all complex systems. It is hard to predict when something will change, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of revolutions across the Middle East. From this perspective, it is hard to ever know which development interventions will achieve the results we want.
Most development interventions are designed around something like an impact chain – what will you do, and what results will it produce? However, complexity theory tells us that we should monitor a system generally for results, not just for our predicted or desired results. There are often unintended results of our actions, sometimes negative and sometimes positive. In addition, it can be hard to attribute positive changes to our particular intervention in a complex system – so much is happening at once and there are so many stimuli to the system, you never really know where something originated. This also poses problems when we’re discussing replicability of development interventions – just because something worked once in a particular set of circumstances, doesn’t mean it will work again in a different setting.
So what does it all add up to?
Impact evaluation and complexity. Now it’s time to bring these two concepts together. The big question here is this: Can we understand “what works” in enough detail to be able to predict future results of our interventions?
My answer is yes, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. In the past, evaluation has usually focused on the question “what intervention worked?” where the answer is “fertilizer subsidies” or “school feeding programs”. I think we need to start looking more at HOW things work. Instead of looking for programs that we can replicate across entire regions, we should be asking, “what worked?”, “under what conditions?” and “with what approach?” which give answers more like “foster innovation”, “promote local ownership” and “give people a choice”. These conditions may be found across many different areas, but may have more of an effect on the success of an intiative than the WHAT of the initiative itself.
I generally support rigorous impact evaluation for 2 reasons:
- fostering a culture of accountability to donors and stakeholders (and taxpayers);
- foster learning so that we understand conditions for success and can set projects up for success in the future.
I think the aid industry has learned (and can learn even more) something about what works, or probably more about what doesn’t work. I also think aid can’t be prescriptive since human beings are complex and our behaviour is irrational and unpredictable. But we can set conditions for success when designing our interventions. And while the results may not be wholly predictable, at least the intervention will be more likely to succeed.
What does this look like in practice?
We are currently in the process of team transition and strategy re-development. Here are a few principles I’m looking to follow with our team strategy as we go forward:
- always have a portfolio of initiatives on the go (don’t put all your eggs in one basket)
- make sure these initiatives all contribute toward the bigger change we’re trying to make in the agric sector
- range of timescales: short-, medium- and long-term changes, informing and building on each other
- constant learning and iteration: testing, getting feedback, adapting, and testing again
- focus on articulation of our observations and learning to external audiences
- high awareness of the system as a whole: what does it look like? where are the strongest influences? the most volatile players? who exerts the most force on the system?
What principles would you add to my list?
Yesterday I had the chance to meet up with Mustapha, my colleague at MoFA and one of our star field extension agents. He has just returned from a trip to Canada, where EWB (with CIDA’s support) brought 18 of our African partners to participate in our annual National Conference in Toronto. In addition to attending the conference, the African delegates were set up with placements related to their field of work. Mustapha had the chance to visit the University of Guelph’s agricultural college, OMAFRA and Agricorp, as well as an organic dairy farm and a commercial pig farm. These were all really valuable opportunities for him to expand his knowledge of farming and learn about new perspectives and practices. He was like a sponge, soaking it all up. And he had a great time!
But one story he told me has me a bit troubled. On one of his placements, he had the chance to meet with a group of local religious leaders (or “elders”, as he described them). This group wanted Mustapha to tell them what he thought was needed to improve the livelihoods of Ghanaian farmers. Mustapha mentioned inputs like seed and fertilizer, and also shared the fact that many of his colleagues are trying to do their jobs without adequate transportation (motorbikes). He talked about the need for credit in order to grow an agribusiness, even at a small scale.
I guess they were impressed because upon leaving the community, Mustapha was presented with an envelope containing $500. He was told that this money was to “help his farmers” in whatever way he saw fit. “If you do well, there will be more where that came from.”
When he reached my office yesterday, Mustapha was obsessed with finding the right use for this money. Should he use it to buy fertilizer and give it out on credit to his farmers? Should he use it to promote vegetable production? What about giving it as a loan to a women’s group he works with? He was throwing out ideas and asking for my opinion, stating, “I need to report back to the people in Canada this week on how I’m going to use the money!”
And there it was. Mustapha was under pressure to report back to his donor. It was taking him away from his real job, which at this time should be reconnecting with the farmers in his operational area, whom he hasn’t seen in over a month, and preparing a presentation to share what he learned in Canada with his colleagues in Ghana. He wasn’t taking the time to investigate the opportunities, to find the best use for this money – instead, he had to find a quick way to spend it so he could report back. He wanted the funding to continue, so he needed to find a good use right away to reassure the donor he knew what he was doing. Even though using this funding represented only a fraction of the work Mustapha has on his plate, it was taking up all his time.
On top of that, Mustapha was at a loss as to how to actually give out the money – after all, an extension agent doesn’t usually have a lot of extra cash, so people would ask questions. He asked me whether EWB would be able to disburse it to farmers. I gently reminded him that we never give funding to our partners or the farmers we work with, as it erodes our trust relationships and changes the nature of our interactions. This is one of the core principles of the Agriculture As a Business program: farmers must choose to undergo the training knowing that there is no funding coming at the end.
Now, I know these people mean well. They want to do something, anything, to help the poor farmers of Ghana. They want to make sure their money is going to good use, not being eaten up by administrative costs or corruption. And they want to have a direct connection to the impact of their donation (a common sentiment and the reason sponsor-a-child campaigns are so effective). I’m sure they don’t realize the constraints they’ve now placed on Mustapha and his work.
But Mustapha is now a one-man aid organization. He is in the position of accepting a donation, figuring out how to use it for good, organizing all the logistics to make sure the recipients of the aid benefit from it, and reporting back to the donor. All while keeping up his real job as an employee of the Ministry of Agriculture (though the donor doesn’t care so much about that part, they’re not funding it).
This is a microcosm of the donor-recipient relationship. Rather than simply getting funds to go ahead and do their jobs, local NGO and government workers are under severe pressure to report back to donors for any funding received. This takes up an inordinate amount of their time and attention and can result in a decline in the quality of their real work in the field. I have now seen firsthand, from a friend and colleague, how donor funding can distort priorities and reduce the effectiveness of an otherwise excellent civil servant.
As I near the 1-year mark of my work in Ghana with EWB, I’d like to reflect back on what has happened over the last year. We embark on these jobs and journeys with the hope of making the world a better place, of somehow contributing to “international development”. However, I’m forced to acknowledge that it’s unlikely that anything I’ve done in the past year has directly improved the lives of poor Ghanaians, and that is a bitter pill to swallow.
I know, that sounds really negative. But believe me, it’s not all bad! There are different types of impact we can have – from short-term, direct and focused to long-term, indirect and widespread. My direct impact this year was limited, but I’ve had impact in other ways. So please bear with me as I get to the end of this post – there is a happy ending!
2010 was a rough year for our team, alternately known as Team MoFA, Rural Agriculture Ghana or Agribusiness Ghana (we still don’t seem to have settled on a universal name). When I arrived last March, the team was undergoing a rocky Team Leader transition, which inevitably led to a short dip in team productivity. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fully recover from the dip, and the new Team Leader stepped down in January, leaving a vacant place at the head of our team. We also went from being a 9-person team, when I arrived in March, to the current 4-person team – a huge loss of resources. Most of this was just due to people’s contracts being up and not enough new volunteers to fill their places, but it will still take some time to rebuild our numbers.
In terms of strategy, we haven’t seen as much success as we hoped with the Agriculture As a Business program (for more details on the challenges, please see my previous post). The political and systemic barriers in the Ministry of Agriculture are too imposing to lead a significant change in extension from the ground up, and we’ve been unable to influence the right people at the top. Volunteers in districts were getting demotivated by barriers that were out of their control, and all the high-level talk about mobilizing farmer groups didn’t materialize into any concrete changes in the sector (policies, funding, etc.)
We had an amazing group of Junior Fellows (students) from EWB join us in the summer, but they experienced many of the same challenges. They achieved a few fabulous short-term successes, yet on the whole were unable to institutionalize the Agriculture As a Business program in any of their Ministry of Agriculture district offices. We concluded that our current pathway for scaling the Agriculture As a Business program was ineffective and decided to reallocate resources to address district management challenges. A few Professional Fellows experimented in this domain, with varying degrees of success in individual initiatives, such as improving staff meetings, management styles, collecting feedback and time management strategies. But none of these initiatives promised the transformational change that we want to see in the way the Ministry of Agriculture is run from the top.
The one successful initiative I participated in this year was the DDA (District Director of Agriculture) Fellowship, a management and leadership program. It was a success in the sense that all the DDAs loved it, and tried to apply what they learned in the management of their districts. However, it’s really tricky to know whether this has trickled down to the extension staff and actually improved the work they’re doing in the field, with farmers. This is definitely more of a long-term change, a culture shift that will gradually result in improved staff performance. But evaluating these types of programs is really tricky, and attribution is very difficult, so… who knows??
The only direct impact I’ve probably had on poor Ghanaian farmers is through my personal interactions with my host family and friends in the village. I’ve treasured these interactions and really tried to be a good role model and influence. However, I’ve been hesitant to provide any form of material aid, beyond a few Christmas presents that I brought back from Canada, for fear that it will change the nature of our relationship. I did support the local women’s shea butter production group by buying 200 bars of soap to take back to Canada (it’s great stuff!), so I guess that cash injection probably made a small difference. But is that really the type of work I came here to do? No…
A few things I’ve learned in the past year:
- As much as we talk about effective program design, its often the operational capacity of an organization that is the bottleneck to achieving success: it’s amazing how much time and energy can be spent on just making a team function. I have great admiration for excellent managers, admin and support staff who, if they’re doing their job well, you don’t even really notice in your day-to-day work.
- It is unrealistic to achieve widespread impact in 1 year: we need to break 1-year placements down into specific “learning” or “doing” chunks so volunteers realize they’ve contributed something meaningful. For example, if we’re trying to make a big change in technology adoption through agricultural extension, a 1-year volunteer should have a mandate such as “learn about tech adoption techniques outside of the public sector in Ghana” or “pilot one new tech adoption approach with extension agents in your district and prepare a report with your recommendations for the team strategy going forward”. If they hit on a genius idea, great – we’ll scale it! (if there’s a scaling mechanism). If it doesn’t work, also great! share your learning and how we should change our approach in the next iteration of the strategy.
- Effective interventions (or inventions) only matter if there is a way to scale them (or sell them): you might have the greatest idea in the world, but it doesn’t matter if no one sees it. Transformative change needs to reach scale, one way or another!
- Perspective matters: even if you DO know what needs to be done, on the ground, to make a significant improvement to the lives of those living in poverty, you need to find a way of framing it so that it matters to those making the change, from the bottom (field staff) to the top (policy-makers). Just providing evidence to support your case is not enough; you must account for political, historical and social implications as well.
- Field realities are valued: EWB gets a lot of street cred for being “in the field” or “on the ground”, working in districts (not the most glamourous of job locations). We need to find better channels for sharing these field realities with those higher up the chain of command. (Suggestions?)
- Opportunity cost: there will always be more opportunities than you can take advantage of, the hard part is gambling on which opportunities will be most worth your time in the end.
- BONUS EWB lesson: it’s ok to fail, as long as you LEARN and CHANGE as a result! (check out http://admittingfailure.com for EWB’s recent initiative on encouraging learning from failure in the NGO world)
Now, as we peer out at 2011 with a couple months already in our pocket, our team is forced to admit that we’re not achieving as much as we’d like. While we can’t categorize the Agriculture As a Business program as a failure, since it IS an effective tool for building farmer groups and developing business skills, it’s not quite a success either, since we can’t get the Ministry of Agriculture to adopt it at the scale needed to achieve widespread change.
There has been a lot of talk about failure recently, and encouragement for NGOs to admit failure when it happens. But this is a clear example where the situation is not black or white, failure or success – but rather grey. In our team’s collective experience in Ghana, a lot of other NGOs/projects at this point would keep lauding their programs as successes and putting more and more resources into them. Instead, we want to acknowledge our lukewarm progress and shift to where we can have white hot results instead. It’s frustrating for our staff to keep banging our heads against the wall in a program that’s going against the flow of the current agricultural sector trends. We’re not giving up on this program; but until the stars align to facilitate the widespread changes that are needed (district autonomy, decentralization, performance incentives, etc.) it is more effective for us to invest our energy in other places.
We’ve now been working with districts in the Ministry of Agriculture in Ghana for 6 years. We’ve met a lot of key players, we understand the system, we’ve seen lots of challenges and we’ve built strong relationships. We’ve tried a few things, with varying degrees of success, but nowhere near the scale of change we want to create. Now we have a bunch of cool ideas, but we have no idea which one is going to work. In the spirit of complexity, we’re not going to throw all our eggs in one basket; instead, we’re going to explore the change potential of a number of different initiatives and gauge the reaction of those in the Ministry of Agriculture and in the wider agricultural development sector. I’ll be blogging more about this strategy development process as it unfolds, so you can all follow along with me!
Back to that bitter pill: my underwhelming personal success. Is this the kind of year I wanted? Of course not. Has it been a waste of time? Heeeellllll NO! I have learned SO much valuable information over the past year that will allow me to position myself to create the change I want in the coming 2 years.
You might think I’m demotivated. That I’m frustrated by the pace of change and our inability to see any real impact. That I’m ready to throw in the towel and truck back home to an easier job in Canada. But you’d be wrong! Strangely enough, I’m more motivated than ever! Something about being faced with so many challenges at once has really sparked a fire in me. I’m excited to drive the team in new directions, to get us excited about what’s next and to build ourselves up into an impactful, influential team of agric superstars! Seeing the passion and dedication of my fellow teammates has forced me to find renewed resources of energy in myself. I can’t wait to see where we go next.
A friend recently wrote me an email in response to my appeal for funds with EWB’s Challenging Perspectives campaign. He identified an inner conflict: he felt he should donate out of obligation to our friendship and feared that he would be ostracized if he didn’t, but was having trouble personally connecting with my work in Ghana. To donate, he felt that he should really believe in the work that EWB is doing (and I’m doing, through EWB) and be able to get behind it 100%. I most definitely agree!
This is exactly the kind of conversation I want to start with my Challenging Perspectives campaign. Why do we feel obligated to donate to charities when we really know little about what they do? How can charities make people FEEL something and personally connect people to their work? It’s a struggle on both sides.
In response to this email, I wrote back answering 3 questions:
- Why am I here?
- How am I feeling about it?
- What am I working towards?
Below is the email I sent back to my friend. I hope it answered these questions for him, and I hope it will for you too. Either way, leave a comment and let me know what you think!
1. I’m here because:
- I feel fortunate to have been born to an affluent family in a developed country and hate that it means I have so many more opportunities for happiness and success than so many other people in the world – I want to work to decrease global economic and “opportunity” disparity
- I feel guilty about being born in Canada and feel I have a responsibility to help others
- I believe we live in a globalized world where we’re all connected and will have deep impacts on how others live, whether through our consumer habits, environmental practices or political policies
- I think change IS possible in developing countries, specifically in Ghana from having spent time here, and I want to help create that change
- This is a pretty cool job that gives me good professional experience and is developing a lot of skills that I value (management, leadership, critical thinking, communication, etc.)
2. How I feel:
- Frustrated that change happens so slowly
- Unmotivated by some circumstances in Ghana (sexism, racism, kids not going to school, etc.) and some of the people I work with
- Incredibly motivated by some of the other people I work with (one of whom is an AEA who is hopefully coming to the EWB conference in January!)
- Love for my EWB teammates and lucky that I get to work with such cool people
- Hopeful that we are making some incremental changes and the pace of change is increasing as we gain experience and credibility
3. What I want to have happen:
- MoFA does a better job of serving poor farmers in Ghana, which is 80% of the population in the north. This means helping farmers to improve their farming techniques and help people to see farming as a business instead of a way of life (a lot of people are like “my grandfather farmed, my father farmed, I farm but I don’t have a job” – it’s not seen as a viable “career” to be a farmer, even though you can get rich if you have a good commercial business plan!). This will require MoFA to have excellent extension staff that go around and visit farmers to help them manage this mindset shift. MoFA is a government institution, so it is here to stay, and it already has a wide network of field staff in place, making it a great partner to work with if we want to reach a high number of Ghanaian farmers. But there are a lot of reasons right now why MoFA isn’t doing the best it can for farmers.
- MoFA is slowly becoming decentralized (which is good), meaning each district will get to choose their own work, manage their own budget, decide which development projects are best-suited to farmers in their district, hire the best staff and fire the worst, define their own culture. Right now it’s the opposite: everything is decided at the national level and pushed down to districts, which often means projects are ill-suited to the local conditions or won’t benefit farmers, implementation is poor, there are not enough resources to do everything that’s asked of the district staff, there is low motivation and low ownership over work.
- In order for decentralization to happen, MoFA needs to have technical, managerial and operational capacity. They’re pretty good at the technical capacity (knowing technical stuff about agriculture to spread to farmers, like research findings, new technologies, improved seeds and fertilizers, etc.). This is mostly what they learn in school (“agric college”) and what MoFA has traditionally focused on. They are less good at the managerial and operational capacities.
- I want EWB to help improve these capacities through developing managers (lots of ways to do this – management training, fellowships like the one I talk about in my Perspective, one-on-one coaching, sharing management resources, etc.) and developing operational capacity (improved supervision, budget management, work planning, scheduling, staff motivation, computer and reporting skills, culture of learning from experience, etc.). These are things that EWB is already good at and we have a clear value-add to districts.
- The challenge in all this is developing initiatives that work for one district (specific) but can be scaled to many districts (general). There are lots of questions here: are we satisfied with just helping a few districts, one at a time? or do we want to achieve wide-scale change? Is it possible to create this scaled change without reducing the quality of what we’re doing? What other mechanisms already exist that we can use to scale these ideas?
Our team is in the middle of a visioning/strategy design process so a lot of questions will be answered in the next month about what we’re working toward more specifically. We’ve recently had a bunch of people leave the team and we’re small now (only 5), so we need to re-tune our ambitions to what we can realistically accomplish with these resources. That said, we’re asking for 3 more volunteers to be added to our team in March so we can get more manpower to enact our vision.
And that’s where your donation comes in. Seriously, it’s all about the money. Without money – most of which comes from donations at EWB, since we have a hard cap on what % of our budget we’ll take from CIDA so we can remain independent and advocate against the Canadian government when necessary – we can’t realize these changes. We’re a pretty small organization in terms of number of staff in Africa, but we’re punching above our weight in terms of influencing higher-up development big-wigs. This is happening in Canada too, with awesome stuff happening lately with advocacy and CIDA. I am often critical of things EWB does, but I’m happy that it’s encouraged in the organization’s culture to be critical. That’s how we try to do the right things.
Anyway, I obviously believe this is an organization that’s headed in the right direction and making some much-needed changes on the ground. And if I’ve convinced you that’s true, then I would love for you to donate!
But no pressure. SERIOUSLY. Don’t donate because you are my friend, or my parents’ friend, or because I keep emailing you, or because other people have donated. Donate because you believe this work is important, change is needed and EWB is doing it well.
P.S. A small update on my Challenging Perspectives campaign: I’m currently in first place for the most funds raised! I’ve raised $2105 out of my goal of $5000, thanks to everyone who’s donated so far. So if you haven’t donated yet and you connect with what I’m doing here, please consider making a donation to my campaign! https://perspectives.ewb.ca/erinantcliffe
“What does poverty reduction look like? How should it be done? What’s an engineer’s role? You likely have a perspective. So do the people creating pages on this site. They want to challenge your perspective by sharing theirs. They believe in EWB’s systemic approach to addressing the root causes of poverty. Intrigued? Read their perspectives. And if you suddenly see things a little differently, make a donation to EWB.”
This year, EWB is trying a new type of holiday campaign. Instead of focusing solely on donations, they’re challenging peoples’ perspectives. Each EWB member is encouraged to write their perspective and post it online to get people thinking critically about development. If you agree with the perspectives, you are encouraged to donate to EWB.
I’ve written my own perspective and posted it here. I’m also posting it below. Please read it with a critical eye and think about your own opinion. If you agree with me and want to support my work, please visit the donation page here. Even if you can’t donate, please leave a comment and share your own perspective!
Thanks for reading!
It’s 6am in Tamale, Ghana. I’m sitting at the picnic table in my living room, typing on my laptop while the morning prayers from the adjacent mosque blare through my windows. The sounds of roosters and the smells of morning cooking also waft in. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s part of life in Ghana, a country built on agriculture.
Engineers Without Borders Canada has been working in Ghana for over 5 years with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. We believe that the 80% of Ghanaians who are rural farmers can move from subsistence to prosperity.
But the Ministry of Food and Agriculture is a difficult place to work. Funds are insufficient and usually released late, staff is unmotivated, and ownership over problems and successes is low. There is a strong desire to help farmers, but few resources to do so.
Over the past year I’ve had the privilege of leading the DDA Fellowship, a program for District Directors in the Ministry. These Directors lead their field staff to deliver extension services to farmers such as technical support, market information and business training.
The Fellowship brought together eight strong Directors to create an environment of sharing and collective problem-solving, as well as offering management and leadership training. The goal of the Fellowship was to create a strong network of district “Change Champions” that will start taking control of the problems they face in their districts and improving the services offered to farmers.
Last year I participated in EWB’s World of Opportunity campaign. Thanks to so many generous donors, I raised over $6000. This amount is huge for a single fundraiser, but looks small in contrast to EWB’s overall budget. However, this amount allowed us to run important programs like the DDA Fellowship, for which the entire budget was about $3500.
My perspective: your donation makes a real difference.
Dickson Ankuga is the Director for Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo district, a remote district in the Northern Region of Ghana. Dickson is one of the DDAs who took part in EWB’s DDA Fellowship. Over the past 6 months, Dickson has taken control of one of the biggest problems in his district: fertilizer availability. The idea was born during a DDA Fellowship session on learning from data. Using data collection and analysis, Dickson is tracking the supply and demand of fertilizer and noting when shortages occur. With this information in hand, he will be able to get ahead of next year’s shortages by ensuring stock is in place before the demand skyrockets. This will mean that farmers can buy fertilizer when they need it, bumping up their yields and greatly improving district food production.
I’ve been working with EWB in Ghana for 9 months now. Over that time, I’ve seen incredible growth in our team’s strategy, as well as strong results. We’ve worked with Agricultural Colleges to build entrepreneurship into the curriculum. Our short-term volunteers spread out across northern Ghana this summer to implement Agriculture As a Business training for rural farmers. And through it all, we’ve learned from our successes and failures about what works and what doesn’t so that we can continue to improve. None of this would be possible without your support.
I’m here because I believe change is possible. I believe this work matters and I believe that EWB is making a difference. The world of international development is messy, but we are delivering innovative solutions to complex problems and changing the way people think about development. That is why I’ve committed to working for an additional 2 years with EWB in Ghana.
But I need your help. Building strong district leaders is just one example of how EWB uses your donations. In this year’s Challenging Perspectives campaign, all of the funds raised will be channeled to our work in Africa.
So if you believe in supporting organizations that use money wisely, learn from experience, have the ability to work with both farmers and funders, and invest in African leadership, please consider making a donation to EWB. From my perspective here in Ghana, I see the impact of your donations every day.
Click here to donate to EWB’s work in Africa.
Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!
This is a bit of a monster post, sorry! But I haven’t posted for a few weeks (which was how long it me took to write this whopper) so I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m especially looking for lots of comments, questions and feedback on this one. So find a quiet space, a few minutes, and dive in!
Update: quick acronym check!
EWB = Engineers Without Borders Canada (the organization I’m working for)
AAB = Agriculture As a Business (the tool EWB has developed)
MoFA = Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Ghanaian government)
AEA = Agricultural Extension Agent (the field staff for MoFA)
FBO = Farmer-Based Organization (a group of farmers who work together, like a co-op)
The main product of EWB’s last few years of work with MoFA is the Agriculture As a Business curriculum. As I mentioned in a previous post, AAB is a field tool for AEAs (Agricultural Extension Agents) to help them to develop stronger, more business-minded FBOs (farmer-based organizations). The AEA takes the tool to the field and, over the course of 10 meetings with the FBO, builds the group’s capacity to run their farms as businesses. The tool consists of 10 laminated cards containing facilitation questions, tips, stories and photos to lead the AEA through the following topics:
- Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
- Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
- Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
- Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
- Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
- Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
- Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
- Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
- Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
- Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.
Building strong FBOs is a big trend in agricultural development these days. For one thing, it’s easier for businesses and extension agents to reach all farmers if they’re organized into groups. For another, FBOs are more likely to undertake semi-commercial or commercial farming, which contributes more productively to national food security – another big concern. Finally, NGOs and donor projects love to work with FBOs because they can reach more farmers and count them as beneficiaries of their projects. All in all, there’s a big push for districts right now to build lots of strong FBOs.
Aside from the “trendiness” of FBOs, farmers can actually gain huge benefits by working together in a group. First, farmers are more likely to share their problems and solutions with each other in an atmosphere of collective knowledge and learning. Second, farmers can do many things more effectively as a group, like buy inputs or market their produce in bulk. In particular, they can save tons of money on transportation costs when getting goods to and from the farm and market. Third, it’s way easier to get credit for an investment to expand your farm business if you apply as a group. Banks are way more comfortable giving a loan to a group, where members can hold each other accountable for repayment, than to an individual farmer. Fourth, illiterate farmers can reap huge benefits by banding together with a literate friend who can read, write and keep records for the group. Finally, as I mentioned above, groups are far more likely to get regular visits from an AEA than individual farmers, simply due to time constraints and the number of farmers each AEA is responsible for (which is around 3000).
The AAB curriculum addresses all of these benefits and encourages the group to take advantage of them. AAB starts by building the strength of the FBO itself, encouraging members to meet regularly and contribute dues to their bank account. Then it moves on to the more technical business training, including budgeting, planning, marketing and record-keeping. Throughout the program, the AEA is seen as a “facilitator” rather than a “trainer” – the group is encouraged to discuss issues and come to their own conclusions. There is no “right answer” that the AEA is leading the group towards; rather, the group is in charge of making a plan that best suits their strengths and weaknesses.
Each card takes the group through what is called the “Action-Learning Cycle”:
- Reflection on a story, proverb or photo about the topic.
- Analysis of the topic. ie. What is the benefit of keeping good records?
- Planning based on the group’s analysis. ie. who will keep the records, what will be recorded, where will the records book be kept
- Actions to carry out the plan.
This process allows the group members to engage with the topic and internalize the learning through taking immediate action.
So, AAB is awesome. Right?
There are still 3 main issues that our team is grappling with around AAB: Quality, Sustainability and Scale. I’ll tell you a bit about each one.
One of the biggest concerns of most EWB volunteers who are implementing AAB in a district is quality. Are field staff using the tool correctly? Are they giving the group enough time to answer questions and create plans? Are the group members really getting the concepts, and are they going to change their behaviour as a result? These are all important questions if we truly want to have impact with this tool. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ensure quality at any level. The MoFA field staff all have varying capacities: some are master facilitators, while others can barely read English. It also depends on their motivation and desire to help their farmers. Are they carrying out the activities because someone told them they’d be docked pay if they didn’t, or do they truly see the value in the program and want their farmers to get the most out of it? Usually the answer is somewhere in the middle. EWB can’t go to the field with every single AEA to every single AAB meeting; if that was our plan, we should just be implementing the program on our own. Instead, we have to face a certain loss of quality when we hand the program over to MoFA and believe that they can continue to understand and improve the program.
That said, while the team has temporarily put a hold on changing any of the content in the tool, the quality can still be improved. Would this question on this card be more impactful if we asked it a different way? What if we rearrange the order of the cards? Should we bring outside actors in to meet the group, such as banks and input suppliers, or rely on them to take initiative? What if we added a card on Managing Assets, or Value Chains? The quality of the tool itself has reached a point where it’s “good enough” – we are willing to spread it widely and believe it will have good results – but there is always room for improvement.
The second biggest challenge of AAB is sustainability. Right now we are concerned with sustainability on a district-by-district level. Most NGO projects will come into a district, use field staff to implement a project, then finish the project and get out, hoping the impact has taken place. But EWB wants the AAB tool to be used in the long-term by district staff, even after we leave. This requires a fundamental shift in the way districts normally interact with NGOs. We are trying to get district staff to take over the AAB program themselves, filling the role of the EWB volunteer to support the tool.
At first, we tried to attain sustainability by simply leaving the district and seeing whether AAB continued without us. The result was that most districts stopped using AAB after a certain amount of time. Without EWB there to encourage and support the program, districts were unable to sustain AAB. Why was this happening? In some cases, there just wasn’t enough will in the district to sustain AAB. But in other cases, even though the staff wanted to continue the program, they didn’t exactly know how. So EWB volunteers looked objectively at the roles they themselves were playing in the district, and externalized these roles. By clearly articulating what is necessary to support AAB, it makes it easier for the district to take on these roles and sustain the program. There are four main roles:
- Leadership: provide a vision and maintain a focus on FBO development while holding staff accountable
- Scheduling: plan, schedule and set goals with AEAs to achieve their AAB targets
- Backstopping: monitor AEAs in the field, provide useful feedback and invest in their professional development
- Reporting: track AAB progress, collect data on present and past AAB groups and feed back data for AEAs’ learning
Now we are trying to encourage officers in the district to fill all of these roles and hoping it will lead to AAB sustainability in that district. But we are already running into some management and logistical barriers that reach beyond the decision-making power of the district, so we’ll have to wait to see whether this model can be successful!
The final challenge is to build a successful scale model for AAB. At first, the vision was to have a copy of the AAB tool in the hands of every field staff in Ghana. But after some time, it became clear that this approach won’t work. AEAs need proper training and support to successfully implement AAB. The scale-up plan would have to be a bit more realistic. Next, we moved on to the idea that the “principles” behind AAB could be scaled to every district in Ghana. The principles were summed up as the following:
- AEAs are regularly developing groups (beyond formation) – this means letting the group drive their own development by having the group take decisions and act on them;
- AEAs find ways to get the group analyze their farms as businesses (budgeting, marketing, record-keeping, etc.);
- AEA learns about promoting agric as a business and is able to refer to decisions in their regular work.
However, it was difficult to imagine just what this scale-up might look like. We are still working on this at a National level, but don’t yet have enough traction to bring it to every district in Ghana.
Finally, our current sort-of scale-up model is the idea of creating “model districts” that can be learning centres for other districts in Ghana. The vision is to make some districts kick-ass, including a whole host of changes beyond AAB, then get other districts to come and learn from them, thus spreading AAB all over Ghana. This model still has to be really worked out, but this is a great chance for input! What do you think of this idea? What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that we could face? Is this a good way to invest our resources, or should we focus on hitting more districts at once?
The tricky part is that even though the AAB curriculum is finalized (to a certain degree), there are still a lot of improvements to be made. Let’s think of the AAB curriculum as a “product” that EWB has developed. We’ve spent a lot of time doing research and field trials, revising and refining that product. It’s still not perfect, but we think it’s at a stage where it’s “good enough”, meaning that we’re pretty confident that the delivery of this product will benefit farmer groups. We can call this stage “product development”. However, now that our product is finished and we’ve offered it up on the “market” (telling MoFA districts about it), we’re finding something startling: no one wants to buy our product! That is, no one is knocking on our office door asking for AAB (with the exception of one district in the Upper East). So what happened??
Ben has been reading a lot about the idea of “customer development” lately, and thus I’ve been hearing a lot about it. It’s an interesting idea. In a start-up, instead of just doing product development, you have to do customer development. This means taking your product to customers early on, asking them whether or not they would buy it, and if they wouldn’t, what features would make them buy it. It’s an iterative cycle of product and customer development, with the two going hand in hand to provide lots of feedback along the way. By the end, you should have a product with a ready market that is desired by your customer base (or maybe even beyond). What you DON’T want is to CONVINCE your customer that they want to buy your product, or tailor your “sell” to each different customer. This is shooting yourself in the foot, because unless you have time to handhold each customer through the sales process, you won’t be able to sell your product on a wide scale.
This seems to be the case with AAB. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely excitement around AAB at the district level – my Director can’t stop raving about how important and useful it is for his staff. He’s made it his AEAs’ “number 1 priority because developing strong FBOs is our core MoFA work” (at least until he gets an urgent call from the Regional Director). AEAs rave about how they used to hear the phrase “agriculture as a business” and didn’t know what it meant until EWB put a tool in their hands. Farmers love the interactive meeting style and are dedicated to implementing their projects. The more they use AAB, the more bought-in they become to the impact of the program. But are they willing to “buy” the product? – put their own brains, money, time and other resources toward making it work?
We did consult our customers along the way (MoFA staff and farmers), but I think at a more select level (only the ones that were easy to work with). We handheld every district we’ve worked in so far through the process of adapting AAB, convincing them to take it up, tailoring the program to suit their needs and filling gaps until they were willing to make the commitment themselves. As a result, we have a product that doesn’t have a strong pull from the market, and we find ourselves pushing it instead. (Who is our market anyway, farmers or MoFA? And do market mechanisms really exist in this environment?) If we were a company with profit as our bottom line, we might take one of a few options: keep iterating, put more resources into marketing, or scrap the product. Patent archives are full of great products that never “made it”, even if they’re brilliant. But we’ve seen AAB work, if only AEAs would use it. We’ve put lots of resources, both human and financial, into the program so far over the past 3 years. And really, it hasn’t been that long yet, only a few years; we know real change takes time. But what are the go/no-go criteria for a program like this? How long do we keep refining and marketing our original product? When do we decide to move on to something else, something possibly more (or less) impactful? How (and when) do we take that decision?
So help me out: where should we go from here??
This is a quick post to share with you some recent materials put together by EWB’s National Office in Toronto.
The first item is a GREAT article in the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) publication, Engineering Dimensions. You can access the link here – jump to page 40 and check it out! (Nice work Allison!)
The second is a video that was recently produced about our Agric team in Ghana (that’s my team!). I mentioned AAB in my last post – there are some more details here.
Hello beautiful readers! Last week I introduced you to my general work here in Ghana. This week, I want to share a bit more about the specific change I’m trying to create in MoFA.
As I mentioned before, I’m working at the Tamale MoFA office, otherwise known as the Metropolis Agricultural Development Unit (MADU). The office is made up of about 20 Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), about 8 Metropolis Agriculture Officers (MAOs) and 1 Metropolis Director of Agriculture (MDA) along with some support staff. All together, these people are in charge of serving all of the farmers in the greater Tamale area with information, advice and expertise on anything and everything related to agriculture!
This is a tough job, given the logistical constraints that districts often face such as lack of funding, means of transport and weather conditions. The job is made even more difficult by the high illiteracy rate among Ghanaian farmers and by the commonly held attitude that farming is a way of life, not a business. Together, EWB and MoFA are working to change this attitude and put more profits in farmers’ pockets.
The first job of any EWB volunteer is to learn. The first several months of a placement are a very steep learning curve, incorporating lessons about MoFA, farming, politics and life in Ghana. EWB volunteers spend more time at a district-level office than many other development workers, meaning we are often approached for our knowledge on how a district functions. Having an intimate knowledge of the strengths and challenges of a MoFA district is essential to our work, since we are trying to change the way MoFA interacts with farmers. In order to remain humble and constantly check our work against reality, we must be in a mindset of constant learning!
One focus of our team’s work for the past 3 years has been developing the Agriculture As a Business (AAB) program. AAB is a field tool for AEAs to help them to develop stronger, more business-minded FBOs (farmer-based organizations). The AEA takes the tool to the field and, over the course of 10 meetings with the FBO, builds the group’s capacity to run their farms as businesses. The tool consists of 10 laminated cards containing facilitation questions, tips, stories and photos to lead the AEA through the following topics:
- Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
- Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
- Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
- Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
- Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
- Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
- Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
- Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
- Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
- Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.
The AAB tool was developed over the course of about 2 years and over 500 field visits, during which our volunteers observed and experimented with facilitation techniques, approaches and content. The current version of the curriculum was finalized in Fall 2009 and in the past year was rolled out in over 10 districts, thanks to the amazing crew of Junior Fellows we had working with us last summer. We still have to do a ton of learning on what’s working and what’s not, but now we have a wealth of data and experience to pull from. Way to go team!
As for me, I’ve been helping the MADU to implement AAB since I arrived in March. I was the third volunteer to work on AAB at MADU, which meant I had some catching up to do. But since that time, I have trained the entire staff, accompanied them on field visits, and helped them through the first iteration of a MADU-led (as opposed to EWB-led) round of AAB groups. Way to go MADU staff! Now, my work is to set up a sustainability plan at the MADU so they can continue the program on their own, without my support. This is a tough task when so many projects are competing for the staff’s time and attention, but I am constantly reminding them not to let the “urgent” get in the way of the “important”!
I’ll write in more detail about AAB in a future blog post, including why it’s important to strengthen FBOs and why AAB is an effective tool to do so. Keep an eye out for this soon!
This catchy acronym stands for Systems, Leadership and Management. It’s a new strategy we’ve been developing over the last few months on our team. After seeing some systemic barriers to AAB success in districts, we’ve decided to tackle some of the management challenges in MoFA. We’re still very much in the research phase of this strategy, but the whole thing is based on the belief that better-managed districts result in improved performance for farmers. There are a lot of smaller hypotheses that we’re testing, revolving around topics such as non-monetary incentives for performance, leadership development, improved supervision and learning from data. My job over the next several months will be to run “mini-experiments” to test some of these hypotheses. Basically, it’s a search for the biggest bang for our buck: what can we do with the fewest resources that will have the greatest improvement in MoFA performance?? It’s a loaded question, and one that I’m excited to explore with you over the next few months and years!
Alright, that’s the quick summary of my specific role in my district. As always, let me know if you have any questions or want me to write more on a specific topic. And keep an eye out for the next few posts where I’ll be diving into both the AAB and SLAM strategies. Thanks for reading!
Alright, enough of this fluffy stuff. It’s time to get down to business. I want to finally answer the question you’ve all been asking: What are you actually DOING over there??
I’m going to answer this question in a series of posts over the next few weeks. I’ll start out with the basics, then dive deeper into the “what”s and “why”s behind what I’m doing here. After all, that is the name of the blog!
So let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean to work for EWB in Africa?
My work is divided into 4 main areas: Partner, EWB team, Canada connections and Personal (in no particular order – no, health does not come last in the priority list!). Let me tell you a bit more about what I’m trying to achieve in each of these areas.
Work with my Partner
Our team is partnered with MoFA, the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The purpose of this ministry is to increase food security by providing extension services to farmers, including technical knowledge, business advice and skills training. Ghana is divided into 10 regions, each with a regional-level MoFA office, then each region is divided into several districts (the number depends on the size and population of the region), each of which has a district-level MoFA office. EWB is working with MoFA at all of these levels – National, Regional and District. I am working at the Tamale District office and also occasionally at the Northern Regional office (which is also in Tamale).
We work with MoFA because MoFA works with farmers, which is the majority of the poor rural population in Ghana. These are our “target beneficiaries”, if you want to use the development lingo. Working with MoFA allows EWB to reach a wide number of farmers thanks to MoFA’s well-established extension network. However, MoFA is also constrained by a lot of issues common in developing countries. Some of these issues are beyond their control, such as donor constraints and lack of funding. But there are other issues that can be addressed, like motivation, management skills and staff capacity to do the work.
Our goal is not to add additional programs to MoFA’s plate (which is what most NGOs/donors do – design their own programs and use MoFA as an “implementing agency”, taking them away from the work they’re supposed to be doing). Instead, we are working to strengthen the core MoFA extension work – helping farmers to improve their farms and put more money in their pockets. This means embedding ourselves in MoFA’s offices and working alongside the staff to address everyday issues, as well as encouraging them to have a long-term vision for the work they’re doing.
Work with the Agric Ghana EWB team
The Agric Ghana team is currently made up of 6 African Programs Staff (APS) and 3 Professional Fellows (ProFs) from EWB’s Professional Chapters in Canada. We work closely together, communicating often even though we are spread out across 2 regions in northern Ghana. Once a month we come together to work as a team for a weekend. During these meetings we work on team strategy including planning, evaluating and changing our programs, work to share what we know with others, do some professional development and have a whole lotta fun! These meetings are great for keeping us on the same page as a team and enhancing the work each of us is doing. We also give and receive coaching with other members of the team to help each other set goals and grow. It’s a great environment to work in – I love this team!
Believe it or not, I actually consider it work to keep in touch with Canada! I do this because otherwise I would never prioritize time to write in my blog, or take photos to send to the National Office in Toronto. But I think one of the most important things we can do as APS is to let other people know what we’re doing. All of you reading this in Canada have an enormous amount of information at your fingertips, and a huge potential to use this information for outreach to the Canadian public and advocacy to the Canadian government. So let me help you by telling you what I know!
I am also partnered with two of EWB’s student chapters in Canada, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo (go W’s!). My job is to keep them informed about what’s going on with the Agric Ghana team and give them resources to help with their programs, from fundraising to member learning to outreach. And of course, we want to develop some awesome personal connections between EWB’s African programs and Chapters. Can’t wait to work more with these amazing guys and gals!
Finally, I have some personal goals for my time in Ghana. These include things like health and fitness, happiness and motivation, keeping in touch with my friends and family at home and making time for personal and professional development. For example, I’m really good at building trust with people, but I need to work on how I use that trust in group situations. I’m also working to become a better manager. And of course, I’m trying to eat my 5-10 servings of veggies every day! (Though it’s virtually impossible here… man, I never thought I would miss salad!)
I hope that gives you a good overview of what it’s like to work for the Agric Ghana team. In the next post, I’ll tell you more about what I’m actually doing with MoFA. Until then, please send your comments and questions my way and I’ll do my best to address them in the coming posts. Thanks for reading!
Hakim is six years old. He was born in a village. He is the youngest of 4 siblings – his mother was pregnant 7 times, but had two stillbirths and one child who died after 2 years. Hakim wears old, worn-out hand-me-down clothes most days, only donning a formal smock for special occasions. He gets so dirty playing outside every day that it’s probably good he doesn’t wear nice clothes. He doesn’t like to wear shoes, preferring instead to run around the village barefoot. He is talented at entertaining himself, as are most village children. He plays with old plastic containers, a ball held together with twine, a few plastic trinkets that were gifts from a visiting Japanese aid worker. Hakim is usually an incredibly happy kid, smiling and laughing like there is a joke only he knows. But sometimes he hits his cousin and gets in trouble, then he sulks around the compound with his head down. He only knows a few English phrases – “Good morning” “How are you? I am fine, thank you” and “Photo!” – along with the numbers and alphabet that we’ve been practicing. Still, Hakim and I can sit and talk for hours, he jabbering away in Dagbani, me responding in English. He started going to the village school this year, but the teacher is often absent and the quality of education is very low. His family can’t afford to send him to a better school in Tamale, so he will have few opportunities to learn beyond what this local primary school can offer. There is a health clinic in the village, but the health workers are often absent and besides, his family can’t afford regular healthcare. Hakim will grow up going to the farm with his father and uncles. He probably won’t move away from his village, and if he does it will be to another village close by. Hakim will get older, marry a village girl, have children of his own. One day he will have his own farm. The fact that he could be something other than a farmer will probably never occur to him. Don’t get me wrong, he will have a happy life, full of family and community and food and love. But he will have very few opportunities to change his future from the path he’s currently on.
Theo is six years old. He is the son of a former employee at my MoFA office. I met him when his mother came in one day to visit. Theo was born in Tamale, but spent the last 2 years in England while his father completed his Masters degree. He has a younger sister, but no other siblings. Theo is immaculately dressed in cute little-kid overalls and lace-up running shoes. He and his sister are running around the office playing with those toy microphones that make your voice echo. He is a sneaky little brat, stealing his sister’s toy and making her cry. When I ask if he stole it because he doesn’t have toys of his own, Theo straightens and proudly replies, “I have hundreds of toys!” Then he gives the toy back and he and his sister are friends again, smiling and running off together. He speaks perfect English with a British accent. He went to a good school while he was living in England, and will attend private school now that he’s back in Tamale. His family can afford it, as well as good healthcare, travel, sports and other opportunities. Theo will finish primary school, junior secondary school, secondary school, then probably get one or two university degrees. He will grow up knowing that he can be anything he wants to be – doctor, lawyer, accountant, astronaut. There are no limits to his future, he will decide his own path and determine his own happiness. Who knows where he will end up?
This is the Ghana that I’m living in. There are rich people and poor people, farmers and doctors and NGO workers. The people from the south rarely see the north, and the people from the north don’t often go down south. People take life as it comes, and seize every opportunity that comes their way. But in Ghana, as in the rest of the world, the circumstances of one’s birth are the highest determinant of one’s future, give or take a little luck.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When people hear the name Engineers Without Borders, they think of building bridges and roads and wells. Of course, these are important elements of any country’s infrastructure and many people suffer when they’re not in place. But building is only one piece of the puzzle. We must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of a well? The answer: to provide people with safe drinking water. Now, what elements need to be in place to fulfill this purpose? Yes, we must build it – that is the most obvious answer. But who will test the water to make sure it’s safe? Who will fix the well if it gets broken? How will spare parts be delivered to the village? Who will make sure the pump is properly maintained? And who will pay for this maintenance? Who will pay for the well in the first place? If a donor pays for it this time, who will pay for it next time? Will money ever be allocated from the government to build new wells, or will they always just rely on donor aid to pay for it? Who manages the distribution of water sources in this area? Does the government know about the well? Do other NGOs operating in the area? What it someone comes to the same village and wants to build another well, who is in charge??
Building a well is simple. Providing people with safe drinking water is complex.
There is a round of applause and self-congratulations by the members of this farmer group – they have just completed training in Agriculture As a Business. Over the past 9 weeks, they have explored topics such as business planning, marketing, record-keeping and loan preparation. The AEA, Mustapha, has done a great job of facilitating their learning and has high hopes for the group. I am sitting beside him in my yellow rain pants, sticking out like a sore thumb in these village surroundings. Suddenly, a man turns to me and says something quickly in Dagbani. I turn to Mustapha for him to interpret: “They want to know if now that they have completed the program you will provide some financial assistance.” My heart sinks. I respond forcefully “No!” and the man looks down. “If you are still asking me for financial assistance, then you haven’t understood the program at all. This program is all about doing more with what you already have. The question shouldn’t be ‘what will you do for us?’, but ‘what can we do for ourselves?’” Mustapha translates, then another man speaks up: “he says they have already started doing more research to figure out the best time to sell their vegetables at the market, and they are already benefiting from the results.”
I work for Engineers Without Borders in Ghana. I don’t build wells, or roads, or bridges. I believe the Ghanaian government should be doing that. In fact, I don’t do anything for farmers that couldn’t be (or isn’t being) done by a Ghanaian. I don’t give loans, or laptops, or even snacks. Instead, I build knowledge, skills and motivation in these Ghanaian government employees that are in it for the long haul. And as their capacity to help farmers grows, so too do the farmers’ incomes, leading to more opportunities for farmers and their children. And that’s what development is all about.
Below is a stack of newspapers that can be found in the corner of the MoFA office here in Tamale.
Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “whoa that’s a lot of newspapers! Why would anyone keep that many newspapers? Don’t they fade and disintegrate and collect dirt and dust, sitting in the corner like that? And they take up so much space!” (Isn’t it creepy how I can read your exact thoughts?)
Well, that’s exactly what I thought when I saw them. So I did what I always do: I asked the Keeper of Office Knowledge (ie. the secretary). And the response?
MoFA pays for each district office to have a newspaper subscription. When the Auditor comes each year, he needs to see all the assets in the office that are paid for with MoFA money – including these newspapers. If the Auditor asks to see a paper and you can’t produce one, it is assumed that it has been stolen, and rumours will start about corruption and misuse of public funds. So instead, the newspaper stack grows higher daily as proof that they aren’t being turned into toilet paper or fuel for fires.
The Northern Regional office of MoFA has a pile of old, broken chairs in the corner of the conference room. Why? Same reason – they’re MoFA assets, so they can’t be thrown out or people will suspect they’ve been stolen. Instead, we all get to stare at the mass of mangled wooden legs and ripped plastic every time we have a meeting.
Now, I understand the reason for this policy: misuse of public funds is a huge problem in many African countries. It’s a slippery slope and there must be sufficient measures in place to ensure civil servants aren’t using public money for their own benefit. But isn’t this a little extreme? These people are educated, responsible and driven to make change for their country and its people. Can’t we let them throw away broken and used goods? Can’t we let them run their offices in an efficient manner? Can’t we let them direct their own funds and determine which projects are most beneficial for their districts? Can’t we trust them, just a little??
This is the core issue behind decentralization. Decentralization is supposed to take responsibility and decision-making power from the “centre” and distribute it to the “decentralized departments”, such as the MoFA district offices. Theoretically, a MoFA district should be able to manage and allocate their own funds based on specific challenges seen in their own district. This should result in more appropriate spending and decision-making in line with local contexts. Through increased ownership and responsibility over district funds and projects, staff should also take more ownership of success when it comes. This “should” be great.
Ghana has been talking about decentralization for years. But as the stack of newspapers above shows us, there’s a long way to go. It’s a long, slow, painful process to build up the capacity of district staff to manage their own funds and make smart decisions that will benefit their districts. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also a long, slow, painful process for those at the top to concede some of their power and trust their employees.
I have met several amazing Ghanaian leaders who are working hard for their country and its people, but whose hands are tied by bureaucracy and centralized power. These people are talented, resourceful and driven. They are doing the best they can, one date at a time. But in the end, I can’t wait for the day when they are allowed to truly lead their districts!
This post is about FRUSTRATION, but it’s also about OPPORTUNITY! (And you may even find out a little about my work.)
MoFA (the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana) is built from the bottom up on a network of Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs). These are the people who actually carry out the Ministry’s work by traveling around to visit farmers and disseminate all kinds of information, such as weather forecasts, market opportunities, NGO projects and technical advice. They are at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, but they are the crucial link to farmers that MoFA needs if they want to have any success in improving farmer livelihoods in Ghana.
Ghana is divided into 10 regions, each of which is subdivided into several districts. Each district has a MoFA office, with several AEAs working out of each office. Each AEA is assigned an Operational Area within the district and is responsible for knowing and working with all the farmers in that area. According to their job description, AEAs are supposed to move around for 4 days each week, doing “home visits” (visiting farmers at home), “field visits” (visiting farmers in their fields), and “group visits” (visiting farmer groups). The remaining 1 day each week is reserved for reporting and any office work. Each AEA should also be provided with the means to move to their Operational Area, usually in the form of a motorbike, but sometimes a sturdy bicycle. In addition to their salary, each AEA is supposed to receive a quarterly fuel allowance to pay for the fuel required for all this travel.
So what’s the frustration? There has been no fuel money disbursed to any AEA in Ghana since Oct-Dec 2009. They missed the 1st quarter, Jan-Mar, and we’re now well into the Apr-Jun 2nd quarter. This seriously limits an AEAs ability to do his or her job. An AEA’s salary, which is meagre to begin with, doesn’t stretch far enough to cover 5 months of fuel. Furthermore, AEAs shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice any of their small salary for something that’s supposed to be covered by their employer (and in fact, many of them can’t afford to sacrifice any of their salary).
The impact of this lack of funds is huge. Here are a few of the major problems that have come as a result:
1) AEAs can’t do their jobs.
This is serious! Like I said above, AEAs are the ones who provide the link between MoFA and farmers. So if AEAs aren’t going to farmers, then MoFA isn’t fulfilling its mandate to improve farmer livelihoods. An AEA’s knowledge is particularly crucial for farmers at the beginning of the farming season – like right now. Farmers are just figuring out which crops to plant this year, which types of seeds they’ll use, whether or not they should use fertilizer and which kind. The AEA is the advisor for all these decisions, helping a farmer to make the most of his farm and bringing new information about what’s out there in the agric world. Furthermore, when an AEA just disappears for months at a time, there can be a huge loss of trust between the AEA and his or her farmers. And trust is one of the core underlying factors to being a successful AEA! These people spend years developing relationships with their farmers. Each farmer has different strengths and challenges, and it takes time to develop a trusting relationship that will allow the farmer to benefit fully from what the AEA has to offer. Finally, there is also a detrimental effect on farmer group development. Imagine you are taking a course on starting up a new business, with a project that is integrated into each class. Then all of a sudden the teacher stops coming and classes are suspended for 3 months. Do you think you’ll be on track when the teacher suddenly decides to return? Probably not – you’ll need a few refresher classes to remember all the things you’ve already learned, and some of the momentum for your project has probably disappeared. This is what happens to farmer groups when AEAs are unable to keep investing in their development – concepts are lost, momentum wanes and the group loses interest.
2) Supervisors can’t hold AEAs accountable to doing their jobs.
The bottom line: when AEAs aren’t given the resources to do their jobs, they really can’t be expected to do them. There are a few exceptional AEAs (mostly the single ones who don’t have families to support) who are stepping up and using their own money in order to continue serving their farmers. However, not every AEA can be expected to do this. As a result, no one can be held accountable. So right now an AEA can receive their salary by doing absolutely no extension work!
3) Work for donor projects that come with fuel money are prioritized over core extension work.
The Tamale Metro office (where I’m working) is both lucky and unlucky that we are an easy target for NGOs and other implementing agencies. Tamale is the capital of northern Ghana and one of the only easily-accessible districts in the area. So when an NGO wants to pilot a project, they come to us! This is good because it means that some really innovative projects are reaching our farmers first. It also exposes AEAs to a range of ideas and approaches. Most of all, it brings in extra resources – if an NGO is asking AEAs to carry out field-work on their behalf, AEAs are often given fuel money as well as an honorarium for their time. However, on the other side of things, many of these projects are NOT innovative and really just add a whole lot of work to an AEA’s schedule. (For example, 2 separate projects currently have AEAs walking around the same farmers’ fields to map them with GPS. Seriously?? The AEAs are doing the exact same thing twice, once with each organization’s GPS unit! And they’re doing this for over 100 fields each!) Smart AEAs use this money to carry out both the project work and their core work at the same time by strategically planning their routes to and from the field. But since the money is intended for the project work, that work is prioritized over all core extension work. And when it’s as time-consuming as walking around hundreds of farmers’ fields, there’s often no time for anything else! Unfortunately, this effect also extends to EWB’s work with the Agriculture As a Business (AAB) program. We don’t give out fuel money as an incentive for AEAs to participate in the program (there is a long and heated debate about this decision), which means that there has been virtually no activity in the AAB program in Tamale since January. And like the supervisors, since I’m not offering AEAs any fuel money to do the work, I can’t hold them accountable!
4) Directors can complain but are powerless to affect change.
This one is tough. I wrote earlier on this blog about the (lack of) culture of upward feedback in MoFA. It is fairly rare for a District Director to outwardly complain about programs or policies in MoFA. In this case, the money has been delayed long enough that many Directors are raising a stink about it at the national level. But what difference does it make? There are piles of excuses being made by MoFA at a national level about why the money hasn’t come. As for the Directors, they don’t have access to any discretionary funding that they could allocate temporarily as fuel money (so much for the concept of decentralization). They could dig into their private stashes, but wouldn’t that set an interesting precedent… yikes!
5) Everyone is demotivated and frustrated (including me!).
Yeah, it’s really just a bummer. Nothing is happening (except lots of NGO project work) and no one can do anything about it.
So who holds the purse-strings to the fuel money? I have no idea… someone at “the top”. MoFA National blamed Parliament for a while for not passing the budget in time, then passed the blame to some development partners who are funding agricultural work. There are even rumours of a Canadian connection to the hold-up – the horror! Even then, much of development funding is contingent on the beneficiaries demonstrating some level of capacity or “readiness” to receive the funding, which places the blame squarely back on MoFA (or on the donor policies, depending on how you look at it). The bottom line is that while “the top” argue amongst themselves, it’s poor farmers who are paying the price.
The main frustration is in seeing all these AEAs missing out on serving their farmers; the opportunity is what they are capable of if resources are provided on time. AEAs care about farmers, and they want to be interacting with them out in the field. Supervisors also care about farmers (most used to be AEAs themselves), and want to hold their AEAs accountable to serving farmers. And farmers value MoFA’s assistance! There is a huge opportunity for MoFA to do good work, but they need the resources to carry it out.
This week, Sarah Grant, the Director of Agribusiness for EWB in Ghana, will be traveling to Accra to meet with MoFA National and their development partners on the topic of farmer group development. There is a huge opportunity to influence these players and bring field realities, such as the effects of the late arrival of funds, to those making the decisions. EWB is uniquely placed to offer these insights and it is our responsibility to make the most of these influence opportunities. We want to see the development world flipped on its head, with implementing actors like MoFA being held accountable to farmers rather than donors. It’s a complex system, but somebody’s gotta change it!
Crack – crack – crack
My fingers are tingling and my thumbs are covered in small punctures. I pick up another groundnut (peanut) from my lap, crack open the shell and drop the nuts into a bucket beside me. I drop the shells on the ground, then scoop another handful of groundnuts from the huge bowl in front of me and start again. Around me, under the shade of a huge mango tree, the men and women talk and laugh while they do this work. They have been at this all day, shelling bowl after bowl of groundnuts. In fact, they have been at it all week, processing the groundnuts and selling them at the market.
But why do this work now? These groundnuts were harvested last October and stored in big sacks for the last 6 months. Why weren’t they cracked and sold after harvest, instead of waiting until now? I posed this question to Salifo, my host in the village of Zuo. He responded that he needed the money from the groundnuts to buy inputs for his farm this year, such as seeds, fertilizer and rent for a tractor to plough the land. He said that he knew if he sold them last year, he would have spent the money by this time and he wouldn’t have any money to buy those inputs. So instead, he saved the groundnuts.
This is an important form of savings for Ghanaian farmers. Since Salifo doesn’t have his own savings account at a bank – most people don’t – he has no way to protect his money when he earns some. And in Ghana, when you have any amount of cash, friends and relatives start dropping by to borrow it until, little by little, it’s all gone. Storing crops, or any other liquid asset, is a better way to save that money until you want to spend it.
The other added bonus to selling groundnuts now is the increase in price. After harvest, when the market is flooded with fresh goods, the prices are at their lowest. At that time, a bowl of groundnuts will earn you 1.5 GhC (about $1.20 CAD). But now, at the beginning of the farming season, the market has cooled down and the price has risen to 2.5 GhC ($2.00 CAD). This is another reason to store your crops and sell at a later date. But while this seems like a good strategy, often the more urgent need for cash is what will determine whether a farmer saves or sells his crops.
Of course, not everyone has the option of saving. Often families reach the end of the farming season with nothing left in their stores to eat (and sometimes they run out even earlier). The market is not flooded with crops after harvest because people are stupid and they don’t want to earn the higher price by selling later. It floods because people are desperate for money to buy food and feed their families. This is what it is like to live hand-to-mouth in a country like Ghana. Only those who start with something – a good business plan, proper farming inputs, or a bit of luck – can afford the luxury of waiting to sell their goods after harvest.
My work here is about increasing the number of people who wait to sell their groundnuts. It’s about changing the decision from one of necessity to one of strategic business planning. Overall, it’s about reducing the number of people who don’t even have a choice.
My flip flops slap against the ground as I call out “Desiba” (“Good morning”) to the women walking past on the narrow dirt path. Ahead of me, Rashida balances two giant metal containers on her head, while Zewera follows behind. We come over a small ridge and I find myself looking at a large pond. Rashida and Zewera continue down the slope to the water, where they hike up their skirts and wade in. They fill the two buckets with the milky-looking water and help each other hoist the containers back up onto their heads. They are strong – those buckets must weigh at least 100 lbs. As we walk the 8 minutes back to the compound, other women call out, laughing and asking me where my water is. I tried carrying a small bucket yesterday, but my head-balancing skills are definitely not up to par. Today I’ve elected to bring my camera instead (it’s one or the other – I spill too much water when I’m carrying it on my head to bring a camera!).
We arrive back at the compound and Rashida and Zewera skillfully pour the water from the tops of their heads into the giant clay pots that are fixed to the ground. Inside, the new water mixes with the old, left over from last night’s trip to the pond. Rashida takes an old tomato can from beside the pots, scoops up some water and takes a long drink. She refills it, then takes it over to where her 7-month-old daughter Failatu is sitting on a reed mat and holds the can for her to drink. Zewera does the same for her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Awa. Then the two women pick up their containers and head back to the pond for another load.
This scene, from the village of Gbabshie, is unfortunately common in northern Ghana. These two women will make the trip to the pond 4-5 times per day to supply this 11-person household with water. Luckily for them, it’s not a long walk – some women walk over 2 km to access water in the dry season. They will use this water for all of their household needs: cooking, bathing, drinking and washing. They know the water is not good, but they have no other choice. Mr. Iddirisu, the sole member of the household who can speak any English, says “we see the goats defecating near the water and we know it’s not safe. We need a borehole but no NGO has yet come.”
Iddirisu’s statement is indicative of the development culture in Ghana. Though they may try, the government of Ghana has not been successful at meeting the needs of its population. This is both an issue of resources and of capacity (more on that in later posts). As a result, the doors have been thrown open to NGOs, foreign development agencies and multilateral institutions to fill the gap. Ghana in particular has become a “development darling” thanks to its relative stability and support for foreign projects. Now there are literally thousands of projects operating here on all scales, from small local NGOs doing agroforestry projects, to multinational UN-funded campaigns to eradicate guinea worm. In many cases, NGOs are playing a role that would traditionally be filled by the government – hardly a sustainable model.
Let’s get back to the water problem in Gbabshie: the community needs a safe water source. It would be easy to come into the community, see the women and children drinking from this filthy pond, make a quick video appealing for donations from friends in Canada, and pay a local NGO to install a borehole. Bam! problem solved. But is it really solved? Let’s take a closer look.
Have you ever been given something for free? Maybe it was a bicycle, a phone, a book, just something that someone else didn’t want anymore. How much value did you place on this discarded item from your friend? Probably not much – it wasn’t worth much to him/her, so why should it be worth so much to you?
What about this: have you ever shared a resource with a large group of people? Maybe it was a common kitchen in your house, or supply of toilet paper in an outhouse at camp. What was the state of this shared resource after some time passed? Did you have to put some structure in place to manage the resource well? What incentives did you have to care for the resource, and how did you react to other people using it in different ways?
These two issues both come into play when discussing a village borehole: you’re giving something away for free to a group of people. Of course they will appreciate it – clean water! But how will they treat the borehole? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for paying for repairs? Who has priority over the water? It is common to come back to one of these villages a year later and still see women walking to the pond to get water. The borehole has broken down, and no one is responsible for paying for repairs, so they haven’t been done. Besides, why pay for repairs when any day an NGO might come along and repair it for free?
In the middle of the village of Gbabshie lies a testament to these issues. The women’s group here received a grinding mill several years ago. Now it lies in disrepair, covered in cobwebs. No one is willing to pay to have it fixed, so all the money the NGO put into buying and installing the machine in the first place has gone to waste.
These issues of sustainability are always prevalent in development projects. It is easy to fill an immediate need; it is much more difficult to change the institutional environment around that resource so that the change will be sustained. For a borehole, several conditions need to be in place. Someone needs to be responsible for managing that borehole, whether it is one person or a committee of people. Users need to contribute money for maintenance and repairs. For this to happen, people need to see value in having a working borehole, which means they need to be educated on water and health issues. When the borehole breaks down, skilled technicians need to be accessible to the community at an affordable price. Replacement parts must be locally available in a timely manner. People must know their rights and how to address the authorities if they are being taken advantage of. And NGOs must not continue to offer new things for free which undermine the existing system.
This example demonstrates the complexity of poverty and development. There are simple solutions, but there are no simple problems, so the simple solutions will inevitably fail. To address the complex problem of poverty, we need complex solutions that change the operating environment of development in Ghana. Institutional changes take time to produce, but the effect is long-lasting and the impact is much greater.