An EWB colleague in Malawi, Duncan McNicholl, has recently received a lot of attention for a project he started called Perspectives of Poverty. The project aims to show another side of Africa, the one not commonly shown in news reports and NGO publications.
Africa is often portrayed in the West with photos of fly-covered children in torn clothing. Duncan’s reaction: “How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people? … I thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well.”
Duncan told me about his idea while we in Toronto together for our pre-departure training with EWB. He wanted to show the same “poor” person in two photos: one looking typically poor, with dirty clothes and a sad expression, and one looking fabulous, all smiles and Sunday best!
It sounded awesome – I wanted to try it too! But when I got to Ghana I had trouble thinking about how I would communicate this idea to the people around me. Had they seen these photos of “typical” Africa in the West? What would they think of me asking them to “look poor” so I could take their picture?
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, Duncan put up his first stab at the project with photos of 2 friends. It looked great, and finally gave me the resolve to try it on my own. So after carefully explaining the project (and possibly being understood), here are some of my own contributions to the Perceptions of Poverty project!
You can read more about Duncan’s project on his blog, on the popular Aid Watch blog, on the blog Poverty to Power by Duncan Green (Oxfam UK), or in an online New York Post article. Congrats on all the press, Duncan!
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!
“Ehhh, a kpeng a mung!” (“You have done well!”) Salifo beams at me. I stand and survey the yam mound I’ve just created. It’s a bit smaller than its neighbours, but the shape is good – mound-like – and the dirt is well-packed. Indeed, I’ve done well! I move on to the adjacent patch of earth and start digging again. In the time it took me to make that one, Salifo has completed 3 big yam mounds, far superior to my own. But hey, I’m just learning!
I manage to make 6 yam mounds before I collapse under a nearby tree. It’s hard work! My hamstrings are quivering from bending over and pulling dirt toward me – think dead lift, over and over – and my hands are developing blisters from the rough-hewn wooden hoe I’m using. And I’m sweating like a pig! Unfortunately, this is the biggest aerobic workout I’ve had in a while. (Something about running in 30 degree weather just doesn’t appeal to me…)
We arrived here at the farm by riding our motos down a narrow, winding, sandy path along a rain wash-way and then out into the fields. We parked our motos under a tree, then continued on foot to this yam field, which belongs to Salifo and his brothers. The field is about a quarter of an acre in size, though they want to increase it to half an acre. They had already prepared the land, turning it under and removing all the brush that had grown in the last few months.
Now it was time to build the yam mounds, which are cone-shaped and about 3-4 feet across. The yams grow better in this loosely-packed earth, where the tuber has room to grow big without resistance from the hard-packed land underfoot. The mounds are made first, then a seed yam is planted in the top of each one. The seed yams are grown at the end of the harvest, from the same plant after the full-grown yams have been harvested. After the seed is planted, leaves are placed on top of the mound and covered with a chunk of dirt to hold them in place. This is supposed to keep the mounds from drying out and becoming too hot. A finished yam field is truly a bizarre sight to behold!
Salifo finished 2 rows of yam mounds, then came to join me in resting under the tree. We ate some boiled yams as a snack, part of last year’s harvest. As we sat, I asked him to compare his different types of work.
Salifo is one of a few people in Zuo who can speak English, which means he is often recruited for community “volunteer” work by Ghana Health Services. For example, he has spent many days in the last 2 weeks helping with a campaign to distribute mosquito nets to children under 5. This involved training in Tamale, traveling to various communities to register the children, picking up the nets, returning to the communities to distribute and hang the nets, and filing in the information booklet for each net he distributed. It’s a lot of work! And he does it all without knowing how much he will be paid at the end – usually just a token for his time.
I asked Salifo to compare this to farming. Which does he prefer? He answered emphatically, “I choose to farm!” When I asked him why, he responded that with the farm, he is his own “in charge” (boss). He decides which work to do when, how much to invest in each field, and which crops he will plant. The manual labour is hard, but he knows he will get something out at the end – a harvest he can eat, or sell to earn money for his family. He also knows that, barring any natural disasters, the reward will be directly proportional to the efforts he puts in. Finally, there’s none of that tricky business of trying to persuade a mother to make her child sleep under a mosquito net.
We are often told that people in rural Africa are farmers because they have no other choice. While that is true in many cases, there are also those who choose this profession, like Salifo. Really, it’s not a bad gig, if you don’t mind manual labour. Each farmer can be seen as a small business-owner, making decisions about his investments to maximize his profits. And like many small business-owners in Canada, farmers work long hours to achieve success, which they can then attribute to their own hard work.
As I look across at my 6 yam mounds and compare them to the ~30 that Salifo made, I have a newfound respect for farmers. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen in Canada, showcasing farmers’ pride: “Farmers Feed Cities!” I’ve seen similar stickers in Ghana, reminding people that farming is a noble and necessary profession for the well-being of the entire country. So, props to Ghanaian farmers!!