Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Archive for July, 2010

Nope, still centralized

Below is a stack of newspapers that can be found in the corner of the MoFA office here in Tamale.

Stack of newspapers

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!


Beauty

This probably sounds weird, but it’s amazing how often I’m reminded of my cottage in Ghana.

Lately I can close my eyes, feel the sun on my face and cool breeze in my hair, and picture Georgian Bay stretching out in front of me. And sometimes when I’m riding my moto, it sounds like a motorboat bouncing across the waves (luckily I don’t close my eyes for that one).

Beautiful Georgian Bay

But when I open my eyes, I’m back in Ghana – and I’m happy for this. Ghana has really grown on me in the last 5 months. I think I complained at first: “Ghana is an ugly country, there’s no physical beauty in this land”. But as the dry season gives way to rain, I’ve discovered that it’s actually a beautiful landscape – green vegetation, blue skies dotted with clouds, sunrises and sunsets to die for, and the craziest storm clouds and lightning in the world.

I’m starting to see beauty everywhere I look, beyond the physical landscape to the gentle sway of women’s hips as they carry firewood along the road, past the chaos of the market to the brightly-coloured clothing of the market vendors, underneath the dirt on childrens’ faces to the smiles in their eyes as they run to greet me when I get home.

My work is busy and every day is full of purpose. I have a wonderful team of inspiring people to work with, both in EWB and MoFA. Every day I go home to a simple family who welcomes me without a second thought.

Team MoFA

And I realize why it feels like the cottage: I’m happy here.


Engineering Ghana

Dear Readers:

I haven’t posted for a long time. I know. I didn’t mean to leave you all in the dark. But as time continues to pass, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into Ghanaian life, farming, MoFA, etc. and getting farther and farther away from life in Canada. I was always frustrated as an EWB chapter member in Canada when volunteers in Africa would say they “couldn’t relate” to us in Canada anymore. But now I see what they mean. Have I forgotten what it’s like to live in Canada? To work tirelessly on the other side of the ocean to raise public awareness about development and lobby our government to improve aid? To go to the grocery store and buy food from all over the world? Well honestly… yeah, I kind of have. I mean, if I think hard about it, I can remember what it was like. But the problem is that I have to think hard – it doesn’t just come naturally anymore. I have to actually TRY to relate my experience to what it’s like in Canada. And that mental effort has prevented me several times from writing on my blog.

But no more. I don’t think it’s an adequate excuse. My job isn’t to get lost in Ghana, it’s to experience Ghana and bring those realities to you in Canada and the rest of the world. It’s to see good development, and bad, and be able to share the difference. It’s to evaluate the impact of our work on Ghanaians and to see where we can make improvements.

So I’m back on the blog train. I am aiming to go back to posting at minimum every 2 weeks. I will also try harder to make short snappy posts on things I’m thinking, seeing or reading about – they don’t all have to be epic. I will remember that just because I’m used to seeing women carry 5-ft. tall things on their heads and discussing agric. development projects with district directors doesn’t mean it’s not new to you! And so I’m making an effort to share more of those things with you again.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, feedback or requests, please PLEASE let me know! You can comment on a post or contact me directly through email or the Contact form on this blog. I’m always happy to hear from you and would love to be given more direction on what you want me to write about!

Thanks for reading,
Erin
—————-

Though I’m working with Engineers Without Borders, I don’t do much “traditional” engineering. I hope most of you reading this know that already, but if you’re wondering why, check here. However, I have found the opportunity to flex my engineering muscles in a few cases, which I wanted to share with you below.

My untrusty moto

This is my moto. It’s a piece of junk. It’s 3 years old and it’s been ridden into the ground by the previous 3 owners. I have had so many problems with it – spark plugs not sparking, horn not honking, tires going flat, brakes squealing, lights breaking. I’ve had to replace the engine block, connector rod, chain & sprocket, rear tire, clutch handle and headlight. It’s a pain in the ass. But on the bright side, I’ve developed an intimate knowledge of this rudimentary two-stroke machine. Ghanaians (especially men) are always surprised when they see me sigh after a failed attempt to start the moto and pull out my tools. They still rush to help, and I’m always grateful, but I’ve learned a lot about fixing my own moto and regularly do it myself. Just give me some coveralls and call me a mechanic!

—————-

As I mentioned previously on this blog, I live in a village called Zuo which is about 5 km outside of Tamale. While we’re lucky enough to have lights (electricity), we’re too far away from the city to have flowing water. It’s amazing how much you take this for granted in Canada, where you don’t have to walk far and carry water back every day. As I also previously mentioned, the women here carry amazing amounts of water from the dam every day, neglecting the broken borehole in the middle of the village. Though I try to fetch my own water, I am not nearly as strong as a Ghanaian woman and I am constantly being assisted, which makes me constantly feel guilty.

Bucket engineering

Luckily, the rainy season has provided a way to assuage my guilt in the form of – you guessed it – rain! Pure water, falling from the sky – it’s an amazing thing for which I have a new appreciation. I am also lucky enough to live in a place with a Polytank, the huge black plastic water storage tanks which are ubiquitous in Ghana (and you would have seen Kingson, the goaltender for the Black Stars, promoting these monstrosities on TV during the World Cup if you were watching in Ghana!). A rainwater collection system is set up so that the water streams from the roof to the eavestrough and falls into the Polytank. Ingenious! Except it doesn’t work. The Polytank is placed just a bit too close to the house and against a cement something so that it can’t be moved further away (I haven’t identified the purpose of this weird cement structure yet, it’s a mystery). When there is a light rain, it falls gently into the open mouth of the Polytank. But when there is a windy downpour (ie. a LOT of water to fill my tank), the water races off the end of the eavestrough, overshooting the Polytank. It took a few rains and a pitifully low water level in the tank for me to figure this out.

Sooooo last time we had a huge downpour, instead of running inside away from the rain, I ran outside! I was moving buckets here and there to catch the rain, and even standing up on the cement-mystery to catch the water pouring past the Polytank in my bucket and dump it in. Finally, after standing there for a while, wearing only a Ghanaian cloth wrapped around me, soaked to the skin and freezing cold (yum!), I used my engineering skills: I found some rocks and propped my bucket up so it would be stable, but on an angle, where it would catch the water and overflow into the Polytank. Ta-da! In this way I FILLED the tank – I’m set for life! (Or at least until I move out.)

Bonus: I also washed my hair outside in the rain that day, which made me very happy.

—————-

The view from the road

This last one is not so much about using my engineering skills as it is about pointing out someone else’s lack thereof. After a particularly bad storm last week, I went for a run and noticed something odd flashing at me from the roadside. It looked like a giant sheet of metal was caught in a tree. What??

Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the roof of the local primary school, folded and bent and leaning up against a tree. It had blown off in the storm like a big aluminum parachute. Whoever built this school did not account for the

The bent school roof

pressure that builds up from the incredible winds that come in the rainy season. It made me wonder: who had built this school? A donor that didn’t know the weather conditions? A local NGO without enough budget to securely fasten the roof? Or a government employee that didn’t have the capacity to design it properly? I have no idea, but with all the people building schools around here, it must be a common problem.