Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

What is Development?

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.”

An AAB meeting


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.


14 responses

  1. Narz

    wow…very inspiring. keep up the good work for the welfare of our fellowmen.

    August 23, 2010 at 2:19 pm

  2. Alex Joyce

    Giving me the shivers just reading, Erin. Thank you.


    August 23, 2010 at 7:11 pm

  3. Sam

    well put. and great photos.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:15 am

  4. Kelsey

    I very much liked this post.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:31 am

  5. Allison

    Loved this, and I know a lot of other people did too. We shared it on the FB account. ox

    August 25, 2010 at 9:55 pm

  6. Yay! I’ve added this to my list of must-do readings for people thinking of doing an internship in international development.

    August 27, 2010 at 7:32 pm

  7. Cathy

    Erin – Great article and candid responses. This reminds me of when I was on an introductory trip in Zambia and the villagers told me through interpreters that they liked photos because when people came with cameras, some money usually came later. So many want to break the cycle of dependency and we need to be careful not to promote it.

    August 30, 2010 at 2:15 am

  8. Thanks a lot for the great, thought-provoking post. Keep it up!

    September 7, 2010 at 4:16 am

  9. hshaga

    Very good, an eye opener!

    February 4, 2011 at 11:55 pm

  10. Shamir Tanna

    Erin…this somehow has gotten even better this time. I really loved this – everything about it…..the disparity in opportunities, the complexities of development, EWB’s work….

    hope u doing well, and can’t wait to read more about your insights, your challenges and successes

    we thinking about you guys and always inspired by your all’s absolute incredibleness

    February 5, 2011 at 7:55 am

    • Thanks so much Shamir! Always so supportive, it’s AWESOME.
      Thanks for reading, hope you’re doing well! Ghana misses you oh!

      February 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  11. Jan Mengel

    Congratulations on illuminating observations. I agree that the disparity between the likely future for the two boys doesn’t have to be so, but it is really the same in the US, and probably everywhere. Even universal, free education has not eradicated the differences that birth family and wealth provide to those more fortunate. But at least they offer some possibility of change. We still have the wealthy here who rant about “the redistribution of wealth” and the evils of socialism and communism. As though there were no evils to capitalism. And somehow as soon as a few get power and/or wealth, they conspire to hoard it all for themselves forever on every continent. I applaud you and all who work to inform, empower and enable those with few opportunities to gain some improvement to their lot in life. We could all stand to appreciate our own fortunes more than we usually do. You are a wonderful writer as well as an engineer! CUDOS!!

    February 5, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    • Hi Jan,
      Everything you say is true. Thanks so much for reading my post!! Hope you’re having a great 2011 so far, and maybe I’ll see you at the cottage this summer (if I’m lucky!) 🙂

      February 17, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  12. I love that you repeat the same message over and over in different words and using different examples; the ideas about development need to change and your blog helps that to happen.

    May 8, 2017 at 9:24 pm

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