Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Why I’m Here

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:

  1. Why am I here?
  2. How am I feeling about it?
  3. 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.)

Salifo and Hussain, father and son. I dream the son will have more opportunities than the father.

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

Our awesome Rural Agriculture team (miss you Meg!)

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?

Dry season tomato farmers near Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region

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.

Celebrating Salah with Ayesha and Namawu, two of my favourite friends in Tamale!! Seriously, these girls are awesome!!

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!


16 responses

  1. Naomi K

    Thanks for this post and being so candid. Also you look amazing in this brown and purple number. *love it*

    December 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    • Haha thanks Naomi! See you soon? Let me know if you guys have any meetings/events I can come to between Dec. 16 and conference!! Would love to see the chapter 🙂

      December 3, 2010 at 2:39 pm

  2. Alex Joyce

    Great post Erin!

    I love to hear about your motivations and concerns. I didn’t know that the MOFA team is so small now! I am excited to hear how your visioning goes over the next month.

    Lol Salifo’s shirt makes me laugh… where did he get it? Does he sleep under a bed net like his shirt promotes?

    xo AJ

    December 2, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    • Hey thanks for the comment Alex! Umm unfortunately I don’t think he does use a bednet… but his kids do! Yay promotion! 🙂

      December 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  3. Steph


    Your personal stories and perspectives have really increased my faith and respect for what EWB can accomplish oversees. I’ve heard criticism in the past about the organization implementing programs or technology that can’t be sustained by the users once EWB has left. Your work with farmers seems viable, beneficial, and eventually self-sustaining. Knowing you personally and hearing your passion for your work and your personal belief in it, I am reassured that the donations you collect aren’t going towards a dead-end result. I am skeptical about many initiatives EWB proposes, but I truly believe that what you are doing in Ghana can have a positive, lasting impact. Your blog and updates on your work over the past year have brought me to that conclusion, so keep it up!

    Love, Steph

    December 2, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    • Hey Steph,
      Thanks for the vote of confidence, it means a lot to me. And I’m glad my communication skills allow me to share this experience with you!
      Really happy to have your support 🙂
      See you in a few weeks!

      December 3, 2010 at 2:47 pm

  4. Erin, I am blown away by your passion for doing the work you do. It’s important. EWB might not be perfect, but it is making a difference – and so are you. When does your ‘campaign’ end? (I know it never does, but are you trying to reach a target by a certain date?). Do you get a prize (like free travel for a friend to visit you? (kidding).

    InCourage donates 1% of our annual revenues to ‘giving back’, through offsets for our travel and operating our business and causes such as yours. We have had a tough year (that ends March 31) but we made a commitment and will follow through with it.

    Keep up the great work and look forward to connecting over the holidays.

    December 2, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    • Hi Tom,
      Thanks for the comment! And your ongoing support.
      The campaign ends Jan. 31 I think, but of course EWB is always accepting donations. I’m sure they’d be willing to extend it if you want! 🙂 A prize, that’s a great idea! I’ll suggest it, haha.
      Anyway, thanks again. I’m also looking forward to meeting you again soon.

      December 3, 2010 at 2:49 pm

  5. Rachel Small

    Thanks for sharing, Erin. Really cool to hear your perspectives, especially for someone as cynical as I am about Canadians going overseas to help other countries. Honestly, I’m a little troubled by some of what you’ve brought up around guilt, and around encouraging farmers to adopt a more capitalist and profit-driven approach to farming. These are concerns I’d be really happy to talk about with you in person in December though!
    In the meanwhile, good luck with all your work, and take care!


    p.s. I don’t think you mean manpower..peoplepower!

    December 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    • Hey Rachel,
      Thanks for the comment. Yeah the guilt is a tricky one… why do I feel guilty? Do I think everyone should feel guilty? Is this a good reason to go overseas and do development work? I don’t like it… I was just trying to be honest about all the reasons I’m here.
      And the capitalist approach… well yes, a lot of people take issue with that, but the reality is that Ghana is trying to develop in a capitalist market. Anyway, it’s a big long discussion that we can have in person. I’m meeting up with Kat on Dec. 17 – you too?
      p.s. yes of course I meant peoplepower! my bad

      December 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

      • I feel compelled to respond to Rachel’s comment as I too had a similar reaction to both the guilt and the capitalist model you (EWB) are supporting. First of all, don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty. (I bet somebody else has coined that). It might just be inappropriate guilt, after all, what did you personally do to cause suffering in the world? Those can that answer that honestly live conciously and do their best to minimize their negative impact. The fact is, there is always people better off and worse off than you and instead of feeeling guilt (or envy) for having the fortune of being brought in to this world on the affluent side of the fence, people can use that energy (whether it is guilt, anger, sadness) to help those that are worse off – and that is what you are doing. In spades. So keep it up, you are an inspiration to old guys like me!

        As far as supporting capitalism – it is not as simple as capitalism = evil. (Nor am I suggesting Rachel is saying this). Capitalism can be a force for good so long as it honours the environment and the people within the systems. Of course, historically it is done just the opposite – but hey we aren’t counting on you to solve ALL the worlds problems.

        December 4, 2010 at 6:41 pm

      • Yup, totally agree. The capitalist thing is something that gets brought up now and then on our team, but it’s a tough one to address. Thanks for chiming in here!

        December 5, 2010 at 12:12 pm

  6. Megan Putnam

    Erin love!

    This is a really great post, I think/know there are probably a lot of people who are hesitant to donate directly in support of sending volunteers to Africa when they don’t know that EWB is well integrated and working on long-term sustainable initiatives. You bring up a lot of points that really resonate with me. You’re articulate, smart, and honest.

    I’m encouraging my friends and family to also read it!

    Thanks for sharing. Miss you like crazy! Can’t wait to see you at conference 🙂

    December 3, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    • Hey Megs,
      Thanks for the kind words and for sharing the post. I appreciate it! Love and miss you lots too, Ghana isn’t the same without you laughing at my jokes! 😛
      See you soon,

      December 5, 2010 at 12:02 pm

  7. Jeff Emmett

    Good stuff…always question!! Your criticism helps to fix a system that needs fixing. And I think the feeling of guilt is closely related with the feeling of charity…I think if the rest of us really understood the situation these people were in, they would feel guilty too! Look at all the money we waste on superfluous things, when there are people who could improve their chances of survival for mere dollars per day. The question is and always has been…how do we get our society to realize that?

    I would like to know more about EWB involvement with other government organizations, if there is any affiliation with the UN or any other branch of the government – do you see any of their work on the ground? Do you know if it is as effective as the EWB, or more so?

    December 4, 2010 at 5:09 am

    • Hey Jeff!
      Good questions. EWB doesn’t work with the UN at all, but we have some kind of relationship with CIDA, GTZ (the German dev’t agency), JICA (the Japanese dev’t agency), etc. These are all players in the agric sector in Ghana, so we run into each other and are in lots of the same meetings. That said, we don’t have a formal partnership with any of them. Our formal partnership is with MoFA, the Ghanaian ministry of Agric, trying to help them do what they already do, but better.
      Our approach is fundamentally different from most other dev’t organizations in that we don’t run our own projects. Most dev’t orgs design and fund their own projects/programs and then hire implementing agencies, which are local NGOs and government on the ground. So MoFA employees end up carrying out a lot of work for these projects, like organizing farmer groups, training them, measuring fields, doing surveys and collecting data. All of this is to feed into these dev’t projects, which are intended to help farmers. However, since so many projects use MoFA as an implementing agency, the MoFA staff hardly have any time for their own work! This really takes away from the effectiveness of the government and puts efforts into unsustainable 3-5 year projects instead of building the capacity of the government, which will be around for a long time. You can tell how I feel about this…
      As for how effective they are compared to EWB, it’s hard to say. Measuring impact is one of the hardest things to do in development. How long do you have to wait to say you’ve had a true positive impact on someone’s life? It’s hard to say how long that impact will last, and whether it’s a permanent or temporary change. And it’s all so connected – the economy, politics, climate change, development, etc. – that it’s hard to measure any one thing in isolation from the rest. So yeah, the bottom line is, I don’t know.
      Ok I can keep writing, but this is just a comment! So let me stop here. But keep asking questions, and I’ll keep writing posts! Thank for being here and being interested! 🙂

      December 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm

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