Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Archive for February, 2011

Development Digest – 25/02/11

Trying out a new thing here: the Development Digest. I used to compile a weekly email of the same name when I worked for the EWB National Office in Toronto and got a lot of positive feedback. So here’s an attempt to revive the idea!

Basically, it’s a compilation of interesting things (to me at least) from the world wide interweb each week. Feel free to read it all, only what’s interesting or skip the whole thing – up to you! Also, feel free to comment, re-post, etc. – I’d love the feedback. Which articles did you like best? Which ones did you like least? Which categories do you like? Should I add any new categories?

Posting this on my blog is actually not the ideal way to share these things. What I’d really like is a system where I (and others) can share links, then users can star or upvote to indicate which ones they liked. Think Reddit or Hackernews. Or something similar to Paper.li, but that only pulls links from Twitter. If you have any suggestions on a system that will do what I’m looking for, please let me know!!

Just a note, this week’s post is extra-long because I’ve included articles from the last 2-3 weeks. It will normally be a bit shorter, depending on how much interesting stuff I find that week.

Now, without further ado… the Development Digest!

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Global news:

Roundup of global protests – http://wrongingrights.blogspot.com/2011/02/whos-revolting.html
Earthquake in New Zealand – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/asia-pacific/hopes-fade-for-more-survivors-in-new-zealand-quake/article1918460/?cmpid=rss1

Africa news:

Côte D’Ivoire biggest bank shuts down – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/17/ivory-coast-banks-shut-gbagbo-protest
Increased violence in Côte D’Ivoire – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/africa-mideast/gun-battles-erupt-in-ivory-coasts-main-city/article1916555/?cmpid=rss1
Failed Sub-Saharan protests – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/africa-mideast/the-staying-power-of-sub-saharan-strongmen/article1913687/
In search of an African revolution – http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/02/201122164254698620.html
Overview on Libya – http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201122412934486492.html

Canada news:

A test of our democracy – http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/02/16/a-test-of-our-democracy/
Canadian agriculture – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/global-food/the-hunger-for-more-ambition-in-canadian-agriculture/article1814497/?cmpid=rss1
The Rise of Grassroots Movements – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/the-rise-of-the-grassroots-movements/article1918061/?cmpid=rss1
SNC-Lavelin building jail in Libya – http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/02/24/snc-lavalin-prison022411.html?ref=rss

Agriculture news:

The Race for Rice – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12277807
Future of Cocoa – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/valentines-day/savour-that-chocolate-while-you-can-still-afford-it/article1904608/page1/
Agriculture & Health – http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=91907
Why Are Food Prices Skyrocketing? – http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/02/16/133744524/why-are-food-prices-going-crazy
Dependent on Maize? – http://www.africanagricultureblog.com/2011/02/africa-increasingly-questions.html
GM Crops to address climate change – http://www.africanagricultureblog.com/2011/02/africa-flirts-with-gm-technology-in.html

Development thinking:

Bad, voluntourists, bad! – http://www.thestar.com/news/world/haiti/article/935908–porter-don-t-go-to-haiti-to-volunteer
Food Prices – http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=4530
Owen Barder: 8 lessons from 3 years working on transparency – http://www.owen.org/blog/4433
Scott Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust (who was at the EWB National Conference in January) gives EWB a thumbs up in his post on what makes a good volunteer model – http://buildingmarkets.org/blogs/blog/2011/02/14/volunteers-vs-interns-getting-it-right/

Guest post by Robert Chambers on “Aid on the Edge of Chaos”
Part 1 – http://aidontheedge.info/2011/02/10/whose-paradigm-counts/
Part 2 – http://aidontheedge.info/2011/02/15/whose-paradigm-counts-2/
Warning: it’s in his usual hard-to-read academic style. But I think well worth it! (especially part 2)

EWB Staff/Volunteer blog posts:

Duncan: What Communities Want – http://waterwellness.ca/2011/02/11/what-communities-want/
Dan B: Behind the framework – http://questionstoquestions.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/behind-the-framework/
Ka-Hay: Feeling Full – http://kumvera.blogspot.com/2011/02/i-am-luckiest-person-alive.html
Erin: A Bitter Pill – https://erinantcliffe.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/a-bitter-pill/
Erin: The Donor Effect – https://erinantcliffe.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/the-donor-effect/
Ben C: Racism – http://bencampbellinzambia.blogspot.com/2011/02/racism.html
Ben C: Saying and Doing – http://bencampbellinzambia.blogspot.com/2011/02/saying-and-doing.html
Colleen: Small-scale Business Growth – http://www.whereintheworldiscolleen.com/archives/1434
Alyssa: Bike Path Lessons in Dev’t Work – http://lyssintomalawi.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/bike-path-lessons-in-development-work/

Amusement:

Some beautiful writing on believing that change is possible – http://lindsaydispatches.blogspot.com/2011/02/in-dreams-begin-responsibility.html
Travel portrait tips – http://morealtitude.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/5-tips-for-taking-a-really-great-travel-portrait/
P.S. Bev, you’re fired – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/satire-the-pmo-guide-to-doctoring-documents/article1912678/
Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like – http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/
If NGOs were animals, what would they be? – http://dochasnetwork.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/if-ngos-were-animals-would-they-be-pls-add-at-will/
WTF?? – http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/02/23/odd-televisio-chicken-channel.html?ref=rss


The Donor Effect

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!

Mustapha and fellow African delegates with Robert Chambers at the EWB National Conference

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.


A Bitter Pill

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!

Maize farmer

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…

Zuo Women's Group, producers of high quality shea butter soap

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.

Hakim - a future farmer?

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.