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!
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…
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.
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.