Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

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.


9 responses

  1. James Haga

    Hey Erin,

    Great post. I’m curious to hear what you would suggest as an alternative way for the church leaders to support the farmers that Mustapha works with?

    The urge to simplify and just give money directly to people like Mustapha is pervasive. In this case, would you say it would have been better for him to decline the donation and instead ask that the donors support his work (and the communities he works in) by instead supporting institution building directly through MoFA?

    My sense is that while the institution building approach is perhaps more valuable and can help reduce the burden on people like Mustapha (by creating standards for reporting and accountability), it is also a hell of a lot less appealing to most individual (or community) donors. Systems and institutions are nameless behemoths, but people like Mustapha put a real face to the issues and challenges. Donors eat that up.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the tension here.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    • Hey James, I was just listening to you on the radio! (I know, I’m a few days behind – nice job though! did you get any comments/calls?)

      Great GREAT question/comment. There is definitely a tension here between what donors want to get from their donation and what is most effective on the ground.

      I’m not sure that Mustapha should have declined the donation, but I would have removed some of the current pressures he’s experiencing – spending the money quickly, reporting back often to the donors, etc. I think if donors want to give money to an individual, they should trust that the individual will spend the money wisely. Otherwise, if they want reports back, they should donate through an institution with existing transparency and accountability structures.

      This is like giving money to a homeless person on the street – you’re not going to ask them to report back to you the next day on how they spent your change, are you? Instead, if you really want to know that your donation is going somewhere meaningful, you donate to an organization that works with homeless people and has existing reporting structures.

      Same goes for international aid and development.

      February 22, 2011 at 5:40 pm

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  3. Cathy

    Erin, once again you have brought a very important point to light. In addition to the questions you have put forward, the support that your colleague received, though well meaning, poses a number of ethical dilemmas for your colleague. eg. the use of a public servant’s time that the public is paying for to make private decisions, how to honestly account to donors (even if doing the right thing would take longer than expected).

    We are all faced with ethical dilemmas every day, and how your colleague reacts to this situation will be an example to others – in a positive or negative way. However, even the fact that these dilemmas are being talked about is a very positive outcome. It would be interesting if this conversation and how to resolve it could be part of a discussion amongst the group that went on the study tour – all leaders whose example will have impact on society.

    February 22, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    • Hi Cathy,
      Great points about the ethical dilemmas involved. I love your suggestion about involving some of the other delegates! I’ll talk to Mustapha and see what he says. Thanks!
      And as always, thanks for reading!

      February 23, 2011 at 7:54 am

  4. This is awesome. Thanks for a great explanation of one big problem with the typical model of development.

    February 23, 2011 at 4:45 am

    • Thanks Yaacov! Hope you’re doing well 🙂

      February 23, 2011 at 7:55 am

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  6. I agree with your concern; while it is understandable why they would want to know, they could have asked him when he thought it would be possible to let them know what he was doing with the money, then how he could report to them in a way that works in his context. Instead, they gave him a short time frame, completely ignoring that he has other things to do …the reason he was there in the first place! At least this way of proceeding would have helped him to continue to do his work, while also giving them the information they wanted.

    May 10, 2017 at 10:19 pm

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