Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Archive for March, 2011

Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks

Hello world,

I’m writing this post to introduce a new concept we want to try over here at EWB. I’ve been hanging out in the “international development/aid online community” for a while now and while it’s fun to chat, I’d actually like to put this community to work! (And yes, family, friends and colleagues, I want you to help me out too!) One of the favourite conversation topics is poorly designed development projects. While it’s fun to bash these projects, it’s harder to design good ones. I’d like to use this opportunity to seek out feedback on our team’s next move in public sector agricultural development.

This is an experiment! The plan is to outline our team’s strategy development process and the various investment opportunities we have, then seek external feedback on where we can invest and how we can play a bigger role in the agric sector. I have no idea if this experiment will work out, but I think it will be interesting to try! In order to work, it relies on a few success factors:

  • lots of readers – so please share widely so we can ask for widespread feedback!
  • feedback from within and outside the sector – if you know people in the agric development sector, send them this way. If you know smart people who would just be interested in providing feedback, please also send them this way!
  • sustained readership – unfortunately there is a lot of info, so it’ll be going up in a series of posts – you gotta keep reading to get to the meat! We’ll see whether people can hang in this long.
  • understandable posts – we’re looking for feedback on whether you have any idea what we’re talking about… so let us know!

As I wrote in a previous post, our team is currently undergoing a rigorous strategy development process. Thanks to Ben‘s personal interest in the tech start-up world, we’re trying something very new: applying start-up business principles to our strategy development. For a bit of background on why we’re applying these principles, see Ben’s earlier post, Tech start-ups and human development: different worlds?. Ben will introduce you to the tech-world language, but it basically advocates a Searcher rather than a Planner mentality – figuring out what people want before scaling it to a broad level.

Ben will be writing a series of blog posts in the next few weeks describing our process, model and some of the initiatives we’re looking to invest in. I’ll post links here on my blog, but please comment over on his blog – we’re hoping to get tons of feedback and discussions going!

So, without further ado, I will guide you to the first post over on Ben’s blog: Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks. Enjoy!

Evaluating Complexity

Warning for my non-development-worker readers: this post is a bit technical. But I hope I’ve explained everything clearly, and please ask questions if I haven’t! I would love to hear some new perspectives on this topic.

Also, I started writing this post a few months ago, when two big themes in the aid blogosphere were complexity and impact evaluation. People seem to be writing about this a bit less these days, but they’re still important topics (and we don’t have any clear answers) so it’s my turn to weigh in!

Where does all the money go?

So what is impact evaluation? This is the attempt to use rigorous methods to understand what actually works, or has impact, in aid and development. Of course there is no “silver bullet” solution to global poverty, but which interventions are more effective than others? Which things have no impact at all, or a negative impact? Ultimately, rigorous impact evaluation should lead funders and policy-makers to direct funds towards interventions which are most effective and reliable in improving people’s lives.

There is a huge push right now to “show what works” in foreign aid. Citizens are seeing that the Western world has spent trillions of dollars on foreign aid in the past 50 years, yet global inequality is worse than ever before. Of course progress has been made, but have the results justified the spending? Citizens want accountability from their governments, and proof that their hard-earned tax dollars are actually having a positive impact on the lives of those they are targeting in the developing world.

Many agree that the most rigorous form of impact evaluation today is the Randomized Control Trial (RCT). This technique takes a statistically significant sample size and randomizes selection into two groups: control and treatment. The treatment group receives a development intervention, such as crop insurance, or microcredit, or whatever you are trying to test, while the control group receives nothing. Both groups are evaluated over the course of the study (usually 1-5 years) and the results come out somewhere along the spectrum of “yes this works” (how?) to “this has no effect”. Sometimes it’s inconclusive, or the results are not easily generalizable, or there is further research to be done, but RCTs are generally considered the gold standard in evaluating development interventions.

There is a lot of controversy around RCTs because of the high cost and time involved. These studies are not appropriate in all cases. They shouldn’t be used by organizations looking to evaluate past programs, or smallscale projects looking for continued funding. Instead, RCTs should be used to inform development and foreign policy on a large scale. Citizens giving foreign aid want to know, for a fact, which development interventions are the best bang for their buck – and RCTs should, in theory, be able to tell them.

Inside the black box

The second trend these days in the blogosphere is complexity, or complex adaptive systems. Aid on the Edge of Chaos has a good round-up on complexity posts. The bottom line here is that in a complex system, results are unpredictable. The system is not static, or linear, or deterministic; it evolves over time, adapting and growing based on both internal and external influences. When dealing with a complex system, you need to take a “systems approach” by monitoring the whole rather than the individual pieces.

What does this mean for development? Well, people and communities and indeed the world are all complex systems. It is hard to predict when something will change, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of revolutions across the Middle East. From this perspective, it is hard to ever know which development interventions will achieve the results we want.

Most development interventions are designed around something like an impact chain – what will you do, and what results will it produce? However, complexity theory tells us that we should monitor a system generally for results, not just for our predicted or desired results. There are often unintended results of our actions, sometimes negative and sometimes positive. In addition, it can be hard to attribute positive changes to our particular intervention in a complex system – so much is happening at once and there are so many stimuli to the system, you never really know where something originated. This also poses problems when we’re discussing replicability of development interventions – just because something worked once in a particular set of circumstances, doesn’t mean it will work again in a different setting.

So what does it all add up to?

Impact evaluation and complexity. Now it’s time to bring these two concepts together. The big question here is this: Can we understand “what works” in enough detail to be able to predict future results of our interventions?

My answer is yes, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. In the past, evaluation has usually focused on the question “what intervention worked?” where the answer is “fertilizer subsidies” or “school feeding programs”. I think we need to start looking more at HOW things work. Instead of looking for programs that we can replicate across entire regions, we should be asking, “what worked?”, “under what conditions?” and “with what approach?” which give answers more like “foster innovation”, “promote local ownership” and “give people a choice”. These conditions may be found across many different areas, but may have more of an effect on the success of an intiative than the WHAT of the initiative itself.

I generally support rigorous impact evaluation for 2 reasons:

  1. fostering a culture of accountability to donors and stakeholders (and taxpayers);
  2. foster learning so that we understand conditions for success and can set projects up for success in the future.

I think the aid industry has learned (and can learn even more) something about what works, or probably more about what doesn’t work. I also think aid can’t be prescriptive since human beings are complex and our behaviour is irrational and unpredictable. But we can set conditions for success when designing our interventions. And while the results may not be wholly predictable, at least the intervention will be more likely to succeed.

What does this look like in practice?

We are currently in the process of team transition and strategy re-development. Here are a few principles I’m looking to follow with our team strategy as we go forward:

  • always have a portfolio of initiatives on the go (don’t put all your eggs in one basket)
  • make sure these initiatives all contribute toward the bigger change we’re trying to make in the agric sector
  • range of timescales: short-, medium- and long-term changes, informing and building on each other
  • constant learning and iteration: testing, getting feedback, adapting, and testing again
  • focus on articulation of our observations and learning to external audiences
  • high awareness of the system as a whole: what does it look like? where are the strongest influences? the most volatile players? who exerts the most force on the system?

What principles would you add to my list?

Development Digest – 18/03/11

Here’s your weekly development digest – enjoy!

Note: This week EWB is featuring a campaign to encourage Canada to sign onto the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Find out more about the campaign and add your voice here:

If you only have time to read 5 articles, read the ones with the *star*.


Japan news:

*Japan increases nuclear alert level –
The nuclear risk merits actions, but not global shutdowns –
‘Fukushima 50’ risking their lives to try to prevent meltdown –
Sticking together in a crisis –
Does Japan need your donation? –
RELATED: Why waiting to give to Japan is a good idea –
*RELATED: Well-meaning gestures that create more problems than they solve –
Thomas Homer-Dixon: Our Fukushima Moment –
Articles related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan –

Global news:

Transition in Egypt: the challenges of going beyond a democratic facade –
*UN body authorizes military intervention in Libya –
RELATED: Military intervention in Libya may already be irrelevant –
Big trouble in little Bahrain –
Map: protests spread in Middle East –
Abbas won’t run for re-election, offers to visit Gaza –
UAE to hold second ever election in September –
Airbus faces manslaughter charges –
Spy Games –
As crisis unfolds around him, Obama seems curiously unengaged –
Deadly US strike in Pakistan kills 38 civilians –

Africa news:

Protests in Burkina Faso –
Plumbing grey data for clear water –
The extended family: blessing or burden? –
*Cote D’Ivoire: Paradise lost –
Horrors in Ivory Coast –
Oumarou accepts defeat in Niger presidential vote –

Ghana news:

Five million Ghanaians practice open defecation –
Ghana prepares bill on local content in oil and gas industry –
Ghana’s Jubilee Oil field to produce 120,000 barrels daily by July –

Canada news:

Canada to give Egypt $11M for democratic change –
CF-18 jets to help enforce Libya no-fly zone –
*How a wild week ahead could bring election –
Harper government to be found in contempt: could trigger election call –
Gay rights referenced in new citizenship guide –

Agriculture news:

Ivory Coast cocoa embargo hurting smallscale farmers –
Agricultural policy is gender policy –
Sustainable intensification of agriculture in Africa –
Strombo named WFP ambassador –
RELATED: celebrities recruited to raise awareness of world agriculture crisis –

Development thinking:

Be CAREful when donating –
The ugly game of relief for Japan –
What do poor people want? –
Aid: good intentions are not enough –
8 uses for social media in aid work –
Google’s quest to build a better boss –
RELATED:Being a good boss vs. being a great social entrepreneur –
Aid delivery: cash, cheques and credibility –
HBR: Failure is failure –

EWB blog posts:

Ben: Friday Flims series (Ben is posting 1 film – or “flim” as they say in Ghana – every Friday for 10 weeks) –
Untapped Markets: Why is the inputs sector a lever for change? –
Untapped Markets: Whose business is it really? –
Genevieve: When the curtain falls –
Anthony: Hidden in plain sight –
Joanne: A troubled kid –
Genevieve: The things we take for granted –
Duncan: Water Wellness Abroad (links to guest posts) –
Joanne: Zam-servation #1 –
Untapped Markets: So let me get this straight: you work with rich mango farmers? –
Dan B: The 3 R’s –
Colleen: Secondary effects of deceit –


I <3 xkcd –
Responsible travel means “not haggling over wooden beads” –
Reintegration –
Fresh evidence for expanding universe –

Development Digest – 11/03/11

Here’s your weekly development digest – enjoy!

If you only have time to read 5 articles, read the ones with the *star*.


Global news:

*The price of food is at the heart of this wave of revolutions –
RELATED: Bye-bye cheap food, hello turmoil –
Middle East turmoil: protests in Kuwait, governments shuffled in Tunisia, Oman –
Arab social capital is there – it’s young and connected –
Powerful earthquake rocks Japan –

Africa news:

*Growing humanitarian crisis in Côte D’Ivoire –
RELATED: Laurent Gbabo is to blame for the crisis –
Djibouti protests again –
On Libya and “African” mercenaries –
Libyan opposition gains support, Ghaddafi forces bombard oil port –

Special report: Investment in Africa
Part 1: Africa providing greater returns for Western investment –
Part 2: Foreign investors see potential in African agriculture (BONUS quote: “Every fifth African needs at least five hours to get to the nearest market”) –
Part 3: Increased investment rapidly changing Africa’s IT landscape –
Part 4: Investment in infrastructure crucial to Africa’s economic growth –
Part 5: Greater investment in electricity could spark African growth, say analysts –

Ghana news:

Ghanaian teachers get damaged (single) spine (salary) –
Health insurance premiums in Ghana –
Tomato traders, farmers want protocol ratified –

Canada news:

The truth about attack ads: they work –
Agriculture remains a tough sell in the north –
Ottawa rumour mill in overdrive about plan to take down the tories –
Rob Ford’s first 100 days –
House approves generic drug bill meant to help poor countries –
Head count in the House: do you know where your MP is? –

International Women’s Day:

*James Bond on gender equality –
Empower Women to realize the African dream –
Raising the profile of women farmers –
African women writers in pole position for Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Farida Betwei –
The new Egypt: leaving women behind –
Government arrests, beats female protesters as world marks International Women’s Day –

Agriculture news:

Extending the reach (of extension) –
Save climate and double food production with eco-farming –
*RELATED: Sustainable farming can feed the world? –
Insurance service to reduce the risk of subsistence farming –

Development thinking:

Charter Cities: The politically incorrect guide to ending poverty –
*Closing the gap between policymakers and people –
After Action Reviews –
How can better models of change sharpen up our work on development? –
More on failure: #epicfail –
Cutting out the middle men: unconditional cash transfers –
Devex launches initiative to highlight innovation in development –
Would you hire me if I disagreed with you? What if I did it publicly? –
Peace Corps, a program for the 21st century –
COUNTER: Corps Concerns –
The Mauritius Miracle (Joseph Stiglitz) –
Why being up close with poverty can bring positive benefits (or why EWB does village stays) –
Muhammed Yunus and the crisis of microfinance –

EWB blog posts:

Dan B: Dear future self… –
Brian: What’s the good word? –
Mike Klassen: Privilege, Taxi Drivers and Complexity –
Mina: (Not) Soul Shattering –
Anna Hopkins (EWB National Office staff) blogs during her trip to Malawi –
Anthony: How much is a cow? –
Untapped Markets: Market Research: What do farmers really want? –
Untapped Markets: Business based on trust –


Ghana’s change-makers –
BC priest lands snowboarding PhD –
Canadians’ internet usage nearly double the worldwide average –
IPA Liz in Tamale, who many of you know, makes up her own alphabet –
Sage advice on being a development worker –

Development Digest – 04/03/11

Here’s your weekly development digest. Sorry it’s a long one – there’s a lot happening in the world this week! To help you choose what to read, I’m going to *star the ones I think are extra-good – but I still encourage you to read as much as you want!



Global news:

Grameen Bank ordered by Bhangladeshi government to fire Yunus –
RELATED: Fired? Resigned? Fighting it? Not sure… –
US Army files 22 charges against Wikileaks soldier –
NATO-led forces kill 9 Afghan boys –
World Food Prices reach record high –

Revolution news:

Protests in North Korea –
Threat of civil war looms in Yemen –
Bahrain, Oman protesters call for change –

*Democracy’s always awkward march –
As freedom blooms in the east it’s withering in the west –
Is 2011 another 1989? –
*How will the Arab Spring reshape the Middle East? –

Libya/Tunisia news:

Civil war in Libya? –
Recruiting now for new offensive against Gaddafi –
Tunisians know Ben Ali was not democracy’s only block –
*At a tense border crossing, a systematic effort to keep black Africans out –
RELATED: Photos from the border crossing –,0

Africa news:

*Wired for Freedom in Africa (article by Ghana’s VP) –
Libyan unrest shaking Mugabe’s tree –
West African discuss conflicts between pastoralists and settler/farmer communities –
Ghana oil money to start flowing –

Ivory Coast news:

Ivory Coast heading back toward civil war? –
UN Inspectors attacked as Ivory Coast heads toward civil war –
*President cuts off power and water to the north –

Canada news:

*Rob Ford is an idiot (ok that’s not the actual title of the article – I paraphrased) –
Christy Clark is BC’s new premier –
*Michael Ignatieff: Tough guy with a vision –
End the Silence on Aid ––end-the-silence-on-aid?sms_ss=twitter&at_xt=4d6e5aecaf332a61,0
*Time for transparency in our foreign aid (op-ed by EWB’s James Haga) –
Canada should bring poor countries to the food aid table –
RELATED: Eyes on London for Global Food Aid –
Canada readies for bigger military role in North Africa –
*RELATED: How to intervene in Libya? –

Agriculture news:

Why Monsanto’s GM seeds are undemocratic –
*Fertilizer subsidies (bonus: includes the word “heterogeneity”) –
Farm Radio –

*Economist Special Report “The Future of Food” – a series on world food, check out all the links! I liked the one below:
A Prospect of Plenty –
Commentary on the Economist report by Oxfam’s Duncan Green –

Development thinking:

*The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator –
Real Conservatives Don’t Slash Aid –
Does Gates Foundation funding of media taint objectivity? –
India is trying out Cash Transfers – (read about the concept here: )
International Aid Transparency Initiative signatories agree on aid data standard –
Aid Data Transparency thoughts –
*Changes… –
Leading Thinkers? –
Charity:Water jigs its messaging –
RELATED: And people approve! –

APS blog posts:

Ben B: Me talking about failure and aid –
Mike Klassen: Smiles and Systems –
Mark B: On Zambia and Ghana: Part 1 –
Geneviève: The Missing Keys: Education and Leadership –
Geneviève: Waste Land –
Dan B: Common question but no easy answer –
Untapped Markets (AVC blog): Location, location, location –


*The exponential power of public squares –
An Old City (Dispatches From Jerusalem) –
How the TED Fellows program develops leaders –
The Aspiring Dictator’s Guide –
Great video from Peace Dividend Trust –
*Hi-larious video (“I will design a community-driven intervention, and you can agree with it”) –

One Year Anniversary

I posted this on Twitter, but wanted to quickly put it up here on my blog. Some short reflections in the middle of an extremely busy week. (By the way, you can follow me on Twitter @erinantcliffe if you so desire.)


One year ago today I arrived in Ghana to start my 1 year EWB placement.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year:

  1. One year is long enough for personal impact, but not long enough for systemic change (though you can contribute to long-term change).
  2. I’ve learned a lot in the past year about Ghana, agriculture and the government, but I’ve learned even more about myself. (Duh!)
  3. There are a lot of frustrating problems in this sector & lots of barriers to change, but also a LOT of people trying to make change!
  4. This is exciting, inspiring, challenging and growth-inducing work. I said it before, & I’ll say it again… I love working for EWB!!

Now my 1-year EWB placement has become 3 years, and I’m moving from contributing on the ground to a higher-level management position. The work is changing, I’m changing, but my passion stays the same. Here’s to learning as much in the next 2 years as I did in the first, and to making even more change!


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