Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Sacrifice

When I talk to people at home and tell them what I do these days, a lot of them comment on the sacrifice that I’m making. I often think to myself, am I really making a big sacrifice? Yes, I live far from my family and friends, but I live with the guy I love. Yes, I’m not making much money, but I’m not spending much either. Yes, I’m not building my career as an engineer, but was I ever goig to do that anyway? I’m 25 years old, managing a team of 9 people, determining the strategic direction of our work, building credible partnerships and interacting with major players in my industry. In what alternate world could I say all that 2 years after graduation from an undergraduate degree?

The truth is, I’m pretty lucky. This is a sweet job. I love my work, my colleagues, my hometown of Tamale. Of course I miss Canada sometimes, but for now I’m pretty happy where I am. And most importantly, I’m working at a job that is in line with my values, improving the lives of people living in poverty.

I have a lot of colleagues here in Ghana who are with me in the poverty-fighting business. In fact, NGOs are probably the largest industry in Tamale. I have more than a few friends with Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Development Studies in Ghana, and Master’s degrees in development-related studies from universities in Ghana and abroad. They are smart, well-educated and determined to help their fellow countrypeople. So are they making a sacrifice too?

The truth is, being a development worker in Ghana is also a pretty sweet job, in the more conventional sense. The pay is much better than any kind of government work, and tends to be more stable than business. It’s also a pretty safe career choice – in the job market, there are more positions for development workers than many other professions. I would compare the career path of a development worker in Ghana to that of an engineer in Canada in terms of prestige and compensation. In my opinion, these people are not making significant sacrifices in order to pursue their values. In fact, they’re pursuing a pretty stable and lucrative career path. But is this a bad thing?

On one hand, it makes me uncomfortable to see an industry that thrives solely on donated dollars. The basis of this business is people living in poverty; if this disappears, the entire industry disappears. But isn’t that what the industry is trying to do, eliminate poverty? This is a bit of a conflict of interest.

On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful that a career devoted to bettering the lives of others is so highly valued in this society. If I think about those careers back home – social work, non-profit sector, etc. – they aren’t valued nearly as much. Why is it that people who devote their lives to others are seen to be making a sacrifice? And why are they compensated accordingly? Shouldn’t we value more highly those who commit their lives to the service of others?

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10 responses

  1. Erin,
    Yet again, you make me proud to call you friend.
    I think the biggest reason why people might label what you do a sacrifice, is because we are too scared, too stuck, too concerned, too timid to take the leap. We live so close to our shallow end of the pool, even dipping a toe into the deep end prompts people to be impressed. You jumped. Full on. You sacrificed traditional stability.
    I probably wouldn’t have used a word like sacrifice, but I think you have to recognize the courage that it took and takes for your work.
    You raise a great question about the relative value of those helping others. Generally, I’d say it was the bastardization of our ideals, but more likely, it is the marketplace mentality proving that compensation is not why they do the work.
    This a great post. Thanks.
    Cheers,
    Scott

    August 4, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    • Hey Scott,
      Thanks for the comments – and it’s comments like these that also make me proud to call you a friend! I always admire your strong analysis of “the way things are” and the way you want to change them. You have also jumped in the deep end!
      On that note, I’m home in Cambridge for a few days the first week of school, let me know if you want a class visit, or just to grab coffee or something! We should really make something happen with your class this year!
      Talk soon,
      Erin

      August 5, 2011 at 10:08 pm

  2. Min

    Hey Erin,
    Great and honest post! One thing I was just thinking when you started doing developmental digest(which I absolutely love and always look forward to each week) is how much I missed actually reading your writing and now that you’ve written this post, it feels like it is the perfect balance. I am consistently amazed by the work you have done overseas.. and you are right .. being a developmental worker is a sweet job. Whether it pays the huge amount of money that a lot of people identifies as sweet job, or something you really care and are passionate about.

    Keep on doing what you do, keep doing it for Dorothy 🙂

    Min

    August 5, 2011 at 12:30 am

    • Thanks for the comment Min! It’s so nice of you to comment on my writing, and that you’re such a loyal reader. And thanks for the kind words, you are always so complimentary and sincere. I really appreciate it. Thanks for the encouragement, keep in touch!
      Erin

      August 5, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  3. Kate Pejman

    Hey Erin,
    It is a Saturday morning and I have ended up on your blog somehow and I have to say, GREAT POST. My name is Kate Pejman by the way and I was a member of EWB until the End of April, right when I was offered an engineering job here in Canada. I went to Ghana last summer as an intern working for a waste management company (Zoomlion). I remember preparing for my trip and my family and friends were so excited and happy that I was committing some of my time to the world of development. But truthfully, I think if I were to have stayed in Ghana for a longer period of time, they surely would have told me that I was “sacrificing” a lot. But honestly, the way my life made sense to me when I was working in Ghana was worth the “sacrifice”. As a matter of fact, I would sacrifice anything to be able to make that sort of “sacrifice” again. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, it made me think about what sacrifice really means.

    August 6, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    • Thanks for the comment Kate! I’m glad you feel the same way.

      August 7, 2011 at 11:41 am

  4. Great post, and as a development worker myself, I also wonder why we get so well compensated while similar careers ‘back home’ are much less respected… you’ve raised an interesting question. Laura x

    August 9, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    • Interesting question indeed. Thanks for reading!

      August 9, 2011 at 8:10 pm

  5. Amir

    Heyo!

    Great post Erin, and you’ve raised some good points that have been floating around in my head lately. Thanks for the honesty, and I do think this is a really important topic.

    I think the one tantalizing question for me is the age-old one: how can the development industry become more effective, when there is no feedback between performance and compensation? When the ‘customers’ in the more traditional sense are not the ‘donors’ who control the money, but in fact the unheard-from rural communities? I think one of the key aspects of the development sector that hinders it from gaining respect and support the way engineering has here in Canada is its lack of competition. The engineering industry here is competitive, where you are rewarded for success. How can we reward development workers? (what would we even reward? attitudes and approaches? outputs? outcomes?)

    A related question is one of misaligned incentive structures… How can we ensure good, smart people work in the development sector who are focused on the impact, and not just making money? How can we yes, reward people with respectable (and well-deserved) salaries, but keep our eyes on the actual purpose (poverty) of the work? This is a big problem in engineering here in Canada right now. A profession that used to be serving society now attracts people because of its promise of money and stability; consulting companies have propped up everywhere that do shoddy jobs and create work for the sake of producing returns. It’s no longer respectable.. no longer having the kind of impact society needs right now. See the parallels?

    I don’t have an opinion, just those scattered thoughts. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

    Take good care,
    Amir

    August 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    • Wow, lots of great thoughts in there Amir. I don’t have any answers, of course! Though I was thinking while I was writing the post about that incentives bit – how do you reward people for choosing a profession of service, while preventing people who won’t do well and are just in it for the money? I hear you about how this has happened in engineering. Pretty disheartening.
      I think it would be so interesting for EWB (or another org) to re-envision the dev’t sector to be compensated based on feedback from “beneficiaries”. What would this actually look like? How would it work?
      Anyway, thanks for the comment. Super interesting stuff!
      Erin

      August 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm

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