Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Information: What’s It To Ya?

As I near the end of my 3-year contract with EWB, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I know. I’ve spent the past several months transitioning with my successor, Miriam Hird-Younger (who writes this fantastic blog). The transition involves showing her the ropes of the management position, passing off relationships within the sector, giving her gradual responsibility over running the team and emptying my brain of all the little facts and anecdotes I’ve gathered over the past three years about agriculture in Ghana. So, what do I know?

I’ve documented a lot of what I know on this blog: failures in the development sector, what drives performance within the government, how to think about change strategies and more. There are big things, like the on-the-ground realities of multimillion dollar development projects, and small things, like contact information for district directors. But which parts matter? Which parts should I focus on transitioning, and which can I allow to get lost? Which parts will help us achieve the changes we wish to see in the sector, and which are extraneous information? This is what I’ve been pondering.

I’m a big believer in context; I think it’s one of the things that sets EWB staff apart from many other well-meaning development workers. What are projects really accomplishing? How do farmers feel about it? Why are extension agents taking part? What changes do they really want to see? What actually spurs behaviour change among farmers or government workers? We take the time necessary to find out what things are really like on the ground, then use that context to inform our work. It’s both tactical, as it builds our credibility with bigger players in the sector, and strategic, as it allows us to design our strategies in line with ground realities and real forces for change.

So how do we get context? The AgEx team has tried several different ways:

  • village stays (4-7 days)
  • living with farmers (several months)
  • immersion periods (1-2 months, usually with lots of travel)
  • field research (several weeks)
  • immersion in district offices (several months or years)

Each of these different info-gathering methods has a cost. It’s usually not monetary – we never pay more than a few cedis for fuel money – but we cash in some of our social capital, accrued over the past several years of EWB’s work with districts. There is also the opportunity cost to the team, as a staff member spends time gathering information rather than creating change. As I see it, there are three main categories when it comes to cost:

  • extractive – short-term, low-trust relationships, more “Q&A” style – high cost
  • back-and-forth – long-term, high-trust relationships, more “conversation” style – low cost
  • being in the right place at the right time – priceless

As you can see, it costs us more to get information in certain circumstances. So, what are we getting for the price we’re paying?

These different info-gathering methods also get us different types of information. Field research often leads to the “usual” answers. It’s hard to go beyond that without taking advantage of a high-trust relationship, either our own or through an extension agent. Conversely, the longer we stay in one place, whether with a farmer or in a district office, the more we build trust and unlock access to “insider info” and deeper insights.

So what?

These insights are definitely more interesting, and therefore more rewarding to find out. But does this really make a difference to our change strategy? What’s wrong with the usual answers? What types of information are we actually missing that will inform a better strategy, and how will we go about filling these gaps? We need our info-gathering methods to be more tailored to the actual information we seek to gain. And, we need to be willing to pay the cost – it has to be worth it.

But even as I write this, I question what I’m saying. Do we really need to be so targeted? Looking only for certain things, ignoring all the rest? Some of the best stuff I’ve learned has been during “in the right place at the right time” moments, like being part of a district staff meeting, or out on an extension visit unrelated to my direct work objectives. As I said above, I’m a strong believer in context, and I believe it’s what sets EWB apart. But it’s not just good luck. Being conscious of what we can expect from different info-gathering methods will help us tailor our learning opportunities to be in the right place at the right time.

What do you think about the value and cost of information? What experiences or learning have most shaped your work? Was the learning experience carefully crafted, or were you simply in the right place at the right time?

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5 responses

  1. Leah

    Hey Erin!
    I’ve actually been wondering about these trade-offs myself in terms of time spent on targeted learning vs. being in the right place at the right time – but in a totally different context, which is writing my thesis! I’ve found that although it is important to complete that ‘targeted’ learning, some of the most important insights I’ve gained have been from unrelated events that have triggered an insight or a new way of thinking that I otherwise never would have had. So this won’t answer your question directly, but hey maybe this will generate another insight! 😉 I just find in general that the targeted learning is important (of course) for knowledge building, but you need to build in moments of unrelated learning into your ‘plan’ so that you are exposing yourself to new modes of thinking in unexpected ways. If that makes sense. I’ve found both steps to be equally important in terms of idea generation. Best wishes for the next step in your journey 🙂

    February 27, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    • That resonates a lot Leah! Thanks for sharing your experience. Hope the thesis is going well, and hope to see a new application from you soon… 🙂

      February 28, 2013 at 9:04 am

  2. Super interesting!

    I’ve definitely had many ‘in the right place at the right time’ learnings. And actually a lot of AgEx’s strategy with the agricultural colleges stems from a conversation I had with staff while we were hanging around with the lights off around what if the colleges played a bigger role in extension locally?

    But for me, I think these contextual insights are important for not necessarily always being ‘ah ha’ moment, but building my learning, understanding of opportunities, incentives and constraints over time. Little pieces coming together to create the bigger picture. Which has to do with being around for staff meetings, hall way conversations and social time. It means that we can make an effort to tailor our initiatives to not only what we think they should be, but what the reality looks like for our partners on the ground. And that to me is less about a ‘learning period’ and more about positioning and presence.

    A big question for me is how we actually value these learnings in such a way as to appropriately compare them? Erin’s knowledge about MoFA, agric, donor projects, incentives of AEAs and farmers, etc. is inarguably priceless – but how do you place value on how it was achieved in order to compare it to other learning opportunities? And how do you demonstrate how it has impacted your work? How do you understand and communicate the value of the months/years of embedded work as ‘worth it’ in terms of knowledge that enabled you to create change?

    March 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  3. Pingback: 27 Picture Challenge | Unfinished Stories

  4. “the longer we stay in one place, whether with a farmer or in a district office, the more we build trust and unlock access to “insider info” and deeper insights.”— I agree, to build trust takes time and admire EWB for investing in that space. I don’t necessarily think there is ‘insider information’ (seems a bit arrogant to me), and I do think reflection is needed on this about our own position as foreigners, INGO workers, development workers on our own methodologies and then to iterate back on the information gathering and analysis plan.

    At what point are we unable to see things differently? at what point do we get pinned to that context and are unable to see beyond the hidden structures that shape our thinking?

    Also, at what point does this immersion become extractive? and the local people become objects of our research? objects being, we get their ‘insider information’ and use it for ‘development’ as opposed to them ‘developing’ / empowering themselves?

    In terms of value for money, I do not think it will be possible to become an ‘expert’ in an sector, especially on EWB budget and research design. Extension alone is complex, I mean what is extension exactly? what farmers are we working with here…is it worth trying to figure this out to come up with a strategy or should it be narrowed in more…

    Thanks for the post Erin, really got me thinking 🙂 Does

    May 4, 2013 at 2:15 pm

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