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.
A friend recently wrote me an email in response to my appeal for funds with EWB’s Challenging Perspectives campaign. He identified an inner conflict: he felt he should donate out of obligation to our friendship and feared that he would be ostracized if he didn’t, but was having trouble personally connecting with my work in Ghana. To donate, he felt that he should really believe in the work that EWB is doing (and I’m doing, through EWB) and be able to get behind it 100%. I most definitely agree!
This is exactly the kind of conversation I want to start with my Challenging Perspectives campaign. Why do we feel obligated to donate to charities when we really know little about what they do? How can charities make people FEEL something and personally connect people to their work? It’s a struggle on both sides.
In response to this email, I wrote back answering 3 questions:
- Why am I here?
- How am I feeling about it?
- What am I working towards?
Below is the email I sent back to my friend. I hope it answered these questions for him, and I hope it will for you too. Either way, leave a comment and let me know what you think!
1. I’m here because:
- I feel fortunate to have been born to an affluent family in a developed country and hate that it means I have so many more opportunities for happiness and success than so many other people in the world – I want to work to decrease global economic and “opportunity” disparity
- I feel guilty about being born in Canada and feel I have a responsibility to help others
- I believe we live in a globalized world where we’re all connected and will have deep impacts on how others live, whether through our consumer habits, environmental practices or political policies
- I think change IS possible in developing countries, specifically in Ghana from having spent time here, and I want to help create that change
- This is a pretty cool job that gives me good professional experience and is developing a lot of skills that I value (management, leadership, critical thinking, communication, etc.)
2. How I feel:
- Frustrated that change happens so slowly
- Unmotivated by some circumstances in Ghana (sexism, racism, kids not going to school, etc.) and some of the people I work with
- Incredibly motivated by some of the other people I work with (one of whom is an AEA who is hopefully coming to the EWB conference in January!)
- Love for my EWB teammates and lucky that I get to work with such cool people
- Hopeful that we are making some incremental changes and the pace of change is increasing as we gain experience and credibility
3. What I want to have happen:
- MoFA does a better job of serving poor farmers in Ghana, which is 80% of the population in the north. This means helping farmers to improve their farming techniques and help people to see farming as a business instead of a way of life (a lot of people are like “my grandfather farmed, my father farmed, I farm but I don’t have a job” – it’s not seen as a viable “career” to be a farmer, even though you can get rich if you have a good commercial business plan!). This will require MoFA to have excellent extension staff that go around and visit farmers to help them manage this mindset shift. MoFA is a government institution, so it is here to stay, and it already has a wide network of field staff in place, making it a great partner to work with if we want to reach a high number of Ghanaian farmers. But there are a lot of reasons right now why MoFA isn’t doing the best it can for farmers.
- MoFA is slowly becoming decentralized (which is good), meaning each district will get to choose their own work, manage their own budget, decide which development projects are best-suited to farmers in their district, hire the best staff and fire the worst, define their own culture. Right now it’s the opposite: everything is decided at the national level and pushed down to districts, which often means projects are ill-suited to the local conditions or won’t benefit farmers, implementation is poor, there are not enough resources to do everything that’s asked of the district staff, there is low motivation and low ownership over work.
- In order for decentralization to happen, MoFA needs to have technical, managerial and operational capacity. They’re pretty good at the technical capacity (knowing technical stuff about agriculture to spread to farmers, like research findings, new technologies, improved seeds and fertilizers, etc.). This is mostly what they learn in school (“agric college”) and what MoFA has traditionally focused on. They are less good at the managerial and operational capacities.
- I want EWB to help improve these capacities through developing managers (lots of ways to do this – management training, fellowships like the one I talk about in my Perspective, one-on-one coaching, sharing management resources, etc.) and developing operational capacity (improved supervision, budget management, work planning, scheduling, staff motivation, computer and reporting skills, culture of learning from experience, etc.). These are things that EWB is already good at and we have a clear value-add to districts.
- The challenge in all this is developing initiatives that work for one district (specific) but can be scaled to many districts (general). There are lots of questions here: are we satisfied with just helping a few districts, one at a time? or do we want to achieve wide-scale change? Is it possible to create this scaled change without reducing the quality of what we’re doing? What other mechanisms already exist that we can use to scale these ideas?
Our team is in the middle of a visioning/strategy design process so a lot of questions will be answered in the next month about what we’re working toward more specifically. We’ve recently had a bunch of people leave the team and we’re small now (only 5), so we need to re-tune our ambitions to what we can realistically accomplish with these resources. That said, we’re asking for 3 more volunteers to be added to our team in March so we can get more manpower to enact our vision.
And that’s where your donation comes in. Seriously, it’s all about the money. Without money – most of which comes from donations at EWB, since we have a hard cap on what % of our budget we’ll take from CIDA so we can remain independent and advocate against the Canadian government when necessary – we can’t realize these changes. We’re a pretty small organization in terms of number of staff in Africa, but we’re punching above our weight in terms of influencing higher-up development big-wigs. This is happening in Canada too, with awesome stuff happening lately with advocacy and CIDA. I am often critical of things EWB does, but I’m happy that it’s encouraged in the organization’s culture to be critical. That’s how we try to do the right things.
Anyway, I obviously believe this is an organization that’s headed in the right direction and making some much-needed changes on the ground. And if I’ve convinced you that’s true, then I would love for you to donate!
But no pressure. SERIOUSLY. Don’t donate because you are my friend, or my parents’ friend, or because I keep emailing you, or because other people have donated. Donate because you believe this work is important, change is needed and EWB is doing it well.
P.S. A small update on my Challenging Perspectives campaign: I’m currently in first place for the most funds raised! I’ve raised $2105 out of my goal of $5000, thanks to everyone who’s donated so far. So if you haven’t donated yet and you connect with what I’m doing here, please consider making a donation to my campaign! https://perspectives.ewb.ca/erinantcliffe
“What does poverty reduction look like? How should it be done? What’s an engineer’s role? You likely have a perspective. So do the people creating pages on this site. They want to challenge your perspective by sharing theirs. They believe in EWB’s systemic approach to addressing the root causes of poverty. Intrigued? Read their perspectives. And if you suddenly see things a little differently, make a donation to EWB.”
This year, EWB is trying a new type of holiday campaign. Instead of focusing solely on donations, they’re challenging peoples’ perspectives. Each EWB member is encouraged to write their perspective and post it online to get people thinking critically about development. If you agree with the perspectives, you are encouraged to donate to EWB.
I’ve written my own perspective and posted it here. I’m also posting it below. Please read it with a critical eye and think about your own opinion. If you agree with me and want to support my work, please visit the donation page here. Even if you can’t donate, please leave a comment and share your own perspective!
Thanks for reading!
It’s 6am in Tamale, Ghana. I’m sitting at the picnic table in my living room, typing on my laptop while the morning prayers from the adjacent mosque blare through my windows. The sounds of roosters and the smells of morning cooking also waft in. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s part of life in Ghana, a country built on agriculture.
Engineers Without Borders Canada has been working in Ghana for over 5 years with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. We believe that the 80% of Ghanaians who are rural farmers can move from subsistence to prosperity.
But the Ministry of Food and Agriculture is a difficult place to work. Funds are insufficient and usually released late, staff is unmotivated, and ownership over problems and successes is low. There is a strong desire to help farmers, but few resources to do so.
Over the past year I’ve had the privilege of leading the DDA Fellowship, a program for District Directors in the Ministry. These Directors lead their field staff to deliver extension services to farmers such as technical support, market information and business training.
The Fellowship brought together eight strong Directors to create an environment of sharing and collective problem-solving, as well as offering management and leadership training. The goal of the Fellowship was to create a strong network of district “Change Champions” that will start taking control of the problems they face in their districts and improving the services offered to farmers.
Last year I participated in EWB’s World of Opportunity campaign. Thanks to so many generous donors, I raised over $6000. This amount is huge for a single fundraiser, but looks small in contrast to EWB’s overall budget. However, this amount allowed us to run important programs like the DDA Fellowship, for which the entire budget was about $3500.
My perspective: your donation makes a real difference.
Dickson Ankuga is the Director for Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo district, a remote district in the Northern Region of Ghana. Dickson is one of the DDAs who took part in EWB’s DDA Fellowship. Over the past 6 months, Dickson has taken control of one of the biggest problems in his district: fertilizer availability. The idea was born during a DDA Fellowship session on learning from data. Using data collection and analysis, Dickson is tracking the supply and demand of fertilizer and noting when shortages occur. With this information in hand, he will be able to get ahead of next year’s shortages by ensuring stock is in place before the demand skyrockets. This will mean that farmers can buy fertilizer when they need it, bumping up their yields and greatly improving district food production.
I’ve been working with EWB in Ghana for 9 months now. Over that time, I’ve seen incredible growth in our team’s strategy, as well as strong results. We’ve worked with Agricultural Colleges to build entrepreneurship into the curriculum. Our short-term volunteers spread out across northern Ghana this summer to implement Agriculture As a Business training for rural farmers. And through it all, we’ve learned from our successes and failures about what works and what doesn’t so that we can continue to improve. None of this would be possible without your support.
I’m here because I believe change is possible. I believe this work matters and I believe that EWB is making a difference. The world of international development is messy, but we are delivering innovative solutions to complex problems and changing the way people think about development. That is why I’ve committed to working for an additional 2 years with EWB in Ghana.
But I need your help. Building strong district leaders is just one example of how EWB uses your donations. In this year’s Challenging Perspectives campaign, all of the funds raised will be channeled to our work in Africa.
So if you believe in supporting organizations that use money wisely, learn from experience, have the ability to work with both farmers and funders, and invest in African leadership, please consider making a donation to EWB. From my perspective here in Ghana, I see the impact of your donations every day.
Click here to donate to EWB’s work in Africa.
Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!
Here is a blog post I wrote last week for our team’s blog, Innovations With Farmers. Check it out regularly to see what we’re up to as a team!
“The Block Farming Program has very good objectives of ensuring food security and employment for youth. However, last year the project was beset by a number of challenges, including the late arrival of inputs such as seed, fertilizer and the like. The late application of these inputs by farmers resulted in substandard yields and low recovery rates of farm produce. This year, it is recommended that all inputs are made available before the commencement of the Block Farming Program with farmers.”
This clear, concise feedback to MoFA National project designers was presented by one of the District Directors from the Northern Region at the most recent session of EWB’s DDA Fellowship. The program, which has now had 2 full-day sessions, brings together 8 of the best MoFA District Directors (DDAs) to learn new management tools, develop leadership skills and share both challenges and successes in their districts. In this session, DDAs were asked to put together feedback on the Block Farming program following a particular framework:
2) State observations
3) State implications of these observations
4) Give recommendations
Districts have a unique on-the-ground experience that is vital to national project design. However, these experiences are rarely solicited, or only solicited as a token gesture without incorporating them into planning processes. In addition, there is no culture of upward feedback that would allow DDAs to voice their experiences even when they aren’t solicited. The culture in MoFA, like many Ghanaian institutions, sees instructions given from the top and implemented at the bottom, missing the critical feedback loop from bottom to top that is essential for success. This results in a significant disconnect between what is going on in the minds of the national project planners and what is really happening in the field. In addition, many of the large agricultural projects (such as the Block Farming Program) are highly political in nature, making it difficult for MoFA staff to speak out against them. One benefit to the DDA Fellowship, identified by the participants, is that they are able to provide feedback as a group rather than as individuals, thereby minimizing their personal risk.
The Block Farming Program is an excellent example of a project that could be greatly improved by incorporating district-level feedback. The project, which seeks to commercialize farming of staple crops while engaging youth in agricultural practices, was rolled out across Ghana in 2009. As mentioned by the DDA above, the project was beset by a number of challenges, including late provision of inputs, lack of mechanized farming equipment (these are commercial-size farms), inadequate funding for monitoring activities and poor storage facilities for harvested produce, among others. In addition, the program resulted in a loss of trust between MoFA and farmers due to the inadequate provision of these resources, which were promised to farmers at the beginning of the program. However, there is no mechanism for districts to share these challenges with the project coordinators at a national level. As a result, the Block Farming Program was lauded as a success for food security and will be scaled up in 2010. As another DDA put it, “the real problem with the expansion of the Block Farming Program is that we have not yet learned from last year’s mistakes!”
The feedback activity above was one of the highlights from the last DDA session. Participants put together clear and concise recommendations for changing the Block Farming Program that were relevant and well-presented. However, what happens when the participants leave the safety of the workshop? We have yet to hear of an example of a DDA providing upward feedback about the Block Farming Program or anything else. We feel that giving this type of feedback is a critical skill for DDAs – but will they use it? What else needs to change for DDAs to start giving this type of feedback to their superiors?
Perhaps the culture change is not yet complete. Simply giving upward feedback is not enough. For this strategy to be effective, two things need to still happen: 1) someone at the top needs to be listening, and 2) the feedback needs to be subsequently incorporated into planning processes so that improvements are made. In this way, the feedback loop will be completed and agricultural projects will be able to benefit from the experience of those on the ground.
Interestingly, this feedback loop could also be seen with DDAs at the top, as it is structured within the District MoFA Offices. In this case the DDA is in charge, followed by the District Agricultural Officers (DAOs), and finally by the Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), who are the ones actually working with farmers on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, DDAs should be soliciting feedback from their AEAs to contribute to District projects and office functioning. However, the hierarchical culture persists in many District offices. Perhaps the true test of EWB’s feedback workshop from the DDA Fellowship will be how many of the DDAs return to their districts and begin to solicit feedback from those working beneath them.
The challenges are significant, but the culture in MoFA is shifting, starting with these high-performing DDAs who are motivated to make change. We will be following up in the next few months to see how they have given feedback and whether they perceive any changes in the way this feedback is handled by MoFA. We will also continue to work on empowering these leaders to create their own successes in their districts. While a few have already demonstrated this ability, they are all growing in their roles as change agents every day. In addition, this program is not operating in isolation – EWB is tackling the issue from all sides. For example, we recently worked with MoFA National to help them integrate a mechanism for receiving feedback into their Electronic Reporting Template, which is filled out by districts every quarter and submitted to the national office. Hopefully this small change in reporting will give DDAs an avenue to provide feedback, and MoFA National will see the value of integrating this feedback into planning for the future.