This is the story of two projects, one MoFA office and a case of bad coordination.
In early 2010, a prominent project came to my office, the Tamale Metropolitan office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. One of the project’s aims was to provide training and inputs to farmers in a bid to increase production (this is a VERY common project design in northern Ghana). They wanted to enlist the help of our Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) to carry out the implementation, in exchange for a small sum (also very common). The first step was to form groups of 50 farmers, each with one acre of land to contribute toward the project.
But it was not enough to just identify the farmers and their land. Like every project, this one was required to communicate their progress back to their funders in the West. As part of their monitoring, they had to send back a GPS map showing the location of every piece of land that was part of the project. That is 50 one-acre farms per farmer group, with anywhere from 1-3 groups per AEA, for 20 AEAs. That’s about 2000 individual one-acre farms, all shown on a GPS map.
And who do you think had to do that mapping, to go out into the field and walk around the perimeter of each farm with a GPS unit in hand? That’s right, the MoFA AEAs.
With only two GPS units in the office, this mapping procedure dragged on for months. Some AEAs only took half the data, while some managed to avoid doing it altogether. But eventually, the project kicked some butt and all the AEAs finished the mapping. Hours and hours of fieldwork, all to send a progress report to a donor in the West who probably won’t even look at the map.
Later in 2010, another project came to visit my MoFA office. This project was focused more on market linkages than training farmers. They were aiming to develop a database containing information for marketers – farmers’ names, contact info, location, main commodities, volumes, etc. They were looking for some sample data to populate their database and they had selected the 50-person farmer groups set up by the first project to use as the sample data.
One of the pieces of data required for the database was the GPS coordinates of the farms. The project brought one GPS unit and asked the AEAs to go around to each farm and mark it on the GPS. Of course they would provide a small sum for this work to be done.
No one protested. They took the money and did the EXACT SAME WORK ALL OVER AGAIN.
During the time taken to collect GPS data, whether for donors or marketers, the AEAs were not fulfilling their core role as extension agents. Their time was taken up by projects, away from solving farmers’ problems, away from responding to farmers’ needs and away from delivering agricultural information. The AEAs were used as information-gathering tools, rather than a means to actually reach out to farmers. And this was not just one day – this was weeks and weeks of work. You can imagine my frustration at finding out that this was done not once, but twice in the same year.
The development industry is a funny thing. Here in Tamale, several NGOs exist solely for the purpose of bidding on and implementing donor projects. They don’t have one specific mission, they don’t do their own project design, and they aren’t particularly discerning in the types of projects they bid on. They’re in it for the money.
So what’s the kicker in this story? These two projects were implemented by the EXACT SAME NGO. The project staff sat next to each other in the same office, but never talked enough to know that they were collecting the same GPS data.
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:
- fostering a culture of accountability to donors and stakeholders (and taxpayers);
- 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?
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!
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.
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!
This is a quick post to share with you some recent materials put together by EWB’s National Office in Toronto.
The first item is a GREAT article in the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) publication, Engineering Dimensions. You can access the link here – jump to page 40 and check it out! (Nice work Allison!)
The second is a video that was recently produced about our Agric team in Ghana (that’s my team!). I mentioned AAB in my last post – there are some more details here.
Below is a stack of newspapers that can be found in the corner of the MoFA office here in Tamale.
Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “whoa that’s a lot of newspapers! Why would anyone keep that many newspapers? Don’t they fade and disintegrate and collect dirt and dust, sitting in the corner like that? And they take up so much space!” (Isn’t it creepy how I can read your exact thoughts?)
Well, that’s exactly what I thought when I saw them. So I did what I always do: I asked the Keeper of Office Knowledge (ie. the secretary). And the response?
MoFA pays for each district office to have a newspaper subscription. When the Auditor comes each year, he needs to see all the assets in the office that are paid for with MoFA money – including these newspapers. If the Auditor asks to see a paper and you can’t produce one, it is assumed that it has been stolen, and rumours will start about corruption and misuse of public funds. So instead, the newspaper stack grows higher daily as proof that they aren’t being turned into toilet paper or fuel for fires.
The Northern Regional office of MoFA has a pile of old, broken chairs in the corner of the conference room. Why? Same reason – they’re MoFA assets, so they can’t be thrown out or people will suspect they’ve been stolen. Instead, we all get to stare at the mass of mangled wooden legs and ripped plastic every time we have a meeting.
Now, I understand the reason for this policy: misuse of public funds is a huge problem in many African countries. It’s a slippery slope and there must be sufficient measures in place to ensure civil servants aren’t using public money for their own benefit. But isn’t this a little extreme? These people are educated, responsible and driven to make change for their country and its people. Can’t we let them throw away broken and used goods? Can’t we let them run their offices in an efficient manner? Can’t we let them direct their own funds and determine which projects are most beneficial for their districts? Can’t we trust them, just a little??
This is the core issue behind decentralization. Decentralization is supposed to take responsibility and decision-making power from the “centre” and distribute it to the “decentralized departments”, such as the MoFA district offices. Theoretically, a MoFA district should be able to manage and allocate their own funds based on specific challenges seen in their own district. This should result in more appropriate spending and decision-making in line with local contexts. Through increased ownership and responsibility over district funds and projects, staff should also take more ownership of success when it comes. This “should” be great.
Ghana has been talking about decentralization for years. But as the stack of newspapers above shows us, there’s a long way to go. It’s a long, slow, painful process to build up the capacity of district staff to manage their own funds and make smart decisions that will benefit their districts. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also a long, slow, painful process for those at the top to concede some of their power and trust their employees.
I have met several amazing Ghanaian leaders who are working hard for their country and its people, but whose hands are tied by bureaucracy and centralized power. These people are talented, resourceful and driven. They are doing the best they can, one date at a time. But in the end, I can’t wait for the day when they are allowed to truly lead their districts!