Sunday, December 23, 2007


To follow up a bit of a heavy post, this post is light and fluffy and full of feel-good pictures!

Christmas is around the corner and as you prepare to celebrate a Canadian Christmas I want to share some celebrations that I have been able to experience.

First, National Farmers Day, Christmas for MoFA! (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, my partner organisation). For the past two months, that’s all MoFA staff have been talking about and working on – National Farmers Day is a BIG DEAL! A chance to celebrate farming and the farmers whose hard work allows the country to eat.

A big banner overhangs the local and regional government heads who attended this celebration on Dec 7th.

During the event, I volunteered my services as multi-media person. I spent the day holding my camera within one foot of diplomats giving speeches on farming and shooting exuberant farmers who were awarded bicycles and other farming toys for their hard work.

Most innovative farmer next to his prizes (isn't his hat great!?!)

The day also felt special because all of us MoFA workers were dressed up in MoFA stenciled clothing. Here you see Trevor and I dressed up with Nina (an EWB volunteer who was visiting from Zambia)

The second celebration of the month took place in Burkina Faso. The 7 of us EWB volunteers who are currently working in Ghana took the 17 hour bus trip to a city in Burkina Faso (Bobo-Diolasso). There we spent three days “retreating” from some of the everyday challenges of working in a developing country and connecting with our French speaking friends volunteering north of the border. Two days of the retreat were dedicated to some fantastic workshop-style sessions while the middle day was all about being a tourist.

Below you see us celebrating…well I think we are celebrating being strong enough to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and for the small successes we have achieved in with our development partner organisations. This may sound cheesy but it’s very important to celebrate the small successes in a world where attribution for results is difficult (everyone wants to take credit for results so they get more money!) and big dreams can’t be realized in a day and even during a year-long overseas placement.

Despite a difficult growing season, this year farmers are still celebrating – babies are born and this new life is celebrated, chiefs are sworn in as their predecessors pass on, and harvests that are healthy and abundant are hard to come by so aren’t taken for granted!

My friend, Alaji of Sanguli village celebrates his healthy rice harvest.

So December has been full of celebrations! To my family and friends whom I’m sorry I won’t be celebrating the holidays with you, I hope you too take the time to celebrate.

Top Down or Bottom Up

To implement a project that is designed from the 50th floor of a building in Rome, a program that is the brainchild of the top academics and development leaders, or to implement a program that doesn’t really have a grand master scheme but is one idea from one community member with minimal resources and training?

The current hot debate in development seems to focus around the conundrum of developing a program that can address the numerous numbers living in poverty complimented with locally appropriate and sustainable projects. “Can demands for generalizable actions be reconciled with location- specific solutions?” - asked simply in The Critical Villager, a fantastic book by Eric Dudley.

Well, what do you think?

I get excited when I read a proposal for a development project. For example, IFAD (the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development) has proposed a project for Northern Ghana. The rhetoric for the project promises sustainable economic growth for the agriculture sector in Northern Ghana, growth that will not leave the poor behind but allow them to drive it! Wow, that’s super fantastic! From my minimal development experience, the project proposal is actually quite impressive and seems to be innovative and holistic in approach – a rare combination!

Now to actually achieve this good thing this project is planning to work with MoFA (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, my partner organisation) so I will be able to see and maybe even influence how this project rhetoric is turned into results.

Trying to put development into boxes

On the other side of the coin, I get slightly nervous when I hear of someone who has donated directly to get someone in school or given fertilizer to help a farmer plant more this season. These actions are surely bleeding-heart responses that give immediate gratification. But what about the project plan? How will these interventions be measured? What’s to say these resources couldn’t have been given to a project that will in theory have a broader and more lasting impact?

At this very moment I am sitting in an internet cafĂ© with a new friend Dan. We are creating a blog that will let the Western world know about his idea for a development project ( Or rather, his solutions to a situation that he’s seeing in his own community. So while I continue to support his small-scale development project, I still continue to ask: “If we’ve been doing this development thingy for half a century, how come we can’t seem to make things work?”

Dan's best guess - get a girl of 14 years in school (Suraya)

I’ve come across several community leaders finding small-scale solutions but we run away from those since they are perhaps not “sustainable” or “scalable”…it’s almost like the development industry is too good for that kind of work. We prefer to have frameworks and figure everything out before we jump in and try things (sound familiar to those of you who are engineers?).

Iterations of “best guesses” is so not the way to do things, or is it? I’m starting to think so. So while I grapple with my engineering instinct that tells me to figure things out, put boxes around it and analyze everything before beginning, I recognize that small ideas are popping up in front of me almost daily. And to let those go by seems wrong (and I don’t think I’m just listening to my heart).

In an ideal world, community-based interventions that are participatory and big thinker programs can be harmonious components of effective aid. For starters, big thinkers can try harder to put themselves in the shoes (or bare-feet) of the beneficiaries. Secondly, field workers can try harder to inform to the big thinkers and funders of development aid that the aid process should follow the development process more closely by accepting the complex and dynamic nature of people’s lives and the need for iterations of community-based interventions. But don’t get me wrong, these are not my “solutions” to all the problems of international development, just best guesses from my perspective.

Dan and Sarah. My perspective on development is being shaped from inside his family's compound.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Going beyond the party line

This post was initiated by my Grandpa who expressed gratitude at me sharing my cultural experiences via blog post, but still wasn’t clear on the purpose of EWB overseas (or at least of my placement aside from an amazing cultural exchange). Caution – the following post contains more questions than answers, for those who enjoy in putting a box around the “final” answer do not continue reading; for the rest please enjoy some controversy and feel free to share your love or discontent with the ideas I share below. The “party line” for my placement is in the header of my blog: “I work for small-scale farmers in Northern Ghana through a partnership with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) in Ghana.”

Me working for a small-scale farmer by watering his tomato garden.

But what does this mean?

In order to try and figure this out I have embarked on a 2 month learning tour. I am learning how incredibly complex, diverse and locally specific the lives of small-scale farmers (and their families) is! It has been particularly challenging as white people typically get exposure to the best farmers (see all October posts for some examples of "best farmers").

I am starting to discover why some farmers adopt a business-like mentality towards their farm while the majority of farmers take low-risk decisions that keep them farming for subsistence. Is it really just a matter of the educated vs. the uneducated? The entrepreneurial vs. the common majority? What other common indicators set these farmers apart? Am I just doing the classic outsider thing of simplifying the situation too much? At some point simplification of this incredibly complex and dynamic situation is required to move forward, to communicate my ideas to others and to ultimately do something. How can I find that balance?

I am also learning about the ways that MoFA tries to help these small-scale farmers develop their livelihood to something more secure, more profitable and ultimately something that provides a better life for their children. The ideas and what actually happen on the ground are often quite different (micro-credit loans have a repayment rate of less than 40% and the productivity of farmer’s fields hasn’t increased in the last 5 years despite countless interactions between farmers and MoFA field workers)…Accountability for projects flows upwards to the donor instead of downwards to the beneficiaries…Grandioso development projects are planned nationally or internationally with great rhetoric but lack the understanding of the realities surrounding implementation and consequently expectations of field workers are sky-high while resources fall short. How can I, as an eager outsider make my mark in this mess of development?

I have been worrying about this through-out my 2 month learning tour – until last week when I visited a fellow EWB volunteer Sarah Lewis. She is also working with MoFA but in a different region and has got a 6 month head start on me. I believe she has started something very exciting, something that will hopefully transform the way MoFA works and has already touched the lives of 9 farmers.

Last Thursday I was privileged to accompany Sarah Lewis and her co-worker a MoFA field worker (Lawrence) on a trip to visit a beautiful vegetable garden and meet the people who were tending to it. Every year these farmers work together to grow vegetables during the dry season. It’s a risky undertaking because once the veges are ripe and ready to be sold they need to be sold asap and at whatever price the market is offering! Veges also seem to be more prone to pests and diseases than other crops. But if all goes well, vegetable gardening can pay off and can provide a supplementary income during the difficult dry season.

Lawarence, Sarah Lewis and a farmer inspect the onion crop.

The farmers Sarah and Lawrence were working with had doubled the area they planted, thanks to Sarah’s and Lawrence’s support of fertilizer and labour to dig the wells for irrigation. Initially I was shocked to learn that Sarah had provided inputs! EWB is supposed to be a capacity building organisation, not a donor organisation! But I’ve also seen that one place where development projects fail is they fail to consider to equal importance of financial and technical assistance. I’ve seen development projects whose solution to a lack of acceptable results is to crank up the resources, like the Ghanaian analogy of applying more fertilizer on a poorly planted crop it’s basically a waste of money! Others look to provide only training or capacity building, for example: informing resource-poor farmers about the negative impacts of poor natural resource management only means farmers get the free soft-drink and crackers provided during the training!)

So enough ranting, as this is just the extreme of two approaches. What’s exciting about Sarah Lewis’ approach is that she and Lawrence are finding local solutions to help these 9 farmers. Grand plans are confined to these 9 farmers. Everyone is learning as they go along, Sarah, EWB, Lawrence and these 9 farmers. I’m not sure how scalable or sustainable her approach is, or what the development industry would make of it, but I do know that already these 9 farmers stand a better chance of yielding at least twice as many vegetables as they did last year. I consider that one small victory for farmers, MoFA and EWB among this mess of development.

Beautiful onion crop