Sunday, February 10, 2008

Learning to make aid work

My plea: For as long as we, outsiders, continue to intervene in other’s lives there is an urgent need to learn from our past mistakes.

It is challenging to evaluate development results

For the past few months I have travelled across the northern region of Ghana to meet with farmers and MoFA field staff. The purpose of this often dusty and tiresome yet interesting travel has been to evaluate EWB’s past work with the Ghana Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). It has also turned out to be great way to kick-off my placement – I have gained valuable exposure to inspiring insights into farmer’s lives as well as the frustrating challenges of the development sector.

By mid-December I completed my travels and attempted to write a report which encapsulates my observations and opinions on our past work with MoFA. As I sat down to write the report I began reflecting on a major limitation I faced through-out – how difficult it was to reveal our past mistakes! This limitation isn’t just specific to my situation, it’s a significant barrier that prevents the development sector from playing a stronger role in ending world poverty.

The biggest learning comes from failure

I remember learning how to ride a bike. When I was 7, I decided it was time to remove my training wheels. One summer Saturday afternoon, my dad and I attempted to learn how to ride my new 2-wheeler. It began with my dad supporting the back of the bike until I got enough momentum and he would let go. I would pedal for a few cycles and then bail – too scared to go any further on my own. This continued through-out the afternoon until my dad’s patience wore out and he called it quits.

This left me and my hot pink bike alone. Determined to learn to ride I began to go on my own. This time, my falls were more brutal but each time I fell I got back on my bike and could go a little further. Eventually I made it down the entire block. To my surprise I had learned how to ride and had also learned the important lesson how failure can teach.

“With decades of development assistance and the increasing scale of poverty, it is clear that many development projects fail. The mistake is potentially a vital piece of knowledge which can point to future lines of enquiry and changes of policy.” – Eric Dudley, author of The Critical Villager

Bridge failure - Who knew that this bridge was started in the 60s? At least it is serving a purpose!

The systems of development hide failure instead of learning from it

With private companies, learning is simple. Corporations like McDonalds, that offer fast food to their clients aim to please customers. If clients suddenly stop buying BigMacs then McDonalds sees a decline in revenue and adapts their marketing strategy – they add the McSalad to their menu.

Development agencies get their money not from their customers, in MoFA’s case small-scale farmers, but from international donors such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). So to keep staff employed, MoFA has incentives to keep donors happy while accountability to farmers remains low. Examples of this scary truth are listed below:

Anecdote 1 - Fine china for guests

I’ve just moved to a district office where I learned that all of the field staff will be shifted in the district. The reason? The hard-working field staff will be located in areas that are on the main road, areas that donors typically visit more than the more isolated areas.

Anecdote 2 – Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, keep flattering it

This week I attended a meeting of MoFA managers. There was a riveting discussion about a certain project that encourages farmers to raise ‘grass-cutters’ – grass-cutters are similar to guinea pigs and their meat is highly valued. All MoFA staff admitted the project was a failure, poor cage design, high mortality rate, and most of all farmer’s lacked the interest to engage in the project. Both farmers and MoFA jumped at the chance to engage in this project due more to the offered resources. Due to continuing flow of resources it’s doubtful that the discussion had during the meeting will be shared with those who control the purse strings.

These women and children don't control the purse strings. They are cattle herders from Mali called Fulanis. They are of the most marginalized members of society.

What to do with development?

This week I learned that an organisation will be conducting an evaluation of MoFA. I observed MoFA staff “coaching” their field workers with the answers they should provide to the evaluation staff. I felt frustrated at this system, yet I totally empathise with the MoFA staff, after all who wants to put their career on the line?

I cringe at the thought of a MoFA staff or worse, CIDA reading this blog entry. Yet, for me, I have the freedom of knowing that ramifications would be much less and understanding from the readers more forthcoming.

Power relationships made explicit as I greet the chief during a farmer meeting that has all the feel of a special occasion.

EWB doesn’t provide direct resources to MoFA so incentives to butter us up are greatly diminished. At the same time I am free to provide critical feedback to MoFA and already have. I am thankful our relationship with MoFA is more open and am grateful for the insights that have resulted because of it.

However, I still have a way to go to see the raw version of development because farmers instinctively put me in the same category as resource providing donors. I have tried to get past that with farmers but inevitably end up with a wish list of material items. My most recent visit yielded a lengthy list that includes crutches, solar panels, a tractor, and a motorcycle. Most items requested by the wealthier members of the community. I don’t want to play development Santa. I want to provide well-informed interventions with MoFA that won’t break after boxing-day.

I know that only time, listening and humble efforts to show I’m not above hard-work on the farm and at home will break down the power-relationship between myself and farmers. To all those who have become overwhelmed and jaded by the complexities of development – don’t yet give up, there are challenges but there are also those of us doing our best to learn and make aid work.