Monday, July 14, 2008

Elusive Results

A friend mentioned that when I first arrived in Ghana I was adamant about dressing locally and that lately I’ve developed the habit of wearing jeans matched with a Ghanaian top. My behaviour had changed but I hadn’t noticed it. When I first arrived in Ghana and hopped in a car I instinctively reached for the seat belt. Last week I went on a trip and someone else reminded me to buckle my seat-belt. It sure felt strange to buckle-up!

I spend a lot of time trying to notice and promote behaviour changes in farmers and my colleagues at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). I want to see farmers use more fertilizer on their fields because my calculations show that this most likely bring them more money. I want to see Ghanaians eating only local rice instead of imported rice. I want to see MoFA staff developing the behaviour of assessing the profitability of certain agriculture practices before promoting them to farmers.

Behaviour change is a difficult thing to work on. It’s not exactly an easily understandable activity for me to work on or communicate with friends and family let alone my colleagues at MoFA. Last year, when I worked for a wind energy consulting company the work was much more tangible. We knew we’d succeeded once the wind turbines were up and running, or perhaps once our clients started to reap a profit from their wind farm. This year my work is not easily packaged up and presented as a ‘project’. Because of this results can seem elusive.

Four years ago, I finished my engineering degree and headed to the Philippines to work on a computer literacy project for underprivileged youth. I didn’t really know how good I had it! Below is an email I received this week from a beneficiary of the projects.

Hello EWB! I'm Antonio Barlaan, a SCALA gradute in the Philippines last May 2006 at Misamis Occidental Information and Communication Technology Training Center. Thank you very much to your project because it leads me to school in college. Now I'm a 2nd year student of Misamis University taking Bachelor of Science in Information Technology. Supposedly I'm a 3rd year student but being a working student in the university, I cannot comply with the required units because it has a limitation for the working student. Give my special regard to Sarah Grant and Neha Bangar....thank you very much EWB!


Aside from the challenges behaviour change brings because of it’s intangibleness, it’s a really tough thing to work on! I’ve learned that it’s not simply a matter of ignorance that is preventing people from changing their behaviours (although this is the easiest problem to work on). For example, the government has been warning Ghanaians of Guinea worm, a de-habilitating worm that comes from drinking contaminated water. The government has pulled out all the stops – posters, radio, and TV broadcast the issues of Guinea worm and the simple thing you need to do to prevent it: strain your water through a muslin cloth. Workshops and the provision of muslin cloths from the government have done all but strain the water for families. However, it’s not enough – Guinea worm still persists even as people are aware of the dangers and required change in their behaviour.

A couple Sundays ago I went to the farm with some women from the community. We were after shea nuts, a valuable commodity that grows wild in Northern Ghana. We had walked for nearly an hour. The weight of our harvested shea nuts only seemed to increase as the sun continued to beat on our backs. Finally we stopped by a water hole. The aches and pains we all felt didn't prevent me and my friends from pausing to enjoy the moment.

My friends pause and enjoy some shea fruit. Can you see the sweat on their brows!

After I snapped the picture I realized my friend Mary was missing. I found her down this well fetching some water for drinking. I snapped her but not before silently noting the lucidity of the water. Too bad my friends didn’t speak English or else I could have engaged in a conversation with them about this behaviour. At the same time, I understand why they did it. These women are thirsty, we still had 2 hours of walking ahead of us and 5 hours of work already felt in our bodies.

Mary holds some very cloudy looking water she fetched from this well.

Education is one aspect of promoting behaviour change. It’s not enough to simply understand the costs and benefits of behaviours. It’s a complex web of incentives and disincentives. My work with farmers and MoFA is just one force among this web. For example, do you recycle? If so, what prompted you to start recycling? If not, why did you stop? I’m sure everyone reading this can recite the three R’s and can recognize the recycling symbol. What incentives exist to promote reducing, reusing and recycling? Is there a recycling depot near to your house? Does someone come and collect a box of recycling? Is this a paid service by the city? Are there rumours about the recycling all just going to a land-fill if even one piece is incorrectly placed?

Over the past 10 months I’ve only just started to understand the incentives and disincentives that surround the behaviour changes I’m trying to promote. I’ve started implementing work whose results are still a long way off and are difficult to measure and communicate. I know I certainly won’t ever receive a feel-good email such as I have from Antonio! Even still, I’ve decided to stay with EWB for another 2 years in order to put some of my understanding to use and to stick with the work I’ve started. After all it’s exciting stuff! In the meantime I’ll see if I can’t just help Mary develop the behaviour of bringing a bottle of water before she heads to the farm next time.

My and my motorcycle. I've developed the positive habit of wearing a helmet.