Saturday, July 29, 2006

Life as a Ghanaian Farmer and my Dorothy

I spend my third week in Ghana farming in a very small village called Dimanzugu. The idea behind living in a remote, rural community (i.e. preferably no running water or electricity) and attempting to live like a typical Ghanaian farmer, is to try get a feel for what it is to be a Ghanaian farmer and get a better understanding of poverty.

Well, let’s just say that the experience really opened my eyes. And although it’s taken me a while to post this blog, I think it was important to spend that week in Dimanzugu at the beginning of my placement – to begin to understand the farmer: the primary MOFA beneficiary, or as EWB says “Dorothy”. Without comprehending the difficulties, challenges and way of living of the people I’m essentially working towards helping, how can I expect my work to have the desired impact?

Engineers with Borders, as far as I know, came up with this concept of Dorothy – she is the person you keep in the forefront of your mind when you are considering any development. For my project, I’m working directly with the MOFA office staff of my district: the District Director, Agricultural Officers and Extension Agents. But who am I working for? I’m working for Dorothy – the impoverished Ghanaian farmer who will hopefully benefit from my 4 months spent here. Many volunteers encounter individuals in the communities they visit or live in, who to them represent the person they are working for. For me, my Dorothy was my mother when I stayed in Dimanzugu: Mary Sumani.

She’s an illiterate, married mother of 5 who endlessly toils from dawn til dusk to provide for her family. And yet, she has these dreams: to learn English, to learn to write, and to produce a CD of her music (she sings beautifully!). However, between waking at 4:30 in the morning to collect shea nuts to begin the tedious and extensive process of producing shea butter (which sells for very little in the market relative to the energy required to produce it), fetching water from a borehole 5 km away (because the one in her village is broken), preparing coco (porridge made from maize flour), preparing fufu or tz for lunch and dinner with the soup of that day, caring for her babies…there is little time left for other endeavours. Not to mention costs – her family is living a hand to mouth existence. If they have a bad yield, they entirely rely on her small income generating activities to pull them through: the shea butter, frying fish, etc.

So when I consider my activities and my objectives, I think about Mary and the countless other Ghanaians, Africans, or impoverished individuals throughout the world who are living a similar life. People who work hard for very little profit; who cannot save because every cent made is needed almost immediately; who are given few opportunities and are somehow restrained from taking those that are provided. And that is poverty. To lack basic human needs – clean water, sanitation, education, adequate and nutritious food; but also to lack the capacity to improve your own life.

Now MoFA is responsible for helping the communities and farmers in the area: disseminating information, holdings trainings in communities to teach new concepts/skills/technologies, help organize farmers in cooperatives/groups in order to access credit, etc. But all their activities are aimed at improving the lives of the people in the community – decreasing the level of poverty and increasing food security: educating, providing technologies and approaches to ease the workload (make activities more efficient) and to provide access to otherwise unattainable resources. So, if I can have impact within the District office – more effective trainings, a more efficiently run DADU – then ideally I am helping MoFA to help Dorothy.

But I diverge…according to the title, I should be talking about my stay in the community. Dimanzugu is a very small community of approximately 15 compound houses. I believe everyone there is somehow related to each other – it seems like it was once a very large family that split off from the neighbouring (larger) village of Gbullung to establish their own community. I was only there for 6 days and each day I attempted to try new things. When I first arrived, I met a woman from my compound house named Niziha (the ‘z’ pronounced like a ‘j’). After some confusing miscommunications (three weeks in, I knew next to no Dagbani), I found myself walking with her to collect water. Although extremely pregnant, she was carrying a very large cylindrical container to hold the water, while I was presented with a metal bucket about 1/3 the size of her container. Pumping the water in of itself is a full body workout, not to mention then hauling it back on your head. Well, after I had very embarrassingly sloshed water all over myself, we removed about 2 inches of water from my bucket before continuing on the long walk back. And of course, she was kind enough to stop a few times with me along the way.

The women here, well actually everyone here, are so strong – I mean, they have to be. Pumping that water every day. Carrying everything on their heads. My neck muscles took a few days to recover from just that one time of carrying a bucket of water. Although I must admit that over the course of the week, my balance dramatically improved.

While in Dimanzugu, I also had a chance to witness the entire process of producing shea butter. Every morning at the crack of dawn, a few of the women would walk around the surrounding fields collecting the shea nuts that had fallen off the trees. (Here’s where I got in most of my practice balancing bowls of shea nuts on my head). The nuts are about the size of large walnuts, and very hard. Once the thin layer of fruit covering the nuts has been removed (usually eaten – very sickly sweet), hundreds of them are boiled in a gigantic pot for most of the day. They are then left to bake in the sun, on the floor of the compound house for a day or two, before they are violently struck in order to break off the husk from the softer interior core. Once all the husks are removed (which is a very tedious, time-consuming task) the soft cores are mashed together to form a very thick brown paste. This paste is added to water and heated to form oil. Once it has solidified (over the course of a night or so), voíla! You have shea butter. Now it takes a few hundred of these shea nuts to produce 1 calabash of shea butter – which at the time was selling for a grand total of maybe 30 000 cedis at the market (it is 500 cedis per ‘fist’ of shea butter). That roughly translates to 3.75 Canadian dollars. Besides this, I also helped prepare food – everything from collecting the braa leaves for the soup to pounding yams for fufu. I made tz (stirring the tz was a great indication of my complete lack of upper body strength – when you initially add the maize flour to the water, the mixture become extremely thick).

Apart from working with the women, I also wanted to get a feel from the work done by the men (and children): farming. My father, Yakubu Sumani, took me to a village nearby so that I could see how the farmers were making yam mounds. It was particularly difficult to do at this time because we had not had rain in a while so the ground was hard. Building a yam mound consists of chopping up the earth with a hoe, piling and packing it together. These mounds are about a foot high and a foot in diameter at the base – and they are made mound upon mound, row upon row, to cover the entire field (1 yam to be planted per mound) spanning an acre or two or four…as much as I’d love to be able to say that I helped with an entire row of yams mounds, unfortunately I only helped with a few. Apparently I work too slowly to warrant the use of one the hoes (which were in short supply). I also helped my father plant groundnuts in one of his field. They had already dibbled the holes, so all that remained to be done was drop 1 groundnut into the hole before covering it with earth. After a while you get into a routine: drop, step and cover with your left foot, drop, step and cover with your right foot…etc. I must have planted over 200 groundnuts in one afternoon. While tedious, that isn’t exactly hard work – and many of the farmers I’ve met have their children do it for them.

The worst for me was weeding. Granted, if I’d spent more time with the yam mounds my opinion might have been different. My father had intercropped groundnuts and maize on a 4 acre field, so by the time I arrived, the field was ready to be weeded. It was still early in the rainy season, so the air was hot – and even though we were weeding in the late afternoon (digging up the earth with small hoes around the plants), I was soaked through with sweat within 15 minutes from a combination of the heat and intense labour. By the end, my lower back was throbbing, my arms sore and my hands callused. Although, these I could deal with. It wasn’t until 2 hours later when I looked up to see how little we’d accomplished that I really felt the ache of the work – just a small fraction of this immense field was completed. When asked, he informed me that it would take a month to complete weeding the entire 4 acres. And once completed, he would have to begin weeding again from the place he started. 2 months of weeding.

The days I spent shadowing my father resulted in my experiencing two almost opposite feelings: utter exhaustion from the hard work, and shear boredom from sitting around and doing nothing. The men would farm in the early morning or very late afternoon, but during the day when the sun was at its peak, they would sit around and do nothing. The odd man would be weaving rope to make mats (he used his feet as well, and would roll the strands between his calf and the palm of his hand to tightly twist them into rope – I learned a little, but could never get my rope as tight as his). On one of the days, I biked to the neighbouring village of Gbullung and sat in on some primary and secondary school classes. I also took the opportunity to visit the village library, reading some nursery rhymes and children’s stories to some of the kids whose classes had been cancelled that day (i.e. the teacher didn’t show up). They enjoyed the gestures, intonation and sound effects, but surprisingly few of them actually understood the English. Which is something else I encountered back at my home in Dimanzugu. Fuzia, my one sister in form 2 of Junior Secondary school, came to me one evening to explain something she had learned in class. Fuzia barely spoke English, and while she could read the text, her comprehension was next to nil. She took out a biology book and opened to the Human Circulatory System. She read the words, but had absolutely no idea what it was talking about – and this was after having learned it in class. How do you explain to someone who doesn’t speak English what an artery is? the aorta? It’s not only an inability to retain the information, but simply to learn it in the first place. And if she cannot learn because of the language barrier, then how effective can the education possibly be?

My last visit in Gbullung was with my father to attend the market there. It was a very small market where you could buy ready-made meals (such as “shincafa di wachi” - rice and beans), seeds to plant, spices, farm utensils, cloth, and vegetables. Sumani also took me to the Gbullung ‘hospital’. It had one employed doctor, many empty rooms, no electricity, a single bed with an attached IV, and some storage space. It seemed barren, abandoned…and when we arrived the doctor was treating a patient on the bench outside the front door. It really galls me how an organization can go into a community, build this building to be used at a hospital, and then leave without providing adequate supplies or personnel to man it. And yet, the people of this community at least have a doctor present to provide treatment.

All in all, I had a wonderful time with me family there, and I will never forget that experience. It really helped me shape my work for the rest of the summer (hopefully for the better).

Oh, and Niziha had a beautiful baby boy before I left – his name is Mohammed.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An Asylum of Cashews, Part II

Amid cries of protest at continuing this project in light of the concerns, the deputy took it upon himself to explain the system - explain why they should still carry it out.
[1] It's a top-down system. They are given policy directorates from the people responsible for their salaries, and as government workers they have an obligation to carry out those projects. He specifically said that they need to justify why they are getting paid. And
[2] 55% donor funded, means that the funds are from donors for specific projects. To retain those sources of funding, they should comply.

After the explanation of needing to comply with policy directorates, I heard one of the AEAs express the greatest analogy to development that I've ever heard! With his arms clasped tightly around his body in emphasis, he expresses that knowing what to do, but being restrained by "policy directorates" is like being in a straightjacket! At this, the entire room of 24 AEAs erupted into spirited agreement. He went on to explain the inabilities of the AEAs to do their jobs with these policies. However, the deputy calmed the group and mentioned that the purpose of the reporting system is to bring to light these concerns! The AEAs report weekly/monthly and should include all the above issues. That way, those who decide on the programs can take into consideration the concerns of each individual district.

Which brings me to my next point: there is so much bureaucracy within GOs! A quick example: the Director went into town to purchase some supplies, including new whiteboard markers. The next day, I asked him if I could use one of the markers, and he said that they hadn't arrived yet. "I'm sorry, but I thought we brought them to the office yesterday?" "Yes, they are in the office. But the storekeeper isn't here, so we cannot use them." At this point, I was thoroughly confused and in need of some clarification. Which I promptly requested. Apparently, he pays for supplies, and then has to have the purchases approved and sent to the 'store' in the office - from which he has to requisition the supplies from the storekeeper before being able to use them. Not only was she not in that day, but we hadn't even received approval for the purchase yet! Which makes no sense to me, because once it's paid for, the store wasn't going to take them back if the purchase wasn't approved!!

But back to my previous topic. Bureaucracy: particularly concerning reporting, from the AEAs to the DAOs to the Director to the Regional Office to the National Office. I don't know exactly on what levels most of the activities are decided, but from every way the info is passed up in the district level, there is a lack of consistency with the Deputy's words. Many concerns in the AEAs reports don't make it into the presentations given to the regional office. If you want to have and efficient and effective top-down approach, you need a good system to carry info from the bottom up! How else to ascertain and meet the needs of the people who are the primary beneficiaries?? This bureaucracy/efficiency issue is also so different to what I've been hearing from fellow volunteers working with NGOs. For some of them, when activities are decided on, they are then somewhat easily implemented - and if not, at least ideas are discussed amongst people who can choose to implement them. However, I probably shouldn't be going on about NGOs and GOs as though every one is the same as the other - there is such a variety amongst them that it would be wrong to categorize in such a way. I suppose I'm just speaking specifically about my office and from experience of a few NGO volunteers.

So, the whole concept of report writing. Government organizations in Ghana are moving more and more towards decentralization, and thus policy keeps changing quite frequently. And as I've previously mentioned, the newest policy being adopted by MoFA is RBM: Results-Based Management. While the concept is fairly easy to grasp, the most difficult part of this system is implementing it: basically, changing the focus from ACTIVITIES to the RESULTS (the change you want to see). As of right now, everything done is activities based - including proposal and report writing, activity planning, etc. The organization will choose the activities they will do and only then pick outputs/outcomes/impact that could be a result of those activities. RBM, however, is the exact reverse.

Hopefully I didn't bore you with the brief RBM details above, but it's just to give an idea before tying it back into the whole reporting system, bureaucracy mess! The results of everything done by MoFA should benefit the farmers - and who better to know what they need than the frontline workers, the AEAs? And yet, they are given policy directorates from above. So if the AEAs can effectively convey to higher-up officials what it is that is truly needed and which activates do not work or are inappropriate for their particular districts, the farmers will eventually benefit. Even proper reports to the fenders could merge the donor-driven objectives with the needs of the beneficiaries.

So I suppose in a way I'm lucky that one of my tasks at MoFA this summer allows me to have an impact in this area, where I've noticed a definite need for change. My second workshop focuses on RBM, and I can choose to incorporate aspects of planning or report writing if they seem like important applications to focus on. While RBM isn’t perfect, using the system properly could do a world of good for the farmers. Aside: however, this still leaves the issue o MoFA and donors not following through with promises (resulting in a decrease in trust). Firstly, there is the example of the maize project that was previously mentioned. As well, there is another called Nerica Rice (New Rice for Africa) - it is a new upland, short-term variety of rice that is very conducive to the soil and climate in the Northern Region. It has better yields than most varieties currently used.

The project is to organize farmers into groups in order to receive the inputs (the seed) as a loan from the seed manufacturers. The cost of the loan is to be repaid after harvest. The AEAs were promised a certain amount of seed each, and then formed the groups and notified the DAOs about the number of groups, names, etc. After this was done, they were informed by the company supplying the seed that they could only provide a fraction of the promised amount. This left every AEA with too many groups for the given seed to support, and therefore disappointing quite a number of farmers. These farmers were told to maintain the groups for the following year. At least with this project, they were all informed early enough for the farmers to plant other crops in their field. However, it still will affect the trust relationship between the AEAs and their farmers. And yet, I don’t feel there’s much I can do to influence that particular issue. Perhaps add donor/upper-level accountability in my list of recommendations at the end of the placement, but once I’m back in Canada there’s no way to monitor that.

So that is a taste of what working with MoFA is like. Not all as frustrating as it may seem from this blog, but at times… I came in with the misconception that most government workers wouldn’t care at all for ‘development’ and only regard their work as a job. But I’ve seen such variation among the employees here! While for a few this is true, all the AEAs and most of the DAOs genuinely want to improve the situation in the Northern Region. However, even with the true concern for providing food security, it IS a job. And their work costs (i.e. fuel to travel to communities, money for visual aids, handouts, etc.) need to be thought about. Even if they understand what needs to be done to be effective and ensure the new ideas/skills/techniques are being adopted by the farmers, they are restrained once again by a straightjacket of insufficient funds. As I very soon came to learn in Ghana, every activity that fails and even some that succeed suffer from insufficient funding!

An Asylum of Cashews, Part I

Disclaimer: This entry is a bit long…well, truthfully it’s ridiculously long due to my newfound tendency to ramble. It’s about the work I’ve been doing and challenges faced. So if you are only interested in the thrills of Ghanaian culture and lifestyle, READ NO FURTHER!!

Working with a government organization has both its advantages and disadvantages - compared to working with an NGO, that is. The two types of organizations can be contrasted on a number of levels, pertaining to: the availability of funds, sources of funds (and therefore responsibility of the organization to that source), bureaucracy, flexibility of policies, etc. Not to mention, of course, the motivation of the employees!

Let's start with funding. Because realistically, as much as I hate to admit it, so much boils down to MONEY. Money allows activities to happen, people to be paid, progress to occur. One of the phrases I've become most accustomed to hearing is "if we had the money...", or "we would do..., but we cannot due to insufficient funds." The favorite excuse: insufficient funds. Granted, one must objectively distinguish between a situation where funds are available but simply allocated elsewhere, and a situation where genuine efforts would be made if the money was present.

But I diverge. I was speaking of GOs vs. NGOs, and specifically about my preconceptions regarding the two, as opposed to the reality of what I've experienced working at a GO in a developing country.

So concerning funds, not being a keen economist myself (most definitely not my forté), I've somewhat limited myself in understanding how organizations work before departing for Ghana. In my naiveté I'd assumed that similar to Canada (where the government runs off taxpayer's dollars, there is theoretically enough for public services and government workers are considered to be fairly well paid), government organizations are not severely short of funds and their actions are therefore not donor driven. My subconscious logic went as follows: if an organizations has no donors (i.e. uses tax dollars), then the activities undertaken are done in the best interest of the citizens who are providing the funding. Granted, I'm excluding any situations where there is no policy transparency and corruption occurs. Point being: no donors = projects are beneficiary driven. But alas, if the basic premise is faulty...

For instance, MoFA holds monthly AEA meetings where the entire office ~ District Agricultural Officers (DAOs), Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) and the Director all come together to plan activities, decide where to focus energies (i.e. proposal writing), etc. Besides these regular meetings, when an "emergency" arises, they hold impromptu meetings. It was at one of these that the AEAs were discussing projects proposed by he higher up officials. Particularly, they were complaining about projects in which promises were made to the farmers and then not carried out. The topic was brought up by the DAO Crops, Mr. Isahaku, who reminded the AEAs to promote the "package": this package was a conditional provision of inputs for maize productions (seeds, fertilizer, etc.). However, the condition was that the farmers must first purchase a certain amount of cashew seeds to be intercropped with the maize. The whole point of the project was to promote this particular type of intercropping. Anyway, I don't know the project specifics like the logistics involving repaying the loans after harvesting (the inputs about being given as loans).

Apparently, what Mr. Isahaku was now saying, is that while the maize was originally promised, now the package is that if the farmers buy the cashew seeds, there is a chance of receiving the maize inputs...nothing is assured! So here the AEAs are in a position where many of them have already promoted the project to the farmers, many of whom have purchased the cashew seeds, planted, and are waiting on the maize inputs! These farmers are waiting for promised seeds that may never arrive! And by setting aside that land to grow maize (I believe it was a full acre), they may be forfeiting use of that land for this year. This meeting was held when it was reaching a point that it was already too late to grow a number of crop varieties with longer growing periods. At least, there were only a few varieties left that could be planted now and expect a good yield! And to add insult to injury, the AEAs all agreed that in the Tolon Kumbungu district, there is no market for cashews! They themselves wouldn't invest in them. So now we have farmers with cashews planted to intercrop with maize seeds that might not be available, and then cannot sell the cashews once harvested!

Problem #1: the AEAs have just entirely lost the trust of all the farmers who chose to invest in this project and don't receive the maize. Which farmers would listen to an AEA and take a gamble to go into co-ops, accept projects or adopt new technology after being so brutally let down? Without a solid trust basis, the AEAs can become virtually ineffective for some farmers and even communities.

Problem #2: the role of MoFA is primarily to work towards Food Security in the district/region/country...etc. Those few tens of thousands of cedis (just a few Canadian dollars) is a substantial loss to impoverished subsistence farmers, and greater still is the loss from idle land that was meant to be used (or land used too late to produce a good yield). While letting the land fallow for a year will improve soil fertility in the future, what if the farmer's family does not have enough to eat this year?? To use EWB/Russ' wonderful term, isn't it "grossly negligent" of a GO, or any organization for that matter, to go back on a promise like this which could have possible significant repercussions for the individual involved?

Problem #3: my largest issue with the whole affair (and you think, larger than #2??). Yes, my biggest problem is that even after a general concern was raised by the AEAs, the DAO Crops (supported by the other district officers), said to continue to promote the project. However, instead of promising maize, only mention that it is a possibility that if the farmer buys the cashew seeds, they might receive maize inputs. Continue to promote a project that may cause a loss for the farmer? (i.e. no cashew demand in district). When a project is so inapplicable to the district and those implementing it realize that fact, why do you ask would they continue to promote it?!

So thus my whole intro above GOs vs. NGOs: I learned at this meeting that MoFA is apparently 55% donor funded. That's right! 55%!! I couldn't believe that initially - of course, being a developing country with few taxes in place, it makes sense that the funding has to come from somewhere. But due to my lack of economic interest, I hadn't really stopped to think about where the funds came from. While I knew there were some donor projects, I'd thought it would be less than 55%. Consequently, MoFA is somewhat donor driven. An organization whose aim is to benefit the people, to be working for the people, are using some projects designed to please the donors!