Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Loses? -Failed Projects (part 3)

Did I mention this post is a trilogy? This is the second response to the original anonymous comment to my Who Loses? -Ethics in Development post, and the third post in the series Who Loses. You mentioned a reality of development that I think we all to often forget. Development is difficult, and you cannot "foresee all variables to know [if] a project [will] fail".

No matter what you do, you cannot prepare for everything. The problem is too complex, with many factors all interrelating to your project. Even the most well thought out project, the most meticulously planned implementation, will never. . . never ever achieve full success without a few curve balls.

What I believe (and many at Engineers Without Borders) is that the solution is counter-intuitive. The more rigid your plan, the more likely you stand to fall flat on your face. Projects need to be planned with flexibility in time-lines, activities, and desired outcomes. Development is a process, not an achievement or static state.

Flexibility allows projects to change and adapt to the complex field realities and cater to the dynamic needs of the community. Often, what you think might work, might not. What you think the community needs, they might not. Recognizing this allows the beneficiaries to dictate the direction of the project more. The project actually responds to the needs as they come. Field staff are given the agency to lead the project the way they think it will benefit the people the most, not have their strings pulled by rigid donor constraints.

These ideas are not new. In fact, Dudley, Chambers, and Smilie have been speaking of this for decades. Slowly, more development projects are being designed as hypotheses. Having a plan, and an idea, but allowing enough leeway to change things, to respond to the needs of the people.

To answer your last question, fairly compensating communities to failed projects or incorrect hypotheses lies in staying for the long haul. Staying in a community until they have a sustainable source of clean water (to continue with previous example), not until a well is drilled, or farmers are trained. By committing to communities for a longer time period, you allow adequate time for learning, and catering to the unforeseen complications that occur in development.

Though I am partial, who better to do this than the government. NGOs come and go. They should in fact, be trying to work themselves out of a job. But the government can't go. The government doesn't leave.

Who Loses? -Accountability (part 2)

This post is in response to an anonymous comment on my Who Loses? -Ethics in Development post. I'm actually quite glad they posted that comment, as it leads perfectly into this sequel post, and the questions raised are great.

In response to the first question, NGOs are accountable to their donors. You hit the nail on the head with your statement that donors "likely demand certain quality/productivity in exchange for [funds]". The problem with this accountability is two-fold.

First, accountability to the donors instead of to the people intended to benefit, draws away from the actual aim of development. Development workers then need to start doing whatever they can to maintain their incoming funds, and thus their jobs. Often, this undermines the very objective of the project in the first place, because to maintain funding "reportable results" are required.

Our trainer Levi, here in Toronto put it perfectly: "If you knew that every month there was a plane ticket for you if you didn't perform, you'd start to put that report in top priority". And this couldn't be more true. By creating such strict reporting formats (which donors do), it shifts the priority away from helping the people, to reporting and staying afloat. It makes me sad sometimes, because so often NGOs are held to the candle to constantly present results and to cut down on administration costs. However, to write the reports and show the results, you need office staff. If hiring an extra secretary to type up reports will ensure you sustained funds in the future, then that takes priority over activities in the field.

The second problem, is these results. The easiest result to report, and to demand; must be quantifiable, must be tangible. I will refer to these numbers as outputs from now on. So it is no longer paramount to achieve the real impact we wish to see on the ground, which is long-term behaviour change, but instead the focus becomes short-term gains. A simple example of this is training. It is very easy to report on how many farmers you trained in water-well maintenance. A great number. However number of farmers trained does not equal number of farmers doing maintenance. It does not equal the number of wells maintained, or the number of farmers gaining access to clean drinking water. So if you return 6 months after the training, and the well is broken, then the whole point of training the farmers was missed, which isn't reflected in the report.

The wrong indicators are useless for measuring successful projects. In fact, it fosters bad development. What you get, is farmers being rushed through haphazard training sessions, just to get the numbers up, all because the field staff are accountable to the donors, not the people.

Alas we come to the million dollar question which you eloquently put as "what would be the best form of accountability for these organizations?" I hate to disappoint the readers, but I don't have the answer. To answer this question, I will give it more thought and I will post this at a later date. Sorry all

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Whose Logic? Whose Values?

One of the most valuable attitudes to have when working in a different culture is understanding cultural differences. Recognizing your own biases due to your deeply rooted values and beliefs.

Often this difference of beliefs and logic can be the cause of mis-communication and failed attempts at reducing poverty. On the surface of culture are superficial signatures. Greetings, food, mannerisms, clothing etc. Down below the surface are the really important aspects that shape the visible actions. History, traditions, gender roles, values and beliefs, religion. The underlying causes are harder to understand and to identify, but are the most crucial in dictating the decisions people make. Households have reasons for what they're doing that we don't always understand. As outsiders, we may come up with great ideas and solutions for problems, but they might not be the problems the people are having.

Family Planning Example
There have been projects aimed at promoting family planning to reduce birth rates. Adults were taught birth control methods as well as explaining the downfalls of having many children. The intervention didn't work however. Households continued to be large in numbers, and people continued to have many children. After prodding deeper into the causes for this sustained action, people were having large families to ensure or create social capital. Due to the lack of social networks and welfare systems, households would continue to have children until they got three boys, and then they would start to apply what they had learned.

So the real problem that needed addressing wasn't family planning, but it was social networks. Social safety nets was what households valued, far more than decreasing family size.

This goes to show that people make decisions for a reason, and sometimes their logic is different than ours. What may appear to make no sense from the outside, may be their way of mitigating risks in the future. This amplifies the importance of taking time to understand farmers' needs and values. Finding out what they value, and then addressing those issues.

I chose this example to tie it into my post Setting the Stage. I mentioned the problem of a large child population (46%). Only when you understand why the case is the way it is, can you even start to plan how to fix it.

Who Loses? -Ethics in Development (part 1)

When I think of some of the ethics involved in development one word in particular comes to mind. Accountability. Who are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) accountable to? Ideally in the public sector, if a government does not provide services, they are accountable to their people. In democratic societies, leaders can be re-elected or removed from office if they are not performing. In theory, farmers have the power to vote for the leader they believe will provide them with the best services.

The private sector also has a form of accountability. By the very nature of competitive industry, companies or players in the private sector that don't perform, will eventually run bankrupt. There is a quasi accountability to the market, to perform and remain competitive. Companies are continually driven to innovate and improve their products, to evolve, so that they can survive in a competitive market. Ideally, farmers would be able to chose the vendors (fertilizers, treadle pumps, etc) they think provide the best advantage or quality.

But the third sector, the civil society, does not have this same accountability. NGOs rarely ask permission to work in a certain geographic region, or to run their projects. They are free to come and go, independent of the local government, and are rarely bound by laws or policies that limit their mobility within a recipient country.

This poses the question of: what power do the intended "beneficiaries" of these projects hold, to dictate the direction of an NGO's agenda? Certain comfort can be found in the notion that NGOs are there to serve, and that they are acting in the best interests of the poor. But what happens when a project does not benefit the poor? What happens if the projects have negative implications on the poor?

Almost all of the projects that are done are intended to benefit those living in poverty. But needless to say, mistakes happen, and have happened. We need to ask: what we are prepared to do to compensate those that we effect?

Let's bring this back home. In Canada, if a new product is tested on a population, some companies give free trial runs, and some will even pay the patients. People are provided an opportunity free of risks, and sometimes even paid.

Overseas, NGOs move in and out of communities, implementing this project or introducing this technology, with little to no accountability, let alone paying people for their time. Of the many rural farmers that have been "test subjects" for "appropriate technologies", what remuneration or compensation have they received for their monetary investment in some cases, and time commitments in all instances?

I'm not suggesting that all NGOs enter communities, do damage, and leave unaffected. There are many cases of successful interventions and projects that have benefited many of the marginalized people of developing countries. I only raise this question as a metric, a code of conduct. Who loses? This question we need to constantly ask ourselves and use to check our work, because there are people who stand to lose; people who stand to lose big. The poor, who are already vulnerable to outside shocks as it is, can ill-afford to have NGOs exacerbating their struggles with failed projects.

If we are not ready to stand by our projects, when they succeed and when they fail, then maybe NGOs need to re-evaluate their accountability to the people they aim to help.

Setting the Stage II

The last half of the document was a clearly defined plan and implementation strategy for what the Saboba/Chereponi District Assembly (SCDA) will do over the next four years (2006-2009). It's very exciting to be reading exactly what the district I'll be working in is planning to do. Indirectly, it shows me what I will be working on as well.

The goals laid out for district are as follows:
  • Livable environment with enhanced opportunities
  • Equal distribution of development benefits, and more consistent living for everyone
  • Double economic growth rate, and maximize agricultural gross output
  • Halving the growth rate and doubling income levels
  • Science and technology at the forefront
I will only highlight a few of the projects that stand out because after all, we're talking about the development of a district.


They are looking to expand the crop production and area farmed by 4% each year. To keep up with that growth SCDA plans to increase extension services, improve farming practices with and without appropriate technology, and diversify crops to include non-traditional export crops. The challenge with this plan is the isolation factor. Gas prices increasing causing transport costs to rise only exacerbates the lack of extension services available to rural farmers.

Right now school participatory rates are 28% for primary schools. One of Ghana's goals is to provide free basic education to everyone. SCDA plans to increase this number by 11% by the year 2009. To get this done, they need to build an additional 17 schools and train 418 more teachers by 2009 (remember these numbers are taken from a report written in 2005). To attract those teachers to rural posts, the government plans to get energy and roads reaching out to those communities. What occurred to me was that to increase the school participatory rate, you have to keep up with the population increase, which is quite high in the district.

The national average is 400:1 people to borehole (water well). To catch up to where they should be and to keep up with the population increase the district needs to drill on average 30 boreholes per year. Electricity and roads are also a top priority for the government.

I'm astonished by the need of this district and its apparent that there will never be a shortage of work to be done. As I said in my first post, donor funded projects have come in to fill the gap because the entire plan is too large for the district to complete without any resources. Hopefully this will give more meaning to what is meant by providing services to the rural citizens. My job as stated before, is to work with the SCDA to find ways to improve providing services, and more importantly address the constraints that are strangling the government and preventing it from doing its job.

Setting the Stage

I was lucky enough to be given the four year plan for the district I will be working in. This document was written by the government of Ghana, upon consultation with local communities, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and other districts. After working through the entire document (122 pages) I wanted to give you an update on what the current situation is and what I will be working on while I am there.

As you can see from the picture, Ghana is broken up into regions, and then into districts. I will be working in the Saboba/Chereponi District.

Saboba is a rural district, with 110 000 people. The capital of the district, Saboba, has approximately 3700 people and this is where I will be living and working out of. 93% of the district's population lives in a rural setting, compounded with an extremely inadequate network of roads that become impassable during the rainy season. This results in complete isolation for the majority, especially when cell phone coverage doesn't reach mush further than town. Most of the people living in these rural establishments are subsistence farmers, meaning they only produce food for consumption, not for sale. Being rural they also lack access to electricity, and most use wood for cooking which contributes to higher respiratory illnesses among women.

Some of you may not be surprised as this is typically what most people think of when they think of "Africa". However, when I started to really think about what some of these numbers represented the reality of how difficult development can be for local governments really dawned on me.

97% of the population is rural, and most are subsistence farmers. How do you start to provide services to a population that doesn't pay taxes, and is completely cut off for half of the year during the rainy season? How does the government even start to generate revenues to pay its employees?

In any society the most needy are children and elderly. They generate less for their society because they aren't working, and at that age they require many services. 46.2% of the population is under the age of 15. 54% of the people in the district are under 20. It's difficult to put that in perspective, but now we have half of the population being children, leaving a small working class to provide for society. Though deep down we know that children should be in school, these numbers provide an explanation for why kids are taken out of school to work. On average there are 5 children per woman.

After reading those numbers, the public services provided to the people of Saboba did not come as a surprise, but is no more acceptable. 80% of men and 87.7% of women are illiterate. For every 55 students there is one primary school teacher and 56% of teachers in the district are not trained. In rural parts of the district there is no accommodation for the teachers and an absence of electricity, which deters educated teachers from taking posts in rural communities.

When I try to pinpoint a starting place, an entry point, a first step forward . . . I come up short. It is obvious that there is no ONE answer to this picture. That a multifaceted approach needs to be taken. Providing the infrastructure to link the isolated majority to the services available is crucial. Simultaneously, education cannot be forgotten, nor can the development of the agricultural sector which is the livelihood for at least 90% of the population. But when working within such a limited budget, choosing a starting place creates quite the conundrum.
(I've even omitted health care and water & sanitation from this picture, which I can assure you, are in a similar situation as the rest of the district's public services.)

I could go on but I don't want to simply write down a lot of stats without a reason. I not only want to provide some context for the challenges that the local government is pitted with, but also put development into perspective. Before I started to learn about the complexities of development, I had always wondered why with the billions of dollars poured into Africa annually and 30 years of aid were unable to "fix" these types of problems.

This is an oversimplified picture of the causes that explain the slow progress. I can assure you that there are many other factors at play. However let this be a start to understanding the local situation. Through my work you'll find out more about some of the challenges of development, and more importantly what is being done to address them.

All numbers and statistics were taken from the Saboba/Chereponi Medium-Term Development Plan (2006). For more information, please visit:

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Choice to Know

Pretend for a moment you are walking down Granville St at 2am after leaving the bar. You are with a few of your friends, and as you walk past an alley, you notice someone getting beat up. A man is being pummeled by three other assailants, and it doesn't look like it will get any better anytime soon. What do you do?

Take some time to think about this.
(If this doesn't work for you, what about someone getting robbed? An older couple? A woman being assaulted?)

Most often we would freeze, not knowing whether to intervene, to call for help, or to keep on walking. Personally I would probably call the police or ambulance to allow those who are trained to handle the situation, as it's not within my ability to settle it. But how many of us would be comfortable walking by taking no action?

A settling thought might be: regardless if we were there or not, it would happen anyways. That had we not been there, it wouldn't have changed the outcome. But at the end of the day, you were there . . . you did witness it . . . and you have a choice.

For all of us, it puts you in an awkward, uncomfortable position. The reality of the situation is that you have seen it, and you now have to make a decision between action vs inaction. Without beating around the bush, sometimes it's nicer not to know, not to see. Out of sight, out of mind. By not being faced with that immediate choice, with that immediate feeling of obligation to do something, we are able to continue living our lives content, without that interference.

Now let's extend that situation. How close does a crime have to be to you, in order for you to feel compelled into action? How much do you have to witness something before you get that uneasy feeling in your stomach?

When I returned from Zambia, some people asked me: "what was the thing you realized you took for granted most". At first my answer was the laundry machine. After doing laundry for 4 hrs every Saturday in the sun, you became nostalgic for the good old Maytag appliance. But upon re-evaluating it, the luxury we take for granted the most, is the choice to know. The choice to know.

We all have the choice to watch the news, read the newspaper, learn about the problems in the world and take action to fix them. We all have the choice to turn off the TV, flip the newspaper page, change the radio station . . . the choice of inaction. That's my biggest problem, is that we have the luxury of turning a blind eye to what we know is unacceptable. And half the time we don't even realize how LUCKY we are to have that choice. Everyday we are walking by that person getting beat up. Everyday we are walking by that person getting robbed. Everyday, that woman getting assaulted.

I'm not saying that we should all become Saints or get rid of all our possessions out of guilt for privileges that we were born with. I'm not saying that you should not be able to live a happy life, because in fact, it's not your fault that the world is the way it is. But perhaps, that uneasy uncomfortable feeling we get when we witness something horrible, is not something to avoid. Maybe that feeling is not hurting us.

On the contrary, I think that feeling is compassion. Empathy. Maybe it's the very essence that makes us human. Or maybe it's the good will in man, that sometimes we forget is still there. If you get that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, good will is within you. The question is what choice you make.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


It's not very often that you realize you can't define the work that you do. If you asked me what my job was 2 months ago, I could have given you a clear definition of what a lifeguard/swim instructor does. However, if you sat down 11 volunteers about to head overseas and do "development", you be hard pressed to find a common definition of "development".

It wasn't until we tried to define it that I realized just how difficult development actually is. I've gotten into some interesting and somewhat heated discussions about development before, and the common questions are "Are we just Westernizing Africa? If our lifestyle is unsustainable, why are we trying to industrialize Africa? And wouldn't they just be better off without us interfering?"

I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you what development means to me. From the previous post on poverty, development boils down to choice and reducing vulnerability.

Development is a process which enables people to make choices on how they want to live, and reduces vulnerability.

To make this shift into a position where you can make the decisions on how you want to live, people need to have their basic needs met, and enough assets to overcome unexpected obstacles in their way and take advantage of the opportunities available to them. Also, this is a process. I don't believe that there is a destination called "developed", that eventually one reaches.

Now coming back to the recurring theme of whether what we do is changing culture and values overseas. After much discussing, I think it is naive to believe that you are not changing culture in one way or another. Bold statement? Maybe. But any intervention you take is changing behaviour, and arguably culture.

Take sanitation for example. Water borne diseases such as E. Coli, cholera, dysentery, all stem from drinking sources contaminated with fecal matter. As sanitation is such a problem in some developing countries, it would be hard to argue that introducing hand washing in attempts to prevent these diseases would be a bad thing. Looking at hand washing, the very focus of your development project is to invoke a behaviour change among people. And this is anything from farming as a business to preventing HIV/AIDS through condom use.

While it is important to try to minimize changing the local culture, you are influencing people's actions no matter what. How do I feel about this? It's not something I like to give in to. As much as possible, our work MUST be done in a participatory manner and in collaboration with local co-workers, such that the intervention is the least foreign as possible. In an ideal world, all of our interventions and projects should come from the people they are to affect. The rural poor should be requesting interventions that will fill their needs, as they identify them. To me, when the solution comes from the people themselves, you are not being the cause of change, but instead a facilitator of change.

The fact is, we don't live in an ideal world. As it stands, we must be influencing something, otherwise their would be no point of us being there (more on this in a later post). What I'm saying is that sometimes their is knowledge that might not exist within a community, and that is when you can intervene to provide it to them. What is crucial, is that the drive comes from them. For those of you who know me well, I could some this up with my personal favourite buzz word: OWNERSHIP.

To leave you with an unanswered question, and perhaps something to think about in Canada, is the following. Eric Dudley, author of The Critical Villager, perhaps said it best in his small pamphlet Panic. It goes something like this: (paraphrased)

What is the good life? With China and India starting to develop fully we realize that the environment cannot sustain more growth like North America. But aren't the poor entitled to such a wasteful lifestyle? In fact, in their eyes, isn't that what development means? Industrialization? So the question is: if the goal is not sustainable, then what the heck are we doing? In fact, if we don't even know what end we are trying to achieve, then how can we offer directions along the way?

Maybe we are not as developed as we think.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


One of the first sessions we had here in Toronto was about poverty and defining it. If we are committed to eradicating poverty or more realistically, reducing widespread poverty, we need to ask what it is.

Being VULNERABLE to outside shocks, and lacking the AGENCY to chose the direction of your life.

This is my broad and simplified definition of poverty. There are definitely varying degrees of poverty, but if you gave me two words to describe poverty they would be vulnerability, and agency. I want you to take your typical farmer in rural Africa and think of the possible shocks that can affect this person. If we're speaking about agriculture, irrigation typically comes to mind. Most rural farmers in Africa depend on the rains to irrigate their staple crop. It is exactly this dependency that we are trying to mitigate. If a farmer is completely dependent on the rains, then they are vulnerable to any shocks, and do not have the means of responding or bouncing back from those shocks.

Let's break this down for a second. If the rains fail, what are the short term implications? The crop is completely lost and the family does not have enough to eat for the rest of the year. What about the long-term implications? Potential malnutrition of children, dropping out of school (hungry children can't learn), selling off of other crucial assets such as oxen to pay for food. Likelihood? With increasing climate changes the weather is becoming more difficult to predict so the likelihood of this is high. And last what is this farmer's ability to control that? Nothing whatsoever.

Let's look at health. If someone in the house gets sick? Short-term: loss of labour, cost of health care, loss of education. Long-term: death, cost of funeral, if an adult dies, loss of safety-net and income generator. Likelihood: high: unsanitary situations, AIDS, malaria. Ability to control: not very much without money.

What makes me sad and angry all at the same time, is the fact that people are completely vulnerable. Even in areas where rain has been consistent for years, all it takes is one drought, one death, one shock, and all accumulated assets overtime are now lost.

With this extreme vulnerability to factors out of your control, how can one have choice to live the way they want to live. How can one have agency. You see, until you can feel comfortable with with your quality of life, and a certain security (food, personal, health), how do you start to choose your own future.

This is unacceptable. To really grasp what I am saying, take a worry that you have in your life, right now or at a time you thought you were most vulnerable, and apply the same questions. What are the short term implications? Long-term? Likelihood it will happen? Ability to control?

I'll put one of mine below, but if you don't want to read it, the point is this. Because of the way society has evolved around us, we have safety nets. Whether social safety nets through our family, or institutional ones through loans, healthcare, or welfare; our vulnerability is covered by these safety nets. This enables us to have the choice of what opportunities we take advantage of.


Out of high school:
worry: can't afford university.
Short Term: borrow money from family, take student loan, get part-time employment and save
Long-term: Working full-time and doing night classes. Doing a trade or gaining a cheaper qualification
Likelihood it will happen: For me, low
Ability to control: High. I have the choice of what mitigation strategies I take.