Sunday, April 27, 2008

Urbanization Part 2 – Indigenous People

Upon further thought of the difference between Canada’s settlement trends and Ghana’s, I asked myself why? Why did Canadians form more predominant urban centers and leave the rural landscapes? Why did people stay in the rural parts of Ghana?

Mom, close your ears to this next part as it will become evident that Social Studies 9-11 were not my strongest subjects. I’m now going to take a stab at why settlement occurred differently between these two places. This is my version and best guess at possibly explaining why Canadians developed in clusters as opposed to scattered settlements across our country.

In Ghana, among the rural population there is a strong sense of culture, tradition, and home. People are well aware of their tribe as well as the area their tribe has occupied for past centuries. And it is the latter point that I believe is the root cause of a person’s attachment to their environment. Some of the communities that I have been to, have been there for hundreds of years. It has given rise to ancestral burial grounds which is a term most Canadians would be foreign to if not for anthropology books and horror movies. Generations of experiences, teachings, and investment have gone into the same land over and over. The same land that once bore fruit to the great-great grandparents of today’s generation, continue to, and will continue to bear fruit for following generations.

Through this tradition and sense of “belonging” to the land few of us can relate or empathize with, rural people and indigenous tribes have remained in their settlements while development may have flowed to other areas within their reach. Maybe this accounts for the fact that still, so many communities stay where they are, persist and persevere through the monumental challenges they are faced with, and chose to live where their ancestors had once lived.

Bringing it back to Canada, how many of us can say that we have been in the same area for the past four generations? How many of us know where our ancestors once dwelt and what they did, let alone where they were buried? I think it might be because when the European settlers first came, though they were farmers, they formed small settlements, forts, or communities. Some of those early forts continued to develop into today’s oldest cities.

As for our indigenous people, because of the conflict that existed between European settlers and the First Nations people, much of that same tradition and attachment to the land that is exhibited in Ghana’s rural people; was lost when our Natives were booted off their land and retro-actively compensated for it generations later.

This is a very simplistic explanation and view on a matter that includes many more factors. It was more of a reflection upon an observation that I made. In Canada people are not tied to the land and moving away from one’s roots is not that uncommon. In Ghana, people seem to be more tied to the land, at least among rural people, which might continue to feed the problem of low population density.

Urbanization Part 1 - Evil or the Way Forward?

This post I expect to furrow some brows. Similar to the post “Is School Cool?” this post is aimed at making us question something that we have forever thought was bad. I’ll lay down the most abbreviated summary of the typical and well-established argument in favour of rural-urban migration being bad. Those who know otherwise, PLEASE correct me.

In the 70s, when development really started to take off, much of development was aimed at urban centers in hopes that their would be a corresponding trickle-effect. That by developing urban centers, those centers would then follow by providing services for the rural population. In many cases what happened was what E.F.Schumacher called “the twin evils of mass migration and mass unemployment”.

Large populations of rural people would migrate to the urban centers (typically the young, strong, and perhaps educated men) leaving the elderly, young children, and women behind to mind the harsh conditions that rural livelihoods can often entail. Because the urban centers were not set up for this huge influx of people, mass unemployment followed along with its close companion mass homelessness. Your shantytowns and slum dwellings are the result, coupled with an ever increasing informal sector (people engaged in informal income generating activities).

Then I started to look at the differences between Canada and Ghana, and try to figure out some of the obvious differences that might account for the differing development challenges. Though there are MANY, ONE came up when I was having this conversation with a co-worker of mine. Immediately I thought of the low population density of the Northern Region of Ghana in particular. I know that Canada is one of the global leaders in low population densities (~30million people in the 2nd largest country in the world), but it seems that most of our people have somehow gravitated towards towns or cities. When I drive from Hope to Manning Park, there aren’t too many rural settlements along the way.

Ghana is a polar opposite. There are small settlements everywhere, scattered throughout the country. The difficulty that arises from this phenomenon is that suddenly to provide electricity to all these people, you need ten times the amount of electricity lines. Water = 10 times the amount of pipe. Market access = 10 times the length of roads. If the same energy and resources that went into spreading such little butter over too much bread went into capital start up of industries, would it be possible to provide for the masses?

BIG BARK . . . little bite!!

I want to make sure that I am not coming off as a development professional, because as you already know . . . I AM NOT. In fact it’s quite the opposite, I am in the beginning of my career, and with regards to this particular placement, in the heart of my learning phase. Right now I am still trying to understand how things work in the development industry, Ghana, and in particular my district.

Because of this, my greatest asset is the ability to ask questions, inquire, and tag along on projects with the objective of learning as much as possible. I want to reassure everyone, that I am not in a position where I am telling people what to do or changing MOs left right and center, when I am only 2 months old in Ghana. I know that when we typically think of a consultant, we think of an expert in a particular field who is going to teach/coach an organization on how they can improve themselves. Allow me to respond to your initial gag reflexes upon reading that I would be a “consultant”, with what I actually meant with that label.

One skill that will pay off is effective questioning. Through my learning and persistent questioning, my co-workers reflect on the current practice to provide me with an answer. The value in effective questioning is that I provide an outside perspective, but I am also able to reveal some of the gaps that typically are overlooked because of the nature of repeating a job for a number of years. Through learning about the why and the how things are done, together my co-workers and I are evaluating the current practice.

On top of that, areas of improvement and different practices are easier for me to see because of my outside perspective. In some cases, by learning by doing (such as I am in the gap filling area), I am able to offer suggestions that I have seen in other cases or countries. If not providing a direct suggestion for improving a process, through effective questioning you initiate a dialogue of current practices, which is an added value on its own.

In light of all this, let me finish by saying that 80% of what I do will be in cooperation with co-workers and truly the ideas will be generated from both parties. I am but a facilitator of a motion to improve, where the ideas and action will come from the local development workers/experts.

As I learn more about the workings of the District Assembly and the development industry, I will increasingly move towards more facilitation and doing. Let it be known, that the credit does not belong entirely to me (or even close to it). This placement is truly a partnership and a collaboration of minds.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Buagbaln Village – A New Home

Everyday I wake up at 5:15am to the sound of my alarm and talking outside. Through my mosquito net, my eyes meet my humble thatched roof as my ears are greeted by the ever so familiar sound of sweeping outside. Sitting up from my bamboo sleeping mat, I open my door to see that the women in my household are already awake an active.

Eight year old Gretchen is already sweeping the compound floor as her mother Dana is still putting away the mosquito net the family slept under last night. It’s not long before Evelyn, Dana’s 16 year old daughter, returns from her first trip of getting water for the household. At this time I grab a bucket and piece of cloth and start my daily walk to get water. By the time I get to the borehole, there is already a line up and I am the out of place man waiting at the borehole among women from ages 8-60.

My host family lives in Buagbaln Village which is only a 10min bike ride away from town. Buagbaln is unlike the other 90 percent of rural homes in the Saboba and Chereponi districts because it is fortunate enough to have electricity. Though my host family has the same livelihood as 90% of the population in the district (farming), because of their proximity to the main town, electricity has reached their doorstep. Another great benefit to living close to Saboba town is access to education, health care, and markets.

I chose to live with a host family so that I could learn more of the Ghanaian culture and more importantly gain an appreciation and understanding of the living conditions and livelihoods of the majority of Saboba’s population. Though my host family has an important luxury that other villages can’t dream of, I have learned a great deal from them already, and am starting to gain a much better perspective of the challenges that people living in poverty face everyday.

The only one who speaks fluent English is my host brother Philip. Through him I communicate with the rest of my family. Though I am very thankful for this limitation because it forces me to learn the alien language spoken in the region: Linkpapa. Every night we have reflection time, where I write in my journal and he writes what he did that day on some paper I gave him. After he finishes, I read over and correct his grammatical mistakes, and it is through this he hopes to improve his English. Recognizing that Philip has a lot to teach me, I am going to start recording my day’s activities as well, except in Linkpapa. Then he will be able to help me in my learning just as I am helping him. This creates a two-way knowledge transfer, which I feel local people sometimes forget, in that they can teach foreigners a thing or two.

Office Work? . . . Really?

As you read about what I am doing here in Saboba, many of you may be caught off guard. I understand that you may have thought I would be working in the field with those living in poverty and interacting with them first hand. I know that an office job was not what most expected when they heard I was going to Africa, and it probably doesn’t come to mind when you think about alleviating poverty. Allow me to explain why it is that I am doing what I am doing.

The ultimate aim of why I am here is to help development move along and specifically help the rural poor. What does “help the rural poor” mean? To me that means: allowing the voice of the rural poor to be heard, for their needs to be met, and for them to gain access to whatever their priority is. What I’ve realized from being here is that the way that development is carried out is much more complicated than just providing communities with what they need.

Let’s start off there. How does one find out what a community needs? You go to the field and ask them. But in that activity of going to the field, approach is important, to make sure that the true needs of ALL the people, even the marginalized ones, are heard. Through side projects and being a part of field activities, I am able to make sure that proper plans are made and good methods are used to get that critical information from communities. Not to suggest that this is not already done.

Now let’s say that the field implementers are experts at what they are doing, which in many cases they are, how do you transfer that information so that it can be used for accurate decision making? Documentation becomes important as well as analysis. To make decisions based on the needs of the people and to be able to provide them with the services they require, decisions need to be made on accurate and up to date information. Thus information management becomes crucial to provide communities with quality services. It is funny because I would have never thought that improved reporting and information management would ever be important in development, but when you have the multiple needs of 400 communities, resource constraints, and unexpected occurrences such as floods and droughts plaguing your environment, how could you ever cater to your people without accurate information?

However, information is only as good as it is used. So assuming that good data has been collected and documented; analysis and evidence based decision making is the next step. Making sure that communities gain access to services based on need, and ranking, and not for a number of other biases is the true crux. The rural poor will only develop if fair and well-informed decisions and plans are made. How does one begin to rank and prioritize the seemingly infinite problems with such a finite amount of resources?

As you can see from the trend, to truly develop the district and start to reduce poverty, there are key components that need to be present in the local government in order to facilitate that process. It is because of this need that I find myself working as a consultant, over an implementer. For sustainable development to occur, the district’s capacity must be built first.

Gap Filling


The section of my work is really intended to do two things. Accelerate the workings of the District Assembly to make time for the more important things, such as getting out into the field and providing for the rural poor. The second objective is to try and build credibility and trust with my partner organization (the District Assembly) and to share knowledge and skills along the way. I have a lot to learn about this organization if I am going to contribute to its improvement, and an outside perspective is extremely useful in improving processes here at the District Assembly. This partnership is truly an exchange of skills.

The previous post, The Task Ahead, provides a good overview of how things are working, however here is a short re-cap to help you understand the following post. The District Assembly (Assembly for short) carries out its own projects that have been highlighted in the medium term development plan (Mentioned in the “My assigned tasks” post). The Assembly doesn’t have enough resources, human or financial, to get the work done however so non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Donor Projects come in to fill in the gaps.

NGOs are the small organizations that get contracted out to do work. Donor Projects are the big international government backed projects that are really driving the activities on the ground. District Wide Assistance Program funded by our very own government of Canada (CIDA) is an example of a Donor Project. This project is very simple in that money is available to the District Assemblies to apply for, and upon being granted funds they are to undertake the projects of their choice with the money.

Other Donor Projects are rigid guidelines and are more specific in their intended use. Currently in the district there are at least 8 of these Donor Projects. Now I will go into the side projects I have found myself working on.

In Detail

The first is a Northern Region Poverty Reduction Program (NORPREP) evaluation. NORPREP is a big Donor Project that is working in the district. They have asked the Assembly to do an evaluation of the work that a smaller NGO did for them. I have been working on this project in order to pilot new ways of doing evaluations, as well as to improve the quality of reports that we write in efforts of making the knowledge we gain from the field more useful to other people.

The second is working with the Natural Disaster Management Organization. This is a branch of the government that is responsible for managing and distributing relief items to people affected by natural disasters (such as the floods last year). My role with them will be to do the allocation of the rest of the relief items and to make sure that accurate reporting is done to aid in transparency.

Last, I have just started working on a new Community Based Rural Development Project that is providing the district with a large sum of money to do road rehabilitation after the floods last year. My role in that project is to ensure a transparent and evidence based decision making process for deciding which roads get rehabilitated.

For now those are the only side projects I have on the go, in addition to my three other large work streams. It makes for a long 10 hour day, but keeps me busy which is why I came here.

My Assigned Tasks

After three weeks at work my task has been laid out for me. Since starting work on March 19, I have been helping out in the office on various projects, as well as attending meetings and workshops to find out just how the District Assembly works. Through the small work I have done and informal conversations with co-workers and supervisors, I have generated a fairly good idea of the problems here at the District Assembly and have now started to address these issues.

I will start by giving some background into the governmental set up of Ghana. Right now I am working at the district level of government. Ghana is divided into regions (the equivalent of our provinces) and then into districts. The District Assembly is responsible for all development projects in its district. Any Non-governmental organizations (NGO) working in the district must first get permission form the District Assembly, and usually end up cooperating with the local government. As well, money from the national level of government is allocated to each District Assembly so that it can deliver services to its people.

In essence I am here to serve two functions. To provide an extra set of hands in any given development project to help services get out quicker and improve the quality of services to the rural poor. The second is to act as a consultant to this government structure, and strengthen its institutional capacity so that it can perform better in my absence.


This is the part of my work where I am just working on any given project to help move things along, and also learn about how the District Assembly works and how to improve it. So far this has been anything from helping with report writing, to monitoring and evaluation of previous projects, to developing ranking criteria for citing projects.


The following tasks were identified by my boss and myself upon observing some of the bottlenecks here at the district.

1) The evaluation of the four year medium term plan. Every district creates a four year medium term development plan which determines all of the projects they will do for the following 4 years. This plan is also supposed to be monitored as it goes, which has been done to some extent but could be improved upon. My job is to actually look at the medium term development plan and see how much has been completed, and most importantly, what we can learn from what we've done, etc.

2) While doing the evaluation of the four year medium term plan, we will also gather the community’s needs, priorities, and suggestions. From all this information we will make the new development plan for the two new districts (the district I was originally posted two has split into two).

3) Through both of these activities I am to resuscitate the district planning and co-ordinating unit. This committee of people is responsible for all the planning and decision making with regards to any development projects in the district. My boss strongly feels that improvement in this area could really improve the effectiveness of the District Assembly.

4) Creating a better information management system. Ensuring that key information is gathered, organized and stored efficiently so that decisions can be made based on evidence.

5) Computer training of the staff.

That is my work in brief. I wish there was a way to boil it down into a simpler picture, but as I have come to learn, the development industry is convoluted mess of different players and activities that makes it difficult to wrap your brain around at first.