Archive for January, 2011

Someone’s Grandfather

The other day I was eating lunch at my regular spot enjoying some plain rice with tomato stew and fresh vegetables and chicken, but was interrupted by an old man. He appeared abnormal; something about him was off, and I could tell by his shoddy looking appearance and through his face – in particular his eyes. He greeted me (which is quite normal here) as he slowly approached and I reciprocated. He looked as though he was selling some small clothing items like shorts or underwear or something of the like. I felt no threat whatsoever neither did he cause me discomfort, for it is quite easy to distinguish the mentally ill (such as schizophrenics) by their exceptionally unclean appearance. So I continued to eat.

As the old man was walking away a young motorcycle electrician nearby called out to the old man in the local language and him and his friends starting laughing – I assume it was some sort of joke at the old man’s expense and rather insulting based on the proceeding events. The old man came back and walked right over to the guy and started talking in a stern voice with vivid hand gestures, at times he spoke in broken English saying something like “I will slap you small boy!” Some of the things the old man said caused most of the adult observers to burst out laughing at the old man who wasn’t all there upstairs.

In any other situation a younger person would rarely ever say anything remotely insulting to an older person as hierarchy is very strictly socially engrained and enforced, however when someone is considered “mad”, that is, mentally ill, the rules don’t seem to apply. In similar cases, like at the office with a distant Ministry staff that comes in once in a while, I found myself laughing along with all the others at the “crazy” man’s random and comical comments. This time I wasn’t laughing I was rather disturbed, and I don’t write this from a high horse – a few other witnesses showed all but smiles on their faces. I remember a few people gazed in my direction to see my reactions and upon seeing my disappointed face their smile receded a bit almost like being reminded that it really isn’t funny. I’ve been on the other side before, in Canada and in Ghana as I’ve just mentioned; had it been a different day and had I been in a different mood I might well have been laughing along.

But this time I was upset, the dignity of the old man was publicly being attacked by a young guy who was getting a laugh off someone less fortunate. I was happy to see the young man’s face turn from a smile to a look of concern when the old man stood up for himself and threatened to slap the ‘small boy’ – which he has every right to do here in this instance. I highly doubt anyone would oppose this sort of action; if a young person insults an old person you can expect conflict.

The whole time this was happening I could not stop thinking and hearing in my head: “what if that was your grandfather?” The fact of the matter is this man is someone’s grandfather (whether they are proud of it, ashamed of it or somewhere in the middle). It made me think about the mentally ill people here who, in my opinion, are the worst off wandering the streets without shoes, wearing filthy ripped clothing, looking so alone, or the homeless mentally ill men and women in Canada with no social assistance due to 30 years (and counting) of cutbacks. These are people and they need to be treated as such; they are someone’s mother, brother, daughter, father, sister, son, grandmother, or grandfather.

I thought to myself in between bites, “good on you old man, put that boy in his place“. After the old man made his point and had enough arguing, he slowly walked away and his frustrated frown turned to a kind, friendly and innocent smile as his greeted me again while leaving.



Development projects often come with handouts, “free stuff for people who can’t afford it on their own”. This one is a bit complicated and gray. From one side it makes sense (morally, ethically, and I guess rationally) to give to those who don’t have and most of whom can’t get even if they try, like giving a poor subsistence farmer free fertilizer, materials to build a structure to store crops, or a pumping machine to farm in the dry season. From a different angle, giving handouts reinforces the external and internal perception that “you are poor and need help” and I would even argue further that it can lead to “you can’t help yourself”. After years of reinforcing this (unknowingly I’m sure and with the best moral intentions) it seems embedded in people at times – from my perspective and from the majority of people I work with. Why would someone struggle and work hard to innovate and take risks when there’s probably an NGO that will come by to give you something you might need? But this has lead to people waiting for the next NGO handout rather than taking action.


One example someone here once told me was a farmer who worked extra hard, saved money, tried new things and found new ways to make some extra money, and was finally able to buy their own donkey and cart (a common way to transport goods in the rural areas) without any support. Then an NGO came in shortly after and gave away donkeys and carts for free. So next time around when the farmer needs something to improve their livelihood why not wait for an NGO project to come along? I see this as an empowerment issue. What I mean is that after years of colonialism and social Darwinism (theory that Africans are biologically and genetically inferior, which persists in more subtle ways to this day), development projects giving handouts, and hearing and learning about the outside world as a paradise I think have all lead to a reinforcing mentality that ‘you are poor and need help’ which decreases dignity and motivation. But how can you empower people? How can you instill the drive, motivation, confidence, possibility, and determination for people to believe that they can overcome great challenges and take charge of their own development?


This leads to another interesting relevant aspect that I recalled from one of my essays in university: the use of the term “empowerment” can lead to individualizing the responsibility and effectively blaming the poor for their own plight leaving it up to them to deal with their own problems. This overlooks and obscures how external intervention (colonialism, slavery, trade policies, etc.) contributed and contribute to the problem. Also, putting all the focus on individuals leaves the government off the hook. For instance, if we only focus on empowering people to overcome their challenges then what’s the role of the government? Should a poor widow and her 4 children be responsible to pay for the hydro pole if she wants electricity in her home (which is the reality here right now)? Should farming families or communities be responsible for securing their own safety? Should they have to pay 10,000$ to drill a well so they can all have access to clean water? Should they have to pave a road so they can actually travel to the market to buy the bare necessities when it rains instead of getting stuck in the mud? Should they have to pay for basic medical treatment or life saving malaria drugs? Sure we can debate the role of the private or public sector ideologically or practically, and some might argue that privatization of some things is good (at least on paper) but I doubt they could go to the village and tell the widow and her kids that she is responsible for her own plight and if she can’t afford it then tough luck. And wealth doesn’t trickle down, there’s people here driving Mercedes Benz with giant houses, and their spending isn’t bringing up the small industries nor is it trickling down to the rural village. “Trickle down” is argument wealthy people make to justify inequality and a lack of distribution of wealth, thereby justifying their own wealth (poor people work just as hard or even harder than rich people, so the ‘I worked hard to get where I am’ argument can be throw out with the bath water as well).


In terms of education, Governments, NGOs and development organizations can build all the schools they want and everyone will feel warm and fuzzy, but if the Ghana Education Service Ministry can’t afford to pay teachers a decent salary to teach on regular basis, or if there are no accountability measures to ensure teachers show up regularly to teach, or if teachers have to travel far to get to the school and their salary isn’t enough to cover travel costs then the next generation will continue to get a less than ideal quality of education and illiteracy will persist – and all the problems linked to an uneducated population. And, if the education system methods (i.e. pedagogy) are based off the West’s model of teaching obedience and reinforcing hierarchy, competition, and memorization rather than analytical/critical thinking skills, group work, and how to think on your own and question why things are they way they are, then schools will just be nice buildings for kids to play in. And the cycle will continue.


Let’s not forget about external factors, I haven’t mentioned how Ghana, a rice producing country, imports the majority of its rice. Not a bad thing in of itself but when industrialized countries subsidize their agriculture sector then dump cheap produce on developing countries with such low prices that domestic farmers can’t even compete, it’s a problem – especially when the majority of your population is depending on farming for their livelihood. Without getting into this point too much, through international trade agreements and policies industrial countries heavily subsidize their agriculture sector while at the same time push developing countries to open up their markets and reduce tariffs, which hurts local farmers.


It’s pretty complicated, so much that it’s hard to understand and especially to try and describe. Like people living in the rural areas, subsistence farming, living hand to mouth, how much power do they even have? What can they accomplish under the conditions they face with little to no access to opportunities or chances to improve? How empowered would you or I be to stand up and spend time and energy to make changes in our community or individual lives when our daily living is a constant struggle to make ends meet, where politicians come and go preaching messages that rarely turn into actions or that often benefit only certain classes of people, and when NGOs and development projects come and give out free stuff that you need. These are some of the struggles I have contemplating what development is and what the role of different actors is – meager compared to the daily struggles of many Ghanaians here. I’ve listed off a lot of problems and challenges here, so what needs to be done? Well that’s the simple question, I have plenty of ideas as do the people here I work with and live with, as do people who have spent years even their lives trying to solve problems of development. It’s not about answering the question “what needs to happen?” that’s not all that difficult, the difficulty is when you have a good idea of what needs to happen but then have to answer the question “how can we make this happen?”. Think about the challenges listed above, I’m sure you can come up with some ideas or potential solutions as to what needs to happen. But, figuring out what needs to happen isn’t the challenge of development, it’s figuring out how.


Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, it’s much easier to criticize and pick things apart than actually develop creative solutions – I suppose this post is more of a venting exercise than a strategy for action. I’ll make the next post more constructive.


Across the country the government, through the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, has implemented a project called Block Farms. Basically each regional and district office was given instructions from above to seek out large tracks of land to develop certain staple crops like maize, rice, soy bean, etc. Districts were given targets (# of hectares) which they must meet, and the plan was for the Ministry to give out the inputs needed (plowing services, seeds, and fertilizer) to farmers on credit. Once they harvested farmers would have to pay back the monetary value of the inputs or a certain amount of their harvest based on the amount of inputs they received.


On paper this is a good idea. Many farmers cannot afford the initial capital/start up costs to expand their small scale farms so giving them an interest free loan should help – especially considering how difficult it is to obtain a loan from the bank, and the high interest rates (25-30%) which make it difficult to turn a profit. However, like many development projects I’ve seen, heard of, and read about good ideas, intentions and designs aren’t necessarily implemented properly. In other words, the problem lies in how you do it not what it is you do.


I want to share this because it’s been the main priority at the office lately, passed down along the chain and from my perspective it’s difficult to do work outside the realm of Block Farms right now since it’s the district’s main priority. Aside from my perspectives based on the district realities I work within daily, I’m also backing this up with anecdotes, discussions, and opinions/perspectives from Ministry and EWB staff in other districts across this region and the neighbouring Northern region – to make the point that my experience in this district isn’t an isolated case.


So what happened? Farmers were given interest free loans and were only asked to pay back a (relatively small) portion of their harvest, thereby leading to more food being produced and hence improved food security. But the main challenges came about through inputs arriving late and dispersed late and I would also argue farmers perception of the government’s role in agriculture.


A classic yet tragic development implementation problem happened with the Block Farms: seeds and fertilizer came late. Rain-fed farming is dependent on timing and basically determines a poor or rich yield (among other factors of course). So when fertilizer arrives late and is applied late the crops miss out on essential nutrients at vital stages of their growth leading to stunting and poor yields1. And this is precisely what happened: late fertilizer = poor yields. Why the fertilizer came late I cannot say, I haven’t had much of a window into that aspect of the input supply chain, my guess is it has something to do with planning.


Thinking back to my time in Toronto during our pre-departure training we read a case study on a development project. We were given the context and in-depth information about the project design and purpose and were asked to analyze it critically. Since it was a real life practical example our group was surprised at how many problems we accurately predicted before hearing the results of what happened during implementation, however we didn’t foresee a significant problem: inputs arrived late. Let’s take a step back for a moment. Four semi-recent non-development graduates from university in their mid 20’s spent about 2-3 hours analyzing a 3 page case study and predicted the majority of the problems except for late delivery of inputs.

Again, I don’t have the answers as to why inputs came late and I don’t intend to look into it, so it’s likely I’m overlooking some important factors or unexpected challenges. Also, coming from Canada, I cannot remove my perceptions from my own context and background. What I mean here is that coming from a country where it seems like every industry is based on ‘just in time’ practices and worships clock time it’s difficult to understand why the project heads, designers, industry or whoever was responsible couldn’t coordinate the inputs to arrive on time.


Now it’s time to recover the bags of produce/ or money owed by farmers – “recovery season” as it’s referred to here at work. This is where all the problems accumulate and cause conflict. One factor that staff talks about is that farmers see the support given by the Ministry as help from the government rather than a legal or official contract (which all farmers who participated signed and therefore agreed to). I interpret this as how farmers perceive the government’s role in agriculture: one based on support and assistance such as technical knowledge, linking to NGO projects, and giving out inputs or other free services. That’s at least a partial reason why farmers aren’t paying back what they were given and why the Ministry is scrambling to recover its costs/loans. A major reason as I’m sure you guessed by now is that because late inputs lead to poor yields and farmers didn’t get enough bags of produce to get by on, let alone pay back to the Ministry. So now field staff forced to collect repayments from farmers. In some cases farmers with poor yields were asked for the only bags of produce they harvested. This can potentially damaging the vital relationship between farmers and Ministry field staff (sometimes seen as a personal attack rather than following orders and doing their job.


What’s also frustrating is that districts are spending the majority of their time on this project when they could be helping farmers in other ways. There are talented, smart, hard working people working at my district and districts across the country and if only they were given the freedom to develop their districts based on its needs (aka decentralization), I’m sure there would be some more progress on the ground.



1I haven’t studied agronomy or crop science; this statement is based on what educated technical field staff have told me

2After last year’s Block Farms there was a joint sector review where essentially all development partners pointed out the flaws of the project and recommended against continuing and scaling it nationally, the Ministry, or rather the politically appointed Minister decided to go ahead with it, demonstrating that Block Farms is a political project