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.