Friday, August 13, 2010

Ethnic Diversity (2)

Tanzania, as Miguel points out in an article I’ve been reading, had even abolished the post of the tribal chief in favour of a community council as part of its nation building policy. This really stuck out for me because I imagined the backlash that it could potentially create in my district. The social structure of Ghana is very tied to titles, honours and the established hierarchy. Not only do people love and capitalize on their own titles, but they also take advantage of honours given to those with whom they are well connected. Were the chief to be removed, even in the absence of a challenger, it would not only provoke resistance from the chiefs but also their families and friends. Even some who can claim no connection may resist out of the immense respect community members have for the office.

If this actually went through, a community council would have to be formed to replace the chief because current governing bodies cannot take on his former responsibilities. For example, accusations of witchcraft cannot reasonably be handled by a government office and should not be left to hot-headed community members. Perhaps more relevant is that the chief is currently responsible for divvying up land and settling minor conflicts which will not be settled by the law.

A farmer whose crops are being eaten by another man’s donkey cannot take his claim to court. He cannot afford the fees for one, and also the matter would seem too trivial to involve the justice system. Subsistence farmers are just getting by, though, and even without complications some families are reduced to one meal per day in the lean season. If the donkey continues destroying his crops, he will likely suffer greatly as a result.

Currently, this farmer can take the donkey to the chief’s palace. When the owner is found, he must also come and the chief will usually decide that he is required to pay a fine and somehow control his donkey in the future. If the chieftancy is dissolved, a body must be created that can provide this sort of recourse to community members, and I assume this is the role of the community council (the role of the council hasn‘t been explained in the article, and I have no resources to look it up, but I think this is a fair conclusion to jump to).

Presumably the council will be made up of members from each tribe. This would be a necessity in the beginning (and probably a reasonable precaution in the future) because tribal ties would still dominate over community or national identity at this point in time. If, in the case above, one farmer belonged to the Bimoba tribe, and the other belonged to the Konkoomba tribe, each council member would be biased in favour of his or her kinsman, presenting a challenge to the effectiveness of the council.

You could make the argument that in the selection process one would hope individuals were screened for excessive tribal biases, but in my experience it is unlikely that this would occur. One reason is that many candidates would pursue a position on the council for the sake of the title. If this is the motivation for a council member’s presence, he is less likely to prioritize the ideal of an unbiased council over his own personal values and affiliations. Sadly, many people are well-practiced at saying just what you want to hear, so it is difficult to identify these candidates in the selection process. Rather than using an application/interview/reference procedure, though, you could potentially avoid this problem by selecting members of the community who have historically demonstrated fairness and openness throughout their lives. If that is the case, who does the nominating and selecting? It seems natural that elder members of the community would be chosen based on the social hierarchy. While this is valid older people are statistically more attached to traditional beliefs and tribalism so it increases the likelihood of bias in the council members.

The way I understand it, MoFA addresses this issue by transferring workers out of their home district. While it works for a national ministry, at the community level it would take ownership from the people. Also, local people may be more committed to community progress than outsiders. In response they may not accept the new system at all. Actually, even if council was composed of community members, how do you actually “dissolve” the chieftancy? Wouldn’t there be many who just ignored the imposed change? What exactly did Tanzania do so well that got the chiefs to step down and people to change their behaviour so drastically? I would love to learn more about the implementation of this process in Tanzania.

Ethnic Diversity (1)

I’ve hijacked a copy of Understanding Poverty from Gumani house, and some of the articles seem very relevant to the district I’m working in. One in particular, Ethnic Diversity and Poverty Reduction by Edward Miguel, talks about different nation-building policies in Kenya and Tanzania. It presents a case study on similar districts in each country and how their respective nation-building policies have influenced the way ethnic groups in each area relate to one another.

In the case study, you see how Kenya’s public policies and education systems have promoted local identities over one national identity, while in Tanzania the exact opposite has taken place. Tanzanians have made Swahili the national language. The benefit of this is that it is ethnically neutral (people of most tribes speak this) but it is also not closely associated with British colonial rule. In the Tanzania, history lessons begin with the national history and students are taught the local histories as they get older. In Kenya, the local histories are taught first and students do not begin learning about Kenyan national history until level five - by which point many have already dropped out. The essay attributes a lot of the differences here to the first post-independence leaders of each country. Tanzanian leaders adopted a pan-African view and saw tribalism as a challenge to the Tanzanian identity (in the decision making process, arguments related to ethnicity are not admitted). In Kenya, early leaders were tribalists who benefited and even may have supported ethnic conflict in certain regions.

Miguel attributes strong ethnic ties to distrust at the community level and resistance to decisions which would benefit other groups over your own - regardless of relative need. Schools with diverse student populations have a harder time finding funding or getting parental support because there is conflict in the community over which tribe has ownership of control of the school. This problem will extend to any community-level decision making, creating a huge challenge to self-driven development. If a community suffers from a divide like this, how can they collectively take ownership over a project? How can they commit to a behaviour change if there is not trust among all stakeholders? I would love to see if anyone working on CLTS has noticed a difference between working with ethnically diverse communities and relatively homogenous ones.

In Bunkpurugu town, the different tribes seem to get along fairly well. It is in the outlying communities of the district that conflicts have erupted. Houses were burned down, people were killed, and many crops were lost. Luckily it seems to have tamed before the planting season ended, but the delay and damage to the land means that many will have a hard time getting enough food to last the dry season. Also, people are now having to make the trade-off between rebuilding their homes and working the land for food. For these communities, I am realizing that the threat of ethnic conflict is the dominant factor affecting their food security. Before I came, I am not sure I would have automatically linked the two.

Repercussions of this conflict affect even more than general safety and food security. Because the community members are occupied trying to salvage their livelihoods, a local NGO has pulled out its extension services which were aimed at promoting school enrolment for young girls. They were achieving some results but the program stalled during the conflict and they could no longer justify the use of resources in that area. It is particularly disturbing because the community was chosen because it held traditional values that devalued education for girls which served to isolate and disempower them. All governmental involvement is now focused on peacekeeping and issues like this have to be ignored for the time being.

The most important thing that I have learned here is that there is no real coordinated movement of one tribe against another. Avery case of ethnic conflict that I have heard of in the district stems from conflict between individuals. In the 1990s, twenty two people died in an fight that arose when a member of one tribe stole a guinea fowl from a member of the other tribe. When the owner went to complain about the stolen guinea fowl, he was beaten by the burglar’s family. Members of the owner’s family retaliated and the situation escalated into a war between the two tribes. Similarly, two tribes are currently in conflict with each other because one man bought land from another, who then took it back.

A friend of mine explained to me that the tribal identities begin in early childhood. He told me about a football team that was practicing and one boy tackled another. It was clearly a foul and all of the boys on the team knew it. Despite the fact that the boy was wrong, the other boys from his tribe sided with him and a began to fight with the others. In this case, the tribal identity took precedent over the team spirit and even the established rules of the game. He explained that were the same boy to have fouled one from his own tribe, the punishment would have been given and the game would have continued without a problem.

Extending this mentality to adulthood, one can easily see how these individual disputes explode into ethnic conflict. The sense of right and wrong is even trumped by tribal loyalty. So what of self-policing? Miguel talks about a system where tribes punish their own members for wrongs committed against other tribes. It seems like common sense, so why don’t people practice it here?

I am not sure why. Perhaps people don’t make the connection between the offence and the suffering brought on by the conflict. Because it doesn’t seem to them like the offender actually caused the conflict, then there is no need to punish. But if an act which would bring conflict could be seen as a wrong committed against one’s own tribe, then self-policing becomes a natural option. Publicly sanctioning the individual would also give some satisfaction to the other tribe and likely prevent retaliation. Any chapter members (or anyone, really) have any info on places where introducing this system has actually worked? What kind of problems do you see with implementing something like this?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Quality of Life vs. Economic Progress

Most of the other volunteers have had to put up with complaining about being isolated in my district. In a way, this is a personal challenge that I have had to deal with but in terms of where I stand on development it seems to have changed everything for me.

I have tended to define development as an increase in quality of life. I could take or leave economic progress, since to me it was just one of many potential means of helping the poor. It even seemed like one of the least efficient! The trickle down is such a long, laboured, and loss-filled process that I tended to question the value of focusing any foreign aid efforts on economies.

Now that I am here I am beginning to see that I was skipping a step with that mentality. There are government and NGO workers all over Ghana working to improve the lives of the poor. They are trying to implement projects that increase food security, access to credit and other services. They work in offices that need electricity, they have to write proposals to get funding and submit reports to keep it. They need resources to support extension and aid projects and often they need to travel to get it.

As EWBers we see ourselves as frontline or ground-level development workers. We want our work to be people-focused so we take this sort of grassroots approach. But if we really want to be people focused, we also need to focus on THESE people. Working with extension agents to help farmer groups has driven this point home for me. They have a huge coverage area and are getting some great results when they equipped with a program that is appropriate for the number of resources they have. Enabling these workers is probably the most effective point of action for improving quality of life.

For many districts that are not so isolated this support can come from changes in training services like those that our APS are working on. My district, however, would benefit less from these types of things. We have five staff and all intend to keep their jobs for some time. With such a low rate of turnover it will be decades before Bunkpurugu Yunyoo sees the benefit of improved training at the agric colleges.

Decentralization is the one big one that has potential to really improve operations for us. Currently any application for funding has to go up the ladder through the regional office to MoFA National. With no access to internet (or fax) things need to go by post or they need to be taken to the regional office in Tamale. It’s the same for reporting or any other communication that needs to go between the different levels.

It’s a three hour drive to Walawale, where the road becomes bearable, then another forty minutes or so until Tamale. Because of this pain, anyone who goes to Tamale for one reason or another wants to delay there for a few days before returning. I think it has been nearly two months since we’ve had a day where everyone was in the office. In the past month I think this is the third time I have had power for a whole day. Many days the electricity will fail around nine in the morning and not return until four or five. That is a whole day of productivity lost and it is anything but uncommon.

So how do you enable development workers to be productive? Pave the roads. Get more busses running from the area. Get more transformers in town (there are two for a population of 2-3000). Get internet for the office. Get reliable cell phone service. The thing is every decision has to be made at national to satisfy everyone in the districts, and any district-level decision has to satisfy all the tribes.

There is a patch of paved road in the middle of the long and rocky stretch from Bunkpurugu to Walawale. When I came I thought this was the strangest thing in the world, but in Ghana it makes sense. Road maintenance falls under national jurisdiction. National has only allocated a certain portion of its budget to roads and there is clearly not enough in this budget to pave all the roads that need paving. Rather than distributing the funding by assessing the relative need of each proposed paving job, they just decided to pave the worst patch of multiple roads so that no one would complain of being neglected.
This decision was meant to save some political face at the expense of effective planning. No problem was solved - every one of these roads is still terrible! This kind of problem is extended to most types of decision making here, so it becomes a little depressing to rely on the government to provide the required infrastructure to start thinking about people-focused development.

If we zoom out to infrastructure and services that can be distributed by the private sector, there is a slight amount of hope in this. One of the big successes that I see is that nearly everyone here has a cell phone. The service itself is terrible, partially because there is no high-performance competitor and partially because the towers are somewhat dependant on an unreliable electrical grid. There is a decent amount competition with respect to prices, though, and for that reason most people can actually afford to use the services.

It seems it took a small amount of innovation to bypass the severe resource restrictions of Northern Ghana. This sort of innovation is by necessity based on a capitalist western economy. Publicly traded companies like Vodafone have to show increases in their profits each year. Eventually this means accessing new markets ,and at one point I’m sure Bunkpurugu had been pretty inaccessible. It was geographically isolated with a small population, so physically connecting any physical network would be unwise. In addition, people here have unreliable incomes and a history of defaulting on payment plans. By choosing to exclusively provide pay-as-you go cell service they have been able to earn profit despite those challenges.

Though they were certainly not out to improve lives, the effect of their presence is an increase in both productivity and quality of life. So why aren’t we seeing the same kind of innovation in other areas? Unfortunately you don’t see a lot of the innovative spirit in publicly administered services (electricity, WatSan, etc.) which are not transparent enough to be held fully accountable to those who use them.

It seems I have dug myself into a place where I would argue to encourage privatization of essential services. Investment and competition from multinationals would mean that they would be more efficiently distributed and a side-effect would be increased resources for those who are working with the poor. The government could play a more hands-off role of providing incentives for the required investment from the private sector.

This is still very far from what I believe, but the arguments against this kind of thought are harder to articulate and perhaps this is why they have so much influence. If the private sector is allowed to drive development, though, then development is driven not by need but by potential markets. Project managers are not asking “What do people need?” but “What will people pay for?” You could argue it doesn’t matter what motivates something which is benefiting a country/economy, but here is huge danger in allowing a necessarily amoral body to control essential resources. We always talk about how inequality grows with privatization because the buying power of the poor who buy least will decrease even more. Private development best serves those who area well positioned to consume.

I have absolutely no experience in economics, so I would love input from people who know what they’re talking about. There is something in me that wants to remain anti-globalization, but I am not entirely sure what it is. I am a little annoyed that somehow I’ve been driven from my old ideal but have been given no new one I can be satisfied with. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Food Rainbow!

The Canadian Food Guide: follow the rainbow and at the end you'll find good health. Coming to Ghana, now, it's striking how great a metaphor this is for good nutrition. You have to be lucky enough to be born in a western country to find this pot of gold with any ease.

For all of us Canadians, it's been engrained in our minds. I never consciously thought about it while making my food choices in Canada, but if I look back I can see that for most of my life I've been meandering down the rainbow road.

Perhaps it's that thoughts of the four food groups still camp out in the backcountry of my consciousness, silently guiding my choices. Maybe I just like diversity and so it all get s represented in my daily regiment. It's also possible that it was my body, not my mind, planting those cravings for yogurt and greek salad after the "occaasional" poutine bendesr.

In any case, the only reason I was even able to do this was because of all the food available in Canada. A simple trip to the grocery store gets me everything from sushi to mini-pizzas, with endless choices in every food group. If I so choose, I can even ditch the decent diet idea and still stay healthy. There are protein supplements,fibre supplements multivitamins, enzymes and bioactives. All this on top of the fact that most of our food products are already enriched with some key vitamin or mineral.

In contrast, the food products people rely on in my district often come directly from the producers or local processers. This means that a person's diet is completely restricted by what is grown in the region and what is in season. Iodized salt (to prevent goiters) is the only widely-used enriched food product I've seen, and it is even relatively new in northern Ghana.

I'm not saying that there's no healthy food here. While mango trees are absolutely everwhere, bananas and plantains have to be transported from the more fertile south. The dry-season farmers produce cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes and watermelon. Many women process peanuts and soybeans, creating opportunity for people to access protein rich foods.

What I am saying is that you have to be far more proactive about your diet in Ghana, and there are challenges to this. Some farming families don't like to buy food from others when they can feed themselves on their own crops. Also, fruits and vegetables seem to be regarded as a treat rather than as a necessity.

The things about a healthy diet in Bunkpurugu is that you have to be proactive. You actually have to seek out the dietary diversity we tend to stumble upon at home. It seems so simple, but the markets are crowded and some people have to walk for miles to get there. When they do they need to barter for nearly everything they buy - including the fruits and vegetables which are expensive than the mystery leaf which seems to have a standard price. Besides this the leafy thing is absolutely everywhere while if you want a banana you have to go early and hunt it down.

I go banana hunting, but that's because I'm trying desperately to stay on my fading rainbow. If I lived in rural Ghana, with and didn't go to school to learn about rainbows ... why would I look for a pot of gold?


I have been talking about the rains so much lately. Maybe it's because they seem so fascinating, being remnants of the monsoons I have heard of all my life. It also could be that since I am working with farmers, I may be growing affectionate them as the source of their livelihood. Who knows?

I have finally, however, found my first "bone to pick" with the rains. Bugs ... I hate bugs.

Some bugs breed in the puddles and ponds. Some are forced out of their undergound havens when they fill up with water. Some are attracted by the population explosion of other, more edible, bugs. In any case, the rains have outed them and the bright lights of the compound have led them to me.

It began one night, when I "woke" to a tickle on my inner thigh. Typically this sensation is the work of an ant or a housefly, so I barely bothered to attempt consciousness as I slapped the annoying offender. My entire palm made contact with a spindly mass, flailing against the advance. Had I realized in time, I may have changed my slap to a less destructive flick and avoided disaster. I didn't, though, and the resulting smoosh was epic.

I nearly cried. Now fully aware, I had heard the splash and felt the slimey moisture cover my skin. I aimed my flashlight at the spot, hesitated, then flicked it on. There pasted to my leg was what I can only describe as a daddy-long-legs suffering from elephantitis of the everything. The beast alone would have been gross enough, but unfortunately the egg sack it had been carrying brought me to the edge of vomiting. I cleaned myself off, crawled back in bed, and hoped that this would be an isolated incident.

While that experience remains the most traumatic of my bug-related stories, I actually had to ask my host father to kill one particular wall-spider last night. It was a fast-moving thing, bigger than the last, but significantly more armoured. Its legs were thick and angled forward, and its back reminded me of a beetle. I asked him to do it because it was tinted red, and something in the back of my head tells me colours mean poison. I don't know if this one counts, but I didn't want to chance it. Anyway, despite having taken several blows from a flip-flop, I have reason to believe it is still alive. When I woke this morning, it was perched above my bed - three legs fewer than what it had had the night before. I think it was planning something.

My war with the bugs is not just limited to spiders, though. They have banded together, all over them. Shifting their tactics to more subtle advances, coming smaller and in great numbers. Their spies are everywhere. I even have to purge my clothes of them in the morning before I put them on.

Some are relatively harmless. I could almost get used to them. The grasshoppers climb the walls, comedically jumping out at me from random places. The hit me in the face. They bounce around inside my skirt. They particularly like to land on me when I'm changing or bathing, maximizing the grossed-outedness of the experience.

The beetles and bugs of that sort just crawl around being interesting, though. Some are dark and huge, I imagine they are dung beetles, but I don't know. Others are tiny, failing in their attempt at camouflage ask they crawl across my curtains. The cream-coloured satin providing little refuge for the many dressed as leaves or rocks.

Less harmless are the mosquitos and moth-like things, and finally the fleas. At least I think they're fleas. They're tiny and white, they jump, and I believe they only come in packs of millions. The only thing is that they don't seem to bite - or at least if they do I don't notice. They just jump on me like I'm some sort of giant person-shaped bouncy castle.

The jerks are the only ones who have made it past my mosquito net, invading what I thought was my permethrin-treated fortress of solitude. Maybe they were in the bed when I came, or maybe I carried them in from somewhere else, but however it happened, I have been overtaken. This never happened to superman ...

I couldn't even send a text message last night! Every time the backlight of the phone came on it seems to stir them to rebellion! They would leap to my screen, and though I tried to squish them all it was like playing a level 10592 game of whack-a-mole.

In the end I settled for closing my eyes, lying very still. Either they fell asleep, stopped noticing me, or I stopped noticing them.


The rain of the last few days has saturated the soil with some much-needed moisture. It is coming more often lately, and with less monsoon-esque rage than the first few I had experienced.

In Momboga, the first rain in nearly a month had crashed into my compound and ripped me from the depths of R.E.M.. The Aluminum roof buckled and roared under the air raid above. Dazed, and still half asleep, I had no idea what was going on. Even when I did come to my senses, I'd have felt more comfortable tenting through a hurricane.

The next one came almost a week later, when I had made it back home to Bunkpurugu. Ghanaian storms are heralded by powerful winds, so when the chairs start blowing around, you know you have about five minutes to put everything away and get inside. Against the oncoming weather, I tied the screen door shut and settled down for the night.

When the third rain came, I was out in the rice fields helping to plant. The morning had been hot, and the sun was beating down on us. It was almost in an instant that the clouds came over and the winds started picking up the dust our of the field. It was fairly far from the town, so the children threw together everything we'd brought and broke into a run. They yelled at me to do the same, so I reluctantly kept up.

In reality, I couldn't wait to be caught in the rain! Through my time here my experience with water of any kind has been limited to bucket showers, PureWater saches, and the sound of the rain on the roof as I slept. Now, I was about to be surrounded.

As the leading front of the storm reached our field, the water misted on wind like an ocean spray. I looked up into the clouds with a smile, wishing I could just plant my feet. I wanted to open my arms and wait for the storm to move over me.

The rain poured out, meaning to wash the earth clean. Looking around I felt as if there were an ocean in the air. The wind tugged at me like the waves, and if I took a deep breath in I would be carried off. An undertow in the the Ghanaian Savannah, where not even the rivers flow wildly.

I would have stopped, but the Ghanaians would have thought I was crazy and the children would have been obliged to wait for me. Plus, as awe-inspiring as lightning is ... it is well-deserved.


I'm not a terribly smelly person in Canada. Deodorant was always more of a habit than a necessity. Oh, there are exceptions of course, like those summer days working in the kitchen at The Lower Deck. But even then if there was a smell of sweat, it was hidden under the litres of grease and condiments I spilled on myself daily.

Apparently being transported from a lovely temperate spring to the tail end of the Ghanaian dry season has put an end to my BO immunity. I've been bathing twice a day, each usually followed three milliseconds of sweatless glory, but this is clearly not enough. By 6:30am, I am again afraid to sit next to people lest I enshroud them in the visible green cloud that must surround me.

Fortunately, as I said, I came in at the tail-end of the dry season and it seems I have made it through. After three weeks or so, I can officially say the rainy season has begun. While there are still often extremely hot days, they are interrupted by amazing rainfalls followed by days full of cool, moist breezes.

Today is one of those days, and I have to smile at the familiarity of the feeling. Very little time in my life has been spent so far from the ocean, and it's hard not to notice that the air is different. Bunkpurugu does not have a permanent water body, and even though the rivers are beginning to fill, they are not exactly the St. John. But you know that smell in the air right after it rains? Well, Ghana has it too.

The wind is blowing in through the window, almost thick as it brushes my arms and cool as I take it in. I've felt this feeling so many times before. It was there while I was sitting on a log outside my tent in Fundy National Park. It was there while I was posing for a picture with Jack Sparrow on the waterfront. It was there in my parents house in July, with all the windows open, getting ready to go down to the concert.

Now it's here in Ghana, while I'm sitting in the office, thinking that maybe I'm not so far away after all.