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The Capacity to Endure

If I say ‘sustainability’, what comes to your mind?

A very simple definition of sustainability would be the capacity to endure. I really like this definition.

In development, the key question of sustainability is the sustainability of the change you’re trying to create. In particular, does this change have the capacity to endure the end of the project or program.

The developing world is injected with trillions of dollars of aid every year. Is the change created by this support going to outlast the money funding it?

I’ve been ruminating over the issue of sustainability for a few days, since the project manager I’m working with made a comment that the M4P (Making Markets Work Better for the Poor) framework had a really interesting definition for sustainability. It’s a bit more wordy than the capacity to endure, but I think it captures exactly how I see the purpose of the work I’m doing:

M4P is about creating the foundation for lasting change where market systems are better equipped to respond to future needs and priorities. It acknowledges that the lives and livelihoods of the poor are continually adapting to the changing environment around them, and that the poor need solutions that adapt with them.

The M4P approach recognises that the process through which market system constraints are identified and addressed is as important as the solution itself. If the system, its functions and players, can be equipped to meet future challenges and continue to meet the changing needs of the poor then impact is sustained, rather than short-lived or dependent on further injections of aid. 

I don’t imagine many people would disagree with the definition. The real debate comes in when one person or project declares “Yes! What I’m doing is sustainable!” and another person disagrees and asks, “Ummm… Are you sure?” For example…

The other day, a facebook friend and old classmate at Carleton posted about a visit to Bonsaaso, Ghana, the site of a Millennium Village. He commented that the village produced $7M USD of cocoa last year, and congratulated the village on sustainability. My assumption here is that he’s congratulating the Millennium Villages project for sustainability, and my first reaction was, “Ummm… Are you sure?”

What evidence is there in the figure of $7M USD that shows sustainability? Of anything, let alone the Millennium Villages project. If we break it down a little, it amounts to $0.55USD per person per day (taking the population of 35,000 as stated in the MV website, and making a huge assumption that every person would benefit equally from this income). Farmers in this area are undoubtedly growing other crops and cocoa is not their sole source of income, but regardless, the amount is small. I have no issues with cash crop production. And I absolutely think that improving marketing opportunities for farmers is the way forward with regards to agricultural development. Hence why this is what I do!

But my question about sustainability is this: what exactly about this $7M USD of cocoa production is attributable to the MV project? More importantly, what actors are in place in the system to ensure that this production continues and grows after the MV funding leaves Bonsaaso– and what of that is attributable to the MV project? (A bigger question would even be what, exactly is the MV project doing in Bonsaaso? Their website certainly doesn’t tell me clearly!)

The basic idea behind the MV project is that if you throw a lot of aid money at a village, and ensure a lot of government and citizen involvement, then you’ll see results. Well, that sounds novel. But I question how much the effects of MV intervention will really be sustained, when the money and the push pull out. In fact, a lot of people question this. As seen here. And here. And here.

(Although maybe we’ll be lucky and Tommy Hilfiger will sell enough t-shirts to continue funding the MV project, the MV project can continue funding villages indefinitely, and the question of sustainability won’t matter.

So if I go back to the M4P definition of sustainability, the question is about the process through which constraints were identified and addressed. Surely, in a future vision of Bonsaaso, there are market actors competing and upgrading to improve opportunities for farmers in the cocoa market. Inputs suppliers should be supplying appropriate fertilizers, agrochemicals, saplings, etc. Farmers should have knowledge of the agronomic best practices, the knowledge of their various marketing opportunities, and the knowledge of how to upgrade quality and volumes to get better prices. Transportation providers, traders, and processors should be working toward building mutually beneficial and profitable relationships with farmers and other market actors. The question is about how the MV project is going about engaging these actors in the system, to ensure that its functions and players, can be equipped to meet future challenges and continue to meet the changing needs of the poor.

If I could see documentation of the process through which these actors were engaged, and see a proper impact assessment after the life of the intervention that demonstrates that as a result of the MV project, the actors in the system are better equipped the meet the future challenges and changing needs of the cocoa farmers of Bonsaaso, then I would believe in the sustainability of the Millennium Villages project.

I constantly question whether the change the project I’m working with will ultimately have the capacity to endure, but I’d have to question myself if I wasn’t questioning it. I feel confident in the approach it takes to engaging the appropriate actors in the system to make the change. The Market Facilitation approach (in many respects similar to the M4P approach) is concerned with the process of creating change with and through market actors, to ensure that the right players have the right skills and incentives to constantly respond to the changing needs of the system.

I believe this kind of systemic approach is the only way to achieve sustainable change through development interventions – change that has the capacity to endure

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Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Birthday Rants and Reflections

Ok, I’ll be honest with myself and the world and readily admit that I’ve failed spectacularly at keeping up my blog. I can’t promise that I’ll get back into it more regularly, though I do want to try.

I have, however, been reflecting a lot. And today, I felt inspired to share some of those thoughts.

Tomorrow is my birthday. And as I think about being a year older, I think back on the last couple of years and how much my life has changed.

Two years ago, on May 9th, 2010, I landed in Ghana for the first time. After 24+ hours of travel time, I walked out of the plane on to African soil and breathed in the hot, sticky Accra air. I got my luggage and squeezed into a tro-tro (bus) with 15 other EWB Junior Fellows, gearing up for our 4-month placements.

My birthday had kind of blurred into the craze of travel. I remember sitting in that hot squishy bus from the airport and Colleen, the EWB staff that picked us up, saying “So, we all need to sing Happy Birthday!…” and I was so excited! Until she finished with, “…to my friend, our Driver!”  Oh, nevermind. I was a little sad to feel like my day went unnoticed, but I turned and looked out the window, watched the unfamiliar scenery whiz past, and thought about the big changes that were surely ahead.

So I spent almost 4 months in Ghana, working in agriculture and farmer-group development, becoming more and more convinced that I wanted to be right back in Ghana after I graduated.

Then one year ago, on May 9th, 2011, I was in Toronto helping to facilitate the Pre-Departure training for the 2011 cohort of Junior Fellows. My birthday fell on the first day of their training, when most of the group hardly knew me, let alone knew it was my birthday. Again, the fact that it was my birthday more or less blurred into the hectic sessions of the day. A tradition of the Pre-Dep training is for the EWB office staff to have supper at ‘Ethiopian House’ with the JFs to welcome them to the program. I was even called out to make a contribution to George, the CEO’s, welcoming speech and talk about my experience as a JF. But still, no ‘Happy Birthday’ sung.

But nevertheless, I enjoyed my injera and all of the conversations about Ghana and work as a JF. I was able to use my own experience to prepare this group for theirs, and I was reminded of all the things I had learned in the last year.

Ok, maybe I’m lamenting a bit on losing two birthdays to EWB. So I’ll get to the point.

It being my birthday wasn’t really the defining feature of those two dates. They stick out in my memory more because they represent turning points or big steps in my life.

Looking a bit further back, three years ago, I would never have imagined that I’d be working in Uganda today. I dreamt a lot about working in development and traveling, but I don’t think I expected it to really materialize.

But in 2010, I made that first big step and spent the summer in Ghana. By 2011, I was helping prepare new JFs to take on a similar role, and also prepare myself to take on another year in Ghana.

Today, I find myself in a new office in Kampala, Uganda. Tomorrow, on my birthday, the technical staff of my new project are heading into a Quarterly Review Meeting to look back and learn from what the project has done in the last quarter and look forward at how we apply this learning in the next. I’ve spent a lot of the last week designing the format of the meeting with my colleagues, and I’m really happy with the contribution.

I’ve also spent a lot of the last month designing a placement for a new Junior Fellow, and getting ready to coach him through his placement.

It’s really amazing to feel like I’ve come such a long way in the past two years. The time has flown by, and I can’t wait to see how much more I’ve learned and grown in the next two years. I’ll be really cheesy and say that these amazing experiences have more than made up for my birthdays taking the back seat.

But, if I’m in Canada on my next birthday, I want a really big freakin’ cake!

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Unacceptable Norms

It’s been a while since I’ve felt really motivated to write a blog post.

But this morning I had the kind of moment that hit me like a bus. That made me the angriest and the saddest I’ve felt in months. And for the first time in a while, felt like I really wanted to share it.

I think when you’ve lived in a place like Northern Ghana for a while, things that should shock and outrage you just become the norm. I see kids every day that I know should be in school and aren’t. I see adults with mental disorders not getting the social support they need. I have friends who can’t afford a university degree, and friends who can’t find a job.

It does make me sad, angry, and outraged by the injustice. It does motivate me to be here and create change. But day-in and day-out, how could you get by, letting yourself be constantly so affected by it? I think we cope by coming to accept things as a norm more than we should. Kids out of school, farmers without a market… These broken systems shouldn’t be the norm.

Well this morning I was catching up on emails after a couple weeks of traveling for work and pleasure (an amazing visit with my mum!). I had happily offered a few weeks ago to help with EWB’s African Leadership Program and had a pile of emails waiting for me to finally look at. The ALP will have some of our amazing African counterparts participate in a leadership development program, traveling to Canada to attend EWB’s National Conference, workshops and short-term placements in Canadian workplaces.

I was excited to help with the ALP to get to work more closely with these individuals who were selected on the basis of their demonstrated leadership. Who doesn’t want to spend more time with people committed to changing their country? When I checked my email this morning I was excited to see where things were at with plans for their pre-departure leadership retreat, but instead the majority of messages were related to one logistical item: visas.

I’d always heard that getting a visa to visit Canada was hard, but I’d never really looked into what was actually required. Today I witnessed firsthand the kind of hoops a Ghanaian has to jump through.

A letter of invitation by a host, with evidence of their income, proof of their employment, and proof of their existing funds. Letters detailing the purpose of the trip, itinerary, length of stay and contacts. Provisional airline tickets…

Letters confirming your employment and your salary. Your bank statements, your pay stubs, your proof of any assets such as land titles, vehicle registrations… Your proof that you will, indeed, go back to the country you came form.

Reading through the checklist hit me like a bus. Because just last week, I landed in Uganda, where all I needed was my passport, a yellow fever vaccination certificate, and 50 USD.

I have the luxury of being able to go just about wherever I want, with minimal difficulty. Meanwhile my amazing friend Selase – educated, responsible, employed, absolutely committed to returning to Ghana and working to see this country develop – has to run around filling form after form. Canada says jump, and he has to ask how high. As a Canadian, no one even asks me to jump. And my stomach drops at the thought that after all this effort, he could still be denied.

I know there are reasons why the process is so stringent. I know temporary visas get abused and illegal immigration is a problem. But today I couldn’t just pass it off as the norm.

In the kind of world I want to live in, this shouldn’t have to be the norm. I want to live in a world where your birthplace doesn’t prescribe the opportunities that will or will not be available to you.

Today was just one reminder of why it matters to me to work on expanding opportunities further than they’ve reached before.

Please consider donating to my EWB Perspectives Campaign.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

I love my job… And a Slam Poem

I feel that I’m incredibly lucky to be able to say that I love my job.

I feel I’m working on problems that matter, I’m getting to dive deep into complexity, I work for an employer that won’t compromise on quality of impact to take the easy road, I get to work with Ghanaians who I know will be leaders in their country’s development…

Over the past week the one thing in particular that has stood out has been the amazing fellow EWB’ers that I’m fortunate to work alongside.

Last weekend we held our semi-annual West Africa Retreat. We spent three days learning from each other and reconnecting on personal and professional levels. Following that, on Monday and Tuesday, our Agricultural Value Chains team held our monthly team meeting and hammered through amazing discussions about our assumptions and hypotheses in our work, how we’re testing them, what is our vision for agriculture in Ghana and what does that mean for the initiatives we choose to drive forward, and where are the synergies across our areas of focus. The energy I get out of working and just spending time with these amazing individuals is beyond words.

Ok, I’m bragging a bit about my job. But hey, have you ever considered applying to work with EWB? 

The one thing I did want to share though, was my slam-poem from the WAR. (If you’re not familiar with “slam” or “spoken-word” poetry, check out my favorites Shane Koyczan or Sarah Kay.) We decided to open the space for some brave souls to try something new and push ourselves out of our comfort zones by hosting a slam poetry night to close off the WAR. Feeling inspired by my colleagues, I wrote the following poem to try to capture the strength I think EWB’ers have when they come together to make big change happen.

***

I look up at the stars, inspired. Inspired by the immensity of a million shimmering lights and the simple, absolute beauty of this sight. Inspired by the notion that out there, there’s something more. There’s more than me, more than we, there’s more than I’ve ever dreamed could be. And then as much as the immensity inspires me, it intimidates me.

Because when compared to everything there is, everything I am is just one single star in this tapestry. And there’s strength and there’s beauty in my individuality but when you look up at the night sky, it seems that single stars become lost in the immensity.

But if I step back and really look, I see the true beauty of one single star comes from being part of something more. The beauty of the sky is in its constellations –each beam of light that transcends the distance that separates each part to create the most stunning work of art.

The strength of you and me is held only partly in our individuality but mostly in our ability to together bring to be the change we want to see. The change we can’t create alone. The change that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The change that comes only through the connection between our heads, our hands, our hearts.

When I think of myself as one and that’s all, my ability to make the change I want to see will always be too small.

But then I look around this room, and I’m inspired. Inspired by these people, who emanate light and the simple, absolute beauty of this sight. Inspired by the notion that here, there’s something more. There’s more than me, more than we, there’s more potential we’ve ever realized could be. And the immensity of this tapestry, inspires me.

 

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Dorothy, Complexity and Change

If you’re not familiar with EWB, then you may not be familiar with Dorothy. But please, allow me to introduce you.

Dorothy is a farmer. She farms everything from maize to pineapple. Dorothy is my boss.

Ok, so technically I report to my EWB Team Lead and my counterpart Project Director, but Dorothy is EWB-speak for the African smallholder farmer. And I’m in Ghana with the purpose of creating sustainable change that will be beneficial for Dorothy.

Where things get a little complex is that EWB doesn’t always work directly with Dorothy. I work with a development project, that works with agribusinesses, that work with farmers. To benefit Dorothy, I try to create change in the project that will create change in the business that will create change for Dorothy.

Why don’t I work directly with Dorothy? Because the project is a scaling mechanism. Whatever change I can make can be scaled through the project’s $8M budget and their staff’s reach across all of Northern Ghana. So I need to try to understand what changes Dorothy wants to see, and how I can create those while working a few degrees removed.

My job specifically is to look at Nucleus Farming businesses. A Nucleus Farmer is a commercial farmer who works with “outgrowers” – smallholder farmers to whom he supplies inputs, equipment, training, etc. The Nucleus Farmer will supply these things to the outgrowers on credit throughout the farming season, then at harvest the outgrowers will repay in-kind. The Nucleus Farmer therefore connects his outgrowers to input and output markets, and as such, holds a lot of development potential. Projects like the one I’m working with, that focus on private-sector agriculture development, are jumping on the opportunity to work with Nucleus Farmers as a channel for reaching smallholders.

Everything sounds great, right? Projects have a strong mechanism to reach farmers, these businesses preexist the projects and will continue to exist after the projects end, and the farmers are getting access to greater marketing opportunities. But there’s danger in assuming that any positive change at the business level will result in a positive change at the farmer level. In this complex system, things aren’t so straightforward.

To me, it seems that whether outgrowing is good or bad for farmers is not a simple or clear-cut issue. From the Nucleus Farming business I’ve been working with, here’s what I’ve observed thus far.

A few points on the benefits side:

  • Farmers are overcoming the barriers to entry to farming: the high costs of land preparation and inputs are deferred until harvest when farmers have the ability to pay. Farmers who might not have farmed at all are doing one or two acres, and farmers who might have farmed one or two acres are doing five or more.
  • Farmers are receiving more useful training: farmers are receiving training on good agricultural practices that is related specifically to the inputs they’re using and the variety of soybean they’re growing.
  • Farmers are getting an assured market: Whereas otherwise a farmer may have to transport his grains to the nearest market and sell to whomever will buy, in this arrangement the Nucleus Farmer agrees to buy the outgrowers’ surplus and will arrange the transportation to the farmers’ communities.

But there are definitely some red flags I’ve observed on the costs side. All interest rates in Ghana are high, but for outgrowers repaying Nucleus Farmers in-kind, interest rates can be even higher. The interest varies from business to business, as does the amount of power the power have to negotiate with the Nucleus Farmer. So while farmers are getting a new source of income, their profit margins on their outgrower fields can be significantly smaller than the margins they could be getting by farming independently.

So my question is, what’s the cost-benefit balance? Is it enough for farmers to farm for smaller margins if the alternative could be no farming at all?

Well, I have to say that a simple answer, “yes, it’s enough”, is not enough for me. (Nor is it enough for the project, hence why my job exists.)

So the question becomes what kind of change would make a clear tip on the scale. And the challenge becomes how to create a change that’s a win for the farmers, a win for the business, and a win for the project.

Because if I want to leverage the project’s scale and the business’ sustainability, I can’t look only at Dorothy but need to zoom out to all levels of the system. But, at the end of the day, Dorothy is my boss and the centre of any change I’m looking at.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Need for Open, Shared Data

Or, the serious need for donors to understand the realities of data collection.

Working last year with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, I witnessed countless hours spent on “Farmer Registration”. MoFA offices were told to register all farmers in their districts by name, community, phone number, acreages of staple crops, number of dependents, livestock kept… etc. Given that farming accounts for about 80% of livelihoods in Northern Ghana, this meant my resource-strapped office was diverting time away from delivering programming to go out to every single community, to every single household, to collect this information in paper format, then enter it into excel files. They were essentially doing a census. In a very inefficient way.

The process took months. And I think every staff member in my office save the night-watchman contributed to it.

Oh, and then once we were near completion, two or three more required fields were added, and the data was now meant to be entered into a different database program. So staff had to go out and collect the remaining data and transfer everything entered into excel into the different program.

Yesterday, my colleague David hit the issue on the nose when we were in a project meeting discussing the project staff’s need to ‘profile’ beneficiaries when he dryly asked, “So we’ll spend 80% of our resources collecting data that justifies the expenditure of the last 20%?”

Will we actually spend 80% of project resources to profile beneficiaries? I’m sure it’s not that high… But here’s the thing:

A year ago, MoFA spent months registering thousands upon thousands of farmers to one set of specifications.

Now, the project I’m working with is expending resources to profile thousands of farmers. Why can’t they use the same data?

The different donors have a different set of specifications. Different format.

And on top of this, the project that I’m working with works with businesses, many of whom have taken steps towards improving their own data collection and record-keeping by registering the farmers they work with. But again, in a different format.

So we keep reinventing the wheel. Given all the challenges that make these processes slow and inefficient: poor transportation and communication networks, low farmer literacy, low computer and typing skills, etc, it really truly pains me to try to understand why donors can’t organize themselves to agree on common reporting formats so that work like this doesn’t have to be continuously reproduced to slightly different specifications.

Sure, I understand the rationale behind donor governments wanting to know the number of beneficiaries of its projects. I fully support the push for accountability. Fully. Every donor in international development needs to be transparent and accountable. But I don’t see the justification for maintaining that accountability in slightly different formats.

I’m actually struggling to find words to really capture how this looks from the field level… Just how baffling the political and bureaucratic justifications behind the different specifications and formats seem… The repeated data collection is demotivating and even demoralizing to staff – whether government, NGO or private sector. The effective duplication of work costs the development sector millions that could be directed toward productive investments. Truly… Baffling…

In Canada, EWB’s Advocacy Team has been working to push the Canadian Government to sign on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative. If we signed on, Canada would be making a seriously needed step towards cutting down on this kind of duplication. I urge you to read more about it at http://www.aidtransparency.net/ and join me in the push for more effective aid.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Too Many Topics

So I put up on my twitter (@laurenjdodds – you know you want to follow it) today that I have a million ideas for blog post topics whizzing through my head these days…

“The Need for Open, Shared Data”, or the serious need for donors to understand the realities of data collection.

“Building Capacity to Build Markets”, or why small businesses need much more than market linkages to grow.

“The Case of the Wrong Indicator”, or how does choice of indicator affect a project’s focus and what can go wrong.

Finally,

“Win-Win for Whom?”, or how do we ensure our interventions are benefitting Dorothy? (‘Dorothy’, for any non-EWBer, is a symbolic name used in EWB to talk about our ultimate boss – the rural farmer.)

I’m putting this up on here now to push myself to actually produce these! Also, if any of the titles strike you as really interesting and you have any thoughts or questions around them, PLEASE comment with them and I’ll do my best to address them!

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Uncategorized