Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Food crisis? Yeah it’s complicated.

If you’ve been keeping up with the papers you will be aware that we are in the midst of a mounting food crisis. The World Food Program calls it a “Silent Tsunami”. Many people have asked me if I have seen the affects….The outright answer is Yes! Food is costing more now than it did 4 months ago and everyone is bracing, hoping for good rains and sizeable crops.


Food prices have increased by over 40% since October 2007, with the World Bank estimating 100 million vulnerable people teetering precariously on the verge of hunger. The recent increases since 2005, follow 30 years where food inflation-adjusted prices decreased approximately 70%!

The reasons why the food crisis is happening NOW is the result of several conditions culminating in a Perfect Storm. Poor harvests from last year have caused many countries to limit their exports lowering supply, rising oil prices are making it more expensive to move cargo, steep growth from China and India are increasing demand, and the US’s race to produce maize based ethanol are all contributing factors. What is most frustrating about this situation is that it could have been avoided if more time, and more effort were spent on helping countries reach food sovereignty.

Got Local Rice?

On my 3rd day in Ghana, we were sent out onto to the streets of Tamale to learn as much as possible about rice. The exercise, part of our in country learning, served multiple purposes: get us used to asking strangers questions, familiarize ourselves with Tamale and its various markets and provide a colleague of mine (Sarah Grant) with some valuable information in her quest to promote local rice consumption.

What I found amazed me: Huge quantities of rice from Vietnam, Thailand, and the USA. All of them packaged in colorful 25 or 50KG sacks, with smart marketing and beautiful, white, polished rice inside. In order to sell to the average consumer market women and stores alike would have to repackage the rice into 2.5Kg units with labels often being limited to “Thai”, or “Texas”.

As part of the exercise we were also sent out to learn about the local rice value chain. Only one “supermarket” sold high quality local rice that they processed themselves, the rest did not. Local rice was readily available in the market but not of the high-quality variety. Many people we spoke to said that they preferred the foreign rice as it was whiter and more modern. While most people admitted local rice tasted better and, the main barrier expressed to why they were not eating local rice was the stones that are often present due to the lack of high quality processing and that caused longer preparation time.

But what I found most surprising is that the high quality local rice cost the same as the foreign rice! Sarah Grant later informed me that the US was subsidizing their rice farmers and as of 2003 rice was being exported from the US at a price 26% below the cost of production. She went on to explain that this often results in a surplus which is either given as food aid to developing countries or dumped in these countries in times of surplus production. Thus the protectionist policies of countries skew the market and prevent local production from competing on fair terms. My conclusion: Eat Ghana Rice! Moreover, support African food production. I read every label and look for a Ghana or African alternative.

Support President Bush!

While I don’t always agree with Bush’s policies, I strongly support Bush’s quest to untie US food aid. Tied aid is aid money that has restrictions placed on it. Current US legislation stipulates that all food aid be bought from US producers. The Senate recently rejected President Bush’s appeal to allow up to 25% of US food aid money to be untied. According to an April 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office, transportation and overhead consume 65% of US food aid dollars. Untying this aid would allow the program to purchase the lowest cost alternative on the global market.

Canada moves in the right direction

In May of this year the Canadian government took a step in the right direction by officially untying all of Canada’s food aid. While we still have a long ways to go to untie ALL of our aid, this IS a start. I am particularly proud of this moment as it was the realization of hundreds of volunteer hours that my colleagues at Engineers Without Borders Canada, as well as other great organizations across Canada, spent raising awareness and lobbying the government. If you ever doubted the force of signing a petition or participating in an outreach activity…think again. Never underestimate the power of thousands of energetic and overactive youth.

So where to now?

The reality of the food crisis is that in order to avert disaster we have to increase food aid. While we risk having some mismanagement of this aid, and may not reach all of the vulnerable people, it is the only thing we can do to help presently.

But there are many ways we can work together to reduce global dependence on food aid, and hopefully reduce the likelihood of recurring food crises. Oxfam has come up with a laundry list of things that governments and international donors should do to help the cause. Here is a partial list of the recommendations.

National governments and international donors should:

1) Reform the food aid system to be faster, more flexible, cheaper. Instead of dumping surplus domestic production as ‘in kind’ food aid, donors should provide cash for governments and aid agencies to buy locally. This is usually more efficient and better for local agriculture.

2) Stop adding fuel to fire by pushing biofuels. Large-scale growth in biofuels demand has pushed up food prices and done little to reduce carbon emissions. Natural carbon sinks such as rainforests and grasslands are being destroyed to make way for new biofuel plantations and biofuel crops are displacing food production.

Countries driving biofuel demand (e.g. the EU and US) must monitor the impacts of their policies on global food security and provide financial support for affected countries. Mandatory targets should be reassessed in terms of likely impact on emissions and negative social and environmental side effects in developing countries, including higher food prices, land grabs and labour rights abuses.

Developing countries need to integrate their biofuel strategies with food security policies to address issues such as land allocation and crop use.

3) Increase donor and national government investment in small-scale agriculture in developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most African governments have failed to meet their 2003 promise to allocate at least a tenth of their spending to agriculture and they are now reaping the consequences. Countries such as Malawi and Zambia have shown the way, moving from dependence on food aid to become cereal exporters in recent years. Greater international support is needed. All actors must ensure that women can access the opportunities that are created.

4) Ensure financial services such as insurance and credit are available to poor farmers. In Thailand, for example, small producers are going to the wall because banks will not lend them money to manage between harvests.

5) Eliminate rich countries’ trade-distorting export agricultural subsidies. This will correct distortions in world markets and pave the way towards a long-term solution to unstable food prices. The potential negative implications for Net Food Importing Developing Countries can be addressed through safeguards and national policies

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I am a Development Tourist, GULP!

The last week of March I had the great pleasure to host Sarah Lewis, a fellow volunteer, before her voyage home to Canada. Sarah had spent the last 13 months living in the Upper East Region of Ghana working with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and commuting from her rural home to the district office. Sarah’s last weekend in Ghana coincided with my first weekend in my new apartment. Over a glass of wine, after a whirlwind day of shopping for household goods which included stops at the Accra mall and the supermarket, Sarah turned to me and said “you know Mary, it is going to be very hard for you to understand rural livelihoods based out of Accra, even if you plan to travel quite a bit”. I agreed with Sarah at the time and still do. But it was not until my latest trip to visit the MFPs that I fully realized…..I am a Development Tourist!

In the opening chapters of his book “Rural Development; putting the Last First” Robert Chamber’s defines Rural Development Tourism as well as the biases that these “tourists” face when visiting project zones.

Using Chamber’s definition I am guilty on all fronts. I am a foreigner, I come from a capital city, I work for a voluntary agency, and like all other development tourists I want to find something out and I am short of time! Some of you may be shaking your head saying…well those conditions apply to most development workers and the answer is YES….we are all in some way pre-conditioned to be development tourists…the challenge is to be aware of our biases and to fight these tendencies.

Chamber’s outlines 6 biases that make contact with the poor difficult, in particular the poorest of the poor. During my trips to communities from Salaga and Atebubu I was reminded that I was actually falling prey to each of these biases. For those that are interested in helping the poor I think you will find what Dr. Chamber’s has to say very interesting.

The 6 biases include: spatial, project, person, dry season, diplomatic and professional biases. I will not cover all of the biases but here is a synopsis of 3 of these biases and how I committed them.

Spatial biases: “Most learning about rural conditions is mediated by vehicles”. My visits to MFP communities was governed by access to the community via motorbike. This dictated how far we could travel and what communities we visited as we wanted to ensure we could do the visits in one day, and not spend the night in the communities.

Project Biases: Rural tourists are “pointed to those rural areas where it is known that something is being done – where money is being spent…a project is in hand”. By design, my field visits were to visit the results of a project and not just to learn about rural realities. Thus I was only in contact with rural dwellers that were either involved with or that directly benefited from the installation of the MFP. I did not have the chance to meet and learn from the portion of the population that was underserved and who could not afford the services of the MFP

Dry season biases: “For the majority whose livelihoods depend on cultivation the most difficult time of the year is usually the wet season, especially before the first harvest. Food is short , food prices are high, work is hard and infections are prevalent”. “The rains are a bad time for rural travel because of the inconveniences or worse of floods, mud, broken bridges and getting stuck, … losing time, and enduring discomfort”. For the reasons above most visits to projects is limited to the dry season and thus “the poorest people are most seen at precisely those times when they are least deprived; and least seen when things are at their worst.” While my visit occurred on the tail end of the dry season, the rains played an important role in planning these visits. The first day of my visit we waited 6 hours until the rains ended before we could move and then had to change our route to ensure we stayed on roads that my hosts knew were well maintained. One particular road was impassible in the height of the rainy season and meant that project officers had to take an alternate road and travel 160km vs. 50km to visit this community.

As an outsider, I am sure I will continue to commit some of these biases. During my next trip to a rural community I hope to plan my visit so that I take the TIME required to see past the project, past the road, past the chief, and try to learn more about the poorest of the poor in the communities who may not be benefiting from the development projects active in their communities.

April Visit to the Field

For 2 weeks in April I escaped from the city to spend time in “the field” with the communities and the community based organizations, KITE (my partner organisation) works to support.

I split my time equally; spending the first week with the SEND Foundation out of the town of Salaga in the Northern Region and the second week with WACSO in the town of Atebubu in the Brong Ahafo region. My trip had a dual purpose:

1) to familiarize myself with the Multi-Functional Platform, KITE’s partner organizations and the challenges of field work

2) to support both KITE and WACSO in preparing their final report to KITE on the completion of Phase 1 of the project and identification of lessons learned

The Multi Functional Platform (MFP) is a project that is deployed across 4 West African countries (Ghana, Burkina-Faso, Mali and Senegal, funded by the PREP a UNDP program, and managed at a country level in Ghana by KITE, my partner organisation. An MFP, consists of an 8 or 10hp diesel engine mounted on chassis that drives a variety of equipment that is used to ease the time burden of rural household in daily activities. The most common configuration in Ghana includes a grain mill, a cassava grater and a battery charger used to power radios or lights.

MFP communities are by definition, at least 10km away from the national grid and therefore considered energy poor. Women spend several hours a day fetching water and processing food for meals. The MFP helps to reduce the time burden and also helps to promote income generating activities. In several of the communities, women’s groups have formed around the platform either processing rice or transforming raw cassava into “gari” for sale in the larger city markets.

I made a short video to give you a glimpse into life in Northern Ghana and an introduction to the MFP. I have chosen to end my post here as the next sheds some light on what I learnt about myself as a development worker on this trip.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cape Coast- Easter Weekend

Before coming to Ghana I knew little of the European slave trade from the West Coast of Africa. Over the Easter break I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana’s Gold Coast and visit both Cape Coast and Elmina “castles”. I have been putting off writing about it because I was surprisingly moved by the experience; it is hard for me to fathom that such atrocities could happen in such a beautiful setting.

My family is not a stranger to slavery. In the 1800’s my grandmother’s family was involved in the rubber boom of the Amazon in Peru and thus also guilty of slave owning and trade. Clara, the nanny of my grandmother, mother and senior cousins was once a family slave. And while she died several years before my birth, the realities of her slavery were passed on to me by my grandmother and mother throughout my childhood. She told stories of how slave masters would use feuding tribes to capture slaves. How in order to keep “the peace” at the plantations, masters would purposely keep slaves from 2 differing tribes as their conflict would quell any organized efforts to overthrow the slave owners. She told of women in villages under attack that would purposely kill their babies to prevent their capture. I thought that these stories and my trip to the Amazon in 2005 had prepared me for the slave “castles” of Ghana. Was I wrong.

To describe Elmina castle as anything less than beautiful is a lie. This truth makes me uncomfortable as these fortresses; I dislike the use of the term of castle, were the site of terrible injustice. The statistics are very fuzzy but it appears that between 8 and 10 million people passed through the doors of the slave fortresses along the West Coast of Africa. Between 3 and 5 million made it to their intended destination. The majority of the fortresses were originally built for the trade of gold and other goods such as cocoa, but once the slave trade proved to be more lucrative they were easily abandoned for human trafficking. The Europeans would live in the upper levels of the fortress while down below hundreds of Africans would be packed into cramped rooms with a complete lack of sanitation, and limited ventilation or light. The men and women were separated with the European masters often raping the women. Women who became pregnant would be moved to town where they would give birth in a clinic and pardoned from the voyage, instead serving the European slave owners. Surprisingly, the slave trade is what brought organized education to Ghana with schools being created to teach the offspring of these horrible unions.

While we learn about the slave trade and its repercussions in North America, I recall learning little about its origins. Like genocides, and wars, this low point in human history should serve as a reminder to us of what we are capable of. I am glad that the Gold Coast is beautiful as it will continue to attract both Ghanaians and tourists and to tell the story of a time, not so much in the distant path, that we should not forget.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ligths Off Ghana

Below is a tidbit I wrote last night while the power was out, hopefully it will give you some insight into the energy issues as they exist here

There are two things in the world that I get excited about: water and energy. As a Canadian I have never had to worry about either with an over abundance of water to drink and power our country. Here in Ghana, these are daily concerns of mine. During the week the water at my house flows 3 days a week, making it necessary to stock pile water to bathe with, cook with and clean with. Similarly, cooking gas is in short supply and “lights off” are a common occurrence. In an equatorial country, where it is pitch black by 6:30pm, this means that many productive hours where people could be working and children studying are lost. I expected these issues to be prevalent in the North which is much dryer and a good 10-15C hotter but not in Accra, the capital, nestled along the coast of tropical, humid low lands.

Over the last few weeks I have been working on a research proposal that proposes to look at energy security in Africa with a focus on energy diversification for off-grid, remote production (sound familiar?). But the more time I spend in Ghana the more I think that this is not only an issue of rural development but of great importance to the entire country.

There is no easy solution to the issue of energy security in Ghana. With over 60% of the country’s energy coming from the Akosombo hydro dam, the country cannot invest quickly enough to keep up with the growing demands. Similarly the rising prices of oil are driving up food prices and have caused some of Ghana’s West African neighbors to increase public-servants salaries (Cameroon) and even reduce the size of parliament (Senegal).

I use to think that energy security concerns would peak in the next 20 years, but I am increasingly convinced, that unless fuel prices drop significantly, than developing countries will be hard hit within next few years. The question is now what can or should we do about it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why here, why open letter to friends and family

7 am, Tuesday March 11th , the streets of Accra have been awake for a few hours. I am walking to Kwame Nkrumah Circle, the main transport hub of Accra, to catch a tro-tro* to work. Women are selling hot food by the side of the road. School children, adolescents, and adults sit interspersed on benches eagerly eating their fist meal of the day. Ring Road, the main thruway of Accra, is teaming with pedestrians and its lanes filled with taxis and tro-tros. After asking for directions I finally find the right car that will take me to work. I fill the last spot; I get ushered to the front bench between the driver and another passenger. The door shuts and we are off. The Tro-tro joins the stop and go of traffic, the passenger besides me settles in for a snooze, I feel the sweat start to roll down my back, and I laugh to myself “what am I doing here”?

Greetings from Ghana! I arrived the last week of February and I am just about to round out my first week of work. I was really touched by all the support I received in making the decision to take on this new challenge, but I feel I need to offer a short explanation of why I chose to come and what I hope to gain from this experience.

Ever since I returned from Cameroon in late 2002, I have wanted to find a way to combine my passion for international development with my line of work. While we all play a role in improving our communities and the overall welfare of the world (we do this through our work, our choices as consumers and the causes we decide to support), I thoroughly enjoyed working closely with rural communities in Cameroon. So while I am sacrificing some things such as pay, opportunities for promotions, and Montreal summers my choice to come to Africa is also a bit selfish.

I am seeing this position as an investment: Late last year, when I was asking my mentors at work, whether or not I should get an MBA the overwhelming answer was “What do you think you are going to learn at school in 2 years, that you can’t learn here?” Good question…I quickly realized that few schools would actually provide me with the experience I wanted. Understanding the challenges the world faces is a comparative advantage, and there is no better way to understand the world than to go out and experience it! So while I figure out how I am best suited to help the world’s poor I want to learn about the struggles of farmers, of entrepreneurs, and of households as they try to get by. I want to better understand the role of policy, of governments, of donors, of free markets and of large multi-nationals on progress. I promise to share personal stories and pictures along the way as I hope my blog will serve as an on-line learning journal.

I am hoping to be diligent enough to post to my blog twice a month, so for those interested in receiving all the updates you can always subscribe to my RSS feed. If not I will send out abridged notes on a monthly basis. If you would prefer not to receive these monthly updates please let me know and I will remove you from my mailing list (don’t worry I won’t be offended, I know how much mail you receive!)

* a Tro-Tro is a minivan used for public transportation

The return....setting foot in Ghana

It has been 6 years since I’ve stepped foot into Africa and it seems like it was yesterday. The sounds, the smells, the sheer volume of people and the chaos are all the same. One week into my trip overseas and it is starting to feel like home all over again.

Monday Feb 25, 8pm

Coming off the plane I am welcomed by the thick, humid, sea air of Accra. .All attempts at maintaining some form of hair control are now useless! Once we finally get through customs, and get our bags, we step outside of the airport to a throng of people offering their services as porters and taxis. If it were not for the black faces and the fact that all of the yelling is happening in English I would think we were in Lima. I am glad to see the warm smile of Charles, my colleague at KITE. We are also met by Rafik , a friend of another volunteer. Charles is kind enough to store my luggage. Rafik, is in charge of getting us fed, and rested in time for the long voyage North in the morning. With the help of more porters than we have bags we fill up some taxis and head off to the hostel where we will be staying. The streets of Accra are alive! Ladies are selling food by the side of the road and the traffic is thick but flowing. At the hostel, our rooms are spare but clean. There is no top sheet, but it is evident that with this heat, it is not required. With some rice and eggs in our bellies we doze off for a good’s night sleep.

Tuesday Feb 26, 6am

The bus is scheduled to leave at 7 am, but my experience with Africa time suggests we will probably leave a few hours late! I have never traveled with so many white people in Africa: 5 of us in total, all obviously off-the-plane and jet-lagged. The transport company is surprisingly organized: Numbered seats and tickets and a fairly modern luggage tagging system! I am amazed and feel a lot better about putting my day-pack-back, containing all my medications for a year as well as my laptop, in the luggage port. Overland transport in Africa is amazing and always an adventure: travelers take advantage of the passage to transport all kinds of things including a very large big-screen TV, sound systems, produce and other things that can be easily traded in the North. Miraculously the bus leaves on time! We settle in for what is considered a “short” 12 hour trip to Tamale, where we will have one –week of in-country training.

Tuesday 26th, all day

We spend over 1. 5 hours getting out of Accra, the traffic is thick, the potholes here put the ones in Montreal to shame, and there are many vehicles on the road which are a little less than “road worthy”. The bus has 3 scheduled stops, but ends up stopping 5 times along the way: The first rest stop is beautiful: The bathrooms are beyond clean and the water is running, a luxury. It is customary here to pay to use the toilet and to buy toilet paper (T-Roll as they call it here). The second stop is in Kumasi, the industrial capital of Ghana. As a precautionary measure I decide to pay a visit to the washroom. I am very surprised when the cost to use the toilet is only 5 pesewas or 0.05 Cedis (approximately 5 cents CDN). We follow a long line of women into the washroom and I stop dead in my tracks when I realize that this is a female urinal not separate toilets! Jen (another volunteer) and I look at each other, slightly puzzled about the mechanics of using such a thing. After a few seconds a woman screams at us to shut the door and Jen and I agree to hold each other’s bags as we attempt this new sport. In my 6 months in Cameroon I have never seen a female urinal but it seems they are quite common place in Ghana. Imagine a room with a trough running down 2 edges of the room in an L shape. The trough is around 3 inches deep and almost a foot wide. Women stand or squat on the ledge and go. The exit pipe is strategically placed at one end of the trough and the drain at the other, so that every time you wash your hands the gray water cleans the trough. Genius! But difficult to master!