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.