Proud of Failure

I am proud to admit that in the last year and a half, I’ve made more mistakes than I can count. I believe that making mistakes is important. It forces you to learn. Making mistakes forces you to try again, to innovate, to be better. It keeps you humble.

Engineers Without Borders Canada also believes in failure. Every year they produce a Failure Report – self reported failures from different parts of the organization. Failure isn’t always disclosed in the not-for-profit sector – “How can you admit failure to your donors? Won’t my donors think that I’m just wasting their money? The more I can show success, the more easily I’ll be able to find funds…” It’s difficult to share mistakes. But we have to. How can we build a learning organization without admitting from and learning mistakes? And of course, by sharing, perhaps we can prevent the same mistakes being made by others. EWB started a website called http://www.admittingfailure.com/ to help build a culture around admitting and sharing mistakes in the not-for-profit world. You can check out EWB’s 2012 Failure Report at http://www.ewb.ca/reports/. You may even find a submission by yours truly in there (page 15)!

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All for now. More soon!

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A Reintegration Story

I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport, on my way back to Canada after seventeen months of having Ghana as my home. It has been seventeen months since I’ve been in a developing country. I thought I would share some of my very first reactions, observations and experiences.

  • I step off the airplane at 5:30am and am just blasted with cold air. Boy am I glad I packed my fleece (never used in Ghana) in my hand luggage and didn’t give it away in Ghana.
  • I head to the washroom: I inadvertently skip the line, I can’t figure out the toilet paper dispenser and am glad for my emergency stash in my knapsack, I’m reminded of automatic flush toilets, the woman beside me turns the tap on full to slowly lather her hands – I can’t help but stare at the high pressure stream of clean water coming out, I can’t actually figure out how to turn my tap off, beside me women are jostling for space at the mirror to preen and apply makeup
  • I have a six hour layover so thought I might head to the city. I try to store my carry-on luggage, you can only have a locker if you have a credit card. Of course I don’t know where my credit card is! I haven’t used it in 17 months. How can you not pay cash?!
  • Readjusting my plans, I get on an elevator with a bunch of employees – “where are you going?” they ask trying to push the right button for me, all I can answer is “I have no idea”. I stay on the elevator for two or three sets of ups and downs.
  • this place is HUGE
  • I know there are people around, I focus and realize they’re all white. White people have really red faces. Or that’s just the cold. Did they forget to turn on the heating today?
  • my senses are overloaded. Things are bright and load. Sounds are unfamiliar. In the light, I realize how dirty my clothes are – my hand washing wasn’t sufficient.
  • I decide to find a quiet spot to dive into my computer and do work emails – finally, something familiar.
  • everything here seems new
  • I find myself trying to look for construction and finishing errors.
  • I stuff my garbage into my knapsack only to pass a garbage bin 10ft later.
  • everyone is pulling or pushing their loads on wheels.
  • I haven’t heard a single loud ringtone.
  • my stomach is really upset at the sweet potato and three cheese meal that I was served on the plane.
  • I’m overwhelmed by and fumbling through the different currencies in my wallet – USD, euros, CAD, Ghana cedis
  • I blend in. Not one person has made eye contact. No one has greeted me. I pass by completely unnoticed.
  • I treat myself to a latte. I don’t know why; there isn’t enough milk. The barista calls me “lady” – not madame, not auntie, not even sistah…
  • There is a family of black people in front of me speaking a language I don’t understand, I try to figure out what African country they’re from. They start speaking to the cashier; they’re speaking Dutch.
  • My feet are ice blocks and this fleece isn’t doing a thing.
  • I’m honestly overwhelmed with the amount of hair I can see scanning the crowd. Men have hair! There are no women with their heads covered.
  • this place is HUGE
  • I don’t recognize accents. I can’t type people walking by. I don’t know what is fashionable. I can’t read facial expressions or body language. I  can’t judge wealth or role in society. My social intuition and intelligence is rendered completely useless in this new context.
  • Not a single thing is familiar. I start crying in the middle of the airport. Still no one makes eye contact or notices me.

I’m experiencing reverse culture shock. I feel stupid. I’m crying in the middle of an airport because I’m back in this ‘easier’ world. I am also finding it impossible to imagine what it would be like to travel to a developed country from a developing one for the first time. I really have so much empathy for those that have done it. I guess I have always assumed that it is way easier to go from developing>developed, but I don’t know if that’s true anymore. I really can’t imagine.

I only have an hour or so left here. I’m hopeful that once I get to a place that is familiar (YVR) and people that are familiar (my family) that the shock won’t be so jarring. I’m sure reintegration will be a slow process, one that is especially difficult at Christmas time when some of the characteristics of Western culture are at an extreme. Also a process that I think will be hard to share with family and friends – how can I be in shock coming back to a world that I lived in for 23 years? But also one that I think will force me to reflect on and appreciate that people and cultures across the world are very, very different and it is worth spending the time to try to experience those differences.

G&RI’s Theory of Change

I work with the Governance and Rural Infrastructure team of Engineers Without Borders Canada – that, I’m sure most of you readers know. This is my attempt at sharing with you what exactly our team is doing, our theory of change for improved service delivery in Ghana and best of all, why I think it is unbelievably important and exciting.

Our (always draft) team vision is:

Responsive local governments, equipped with strong leadership and processes, that deliver quality services to citizens in Ghana.

First, let’s define service delivery: any service provided by the government ex. water, waste disposal, health, education, revenue generation, social welfare [this list is really long] etc. In Canada, many of the services delivered by government are split out into one of a national, provincial or municipal responsibility – for example most health and education is a provincial responsibility, while waste removal would be municipal. In Ghana, the structure is quite different. Through decentralization,service delivery is all housed at the district level (national, regional, district) – with the theory being that each district will know the specific needs of its citizens better and therefore be able to provide more targeted and better services. The decentralization process– money and decision making power moving from national-level to district-level – is slowly progressing in Ghana; some big departments like health and education are still highly centralized, while others like water and sanitation are completely decentralized – but progress is being made.

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A highly decentralized department might look like this – where money, reporting, planning etc. falls within the ‘line’ ministry. Any connection to the District Assembly is fairly superficial.

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In a decentralized case, the various departments are all a part of the district assembly umbrella. Plans are made for the development of the district and prioritized between the various departments. Accountability, funding and performance evaluation are done at the district level.

Okay great – so what about G&RI? G&RI works within District Assemblies (typically within the District Planning and Coordinating Unit) to support the district in its service delivery goals. We recognize that we’re not experts in actual service delivery – but we are experts at facilitating behaviour change, analyzing existing processes, identifying and building improvements in efficiency, and building staff capacity.

We know that District Assemblies have a lot of pressures on them; their time is controlled by the number of donor partner workshops they’re invited to, their ability to implement projects depends on how efficiently the Ministry of Finance decides to release funds (often a quarter or more late), their accountability dictated by sources of funding instead of communities etc. The district ‘sphere of control’ is small. Too small. And that is exactly where G&RI is targeting its efforts. We believe that that sphere has to get bigger for lasting service delivery and we believe that by working on and improving what the district DOES have control over will not only improve service delivery but also increase the size of that sphere.

 

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Core Beliefs

These are some of the core beliefs that the team holds:

  • Districts have the capacity to effectively deliver services to the people; there is a lot of untapped potential
  • Productive (reciprocal) relationships at all levels are important in the governance system
  • Leadership and individual initiative are foundational to success
  • Internal and external forces affect the ability of the districts to function effectively
  • Decentralization leads to effective and efficient service delivery

 

G&RI Principles

Our principles are a summary of how we work:

  • Participatory Consulting – Working with district leaders and officers to: co-diagnose key issues to work on; co-develop an action plan alongside district officers and utilize existing district resources to implement.
  • Focus on Behaviour Change – Ensuring sustainability of change by focusing on changing the behaviours of key stakeholders.
  • In-depth Understanding of District Realities through Action Research – Testing hypotheses through targeted activities on the ground, and synthesizing lessons from districts.
  • Building local leadership and management capacity – Supporting the development of leadership and management at all levels throughout the government system.
  • Process over tools – We know that just creating a tool itself won’t create a sustainable change. Working on the processes: a focus on defining the roles, skills, behaviours and attitudes necessary at the district for the change will be what will determine success.
  • Rigorous evaluation processes – Working with government partners to co-develop monitoring and evaluation plans to assess impact of change projects.

 

Why this is AWESOME

G&RI is different. We believe in district staff. The government is a permanent institution in Ghana – it is accountable to its citizens and is responsible for the long-term development of Ghana. We are working to support at the district level – where the planning, prioritizing, decision making and implementation is happening. We recognize that all district offices, staff and contexts are different – we embed, learn and customize our approach based on the specific office. We work with district staff (who we know are the experts in all things districts) to co-diagnose issues and co-develop solutions leveraging existing district assets. We are always learning. And often we get it wrong (replace ‘it’ with most things). We’re adapting and consulting with partners, building our internal learning systems and expertise, talking about our mistakes and always falling back on our core beliefs. I believe we can play an important role in local government in the Northern Region, one that will definitely diminish over time as Ghanaian government becomes an effective and efficient service delivery provider.

Call to Prayer

But what does religious tolerance actually mean?

Canada

I remember the description of Canada as a ‘mixed salad’ in Grade 10 Geography class. Canada is a country of people from different backgrounds, countries, speaking different languages, and practicing different religions. I think most could be proud in Canada for religious tolerance and acceptance. But what does religious tolerance actually mean?

I have absolutely failed in my education on this topic; it is absolutely embarrassing to admit. I grew up going to an Anglican church, but learned more about the Church of England by watching the fictional TV series The Tudors on HBO. I remember a unit in my World Affairs class we did on religions of the world; I remember thinking Sikhism sounded neat. I know I did a project on Islam, but all I could probably tell you is that there are five pillars, the Qur’an is the word of God, there are different sects, and I could name off some mostly Muslim countries and that’s about it. I grew up in one of the most multicultural cities in the world (Toronto), but religiously sheltered; I couldn’t tell you of knowing anyone practicing a religion outside of Christianity and Judaism – I’m positive I knew people that practiced other religions, but I never asked or explored.

In university, my sheltered bubble was, thankfully, burst. My first roommate explained the beliefs and history of Mormonism, evening study sessions were put on pause for the breaking of Ramadan fasting in residence, I learned about different styles of turbans and started to ask more questions. But everything still remained very ‘extra-curricular’. I never had to think twice about religion in my own personal planning, schooling etc.

My version of ‘tolerance’ in Canada, was ignorance and maybe indifference.

Ghana

I think the most amazing thing to me in Ghana is Ghana’s version of religious acceptance. As a whole, Ghana is largely Christian (around 70%) but in the Northern Region of Ghana (where I call home), Islam is practiced by about 60% of the population (20% Christian, 20% traditional). My interaction with religion in Ghana has been very different.

I wake up at 4am to the Call to Prayer. I can hear at least four different muezzin reciting the call to prayer over loudspeakers from nearby mosques. I fall back asleep before my alarm goes off.

I head to work and my landlord wishes my journey well, God willing, and I reply with ‘Ami’ for Amen. I look out the taxi window: women mostly have their heads covered with colourful Ghanaian cloth, wear long skirts/dresses, and, if they’re married, carry a lace shawl. I pass at least six mosques on my way to work and new ones are always under construction, I also pass several large churches. Central Mosque, appropriately placed in central Tamale is by far the largest.

 

central mosque Tamale

Source: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/11335700.jpg

My morning meeting at the office begins with an official prayer to Allah in Arabic. Everyone responds with Ami. The same meeting is closed a prayer to Jesus, the son of God. Everyone responds with Ami. I ask for follow-up on a report that I’ve asked for not completed yet, but Insh’Allah (God willing) it will be finished soon. The afternoon sees most of my colleagues leave for Friday 1pm prayers at the Central Mosque. Someone asks me if I believe in God. I’m invited to go to another colleague’s church on Sunday.

I head home, passing the “Jesus is Coming Cold Store – for your frozen meat” store on the way, my host family members are washing their feet to prepare for evening prayers. The call to prayer begins again as the sun fades.

Here Christianity and Islam are practiced in harmony (to say perfect would be an exaggeration). Religious considerations – time for prayer, breaking of fast, thanking God etc. – are designed into programs and schedules. It isn’t a big deal which God you pray to, as long as you pray to some God.  (I’ve had to skirt around a few awkward conversations on the topic of atheism.)

I have to remember not to call colleagues around 1pm. I have to find someone to lead prayers to open and close meetings. I wear more conservative clothing. I’ve learned how to thank God in Dagbani. I have to remember to pack a lunch during Ramadan because many food sellers close up for that month. I know my convenient store (stall) will be closed for church on Sunday morning. Religion is not ‘extra curricular’ here. It isn’t inconvenient, it’s just how it is.

Here, tolerance means acknowledging and making considerations for those practicing different religions.

Whereas Canada, in my experience, has been embracing secularity, in Northern Ghana it seems to me that non-secularity has been embraced. I can’t help but wonder, in a world where it seems like religious beliefs are oft misunderstood, or generalized from extremist views, if it wouldn’t be better to live in a society where different religions are more visible? It feels like religion in Canada has been relegated behind closed doors: to the home and places of worship, or prayer rooms. But, I ask you, wouldn’t it be better to learn about a different religion from a practicing neighbour versus the media?

I don’t know what the ‘right’ answer is – I suspect there isn’t one. I just wanted to share with you what my experience of religious tolerance has been in Ghana, and how different that has been from my definition coming from a Canadian context. I continue to be woefully undereducated in world religions, but hope to continue my education in that regard here and wherever my life takes me next.

I would love to hear what you think on the topic!

The Start of Something Big

I’ll admit it. I have avoided writing a post about my work. After not writing about my work since I was in Kpandai in October of last year, I was dreading the thought of having to summarize eleven months of work in which: I moved cities, I moved levels of government, I switched partners, we scaled one of our programs to half of the Northern Region, we had our team leader leave unexpectedly, we went through a theory of change process in which we completely changed team strategy, we had transition of over half our team, we finally (after eight months of self-leadership) found a new team leader, we hired and managed six short-term Ghanaian technical assistants, we had five Canadian Junior Fellows with our program over the summer… I could continue, but phew, suffice it to say that it has been a busy year! If I wrote about it all, it would be the most giant, boring, unreadable post ever. So I just avoided writing about work (which worked out to not writing at all).

I realize this is not optimal for me or my readers. SO I am committing to break down different parts of my work and write about it; work that I’m passionate about and what to share with you, because I think G&RI is making a difference in supporting public institutions to better provide services to constituents.

I am thinking about breaking my work into a few appropriate-length-blog-sized chunks:

  • District Data System program – my main change-creation project with my partner, the RPCU
  • G&RI’s Theory of Change – our mental model of Ghana government, where it could move to better provide services and our unique role/value in that move
  • G&RI Principles and Values – what we believe and our guiding values
  • Consulting Model – the how of our Theory of Change, what hypotheses we’re testing
  • District Change – recent examples of what we’re trying at the district level

Does that sound interesting or useful? Any other ideas or requests of what you’d like me to write about?

Here is a sneak peak that will appeal to the engineers in the crowd (yep, we’re nerds on the G&RI team).

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I’ll also try to write more about life in Ghana. I recently photo-documented making fufu and groundnut soup with my host family so look for that soon!

I am looking forward to sharing with you!

The days that could make you stay forever

There is a lot I miss about Canada. Foremost, I miss my family and friends. I miss grocery stores. I miss multicultural food. I miss nacho chips. I miss pedestrian-first traffic laws. I miss cool weather. I miss hot showers. I miss having no electricity or water outages. I miss blending in. I miss my bed and duvet. I miss functioning social services that serve all people. I miss plenty!

But no matter how much I miss it, there are days in Ghana where I am sure I could liver here forever.

I recently had one of these days. It was after a long stretch of being really busy with work. I was tired. I was physically and emotionally drained. My brain was barely functioning. I had recently got over yet another bout of malaria. More of my thoughts were tending to missing Canada. I was in a district about six hours away from Tamale (my home city) travelling with one my EWB colleagues and we were heading back the next day.

It was pitch dark at 2:20am when my alarm went off. We were told the bus could leave the station anytime between 2am and 4am. I decided that 2am was a RIDICULOUS time to get to a bus station, but 2:30am seemed somehow more reasonable. We walked the 15 minutes from the guesthouse down the silent street, hardly earning a sleepy look from the goats that littered the way, still snoozing. We arrive at the station with no bus conductor in sight, but grab a seat on some benches with other bus-travellers, waiting. Again, I consider the hour. Two thirty A.M. should never be considered morning; if anything it should be reserved for a late night out, but never a morning, and never a bus ride.

I joke with some of the people there. I use my go-to joke when a new friend requests for me “to send him to Canada when I go back” – “Oh! No problem, I’m sure you can fit in my suitcase-oh”. It garners laughs all around despite the hour.

Finally at 3:30am the conductor comes and we purchase our tickets (~ CAD$4) and board the large MetroMass bus (a large, less spacious – 6 seats across – Greyhound). I snag a window seat and we push off loudly just before 4. I continue to be amazed at how early Ghanaians get up, by 4:30am, although it is still pitch dark, people are up and about, preparing their charcoal fires to start cooking giant (exercise ball sized) iron pots of porridge. I listen to the call to prayer from the mosques as we pass through small villages.

The road from Wulensi to Bimbilla is verifiably the worst road in the Northern Region. My head bangs against the window over and over again as the giant bus violently rocks and sways, unsuccessfully trying to avoid table-sized potholes and small lakes that constitute the road. But I watch the sun rise up over the newly formed yam mounds. Small plots of land diligently cared for by small farmers. I wonder if this is the most beautiful place in the world.

I’m suddenly overcome with the feeling that Ghana IS going to develop. Despite all the development partners interventions and inefficiencies of government. Ghana doesn’t need my ‘help’. Look at all those hardworking Ghanaians, up and about in the early morning light. Ghanaians are going to make this country develop. And I want to be here as nothing more than a spectator. Watch this beautiful country that I love develop.

My head smashes against the window again and I smile. I could really stay here forever.

 

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Ranting to create change

Last Thursday I was invited to a National Development and Planning Commission (NDPC) meeting for all the Planning and Budget Officers in the Northern Region here in Tamale. The NDPC is a national-level ministry with a mandate “to advise the President of Ghana on national development planning policy and strategy” and “to coordinate and regulate the decentralized national development planning system”. It is an interesting body, with respect to decentralization – districts are being given more independence through decentralization to create plans and budget to suit their specific needs and challenges, and yet are given the templates and timelines on how to do so from the national level through the NDPC.

I always enjoy going to these meetings – there is lots to learn about how the national level is trying to engage or support districts, a chance to reconnect with the Planners we work with across the region and get a change from sitting in front of my computer at the office. I jumped at the chance.

The meeting was a “harmonization meeting” for the district Medium Term Development Plans (MTDP is a four year development plan that each district creates and forms the long term planning structure at the district). I was soon to find out that ‘harmonization’ means lining up all the activities in ones’ MTDP to line up with national-level focus areas, thematic areas, strategies (don’t ask me what the difference between all of these are…). I could see why the NDPC in Accra would find this activity useful – if districts line up their activities and budget lines with common focus areas, then they can be aggregated at the regional level and then again at the national level. National level can then analyze where the country is spending money for development. I sighed and wondered what the value is for the district to ‘harmonize’ their plans to national level standards. I come from a very district-centric point of view and cried a little bit inside thinking about fuel and money that had brought the 40 officers to Tamale, cried for the time that could be otherwise spent at the district actually implementing these MTDPs instead of harmonizing them.

But the worst was coming… the facilitator soon put up Microsoft Word tables templates in which this harmonization would happen! Just about everyone that knows me, will know that I have a personal vendetta against Word tables. Tables are meant for Excel! Even more so in this case, the region would have to aggregate twenty district Word tables into one. And then what? How do you analyze data in a Word table? How do you add columns of budget in WORD? I moaned.

Word template for harmonization

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At mid-morning break, I took some time to chat with the Regional Planning Officers that I work with and went on a small rant about the format of the templates, and questioned if they wouldn’t be better suited in an Excel format. They both nodded their heads and agreed, aggregating all the data would be much easier if it was in Excel. Together we sighed and I assumed that was the end of that discussion. I wondered how the system could start changing so that all of district, regional and national interests were designed for.

I went back to sit through the rest of the meeting, cringing at the though of all those officers filling in useless templates.

Suddenly I was tapped on my shoulder. I turned around to see one of the Regional Planners holding a USB key and excitedly telling me to quickly whip up an Excel template – maybe we could get the template changed mid-meeting. Excited I got to work and replicated the Word tables in Excel including drop down menus for the stock-answer columns to save typing and together we approached the national NDPC facilitator. To my surprise, he was supportive and saw the advantages of an Excel-based template.

Excel template

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I was able to present the new template to the group (speaking too quickly, as usual) and give district officers the choice of using the Excel or Word-based template. Some officers are just more comfortable in Word, and I can’t forget that, but more than half switched to the Excel template that will be a lot easier to analyze and save probably hours of work for the district and region.

I never would have guessed that a national level template would be permitted to be changed mid-meeting, but maybe decentralization is really becoming institutionalized – districts and regions are starting to push back and demand what is useful for them, versus just doing what comes down from the national pipeline. I was incredibly impressed with the district planners that were demanding my USB key with the new template before I was finished explaining; impressed with my regional level colleagues who didn’t just roll their eyes at a bad template, who turned a snack-time conversation into immediate action and had the guts to ask for a change mid-meeting; and impressed with the national NDPC facilitator who was adaptable enough to allow a new template to be introduced. Ghana civil servants really, really impressed me that day. It was inspiring.

I certainly learned that if I see something that could be changed for the better, speak up! rant a little! – and see what kind of change follows.