Being okay with making change

Hey everyone!

I’m sorry it has been a bit of while since I’ve updated my blog. To be honest, I’ve written a million 75% finished posts in my head… but I know that isn’t too useful to you. I thought I might take a bit of space to talk more about my work here in Kpandai and some of my impressions of how the district is working.

My first six weeks here (holy has it really been that long!) have been slllooooow work-wise and honestly I have done next to nothing to improve district functioning, to put it bluntly. It is weird to think that if I were starting out my first full-time job as many of my friends are right now, and I had produced as little as I have in my first six weeks, I’d probably be fired by now… Strictly speaking my only expected output of my first three months of being here is intense learning embedded in the district, so maybe that is okay? But it is still hard to get used to. I am trying my best to figure out where I can bring some value-add to the team here, but I can’t help thinking that maybe this is one problem with the aid industry… useless people can’t be fired, I mean I’m here for free! Even if I provide next to nothing back to the district, that small small something is ‘free’.

Can I change the system?

This is a question I go to bed thinking about every single night. Can I possibly change this system? There is an overwhelming amount of ambiguity and complexity with an added extra layer of completely out of my control forces working in all different directions. To be perfectly honest, there are times when I just want to throw in the towel, and say ‘Yo, I’m outta here. Ghana goooood luck with this (you’ll need it!)!’, but then again I’m only one and a bit months in, can’t give up now with so much uncertainty ahead!

Kpandai District is faced with a lot of challenges, these are just a few from what I’ve been able to gather so far:

  • Resources are scarce: financial resources are scarce, means of transport are scarce and so inevitably projects and services to the citizens are also limited. Pay for staff is low.
  • IGF is low: Internally generated funds (IGF) is unbelievably low. IGF are funds collected by the district itself through income, property and business taxes, licenses, transport fees collected etc. IGF only makes up 1% of the total district budget – can you imagine? As a result, the district has a very low amount of completely discretionary funds. Suddenly most of your budget is accountable to someone else and you can’t control when it flows into the district coffers, making effective planning and budgeting difficult.
  • Absenteeism: most of the district staff do not live in the Kpandai area. Many live in Tamale, the regional capital (6-7 hours away) so Fridays are often empty at the office, as are Mondays/Tuesdays as people travel home to their families on the weekend. Also a cause of absenteeism is that various donors and government programs pull out staff for training and workshops for several days at a time frustratingly frequently. The staff are paid extra for going to these, so why wouldn’t they go?! I had a two week stretch where I was the only person in the whole office.
  • Donor dependence: Since IGF is so low, the officers feel that they have to ‘sell’ their districts to donors to attract projects and funding. High performing officers, from a donor point of view are ones that come to lots of training, workshops and conferences and those that which means a lot of time away from the district where they are supposed to be working. Kind of a bad measurement for a ‘good’ officer eh? Also, with lots of donor projects and programs, it means an unbelievable amount of donor-specific monitoring and reporting done by the staff members… And don’t forget the associated added training for reporting properly! And more training whenever the reporting format is changed.
  • Absence of individual performance based incentives: Hiring and salaries are determined by much, much higher up levels than at the district. Imagine Ottawa determining salary and staff requirements of municipalities in Canada. Firing anyone is practically impossible in the Government of Ghana, they just transfer people to a new district (lucky new district!). How can you motivate people to do a stellar job if they are not rewarded in any way for it?
  • Emphasis on top down: Everything is hierarchical and top-down dominated. You do what your superiors (and donors) tell you, not more not less. I have seen very little evidence of creativity and ideas being driven from the ‘bottom’ of the pyramid. Staff are not encouraged to innovate, or push back on ideas or methods that they know are not useful. How discouraging would that be?

So why, after all that, do I think I can make any change?

Many of the district officers themselves don’t think that they can make changes within their roles and tasks, or that they can affect the system to serve Kpandai people better. So, again, why do I think I can make any change? Sigh, I’m not always sure, but that is why I am here – try and make disruptive change within the system so that it works better for the 90% of people in Kpandai district that are poor, rural farmers, so that it works better for the village women that carry an inhuman amount of firewood on their heads to town everyday to sell, so that it works better for the entrepreneurial small business owners, so that it works better for the teenage girls that want to go high school, so that it just works better. These people, my Dorothys, deserve a better system.

Dorothy, for my non-EWB readers, is an imaginary rural African farmer (or other) that EWB sees as our ultimate customer, boss and bottom line. We are meant to live by “What would Dorothy do?”. We strive to work to put Dorothy’s priorities first.

I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that I am here to make change, no matter how little I think I understand or know. And not just change, disruptive change. Yes, I need to remain humble, and perhaps more realistic about the type of change I will be able to have, but I have keep believing that I will be able to make change, even if its just small small, and just keep searching for a way around, over or through when the system throws up a wall.

In other exciting Kpandai news

Over the weekend, I adopted a baby chicken! His name is Henry, and it is the cutest thing in the whole wide world and I’m obsessed. My Ghanaian family laughs at my excitement – baby chicks are apparently no big deal!? I wonder how hard it would be to import a chicken to Canada?


Henry, his siblings and Mama Hen


Henry, the baby chick and I, just chillin

I’ve also started running regularly. You can’t beat the beautiful landscape! However, if you get caught daydreaming while running, then one of the treacherous potholes gets you… I’ve had a few huge wipeouts with many scrapes and bruises on my knees to prove it.

Ghanaian Road

My running road

I promise to post again soon team! Thanks for reading.



11 thoughts on “Being okay with making change

    • Haha thanks Daniel, although i don’t think I could pass Henry as a cage bird or sneak past “The expression does not apply to pigeons, doves, species of wild or domesticated fowl, or game birds.”

      BLAST. Plus I’m pretty sure my family wants to eat him as soon as he’s big and fat… maybe I should stop feeding him so much…

      • yea don’t give him special treatment …. his siblings are gonna get jealous. lol

        and with respect to your work …. keep at it! You were able to influence change on this side of the world ….. it will just take some more time on that end ….. it will come 🙂

  1. Yes you can.

    Hey, I might be over my head here (as I know nothing about Ghana) but what you describe under “Absence of individual performance based incentives” might be a symptom of a deeper problem. Like corruption. This may not be your traditional hoard-the-tax-money corruption but a variety that involves giving public appointments to favourable parties, even relatives at times. So, though the appointment is filled, the appointee has little motivation to do good as the reason for their appointment is rooted in favouritism, not merit.

    Worst enemy of growth, I know. But you are gonna figure it out!

    “Emphasis on top down” – I saw a talk once in which the change-agent (a lady not unlike to yourself!) started empowering the people at the bottom rung. She educated women on business practices and issues affecting their immediate life. Soon the women were confident enough in their decisions and convictions that they actually started influencing change themselves!

    I guess change is a bottom-up process! Anyway Alex, rock on. You’re a hero.

    • Hey Naman!

      Thanks so much for your comment. Definitely corruption and nepotism are something that Ghana is always struggling with… Definitely could be like you said, lack of personal incentive because the job wasn’t won by merit. I almost think that the lack of hard performance based incentives (ex. bonuses, recognition etc.) is actually an effort to reduce corruption in some ways. If you frequently transfer staff between districts, have wages that are dictated by national level and are standard, have no judgement based bonuses etc. you’re reducing the opportunity for corruption to happen… at the same time, you’re not allowing people to spend time and build an expertise in a district, you’re showing that everyone gets the same salary no matter what the performance is in the same role and you’re not giving anyone an opportunity to benefit or stand out for fantastic work. Arg! What is the right answer? What is the balance? I’m not sure… Are there measures to reduce opportunity for corruption without reducing incentives for staff performance?

      Top-down – Ya! Definitely education and empowerment of the bottom is key. Always easier said than done, but we can always try! Can you send me the link to the TED Talk if you can find it? Searching the internet here is…. less than efficient :).

      Thanks again Naman 🙂

  2. I apparently missed this blog post! But yes, I would love to continue our chat on motivating people who don’t feel like what they will do will make an impact. I think this was a very interesting point that we chatted about, and I think it goes along with your comment about no performance based incentives. Would incentives encourage people to think outside the box, and consequently have more potential to make a difference in the system?

    Talk soon!

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