Monday, July 17, 2006

What do I DO?!

There is a reason the last entry was titled “What I am supposed to be DOING” as opposed to this one which is entitled (half title, half exasperated plea) “What do I DO?!”. The truth is, the situation in this district is far from ideal, and so what I came with, as ideas of making effective impact, are maybe not the best suited for this district.
I’m being vague – so I’ll be honest. I’m not sure what our funders will think if I’m this honest about my situation, but the funders are not our ultimate stakeholders – finally and foremost I’m responsible to the people I’m trying to work with, the farmers living in poverty in the East Gonja District. And by being honest, I’m trying to make their situation better.

The phrase that sums it up best (as I mentioned to my friend Renee, the Canadian volunteer at a local NGO) is this – “MoFA in East Gonja is craptacular!”. Crude language, I’m sure but it explains my utter frustration and difficulties working with them.

1) Accountability
People in my office are not accountable, in any way. I don’t mean ‘money’ wise – I mean in terms of personal accountability. On any given day, you can walk into my office at 9h30 and nobody is there. Empty. Maybe the old toothless watchman. Around 11h00 they’ll start showing up, kill time for about an hour, then its lunch. Unless its end of the month reporting time, after “lunch time” – so around 13h00 – everybody is gone. For the day. Finished. It is a ‘field office’ so to a certain extent, people spend more time in the field than in the office but this has far exceeded that extent. The heads of the office are always at one ‘workshop’ or another, one meeting or another in Tamale. They have their families in Tamale, so each workshop or visit is extended until they are rarely in Salaga. Since the bosses are never in, everybody else feels they too don’t have to report to work. While many of the employees, such as the agricultural extension officers and veterinary and crops technical officers are very legitimate and work hard, there are glaring exceptions. Due to “staff shortages” random people have been hired to fill posts – some of the extension agents are just labourers with “agricultural knowledge” (as much as any random person would know) hired to fill the spots. At least 3 of the people hired in such a fashion are illiterate. One man, who’s post is in the village of Kitoe (about 10 kilometres from here) is ALWAYS sitting with the chief in the centre of the town. When does he go to work? I don’t know.
A lot of their positions are actually unfilled – due to “underbudgeting”. They should have ‘market specialists’ whose jobs entail that they go the markets and find out accurate pricing information to relay to the farmers. They don’t have any – and so when its time to fill in marketing information, they guess.
Anything that requires extra dedication, or commitment to see it through – a special project, a food security network, even the test plots behind the office – all those things are abandoned. You get the acute sense that each person in the office is there only – in every sense of the word – for the paycheque.
Most of my work, my planning of workshops, my surveying and report writing – its done at home, because if I go to the office I’m sitting there alone (while the watchman sits out front). I can never make any sort of plan because I need permission from my director and he is never in town. I can’t even photocopy or print anything in the office (they should technically allow me to..) because “[I’m] wasting the toner” or because the photocopier is in the director’s office, and the office is locked. The first two weeks I was here, I did all variety of things – volunteer at the hospital, teach math at Megan’s school, go to funerals – valuable things surely – but because nobody was at my office that I could work with.
How do you build capacity in the office when nobody is there? How do you teach people who aren’t there how to type? How to write proposals?

2) Respect
The director never really was on board with our project. He didn’t really want me
there/understand what I was doing, and didn’t really bother to find out. As I didn’t really meet him (except on the first day, briefly) for the first 2 weeks that I was here, I didn’t get introduced properly (important in Ghanaian culture) to the other office members. Because they are never there, the “monthly staff meetings” – with all of the staff at the office (field and otherwise) are nonexistent. I kept insisting on coming to a monthly meeting so I could introduce myself to everyone and tell them what I’m doing, etc. It never happened. So, the director didn’t back me – and I’m a woman in an office full of men (no women – not even one, not even the typist or the sweeper), men who don’t come to work and distrust anybody from outside who may report their lack of attendance. Obviously it came to pass that most of the staff don’t take me seriously. Heaven knows I tried; I arranged a lot of my own field visits by befriending some of the extension agents, I made jokes, I built trust or tried to…
The bosses at our office don’t respect women. On a field visit I went on with them, I was left in town with one of the deputy directors’ wife, while they went to an ostrich farm nearby. Why? The truck was broken and the ostrich farm was a 2 kilometer walk. “Women can’t walk that far,” my director decreed. And so… I missed out. Did they ask me? Nope. I tried insisting and they looked distinctly annoyed.
Nobody really knows what I “do” formally, so my movements even in the office are restricted. Once I asked to take a look at the annual budget for the district. I was refused. I asked to see the monthly reports – I was refused. Keep in mind I asked politely and made it clear that I just wanted to understand the workings of the office better.
If it was just a general lack of respect and chauvisinism, I probably could have dealt with it. Instead if filtered into my work and I paid heavily for it. The second workshop I held had horribly poor attendance and was full of complaints (there will be an entry on that). Why did nobody come? Because the director and the other higher ups decided that it wasn’t important enough for them to insist that the field staff come. Since they never really stressed to the field staff that I was a guest, or that I was coming to help them – the reception that some of my friends got in other districts – the field staff ‘didn’t care’.
There is a practice here that for ‘workshops’, food and drink must be provided (okay, no problem.. we have budget for that) but also a ‘sitting fee’. Basically, you are paid to attend. Since I neither believe in that practice, nor do we have budget for that, there was general discontentment amongst the staff at my workshop. If maybe their boss was there and insisted on no complaints….nope. They were out. In Tamale.

3) Leadership
When you have effective leaders, you have an effective team. There is a definitive lack
of leadership at our office. Not only are they physically not present, being always at Tamale, but they are emotionally non present as well. They don’t care about their jobs. My boss is a Ukrainian trained veterinary doctor – he regards his position as a joke and only a rung on the ladder to ‘bigger things’. He isn’t local, he doesn’t speak any of the local languages (and hasn’t learned) besides English (surprising for a Ghanaian..most speak at least more than 2 languages) and he likes being the boss. If you call him anything besides “Doctor” or “Director” he gets annoyed. He treats most of the extension staff with a certain disdain and they notice. They are not big fans and he isn’t either. Everyone in our office has worked there for a long time (some since 1979) and bringing in a younger, ‘non-local’ person to be the leader, especially somebody who is not an effective leader at all, has undermined the opinions and values of a lot of the employees. Because they don’t respect the director, and I am seen as his guest, they don’t respect me. But because he doesn’t respect ME, they see that also as modus operandi.

To be continued….


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