My placement with EWB’s Junior Fellow (JF) program has brought me to a community named Diare in northern Ghana. I’m partnering with an NGO named Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) to help farmers in this area establish a new system of storage for their maize. The project hopes to increase the amount and quality of produce that farmers store and sell by improving on current storage infrastructure and post-harvest handling practices.
My role, in short, is to live with the communities where the project will first be implemented in order to gather information that will be used in implementing it.
There are many challenges that confront me in carrying out my work. The biggest is the language barrier because I, of course, don’t know the local language, Dagbani. I have to rely on the few people in the community who speak English well to translate for me if I want to engage in conversation with farmers. I also did not come to the community with a good understanding of the local customs and traditions, and local agricultural practices.
Although there are still two and half months left in my placement, it’s clear to me that the value of the work I do in Ghana will not outweigh the value I gather from the experience. Concern about whether my work could have been more easily done by a Ghanaian (perhaps a graduate from the local University for Development Studies) will no doubt hold considerable weight. Such will be the case for not only me, but likely all the other Junior Fellows as well. For the majority of JFs four months is not enough time to make a worthwhile impact on the ground.
What, then, justifies our coming here? It took a substantial amount of donated money and EWB staff members’ time to bring us to Ghana. Donors, of course, did not want their money to be used in a way that would garner valuable personal experiences for volunteers while, in comparison, providing marginal value to Ghanaians. And the time of EWB staff could have been spent towards initiatives that would create clearer and more abundant benefits for Ghanaians.
The value of the JF program is often questioned in this way within EWB. Responses to such questioning generally lead to justification being given to the program on the basis that it helps Canadians connect with Africa – through JFs relating their experiences to others back home via blogs and other means – and that JFs return from the experience as better “change agents”. These further justifications are not extremely well defined. Though they succeed in giving enough reason for the JF program to continue to exist, they fail to put to rest doubts about its meaningfulness – thus, questions about its value remain ever-present.
I would like to suggest that the current way in which Canadians are connected to Africa and JFs made better “change agents” through the program fails to capitalize on the its full potential. If the terms of these two justifications are more rigidly defined and implemented, they would go much further in settling doubts and, more importantly, make the program more meaningful in forwarding the cause of development.
Connecting Canadians to Africa currently amounts to, in the main, the JFs’ families, friends, and university chapter members learning about their personal physical and emotional experiences, and interpretations of ground realities in Africa with regards to culture, development challenges, economic conditions etc. Out of everything else, primary emphasis is by far given to sharing personal experiences, which also extends itself to relating interpretations of cultural norms. Certainly, spreading awareness about other cultures is a meaningful exercise in itself; to the extent that development should be our main concern, however, there is a certain point after which it becomes rather meaningless to spread awareness about the fact that there are many goats in Ghana, etc.
Furthermore, it must be stressed that any interpretations of cultural norms by outsiders are just that: interpretations. More importantly, in this case they are interpretations made by mostly middle class, white university students who have a dehistoricized and depoliticized interpretive consciousness. Given the power differences in place between them and people in the South, and the dehistoricized and depoliticized framework through which they perceive their surroundings, this class of people is one of the least perceptive when it comes to making interpretations that are close to actual reality. At the same time, as they are part of a class that is one of the most powerful in the world, the interpretations they make serve to be of serious consequence. It’s a dangerous mix.
The class origins of JFs, as well as their level of historical and political consciousness, are also to blame for limiting the extent to which they can become better “change agents”. “Change agent” is EWB terminology for activist – though, characteristically, unlike the word activist, the term “change agent” is not politically charged. Struggling to make an impact through development work as a JF is supposed to provide meaningful lessons for future activism. Unfortunately, distorted interpretations and EWB’s narrow focus on aid and development work, as opposed to a focus on the larger issue of development (see my previous post), make any lessons learned not easily applicable to other fields of activism, or for that matter, within activism around broader issues concerning development.
How, then, should we move forward from here?
The class origins of JFs can’t be changed. Their level of historical and political consciousness, on the other hand, can be lifted; and with it the negative aspects that accompany their class origins can be quelled to a large degree. The privilege afforded to their class can hence be more surely exploited to serve positive ends.
With a broader and deeper understanding of how the world works JFs can use their time in Africa to survey and understand the implications of far-flung policies and practices on the lives of Africans. (How, for example, did the sub-prime mortgage crisis impact rural Ghanaians?). Having returned home they will be able to connect Canadians to Africa in a way that attaches their personal experiences to grander realities. Also, having a clearer idea of what the big picture looks like will allow them to make more accurate interpretations and learn lessons that will be applicable in disparate struggles.
There is no way to lift the consciousness of JFs to the level being proposed during pre-departure and in-country training. It would require a much larger time commitment, and in fact, an effort to lift the consciousness of not only JFs or potential JFs, but the organization’s membership as whole. Undoubtedly, the argument will be made that with a limited amount of resources, EWB can concentrate only on a limited number of pursuits, lest it become overburdened and the productiveness of its activities affected. What I’m suggesting, however, isn’t that we chase more pursuits, but that we develop a background of the big picture which would inform the foreground of our pursuits.
What would, in a sense, amount to changing the culture of the organization would involve lots of hard work and time. I don’t expect such a reason to turn away interest from this venture, though, because everyone in EWB is a workaholic.