Since I’m a civil engineer studying transportation planning and volunteering with Engineers Without Borders, most people assume I’m in Africa doing something to do with roads and infrastructure. You know… typical engineering work.
Instead, I’m teaching people how to use a cell phone app – which my friends think is hilarious because I often hang up on people when I try to answer my phone.
But let’s backtrack and talk more about EWB before I laugh at my terrible technology skills. EWB actually does very little “engineering.” After a few years of working in Africa*, the organization’s founders quickly realized that Africa’s problems aren’t technology-based. The technology for clean drinking water has been around for 1000s of years! The reasons why poor people are often forced to buy their water is instead a problem of politics, law, policy, and education.
Widespread poverty is not only a money problem either. Billions of dollars are poured into international aid, but with very little results. Instead, towns have pump after pump built by rich NGOs who want something to show their donors, but don’t coordinate with each other or educate locals on maintenance or use locally available materials or ask communities what they actually want.
Consequently, EWB now works with local organizations to help them help themselves. They work in the agriculture industry to educate farmers on different farming techniques and crops. They work with the local government in Malawi to monitor water systems. The venture I’ll be working with, Amplify Governance, currently has two projects on the go.
The first is a citizen engagement project called All Voices Matter, which is the one I’ll be working on. Amplify has partnered with another EWB venture called VOTO, which is a mobile technology venture. In Ghana, the MMDAs, which are the equivalent of Canadian provincial elected MPs, have all the political power. The federal government’s power is actually only administrative. As a result, if you’re a citizen and want your opinion known then you need to communicate with your District Assembly. All Voices Matters is using a cell phone app to target populations that have a more difficult time making the physical journey to talk to their MMDA – particularly women, youth, and people with disabilities.
During my stay in Ghana, I’ll be based in the city of Tamale but traveling around to different areas to teach people about the app. I’ll teach politicians how to use it to create surveys and I’ll teach communities how to answer.
Amplify’s second project is to create a property taxation system. Ghana doesn’t have loads of natural resources, plus it’s been a peaceful democracy for a long time (partly because of the lack of resources – there’s nothing to fight over). At the same time, it receives lots of aid from external donors. I believe its biggest sources of income is actually aid money, but I should really try to check that before publishing it online (but I haven’t)! Regardless of the proportion, all that aid money means that government officials are often more accountable to external donors instead of their own citizens. Moreover, it’s hard to plan for long term projects when you never when the money is coming and how much.
By creating an effective property tax system, elected officials will have a stronger social contract with their constituents. Plus they’ll be able to budget more effectively.
The first step of this program is to create better maps. How can you tax property when you don’t know what sort of property there is? EWB is currently training people to use GIS so they can create better maps, especially in rural areas.
Whenever I worry that I won’t be able to teach people to use the cell phone app, I try to be grateful that at least I don’t need to convince them that property taxes will be good for them!
*“Africa” is a super broad term for a large and diverse continent. My apologies for the simplification.
I was wrong. The MMDAs (Metropolitan Metro District Assemblies) are comparable to BC’s town and city mayors. Ghana “Regions” are like our provinces, and they’re the ones who have mostly administrative powers.
I was wrong about something else too. Ghana actually does have natural resources. That’s why it used to be called The Gold Coast. As you can probably guess, this country has gold. It also has oil and other minerals. That being said, the Districts still get more money from international sponsors than from internal sources.