Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the category “International Development”

Failure Report

EWB is a unique organization for a variety of reasons, one of which is their annual Failure Report.  Every year, different EWBers writes about their struggles, challenges, and fiascoes.

This is huge!  In the international development world, no one wants to admit that their projects don’t work.  They’ve taken money from donors and implemented a new idea on the ground; afterwards they need convince everyone why it was worth the money.

In reality, however, many projects fail.  Or, at the very least, need to be adapted.

EWB celebrates its achievements, but also admit their failures.

Sometimes, though, the Failure Report seems a little watered down since we can’t say anything insulting to our partners.  There are a few aspects of All Voices Matter that would make a good Failure Blog Post, but I won’t publish anything disparaging online.  For the most part, however, All Voices Matter has been an impressive, successful project.

But I can write a Failure Report about myself.  Or a Failure List, since that’s easier.  Reflecting on my experience here, I can’t tell if I would categorize it as a success or failure.  My gut feeling leans towards the fiasco/shit show side, but my coworkers say I’m a “good JF” so maybe my time hasn’t been a complete disaster.

Consequently, in true nerdy fashion, below is the Con/Pro (Failure/Success) aspects from my placement.


  • Sick 1/3 of the time (typhoid, malaria, food poisoning, flu. Best response from another EWBer last week: “You’re sick again?  It’s not like Pokemon.  You don’t have to catch them all!”)
  • Robbed twice (in 2 weeks)
  • Didn’t make many Ghanaian friends
  • Instead of befriending the neighbourhood children, stopped responding when they yelled  “Salaminga, hello!”
  • Never baked a cake or pie with my host-sister
  • Didn’t clean my room as thoroughly as I should have because I was afraid of the spiders in the corners
  • Low number of applications for next year’s UBC JFs (I should never have written about the bugs)
  • Angered by host-family by leaving without enough notice
  • Cried a lot


  • Healthy 2/3 of the time
  • Completed all my work
  • At the end, the Tamale Planning Officer phoned me to confirm a meeting time instead of completely missing it
  • Made really close expat friends
  • Kept in touch my friends and family
  • Maintained my sense of humour
  • Blogged almost every day

Because I tend to be a happy-go-lucky puppy, I want to view this placement as a success.  Furthermore, I want to think that these past three months contributed positively to my life experience.  Maybe it’ll take more time and reflection back home before I can put this experience in enough context to evaluate it.


Dream a little dream

Last weekend at the EWB fall planning retreat, we talked about interests, passions, and dreams.  For a short introduction on our dreams, I was paired with Miles who is one of the Kumvana delegates.  He told me that his life dream is to make Ghana agriculturally self-sufficient.  He wants to end his country’s reliance on maize, cassava, and soy imports.  Moreover, he believes that this can accomplished by small famers: improving agriculture can vast amounts of people get themselves out of poverty.  Somehow, Miles wove into his descriptions how much he loves children and that increasing women’s rights will also help Ghana become a stronger country.

He is an amazing human being.  You can donate to his Kumvana placement here.

In comparison, my life goal of “I want to stop the BC Ferries 10 minute cut-off rule to Bowen from the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal” seemed a little uninspired and boring.

So I forced myself to think big.  What do I really want to do with my life?  Besides get a dog.

I want to give people freedom.

In transportation theory, transportation is seen as a means to give people mobility and accessibility.  It’s important to be mobile so that you can move from place to place.  More importantly, it’s important to be able to access different services.

For example, say you live on a bus route that takes you to the airport.  You’re relatively mobile.  But what if you never fly?  What if there are no services along that bus route that you need?  Stuff like employment, health services, recreation, groceries.  In that case, you don’t have adequate accessibility.

In much of the developing world, transportation provides mobility without accessibility.  It’s easy to get to some places, but they’re not always the places you want to go.

Moreover, cultural considerations, safety concerns, and environmental issues are all related to personal transportation.

Personally, I value my freedom.  I like my freedom so much that it makes dating difficult: I hate feeling caged in and will break up as soon as it feels like my opportunities are starting to shrink (which usually happens around the second date.  Yep, I can be crazy).  In Tamale, it’s been emotionally difficult to have a curfew imposed by my host-family.

My dream is for people to feel safe and secure in their freedom.  I don’t want people to be afraid of traveling at night, for women to fear certain routes, or children to get sick because the hospital is too far away.

No one should die because roads curve dangerously or traffic signals are timed incorrectly.  A little bit of data collection, design and citizen engagement can go a long way in improving transportation systems – especially in developing countries.

As my transportation expert friend Patrick says, transportation alone can’t solve society’s problems.  But the system can either exacerbate or alleviate them.

It’s time to design better systems.

More EWB-UBC Questions

Here are some more questions from my awesome UBC Chapter back home.

In your blog post, Fight Patriarchy, you mentioned that many charities are aimed at helping men. In what ways do NGO programs benefit men more than women?

To begin, my apologies.  I often make sweeping generalizations in my blog posts that I don’t back up.  To answer this question, I’m going to narrow my scope and focus on Tamale.

In this city, there are a lot of different NGO projects with different agendas.  There are a lot of different NGO projects with different agendas.  Many of them specifically target women as recipients of aid or education.  Unfortunately, however, it is extremely difficult for foreigners to understand the local cultural implications of their work

For example, I’m currently working with a group that is educating women on obstetric fistula.  Since this a medical problem that occurs from prolonged childbirth, it first appeared to be a “woman’s issue.”  Consequently, they started their project by focusing on women.

They soon discovered, however, that the problems surround obstetric fistula are much more complex.  Early marriages, teen pregnancies, malnutrition, and poverty all contribute to the high rates of obstetric fistula.  Moreover, it often doesn’t matter how educated a woman is on the subject because ultimately she needs permission from her husband to go to the hospital – either to give birth or get treated afterwards.

We exist in a patriarchal society, so all these small patch-up solutions ultimately help to uphold patriarchy.

Here’s another example.  For the GIFTS project, Amplify hired Ghanaians to work as field workers.  They record housing information, GPS coordinates, and paint numbers on the houses.  Out of 10 data collectors, only one is a woman.

This isn’t because Amplify is biased: they actually aimed to hire more women.  But many women can’t work a full-time job here.  Instead, they need something that they can organize around household chores and childcare responsibilities.  For instance, my seamstress’ 1-year-old son usually hangs out in her stall with her.

As a Canadian, I view my job life and home life as separate entities.  Women here, however, often don’t have that luxury.

Does that make sense?  Have I answered your question?  I wanted to delve into counterrevolutionary theory, but that would have started a long “end patriarchy!!!!!” rant so I tried to give examples instead.  Let me know if I haven’t been clear.

If people are using pay-as-you-go cards, then would they be paying to answer the surveys you’ve sent out?

With pay-as-you-go, you only pay when you make the outgoing call.  Receiving calls doesn’t cost anything.

In what other ways can we/NGOs help if we don’t build infrastructure directly? How do we help improve infrastructure indirectly?

By helping countries improve their government’s accountability, which leads to your next question:

You suggested improving the tax system, however, how could developed countries help developing countries improve their governments as whole?

I wish I had concise answers for you.  Honestly you’re asking me things way outside my depth of knowledge, so please take everything here with a grain of salt.  Actually, take it with a mountain of salt.

I think we need to focus on our own governments and lead by example.

In South Africa, I got to meet the Governor General because my friend’s boss was receiving an award.  As a fellow Canadian, I was invited to the party.  We went to the Canadian Diplomat’s house in Pretoria, which was huge.  I met Craig Kielburger, the guy who started Feed the Children.  A large group of important Canadians were traveling around southern Africa to meet state leaders and see the countries for themselves.

It was outrageous.  Besides the lavish food spread, they had also brought in Canadian beer and maple cookies.

Most African governments are disgustingly corrupt, but we’re not shining ideals either.  As Canadians, I think we need to demand more from our politicians.  Advocacy is key.

I know that’s not a great answer.  I’m basically saying that we can help African governments by ignoring them and letting them fend for themselves.

More than that, though, we also need to recognize that many of our actions in Canada undermine sovereignty in African states – like our electronics that often contain minerals from conflict zones.  We need to consume less stuff.  If oil, gold, diamonds, and other resources weren’t so precious, then people wouldn’t fight over it.

These are tough issues.  It’s so complicated that I have no idea how to tackle them.

That being said, things change quickly.  Look at how quickly China and India created a new middle class!  Nothing is hopeless.

If anyone else has more ideas, you’re invited to share.

10. Be compassionate

The Dalai Lama said, “Compassion is a verb.”  It’s an action, not a sentiment.

So don’t feel compassionate; be compassionate.  Be kind and generous and respectful.

Every action is an opportunity to improve the world.

At the end of the day, most of us only have power over the people we personally interact with.  Most of these interactions are neutral, but sometimes your words will make someone feel infinitely better or infinitely worse.

Aim for better.

3. Support access to cheap medical drugs

Back to #3 on the Ways to Help from Home list.

Keep in mind that I’m not an expert in Intellectual Property (IP) rights so the intricacies are totally lost on me.  But I’ve read a few editorials about it so I have an opinion anyways.

The pharmaceutical industry claims that it needs IP rights as incentive to do expensive research.  If they gave away their secrets so that cheaper, knock-off drugs can be produced, then they lose all that research investment money.

I don’t agree with that argument.  Producing cheap drugs for developing country won’t affect their profits that much.  The fear is that the cheap drugs will make their ways onto the First World market – but let’s be realistic.  Would you buy the expensive HIV/AIDS drugs that are from a known producer or black market drugs?  Unless you’re in the U.S. where the health care system is stupid, you (or your insurance provider) will pay the big money.

Big Pharma has already lost many battles in the IP war, mainly due to international pressure and the horrible public relations fallout.  Keep up the pressure.  The fight isn’t over yet.

While I’m talking about medical issues, support companies that are researching diseases that disproportionately affect the Global South.  As Bill Gates says, every year more money is spent on anti-balding and erectile dysfunction research than malaria and HIV/AIDS research.  Only 10% of pharmaceutical research is spent on the diseases that affect 90% of the world population.

That’s ridiculous.  I just had malaria and spent days in bed, wondering why my stupid daily $5/Malerone pill failed me and why there isn’t a vaccine for this parasite yet.

Lastly, get your kids immunized.  It’s disturbing that western middle- and upper-class parents have stop immunizing their children.  If you don’t agree, take a science class.  Then immunize your children.

9. Listen to all sides of the story, even if you think someone is ignorant or hateful

Personally, I don’t want to give bigots the time of day.  If you’re racist or sexist or homophobic, I’m not going to waste my time talking to you.

But that’s the easy way out.

People have hateful opinions because they’ve been taught to hate and they’re afraid, not because they’re naturally awful.

As Glenn Greenwald has frequently argued on the free speech debate, it’s better to listen to someone’s point of view than to silence them.  Hate speech should be decried, but it’s shouldn’t be muzzled.  Forcing someone to stop publicly sharing his or her opinion won’t stop them from holding those views.

Instead, it’s better to listen and argue counterpoints based on logic and facts.

Some people don’t listen to either of these and they’re frustrating.  I know a guy who frequently posts anti-feminist remarks on Facebook and refuses to apologize even though people respond by pointing out flaws in his arguments.  Part of me wants to defriend him and never read his ignorant bullshit again.

But what would that accomplish?  He holds those views because he spends a lot of time on Reddit, surrounded by other males who believe the same things.  It’s easy to convince yourself you’re right when it feels like everyone else has the same opinion.

Instead, don’t settle for the easy way out.  Stay friends (real life friends, not only Facebook friends) with people that hold different beliefs.

Last year, a classmate told me that she could never date someone who voted for Harper.

“I could never date someone who’d say something like that,” I laughed.

Even though I’m a lefty socialist who can’t stand Harper, I understand why a lot of people vote for him.  Lots of my friends voted for him.  Much worse, I think, is someone who refuses to stay open-minded.

6. Fight patriarchy

A friend recently asked me, “Is sexism a problem over there?”

Yes and no.

In the District Assemblies, people are generally educated.  They’re used to working with women.  While men who stop by my office are occasionally flirtatious, they don’t ever make marriage propositions.  I personally don’t feel that being a woman has made my job more difficult.

But I also don’t deal with very many people directly.  I have a few contact people at four different Assemblies.  I’ve talked to other female expats who have had much more difficulties in their jobs.  Men harass them or treat them like they’re inferior or don’t take them seriously.  While sexism hasn’t been a problem for me, it’s still a problem.

In Ghana, a woman’s work is never done.  It seems as though my host-mother is continuously sweeping, mopping, washing clothes, preparing food, cooking over a fire (which takes forever), washing dishes, buying groceries, etc.

[Side note: best invention ever?  The washing machine.  Definitely not the vending machine, as my little sister argues.]

You might be thinking, “So what?  What am I supposed to do about African women carrying firewood for miles on their heads?”

First, many charity projects are aimed at helping men.  We don’t try to understand the different impacts for women.  Do your research and ask tough questions before donating money.

Second, patriarchy is alive and well in Canada.  For example, a friend of a friend of mine recently completed an engineering co-op job with a mining company in northern BC.  During a meeting, she gave a progress report and one of the other attendants said, “I don’t believe you.”

“Uh… what?” she was surprised.  Maybe it was a joke?  What did he mean that he didn’t believe her?

“I don’t believe anything that comes from a person who bleeds for 5 days every month and doesn’t die.”

Statements like that, whether jokes or not, don’t belong anywhere – especially not a professional setting.

Last year, a study came out about North American female engineers that suggested that women have many reasons for leaving the engineering business beyond the desire to have families, which is the common reason stated for why women hold less senior positions.  The researchers found during their interviews that women cited hostile working environments and perceived lack of opportunities as their main reasons for leaving, not their children.

Furthermore, I’ve read many articles like this one about the additional difficulties women have in the tech start-up business.

Women, stay strong.

Men, listen.  Don’t become defensive.  Don’t say #NotAllMen.  Thank you, I know not all men are sexist.  But some are and it would helpful if you understood why that’s harmful to everyone instead of telling me that I’m reverse-sexist.  Read this if you want info.  Actually, read it especially if you don’t want more info because then you probably do.

8. Fight homophobia

Watch this John Oliver video about Uganda’s anti-gay laws and don’t ever say “That’s gay” in a disparaging way.  Ever.

7. Acknowledge and fight racism


You’re probably a little racist.  I’m a little racist.  The more different cultures I encounter, the more presumptions and stereotypes build up in my head.  If anyone says that they’re 100% not racist, they’re either lying or the most amazing human being on the planet.  Or – like many Canadians – they live in an all-white, progressive, upper/middle-class community where it’s easy to accept differences because there aren’t any.

First step is acknowledgement.  Second step is doing something about it.

Don’t accept bullshit like the American school that refused admission to a student from Rwanda because of misplaced fears of Ebola.  If you hear of an institution like that, boycott it.

Moreover, stop spreading fear of Ebola.  As Hannah Giorgis articulates, many of these stupid fear-mongering stories are thinly-veiled attempts to capitalize on the West’s fear of Africa and black people.  It’s disgusting.

Here’s a list of Mia McKenzie’s How Not to Be An Ally so that you don’t do it wrong.

A personal story as a response to #3 on the list “Date ‘em all”

Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.

I dated a South African man like this two years ago.  It took me awhile to realize it, since I still forget that I’m not white.  A couple months into our relationship we watched “The Power of One.”  During the movie he commented on Apartheid’s crazy marriage laws.  He ended with, “You and I wouldn’t be able to be together.”

I was shocked.  I hadn’t previously realized that he identified me “exotic” instead of simply a human being.  It was an ego boost for him to think “I’m so open-minded that I date non-white women.”  It was almost as though I should believe it was charity, an act of generosity, for him to date me.  No one likes feeling like a charity case.


After the tragic shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Janee Woods wrote a great article on what white people can do to join the dialogue on racism.

5. Buy less

Some thoughts:

  • Over 80% of North American clothes donated to charity end up in developing countries where they are bought and sold. Buying clothes and donating them doesn’t help anyone, but it does contribute to decimating local tailor and seamstress businesses.
  • Our current economic system is based on exploiting cheap labour in countries is with minimal workers safety laws so the rich can have more useless stuff. What if we stopped buying useless stuff?  Maybe the economic system would adapt in a positive way.  Maybe not, but at least we wouldn’t waste as many resources.
  • In general, the areas in Africa with the most violent conflicts are also the areas with the most natural resources. Coincidence?  No way!  Rich resources give people something to fight over.  We need to recognize that our consumer-based lifestyles contribute to violence overseas.

More information can be found in BBC’s article “How second-hand clothes kill business for Malawi’s tailors.”

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