Monday, July 31, 2006


If anyone is interested in listening to a podcast that I made for Engineers Without Borders, you can listen to it here.

For those of you unfamiliar with podcasts, it's basically an internet-based radio show. It comes as an mp3 file that you download to your computer -- pretty simple, just download the file and then open it.

The show is called Audio Fields, and the first episode features village songs about soya, tips for a village stay, and running into cows while jogging in Mali. It also has a contest featuring my most despised animal, the sheep.

Here are a few more pictures from my vacation.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Just a quick update to let everyone know that I made it back from vacation. And yes, I got to Mali, although not far enough north to see the beginnings of the Sahara desert. But I did witness the most spectacular natural scenery of my life in Dogon Country, in southern Mali. See below for a few teaser pics; a more detailed account of my trip should come soon.

Right now work is a little bit hectic. We currently have one guest visiting Sarah Takaki and me at the CWSA, and we’re expecting another guest at the end of this week. The first guest is Sara Ehrhardt, who was integral in the formation of EWB way back in 2000 and is now doing a master’s degree at Harvard University. She’s come to Ghana to visit EWB volunteers and evaluate our impact strategy (how are we helping to effect change for the better in the lives of the poor here?) and help determine how to better incorporate gender issues into our work.

The second guest is Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, who’s on EWB’s Advisory Board. She’s a prominent academic in the development world, and is the former director of the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports. She’s currently doing a fellowship at Harvard University and is interested in learning more about EWB’s impact model, so she’s also coming to Ghana to meet with some EWB volunteers (including Sarah and me). So I’m a little freaked out about this, but at the very least we should get some excellent feedback on the project that we’re developing.

More updates to come soon.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Road to Damongo…

…is heavily striated.

I’m in Damongo, the capital of the district known as West Gonja, where I’ve travelled to analyse the District Water and Sanitation Team (see description in last blog entry). This analysis involves meeting with many people, including the DWST, the District Chief Executive (the top dog at the district – kind of like the mayor), the Planning Officer, and visiting a community with the DWST to see how they’re engaging in monitoring – basically how they’re making sure that the communities’ water and sanitation needs are being met.

A big problem here is that the DWST doesn’t engage in monitoring of small communities very often. “We don’t have fuel,” Issahaku, the team DWST team leader tells me. “There’s no money.” Issahaku, a short plump man with over 10 years’ experience at this job, is clearly frustrated. With no fuel for their motorcycles, they’re basically stranded in Damongo, the district capital. “And the district is too large. This means that when we do have fuel, we have to travel very far, on bad roads. Our motorbikes wear out too quickly.”

The roads are certainly rough, even though Damongo is a frequent stop-over for tourists on their way to Ghana’s largest game reserve, Mole National Park. After an afternoon on the back of Issahaku’s motorcycle, my legs are aching from trying to keep my feet on the footrests as we crawled along over the hundreds of bumps in the road.

So why doesn’t they have money for fuel? There’s a host of reasons for this, but a big one is a lack of funding at the district level. West Gonja receives some money from the central government (called the Common Fund) and some money from taxation (called Internally Generated Revenue [IGR]). The problem is that the amount of Common Fund money they get is directly proportional to their IGR.

“The more money we generate through taxation, the more money the central government will give us” explains Janet Al Hassan, West Gonja’s District Chief Executive.

So they just need to get more taxes, right? Unfortunately, large chunks of the West Gonjan population are “overseas”. This means that during the rainy season, rivers and flooded areas cut large swaths of the district off from the rest of West Gonja – they become completely inaccessible.

The farmers in these overseas areas can’t get their produce to market, so their produce can’t be taxed, so the District can’t increase their IGR, so their Common Fund won’t be increased by the central government.

This is a catch-22: the district doesn’t have enough money to build good roads and bridges to the overseas area, and their revenue won’t increase until the overseas areas are linked by good roads and bridges.

“The rich get richer while the poor get poorer,” says Janet Al Hassan. She, too, is clearly frustrated.

This example is to illustrate how some problems here are institutional, things that I’ll never be able to help with. It’s also to illustrate the complexity of many of the problems that are facing Ghanaians – the problems are almost never a simple matter of “rains fail: people go hungry.” Development, as any EWBer will tell you, is complex and frustrating.


Sidenote: I won’t be updating my blog next week – I’m heading up to Mali for a vacation. At least, I think that’s where I’m going. Given my sense of direction I’ll probably end up in the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe even the Pacific. But I’ll take pictures no matter where I end up

Pictures for this week:
1) My first wild scorpion sighting.
2) Obligatory cute kids shot.
3) Confusing painting on wall at guest house where I’m currently staying.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Ghanaian Soccer and Canadian Celebrations

World Cup fever has definitely died down since Ghana was unceremoniously dumped in the 1/8th finals in a match against Brazil that was decidedly poorly refereed, with a Ghanaian offence that decidedly lacked the ability to score. However, although it’s reduced, the fever is still here – take the wild jubilating that apparently broke out across the country on Saturday after Brazil’s exit at the hands of the French. And today’s Daily Graphic has front page photos of Ghana’s president John Kufuor bestowing the Order of the Volta upon the Black Stars.

The whole experience has certainly left its mark on Ghana. While I was biking home after Ghana’s defeat nearly two weeks ago, I was angry and saddened that my favourite team’s chances had been cut short in such a frustrating match. However, it was Ghanaians who ended up consoling me. “It’s okay!” more than one person yelled to me, “2010!!” they said, an allusion to the next World Cup to be held in South Africa.

People here are incredibly proud of their team’s performance, which, on the whole, was definitely impressive. President Kufuor is quoted in today’s Graphic saying: “Over the past few weeks Ghana has been experiencing a new wave of confidence, patriotism and goodwill which we have never experienced in this country before.” Adjusting for the healthy dose of hyperbole in that statement (I wasn’t around in 1957 when Ghana gained its independence, but I imagine that similar words were spoken then), there’s certainly still much truth to it. Ghanaian flags can still be found hanging throughout Tamale – flags that weren’t there just one month ago. People are talking excitedly about the 2008 African Cup, to be held in Ghana. The Black Stars have given Ghana something big to look forward to in the future.

In other news, this past weekend some of us EWBers celebrated Canada Day by setting up camp in a small community outside of Tamale. We invited along our Ghanaian friends to partake in a campfire, guitar playing and hotdogs roasted on sticks. It was just like back home, except for the 30 or so children who gathered around our campsite and silently stared at us for hours on end. It was kind of like a seen out of an African version of Children of the Corn.

In work news, Sarah and I are currently in full diagnostic swing. We’re not doing any kind of exciting tangible activity like measuring well depths or taking GPS coordinates, but I have high hopes that the work we’re doing will yield some very positive impact.

As a bit of political structure background: Ghanaian regions (like the Northern Region, where I live) are subdivided into Districts, with their own administrative governments. Ghana is undergoing a process of decentralization, meaning that much power is being downloaded from the national and regional levels to the district level. In theory, this means that the district level should be assuming quite a bit of responsibility for its water and sanitation facilities. (See the picture below for a basic outline of the government structure in Ghana.)

Sarah and I are working out of the regional level CWSA office, but we’re currently performing a diagnostic at the district level. We’re travelling to six different districts in the Northern Region in order to analyse the capabilities of the District Water and Sanitation Teams (DWSTs). These DWSTs are made up of governmental officers who are responsible for monitoring the quality of all water and sanitation facilities in their districts – this basically means travelling to every small community and ensuring that boreholes are functioning properly, that latrines haven’t collapsed and that proper hygiene practices are being followed.

The DWSTs are an incredibly important link between the communities and their district government. For instance, the DWST is supposed to dispatch a mechanic to any community where a problem arises with a pump. Another example is in district-donor advocacy: when a district is fighting for funds from a donor (like UNICEF, for example), they need detailed statistics on their current water coverage rates. They have to be able to make their case that their district needs additional water facilities, and they have to know which communities need them the most.

However, decentralization is moving in stops and starts in Ghana, and the DWSTs often aren’t getting the proper support from their districts – they don’t have the money or, in some cases, the training necessary to do their job as well as possible.

Sarah and I are looking at the possibility of working with a DWST in order to help boost their monitoring and computer skills. As unsexy as it sounds, if the DWSTs can increase the quality and amount of their water and sanitation information, it could have big implications for people in small communities throughout their district.

Finally, I’d like to wish a happy Independence Day to any Americans reading this. Sorry about the World Cup thing.

See below for some before and after photos from the Ghana-Brazil match.

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