Category Archives: Informational

Reports, Opportunities, and a Not-So-Village Stay: An Update

I haven’t blogged for almost a week now, which is a bit of a break from the 3+ posts/week rate I’ve managed to keep in the past few weeks. This is not because there hasn’t been anything about which to blog; quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve been too busy to write! Alhassan was out of the office for a big convention in Cape Coast for two weeks and as a result work at the RESO was going very slowly. He returned on Monday and brought with him a flurry of activity.

I spent Monday catching Alhassan up on plans for the following week and a half. In the time that Alhassan had been gone, Mina and I had decided that a village stay was in order for the final weekend before debrief. This meant that Thursday would be my last day at the office and I’d be in a village outside Tamale from Thursday afternoon-Tuesday afternoon. I told Alhassan that I would come to the office on Tuesday afternoon to say my goodbyes and we discussed what reports I should submit to the RESO team and Director.

In the evening, I informed Yaku of my (maybe) finalized plans for the village stay followed by travel to Kumasi, Accra, and–finally–Canada. He looked at me over our TZ, his eyes glistening, and said “so it means you’ll be gone as of Thursday?” Cue this:

I told him that I’d be back for Tuesday night and that I’d cook a “Canadian” meal for the family then. We stayed up late chatting about families, Canada, and education.

On Tuesday, I jumped into my final report for GaRI. It turned out to be quite the challenge; how does one condense 3 months of learning, including strategy recommendations, into <10 pages? I’m not sure (which is probably why the report isn’t done yet). On the bright side, what I have written has really made me realize just how much I’ve learned this summer. The theme for this blog for next week will be Learning, so expect to hear more about it.

Wednesday came with some very exciting news. I opened my email inbox to find an invitation to a forum in Accra held by USAID on a review of EMIS they performed in May. Dan Boland had connected me with the researcher (coincidentally named Chris) from RTI who performed the review early on in my placement. Chris interviewed me to get my perspective and was surprised to hear what I had to say about access to EMIS data. He told me that I’d be kept in the loop should anything worthwhile come out of his research. When I opened up the invitation attachment, I saw that one of the major points to be discussed at the forum was data access. That was pretty exciting. This guy wasn’t even considering access issues in his review until I spoke to him about it and now it was appearing as a topic of discussion at the review forum.

I figured that the forum would be an excellent opportunity to network for EWB and push the thoughts I have about EMIS a little further by introducing the briefing paper I wrote about it to the stakeholders who’ll be present. So I sent an excited email to Mina and Dan that read “Do either of you know about this? CAN I GO??” By the end of the day, I had purchased my ticket to Accra.

Because the forum is on the 17th, I’ll have to travel south a day earlier and meet up with the other JFs in Kumasi after the event is done. Cutting one day off the few days remaining created a lot of sudden stress for me; I have so many reports to finish, a village stay to attend, packing to do, and goodbyes to say and one fewer day for it all. In the end, I decided not to do the village stay so that I can spend the weekend preparing to leave.

And now it’s Thursday. What’s on my mind for today and tomorrow? REPORTS. I’ve got a bunch of thoughts to work out and translate into coherent English before Tuesday. Wish me luck.



Pre Pre-Departure

In a little over a day, I’ll be in Toronto at the EWB house gearing up for some intense, challenging, and fun learning at the full week of pre-departure training that lies ahead. I’ve only just had a chance to look at the pre-dep schedule and I’m very excited-and a bit intimidated. It looks we’ll have long 12-hour days with fairly in-depth sessions, and I predict that, in true EWB style, sleep will be dropped in favour of challenging and interesting discussions. In light of this, I decided to go back over the Foundation Learning for a quick review to be as pre-prepared as possible.

Foundation Learning is the curriculum developed by EWB to prepare JFs (and maybe APS; I’m not sure) for their internships. EWB has the most in-depth learning prep for overseas volunteers of any NGO I’ve seen. I’ve been doing this learning for the past four months and I honestly believe I’ve gained more lasting intellectual growth from it than from the classes I was taking at the same time.

A few of my chapter members wanted to know what was involved with Foundation Learning, so I’m going to do a quick run-through of some of the more universal stuff, without giving away too much of the curriculum. Foundation Learning is built around a pyramid model, with the most vital information forming the stable base, and the sort of you-can-get-away-without-knowing-this-but-you-should-learn-it content at the very top. It goes a bit like this:

1. Health, Safety, and Wellbeing

This is exactly as it seems; it includes information on staying healthy overseas, logistics of travel, safety and security, etc. Also included in this section is the development of a PDP and MBTI analysis.

2. Understanding Culture and Approach

This module is about understanding contexts, both African and Western. Readings include Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.

Things Fall Apart is a novel, which makes getting into it and learning from it very easy. In terms of style, it’s subtly like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s definitely a good read for anyone.

White Privilege was much more eye-opening, because it is aimed directly at its reader. The main point that I took away is the fact that privilege comes from oppression in the largest, most obvious ways, but also in the smallest, least obvious. I suggest that anyone of privilege read it in order to get a fuller understanding of the extent of that privilege and that those who are less privileged read it to understand privilege from the other perspective.

3. Understanding Rural Livelihoods

Rural Livelihoods is a six-point framework for understanding the smallest unit of development: the household. It is applied to case studies in this module.

4. The Development Sector

Mastering the Machine: Poverty, Aid, and Technology by Ian Smillie gives an historical context to the development sector. This one was pretty eye-opening for me, because, in a nutshell, it points out development hasn’t changed all that much since the 1960s; we’re still struggling with many of the same things and suggesting the same good ideas without implementing them. This is more of an academic book, so be warned.

The Big Lie in Foreign Aid, on the other hand, should be read by everyone in the West. Those interested in development will find it quite intense and critical. I’m a firm believer that critical opinions should, at the very least, be examined. So, read it, but be prepared for a tough one.

5. Country-Specific Learning

This includes a short document prepared by EWB volunteers for EWB volunteers. It has some of the insider information and will be very helpful in Ghana, I’m sure. More self-directed learning is involved at this point.

6. Sector-Specific Learning

This module was mostly directed by the GaRI team and involved research, briefing documents, etc. The idea was to generate an understanding of the sector context, strengths, weaknesses, and actors. This was my favourite part of Foundation Learning, because it felt like doing work for the team before I was even overseas and it was really integrative in terms of the GaRI team and the GaRI JFs.

7. Creating Change

Documents in this section drew heavily from The Critical Villager by Eric Dudley. I suggest that anyone in development read The Critical Villager, because it takes a lot of common-sense things and makes them into a fairly solid framework, in my opinion. The main point is that development aid should be change-like. Seems obvious, right? Too bad many development projects don’t agree.

For more development learning materials, be sure to check out EWB’s list of opportunities.

That’s it for now, but I’ll be sure to post from pre-dep.


Waiting for Data

Waiting for “Superman” follows 4 children in the broken public school systems of three states in the US. It chronicles the struggles they face with their families in their respective attempts to get better educations and thus access to more opportunities for success later on life. It’s a very well-written and directed film and, despite being made by a decidedly privileged individual, manages to capture the desperation created by such a failed system experienced by the families it follows. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers throughout this post so that you can fully enjoy it when you watch it (which will be soon, because you should watch it)

I didn’t initially think to link Superman to my work this summer, but as I watched it I began to see more and more connections and realized that I could learn a lot from this documentary. Two key things stood out:

1. Poverty and good education are not mutually exclusive

This is the point driven home by Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone. The film points out that it was once thought that so-called “bad neighbourhoods”–those stricken with poverty and the crime that inevitably follows–create bad schools, but that the new data suggests the opposite is true: bad schools create “bad neighbourhoods” (sidenote: that term is very problematic, but it’s what the film used and conveys a generally-understood concept). To me, this connection seems obvious, because basic education is where the foundations of many other things are built. If you don’t have good education, then you can’t build the foundations of, for example, a healthcare system. Education is a key point in influencing the poverty cycle, and Superman does a good job of bringing the details of that influence to the forefront.

What is good education, though? That’s hard to say, and the film never really arrives at a satisfying answer. Sometimes it seems to say that meeting the accepted grade level of skill is good, while at other points, it explicitly says that covering more material is better. Mr. Canada repeatedly highlights that good teachers are the key to a good education. So, what makes a good teacher? Having had amazing educators throughout my formative educational years (damn, I’m lucky to have only had one bad teacher–Mrs. Hammell in grade eleven math), I have a feeling of what a good educator looks like. However, translating that feeling to measurable metrics is a whole other story and one which I’m sure I’ll have to take a crack at writing over the course of the summer.

In any case, if a good teacher is the key to good education, then poverty ought not to have too heavy an effect on good education. One might conjecture that poverty would reduce the pool of people available as good educators for many reasons. However, it can also be assumed that good teachers still exist in an impoverished area (the film shows examples of this) and are therefore key to improving education in that area. Additionally, if this is true, then building schools in African countries is not so useful, because the physical location where education takes place is not the major factor influencing the effectiveness of the education. Obviously these assumptions are based on the Western case studies provided in the film, so I’m taking them with a grain of salt and viewing them as thinking points, rather than fact.

2. Data is important in determining the sources of problems and potential solutions

Data is used extensively throughout Superman and most of it has been hotly contested*. Regardless of the controversy around the data used in the film, isn’t it amazing that the data were complete, analyzed, and accessible? We take for granted how rapidly we can access large amounts of data for decision-making. Literally every day before I get dressed, I check the weather online and decide what I’ll wear based on the forecast. This is a small example of the power of data and the film does a very good job of showing just how useful data can be by using data collected by the US Government to very succinctly describe the issues and complexity of the broken American education system.  While the data do not point to one solution, they do give a starting point to the problem.

This brings up a key aspect to the work EWB does in general; it’s one thing to generate a sustainable data system and a whole other for that system to be effective. The data must influence key decision-makers, who must understand what it means. That understanding requires analysis skills, which require education. Whoa: education, again. That’s why EWB provides training to, well, everyone who will benefit. And it’s why part of my job will involve providing training for effective use of data (in a nutshell). Beyond that, it’s why education has a sort of two-pronged relationship with poverty. Good education can not only help people achieve success in socioeconomic systems that currently exist, but it can also lead to the improvement of those situations by individuals educated well in those systems.

In Engineering, this is called positive feedback, and is generally something to be regulated, because it leads to out-of-control systems and rapid depletion of resources. In this case, though, the resources–bright Ghanaian minds–are unlimited, and the system has not benefited from control in the past.

So that’s what I want, folks: a system that’s simply out of control.


*-I think the author of the article I linked missed some key points and came at his analysis from a heavily-biased perspective himself. Watch the film and judge the biases of all involved for yourself.

My Role in GaRI

This is the third installment of a three-part series on GaRI. This series is as much a way for me to navigate EWB’s GaRI sector as it is instructive for my readers. The individual posts will make sense on their own, but a full understanding will be achieved through reading them all:

  1. GaRI: a Primer
  2. GaRI and Decentralization
  3. My Role in GaRI

Disclaimer: the details of my placement are likely to change between now and May 15th (that’s a lot of time, believe it or not).

My placement this summer is a new one. I’ll be applying the competencies with District Data Systems (DDS, = evidence-based decision-making) developed by the GaRI team at the District level to Education at the Regional government level. Basically, I’ll be working with the Regional Education Planning Office (REPO) and the Regional Education Statistics Office (RESO) in the Northern Region to create a data system that is flexible and that suits their needs. Er, the needs we identify together when I get there, because right now I’ve got very little knowledge about what those needs might be.

Additionally, I might be assisting in the roll-out of reforms to the District Education Management Information System (EMIS) by the REPO at various districts in the Northern region. This would mean travelling to the districts in question and working with REPO staff and DCPU staff to get the EMIS reforms in place.

As of right now, each district directorate performs a large census and collects many data about education in their district. That data goes upwards to the Ministry of Education, but doesn’t trickle back down to the district in any analyzable form. Thus, districts can’t effectively use the data to make changes to education in the area. Once again, it’s a problem where the middle is missing; hopefully I can take the steps to begin to fill in that missing middle bit.

This placement is full of ambiguity, because it’s a new partnership for GaRI and it involves a new focus for DDSs. I love the ambiguity in it and I’m super excited to jump in and start feeling things out. My main objectives will be:

  1. To understand the flow and use of data at district and regional levels and to identify areas for optimization in that system
  2. To develop a technical tool (i.e. a DDS) at the REPO
  3. To ensure that decision-makers have the skills to analyze data and use that analysis for effective decision-making
  4. To create a plan for sustainability of the program

Sounds huge, right? I’m more than a little overwhelmed with it, especially with the technical aspect (I need some more practice with Excel). However, understanding my goals is the first step to getting into my role, and I’m excited about the value-adds I can bring to the situation. For example, I’ve learned to coach like a boss because of my role as chapter president and that skill will certainly aid me in my role with the GaRI team.

My placement will have me working in the bustling city of Tamale, which is the capital of the Northern Region and home to about 350,000 people. I’ll be there in the wet season, during which an average of 1100 mm of rain falls over the course of 95 days. Tamale is primarily Muslim and there are many mosques in the city. I’m really excited to wake up to the Call to Prayer (something I’ve never heard before) and to explore the customs of African Islam. Ideally, I’ll be living just outside the city in a more rural area, but I’ll commute into the office daily. It’ll be like living in the suburbs (um, maybe).

Now you understand as much as I do about my placement. I’m going to continue to learn more about the regional government structure and the offices with which I’ll be working. What I’d like to know now is what more would you like to know about my work? Answer that question in the comments and I’ll prepare a Q and A post for my next one. Thanks!


GaRI and Decentralization

This is the second installment of a three-part series on GaRI. This series is as much a way for me to navigate EWB’s GaRI sector as it is instructive for my readers. The individual posts will make sense on their own, but a full understanding will be achieved through reading them all:

  1. GaRI: a Primer
  2. GaRI and Decentralization
  3. My Role in GaRI

Decentralization is the process by which a government redistributes its power to smaller, local governing bodies such that these bodies may best (or at least, better) deliver various services to suit the needs of their citizens on a more local scale (Nibbering and Swart, 2010). As my coach Mina puts it, decentralization aims to give the power to the people. It comes in a few different flavours: 

  1. Political: redistribution of power to locally-elected officials (mayors, district officials, etc)
  2. Administrative: redistribution of authority and responsibility over financial resources for service provision.
  3. Fiscal: redistribution of revenues, either locally-generated or through equalization across local governments
  4. Economic: shift towards deregulation and privatization of markets

…and  intensities: deconcentration, in which authority over decision-making is distributed among levels of the national government; delegation, which involves the transfer of public functions to semi-autonomous organizations; and devolution, in which financial, administrative, and fiscal authority is given to local governments.

Decentralization is a process that is commonly applied to developing countries because full decentralization can, theoretically, help to reduce poverty by increasing the efficiency of resource allocation by local governments to their citizens and by engaging those citizens politically such that they can more effectively hold their local government accountable (Nibbering and Swart, 2010). However, the story might not be that simple; some scholars claim that political centralization is more effective for poverty reduction (Von Braun and Gote, 2000), while others say that specific conditions must be in place for political decentralization to be effective (Schneider, 2003).

In Ghana, the decentralization process has been ongoing officially since 1988 with the implementation of the Local Government Law, which formalized the  four-tiered government structure which had previously been set forth (Ghana Case Study, 2003). That structure, from the bottom up, consists of: Communities and their Area Councils (ACs), Districts and their District Planning and Coordinating Units (DPCUs), Regions with their Regional Planning and Coordinating Units (RPCUs) and Regional Coordinating Councils (RCCs), and the Government of Ghana (GoG).  The roles of the various bodies I’m throwing out will become clear as I move through my placement (I’m not even so sure about some of them just yet), so for now I must leave them at face value and hope that the description contained in their respective names accurately reflects what they do.

I’m a visual person, so I needed a picture to understand this complex structure. Here is my current understanding:

I'm such a good artist

Ghanaian decentralization: communities --> districts --> regions --> central government from the innermost circle outwards

Expect to see this diagram become more complex as I learn more of the intricacies of the Ghanaian government.

GaRI works at all levels of the Ghanaian government in various capacities to effect systemic change. At the Community, District, and Regional levels, GaRI works with DCPUs and RCPUs to structuralize evidence-based decision-making processes. Additionally, GaRI offers skill-and capacity-building fellowships, workshops, and training for different district-level decision-makers. These are offered through partnership with the University of Development Studies (UDS), the Institute for Local Governance Studies (ILGS), the District Development Fund (DDF), and through the District Coordinating Directors (DCD) Fellowship. At the Regional and National levels, GaRI works with different Development Partner (DP) Groups, DPs, and GoG sectors to ensure that policies and programs reflect district-level realities. Some DPs that GaRI currently works with include CIDA, GIZ, and UNICEF.

That was a lot to navigate. I see it like this: District and Regional levels are where the nuts-and-bolts type work occurs (read: data, data, data). The capacity and skills of workers at this level are built through top-down support from higher levels of government. This support, coupled with GaRI’s work with the GoG, creates an enabling environment in which evidence-based decision-making can excel (pun intended) from the bottom up due to incentavization and accountability feedback. The integration of all levels of government and top-down/bottom-up feedback loops involved really get me excited; this is systems thinking in action, folks!

There are still a lot of gaps in what I’ve said here, so please fire off questions if you have them! I will seek out answers and deliver them to inquiring minds.



Nibbering and Swart (2010) Giving local governments a more central place in development: an examination of donor support for decentralisation. Retrieved from:

Schneider (2003) Decentralisation and the poor. Retrieved from:

Von Braun and Gote (2000) Does decentralization serve the poor? IMF-conference on fiscal decentralization, November 20-21.

World Bank, date unknown. Decentralization policies and practices; case study Ghana – participants’ manual. World Bank. Retrieved from:

GaRI: a Primer

This is the first installment of a three-part series on GaRI. This series is as much a way for me to navigate EWB’s GaRI sector as it is instructive for my readers. The individual posts will make sense on their own, but a full understanding will be achieved through reading them all:

  1. GaRI: a Primer
  2. GaRI and Decentralization
  3. My Role in GaRI

I mentioned before that GaRI (or G&RI) stands for Governance and Rural Infrastructure. Let’s break that down:

  1. Governance: the act of governing, or partitioning expectations/power through leadership and management. Generally performed by a government
  2. and: conjunction used to connect grammatically coordinate words
  3. Rural: descriptive of an area with a low population density.*
  4. Infrastructure: the basic physical and organizational structures required for the efficient functioning of a society

*- this definition hardly encompasses what I wanted it to. However, readers will get a much better understanding of the concept of “rural” throughout my placement.

With a little thought into the name, it’s obvious that EWB’s work with GaRI is related to the government of Ghana and infrastructure in rural areas. Basically, EWB is working with the Ghanaian government at different levels (more on Ghana’s government in the second installment) to improve service delivery through those local governments. A big part of EWB’s work in achieving that goal is to facilitate the design and implementation of systems and processes to structuralize evidence-based decision-making within the Ghanaian government.

Whoa, now. What the heck am I talking about? Basically, EWB works to ensure that local governments have the tools and ability to accurately report on the reality of their respective districts, so that they can receive adequate funding for infrastructure projects which will properly serve their citizens.

Analogies are powerful ways to gain understanding of things, so allow me to break it down with one.

The Dean of Engineering at your school is responsible for allocating funding for student initiatives. Your Engineering Student Society (ESS) is responsible for requesting funding for different student initiatives, but they don’t know how (or don’t care, for whatever reason) to adequately gain information about projects for which the students they represent actually want funding. As a result, the ESS only gets funding for projects that suit them and your experience as an Engineering student is ruined. You have no idea how to effectively communicate your needs as a student, because there is little to no space to do so. The Dean has no idea that you’re unsatisfied, because s/he only sees reports from your governing body–the ESS–which all state that they have been successful in improving the Engineering student experience.

Obviously this analogy is simplified greatly compared to what really happens in Ghana. Additionally, I apologize for students of other faculties for whom this analogy may be slightly less applicable. In this scenario: citizens of Ghana are represented by you, the Engineering student; the local government is represented by the ESS, as they are responsible for service delivery to you; and the central government, responsible for funding allocation via the local government, is the Dean of Engineering.

It’s obvious that there’s a gap in the middle, right? Your needs (at the bottom of the chain) as an Engineering student/Ghanaian citizen are not effectively communicated to the Dean of Engineering (at the top). EWB aims to fill that gap in the middle by giving local governments the tools, training, and partnerships required to best gain information from the bottom and report it to the top.

But, Chris, what are those tools? What kind of training does EWB supply? PARTNERSHIPS WITH WHOOOOOM?

I understand that you’re brimming with questions because I’ve done a very good job of making the nuts and bolts of GaRI seem mysterious. Fear not, faithful readers, answers are coming!

I had intended to write a post fully describing GaRI, its relation to the decentralized Ghanain government, and my work in the sector, but that post would be a novel. This is problematic. Thus, I decided on a three-part series, which is inherently confusing because these three things are very intimately related. It makes a lot of sense from a pedagogical point of view, though; kind of like teaching the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom to students in grade 11, then admitting your (blatant) lies by introducing orbital theory in University. So, hang in there and all will be revealed as long as you keep reading :).