Ok, maybe this blog title is a bit of a hyperbole, seeing as I will be sharing a few select conversations that I have had on the topic. Nonetheless, I think these opinions are interesting and valuable enough for even CIDA to hear. These two stories come from my first week living in a rural Ghanaian setting.
I sat outside with some teammates when we were greeted by Mr. Bawa, a leader in the community who has served as a teacher in a number of villages and now works as a (retired) farmer. After exchanging greetings and introductions, Mr. Bawa asked me where I come from. “Canada”, I replied, curious as to how much he knew of the country. “Canada!” he exclaimed. “We have a good relation with that country. Canada has been helping Ghana a lot. We are very grateful to your country”.
He went on to explain some of the work that CIDA had been involved in. Apparently the borehole from which our house (and many others in town) fetch their water was a Canadian project! Mr. Bawa spoke other past projects, as well as the ongoing partnership that CIDA was involved in near Nakpayili, related to sanitation.
I was thrilled to hear that Canada had not only a good reputation, but had actually offered a positive contribution. I think it’s important to enforce the point that Canadian aid is valuable and appreciated. Although EWB can be quite critical of some of the way foreign aid is spent, we must also take the time to acknowledge the good that aid has contributed to. In light of Canada’s recent cuts on foreign aid, we ought to reflect on the benefits of our aid, and hearing this man speak so positively of our country and Canadian contributions, I ended the conversation feeling a lot more optimistic about our aid.
I had just gone that morning to greet the chief in his palace. I had spent the minutes that felt like hours sitting nervously at first in the circular room of imams, elders, and other community leaders. My worries were eased when I noticed how much laughing occurs in a chief’s palace. Although I understood none of the Dagbani spoken, the translated comments allowed me to feel truly welcome in this community. A few of the elders even offered to come for a visit later that day.
I was about to go for a walk that afternoon when I ran into three of the community’s “opinion leaders” on bicycles, motioning for me to walk home as they had come to visit. We sat for some time, and a friend translated for me as they spoke mainly in Dagbani proverbs. One was familiar to me. “Feed a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime”. This was used to thank me for spending time in their community, and he was especially grateful that I was not bringing any goods or money with me, but rather that I was simply spending time in their community and sharing my knowledge and skills.
Another man added “One finger on its own cannot do anything, but with many fingers you can get lots of work done”. He was referring to me joining the CHIPS team, now causing the total of foreign brains to equal 2 (I mentioned my UK counterpart earlier). He was grateful that I was only bringing a mind to share and contribute to the good work that CHIPS was known for in the community. Increased teamwork was a valued addition.
I had only just met these men, and they knew next to nothing about my placement. Offering them no promises of goods, funds, or tangible results, they welcomed me with warm smiles and grateful hearts, even insisting that when my three months was complete I ought to remain at least an additional three.
I must add a disclaimer or two. While it is amazing that Canadian aid is valued, we must also reflect on the mistakes we have committed and the problems associated with our aid dollars. Yes, there was a successful borehole drilled by Canadian funds that continues to benefit this community, but there were two others built by CIDA at the same time, both of which are now sitting inoperable.
I was thrilled that these Ghanaians valued brainpower, critical thinking, and increased teamwork and did not respond poorly to my lack of deliverables for their community. However, as for teaching a man to fish, we’re not quite doing it. When I consider the majority of Canadian NGOs working in Africa that I know of and many of the existing projects CIDA has been involved in, I have the (albeit largely uninformed) perception that we still seek the glory of saying “I gave this man a fish”. It may sound more like “We handed out x mosquito nets” or “We drilled this many wells” or “We supplied fertilizer and other inputs to x amount of farmers”, but the idea is the same. It is a lot more glorious to get the credit of an output, rather than a community-empowering process which leaves most of the credit to the Ghanaians who largely made it happen, and will be able to sustain it long after the Canadians go home.
Canada, our billions of aid dollars have not all been spent in vain. Positive changes have been made in Africans lives due to our development projects. But we still have a long way to go. As I write about positive change that has occurred, I fear the negative impacts that many of our projects may have also had. I fear the sentiments of dependency we may have perpetuated, the cultural assimilation we may have continued from our Western forefathers, or the unintended consequences of some our poorly thought-out projects. Nonetheless, we press on, certain that there is yet work to be done and confident that Canadians have a role to play in making it happen.