Why is it that after decades of assistance to places in the developing world, amounting to trillions of dollars spent and untold man-hours across countless projects, that there’s still so much work that needs to be done?
There’s no simple response to the question above. Of course, there are always easy ones – waste, corruption, poor governance, etc., and to be fair, these systemic problems are definitely contributing to the problem. However, it’s unfair to leave it there and not search for a more complete understanding of the situation. I knew before I came to work with EWB how complex and difficult ‘development’ could be, and the past six months in Ghana have only reinforced that message. Working with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has given me a unique perspective, allowing me to see different projects, both from the government and outside donors, being implemented. This time has shown me how important proper implementation is to a project and how poor implementation can even contribute to negating any positives the project might have had in terms of development.
The Ministry of Food and Agriculture’s (MoFA’s) mission is “to promote sustainable agriculture and thriving agribusiness through research and technology development, effective extension and other support services to farmers, processors and traders for improved livelihood”.
While MoFA has historically worked towards these goals through agricultural extension services (technical education of farmers by MoFA staff), the inflow of agricultural development assistance saw their focus shift towards being the implementers of either government or donor-led projects due to their wide-reach and established relationships with farmers. In most cases this seems like the perfect scenario, ensuring MoFA staff have adequate resources and knowledge to promote best practices to their farmers. Problems arise when the implementation of these projects is done poorly, stunting any actual development that may have occurred.
One of the main focuses of the Government of Ghana’s agricultural strategy in the last few years has been their Block Farm program. Basically, farmers are given seed, subsidized fertilizer, and ploughing services for their farms and are expected to pay back in-kind after their fields have been harvested. I’m not convinced the basis of project itself is sound, mainly for it being too rigid in design and unsustainable in the long term, but one specific aspect of the Block Farm program this year has caused me some concern. The current best practice for fertilizer application is to use two bags of NPK fertilizer per one acre of maize. Although the research is dated and currently being worked on, that’s the rate that MoFA promotes to farmers and recommends for their fields. The Block Farm program however, is only giving farmers one bag of NPK to farmers for their fields. While some MoFA staff are informing farmers about this discrepancy and telling them they should be supplementing by buying an additional bag on their own, this does not always happen. The result is mixed messaging to farmers, with MoFA actively promoting a poor agricultural practice (one bag of fertilizer instead of two) due to project constraints.
This type of problem is unfortunately not unique. One of the families in the compound I live with in Kpandai are fairly successful farmers. They’ve got fields of yam, maize, and cassava and are always looked at as examples of good practice in the community. They’re involved in a project this year called the Root and Tuber Improvement and Marketing Program (RTIMP), implemented through MoFA staff. While there are many areas that RTIMP is trying to address, this family is specifically involved in trying out new yam planting techniques. The technology itself is not as important as the timing of the project itself.
Yam planting usually takes place in March or April, but this project only had farmers start planting in mid-July. The farmers themselves knew planting this late would not work, but put in the time and labour required to take part in the project. In fact, I helped with the planting this year and remember other farmers watching at the time, laughing at how late we were trying to grow yams. From the almost 5000 yam pieces we planted, fewer than 100 have actually germinated and started to grow. In this case, the project itself is going to be seen as a failure, not due to the techniques themselves which may be beneficial, but due to the timing the project followed. Maybe even more importantly, MoFA staff were again sending mixed messages to farmers about when yam planting should be done and actively promoting a poor practice due to project timelines.
These are just some personal examples to highlight the importance of project implementation in regards to agricultural development. Too often, projects can be written in places far removed from where they’ll actually be implemented and not take into account the realities on the ground. Moreover, there are rarely mechanisms in place for course correction after a project has started being implemented. For example, the RTIMP project actually had the same problems last year, and even with recommendations put forth through their monitoring report, little was seemingly changed this planting season.
Problems of implementation seem easy to fix, but of course rarely are. While difficult, there are some possible steps to mitigate some of these issues. First, I’d suggest proper scheduling of projects with strict cut-off dates for implementation. Since the agricultural sector is so time-bound, if funds aren’t released on time to get one started, there really is no point in moving forward until the next year. Second, ensure enough resources are put into a project to enable the promotion of best agricultural practices to minimize the mixed messages to farmers. Finally, allow for some kind of mechanism to course correct after the first year of a multi-year project if necessary. These suggestions are not revolutionary by any means, and are in place (at least in theory) for a lot of projects. The problem, as always, comes in actually implementing these aspects of a project properly when required.