It’s always an interesting experience going to visit rural farmers. Regardless of who I’m travelling with or the actual purpose of the visit, they always seem to turn into community-wide events. Naturally, a part of this is caused by the mysterious obruni stranger (also known as me) that has come to town, but it’s also due in some ways to the nature of the relationship that Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) typically have with the smallholder farmers they’re tasked with serving.
There aren’t enough AEAs in Ghana to provide adequate extension services to farmers, with AEA to farmer ratio estimates ranging from between 1:1500 and 1:4000. While AEAs are supposed to live in the operational areas they work in to be closer to the farmers, this typically isn’t the case due to poor living conditions or an outright lack of accommodations. Throw in a lack of transportation or available funds to operate the transport that is available, and it means that AEAs don’t actually visit these communities as often as they’d like or probably need to. Working in Kpandai, a fairly new district, I’ve even seen whole communities that have never received extension services from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
All of this adds up to a visit from an extension officer becoming an event for curious community members to gather for. To be sure, there are communities that AEAs regularly visit, where only farmers needed for the meeting show up. More often than not, just the possibility of something different is an enticing reason for passers-by to attend a meeting. This is usually a great thing – farmers pay attention to what the AEA is discussing and show genuine interest in learning new techniques or taking part in new projects. Even when the visit is only for information gathering purposes, farmers are generally more than willing to work with the AEA and provide them with any data they need.
It’s the end of these meetings that I find most interesting. Farmers in Ghana are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met and it shows at the end of a community visit. They will usually present the AEAs (as well as me when I’m there) with gifts of food, explaining that it’s customary to feed guests when they visit, but since we didn’t eat with them, they would provide us with something to take to prepare later. In the past, I’ve been offered yams, guinea fowl eggs, guinea fowl, and at one community, a dove. I usually try and politely decline these offers, even after having it explained to me that it’s culturally appropriate for them to occur and it would be insensitive of me not to accept.
I just can’t justify taking these resources from the community, especially when I haven’t given them anything in return. I’m also troubled by the power dynamics of the situation, believing the farmers in some way feel obligated to offer these gifts to people who they see as ‘important outsiders’.
My main concern relates to the way these types of gifts can change the relationship between AEAs and their farmers. Beyond potentially having the AEA feel as though they would need to re-pay the farmers later on in some way, perhaps in the form of inputs or projects, there’s a real possibility of those on the receiving end of the gifts feeling like they’re deserved and/or required.
Case in point: this summer, an EWB volunteer went on a tour of different projects being completed by AEAs as part of an upgrade course at one of the Agricultural Colleges. This involved visiting different communities in various parts of the country, and after each one, the volunteer along with the other members of the supervisory group were given parting gifts. One community even presented them with 50GhC each – a large sum of money for rural farmers. These gifts were well received, with some even commenting that the communities that gave the best gifts were a sign of ‘good extensionists’. This sense of entitlement is troubling and plays its part in the ever-present culture of chopping seen around the country.
In Ghana, ‘to chop’ is a verb that basically means ‘to take’. It’s possible to use in multiple contexts – from chopping (eating) food to chopping (stealing) money. It’s a common complaint among development workers and regular Ghanaians alike that money gets chopped at all levels of development projects, leading to inefficient, poorly resourced projects with little chance of success. In my opinion, this practice has become so accepted as to now be expected. The prevalence of this type of corruption is constantly discussed, but often only in humourous tones – as a constant in Ghanaian life and not something that can be actively dealt with.
It’s this perception that is most frustrating. Once there’s an expectation that things will be chopped, it makes going along to get along that much easier. I can just imagine the self-justifications going on: I’m a hard working, poorly resourced staff member, with no prospects for promotions or other work, given the opportunity to take a small amount from a very large, well funded project. It’s not really hurting anyone, is it? If I’m working on a project that’s benefiting farmers and the farmers are willing to give me some of their own anyway, why not just take from the project directly and not involve the farmers at all?
Imagine that playing out at all levels in a hierarchical system and you can see how easily the problem is compounded.
I’m not trying to imply that the AEAs I work with are corrupt – as far as I know, they’re not. I’m also not trying to make it seem like gift giving in this context is a corrupt act – it’s not. There is a definite cultural context to the generosity displayed by rural farmers. It really comes down to how the receivers of these gifts choose to perceive them. If they take them for what they are, then there usually isn’t a problem. On the other hand, if they feel these gifts are deserved, that they are entitled to them, that it’s fine to take advantage of the generosity displayed, then they’re one short step away from convincing themselves to pre-emptively giving themselves gifts at the expense of others – also known as choppin’.