Creating Change: The Suburb Analogy

After thinking about my work related to data analysis training and the work of my organization (EWB), I have come up with the following analogy. THE SUBURB ANALOGY describes two modes of getting to widespread change.

To build a suburb, filled with the same design of house, you can try two tactics:

  1. All at Once. Start construction of the whole project, say 100 houses, and phase each step separately  So, you would start the excavation of all of them, then pouring the basements, then the framing of the upper floors, and so on. This method means that once one trade is down, they move onto another house, while a different trades person continues behind them. A finished house only appears later, after most of the houses are at a stage somewhere between start and finish. This is the normal way a suburb progresses.
  2. One at a Time. Solely for argument’s sake, we could look at a house being build to completion before you move onto the next one. You would pick one location, build it from the ground up, hand it over, then move to house #2. This is extremely time intensive as it means workers leaving site to come back at a later time. But the beauty of this idea is that it means that you make sure the house is perfect (more or less) before starting the next one.

This is basically a general pair of ideas that can be applied to any system of widespread change. Whereby, a finished product or service needs to be done on a large scale.

The G&RI team of EWB is basically a group of government consultants, working at the most grassroots level of government: Regional, District, or Town Council.

 In my own work, I am trying to train officers in data entry and analysis. Without giving it a proper examination at the start, I easily fell into the trap of trying to teach “all at once”. I was trying to get all departments familiar with level 1 before moving to level 2. This was not the best methodology as it takes a lot of time to do 10 different workshops per level and it would take weeks to have one officer actually complete all the lessons I created. The other problem was that I would not know the success of my plan until the end, after a lot of invested time.

So, now I’m trying the “one at a time” approach. I will teach a few officers all the way up to completion, then help the others get to the same point. This helps me test out my lessons and see if it is actually worthwhile to spread.

Likewise, I feel that my team may benefit from the “one at a time” approach. We could go to a single district, stay a long time, and try to learn all the ins-and-outs. Just this summer, when the Junior Fellows (JFs) were scattered about Northern Ghana, G&RI learned new things about IGFs (Internally Generated Funds, or taxes), the district database, Area Councils, and information flow from constituents. This experiment would be risky, especially if the district chosen is slow moving or filled with conflicts, but it would be an interesting idea.

Both my work and my team’s is characterized by low staff numbers (less than 10 people at a time), so we must try things out before we can scale them. We find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the two ideas: fine-tuning before expansion OR learning while we grow. 

It sure would be nice to have more volunteers.


On the Job

After a few weeks of work at the Bole District Assembly, I’m slowly finding my bearings. Here’s my office for the next few months. Specifically, Office 6 on the 3rd floor.

I am working in one of the Central Administrative departments – the District Planning and Coordinating Unit (DPCU). My main colleagues are the District Coordinating Director (DCD, or “Director”), District Planning Officer (DPO, or “Planner”), and the District Budget Officer (DBO, or “Budget”). One thing that’s different than at home is the use of job titles rather than names. You may be walking by and someone says “Good Morning, Environment,” rather than the District Environmental Officer’s real name: Peter.

The DPCU and I will soon be looking at the planning season and sorting through requests from the various departments: Health, Education, Food & Agriculture, Community Development, and others. My main focus lies in researching and assisting 3 areas: Evidence-Based Decision Making (EBDM), Department Collaboration, and Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E).

Before 2009, the various districts (there are about 212 within the country) were operating with different databases spread across different departments. The unit charged with planning did not have access to this information, or it was difficult to understand. Now after many years of work, there are a few districts (6) that EWB has helped to centralize. Information on everything from classroom sizes to the number of chickens in a particular town or area are gathered into one document. This can then be analyzed to determine if a department’s request is valid or could be adjusted.

From the graph I created below, you can clearly see that one area is not like the others. Using data collected in 2011, it shows the contrast between population and outpatient sizes at the various health facilities. There are a total of 6 areas within the Bole district. Three are considered urban: Bole, Bamboi, and Tinga. And the remaining three are considered rural: Mandari, Mankuma, and Jama. I’d be interested in getting your thoughts on why the Bole health facility is seeing many more outpatients that the population it serves. What do you think is causing this anomaly?

One of the areas that I’m still figuring out where I can help add value is in department collaboration. Ghana is still in the process of decentralization, whereby the local government will be given near complete control of the departments in their area. Previously, this work was coordinated from the national level, but has step-by-step given down to the districts. I hope that by the end of my placement, Bole’s Mission Statement will be just a little bit closer to perfection.

From my earlier post, you may be getting a hint of my last area of exploration: Monitoring and Evaluation, or M&E in most international development circles. My past experience in the project management sector has been a great help in understanding this area of work, as it mainly relates to the execution and follow-up of a project. The project may be a school, health facility, borehole, agro-processing center, or a road (as in the photos below).

Two weeks ago, I joined the DPCU and RPCU (their regional counterparts) for a field visit to a feeder road outside Dbogdda. There were men chopping down trees, with women and children clearing the bush, in preparation for the widening of the road. From the work that was already completed, there was a remarkable difference in the performance of the road and the smoothness of travel. The photos below are on the same road, before and after road construction.

I will be adding more stories from work and from home life in the upcoming days and nights. If you have any requests for stories, feel free to put them in the comments section and I will try my best to fulfill them.


Hopes, Fears, and Other Thoughts

Tomorrow is the day that I start a new path in my life – working in international development.

I will be working with the organisation Engineers without Borders in Ghana (a country along the southern coast of Western Africa) and will be assisting the Governance and Rural Infrastructure (G&RI) team for four and a half months. I will leave the technical descriptions of my work to latter posts.

But before I leave the Great White North, I will stay in Toronto for a few days, starting this Saturday, for my pre-departure training. I’m looking forward to some intense learning sessions, meeting my fellow Profession Fellow (PF) volunteers and all the great staff at the EWB National Office. It may become daunting, but the important things always are.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve grown considerably in preparation for this adventure. From my re-engagement of EWB, through the Edmonton City Chapter; to my swift application for the PF program in February; and continuing with months of Foundation Learning, mentorship meetings and early morning phone call overseas; I’ve slowly began to get my head around working in a foreign country in Africa and what my work will involve.

As a result of all this learning, I’ve had many assumptions changed and my eyes opened. Growing up in a farming background and then residing in the relatively small (in terms of population, anyways) city of Edmonton, I was content with going to Africa, living in an isolated town, sleeping under a tin-roof, and being exposed to a region in desperate need of assistance. This is the picture that many people have of Africa and it’s hard to blame them for thinking this way. There are far too many infomercials and fundraising events which focus their cameras on scenes like this. But this is the exceptions to the rule. The rule being a growing, bustling Africa, full of enthusiastic, hard-working people, no different from any Canadian you may have met. They have cities like us, are addicted to cell phones like us, and enjoy life like us. They are our distant neighbours.

Another presumption I had was the inevitability of getting sick, even having malaria. This was very short-sighted. With the proper attention to my surroundings and use of the correct medicine, it is entirely possible to end my placement in no worse shape than when I began. All you need to do is follow the Boy Scouts solemn motto: Be Prepared! Consequently, I’ve been receiving vaccinations for everything from yellow fever to HepA to rabies. I’ve got my malaria medicine, antibiotics, and a whole slew of other pharmaceuticals. All of these measures have eased my fears and hopefully keep me healthy. I will strive to stay vigilant to any dangers around me and hope not to get a false sense of security.

I’ve also been introduced with the challenges of working in a new society (Africa/Ghana), a new work environment (government), and a new lifestyle (dependent on others for information and help). These 3 areas will be my main areas of personal learning and growth over the next few months. I hope to expose myself to as many people as possible and learn as much as I can. I hope that I can bring some new ideas to the G&RI staff and leave a lasting impression on the people I interact with.

I hope that anyone reading this blog will muster the courage to challenge me. No matter how much I learn, I still have misconceptions and biases about the world around us.

So. Ask questions. Leave comments. Start a discussion outside the confines of the internetz. Leave no stone unturned and no mind unopened.

Well, I’m off.