The "Working in Ghana" Project

Development Agency Director, Agriculture

[Mr. Samuels, an American in his late thirties, directs the Ghana program of an international agricultural development agency. He took the position nearly three years ago. He has extensive work experience with governmental and non-governmental development agencies, including assignments in other West African countries. He lives in Accra with his wife and young son. The organization's offices are located in a nicely appointed building surrounded by well-kept grounds. He was interviewed by Allan Wicker at 6 p.m. in his office--near the close of a long work day.]

Our organization seeks to increase rural productivity, rural incomes, and rural access to jobs through agricultural business development. We are, in effect, a small-scale farmer's management consulting firm. But our services are provided only to groups of small-scale farmers, who pay a fee. The fees, of course, don't cover our expenses, but the arrangement ensures that our clients take us seriously. We're now working in about 70 rural communities in Ghana, many of them in collaboration with government agencies such as the Ministry of Food and Agriculture

In addition, a current project seeks to strengthen the rural banks in Ghana. They're now a weak link in getting agricultural firms started. There are over 125 of these banks in Ghana, and over half of them are faltering. We'll give them on-site, intensive training. Our hope is that they will prosper and be able to lend money to our clients. Another pending project is to organize farmers to produce palm oil for a multinational corporation at a guaranteed price that would allow the farmers to make a profit. This is an exciting prospect for an organization like ours that is traditionally linked with donors, because it is a business arrangement.

Our main funding comes from such sources as USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), private corporations, charitable foundations, and through contract work with such agencies as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.

[What would be a typical work day for you?]

It would have a lot of interruptions. I think I have one of the world's most interesting jobs because of the variety of people it puts me in touch with. A typical day would include meetings at the World Bank or USAID, meetings with various government ministries and banks. Even more interesting will be visits from a couple of farmers working on projects we're assisting with. They may tell us of a problem we need to address for them. Although we're working in an office here, we're very much plugged in to what's going on in the field, at various levels. And because we've been in Ghana for over 20 years, we've developed credibility at the Ministry of Agriculture. People there will contact us for input on policy decisions that are being made. So we get to sit at the table when decisions are made that will affect a lot of the people we're working with.

We start work at 7:30 a.m. I usually put in a 12-hour day. The beauty of having a computer, since we've put in electronic mail, is that I can be in touch with people around the world. Today I've been in touch with the World Bank, and the former Ghana director of USAID, now stationed in Asia. E-mail has opened up a lot of avenues for us with other organizations. We're on an international direct dial telephone line. It has been very reliable. During the recent flood, we were off line for only four days.

[How do you feel about your work?]

I love it. Honestly. Especially because of what we do. We're a mix of the private sector with a non-profit mission. It almost has a university-like orientation. In addition to the work we do out in the communities we have a research and development department that does consultancies. Just now we're in the midst of three different consultancies for the World Bank, researching different aspects of agricultural development in the country. That links us in with universities and educational institutions as well as with the consulting community.

To me the most satisfying aspect of my work is the extremely motivated team of people on our staff. They're a very professional group. Because they're so good, we do see results--on a monthly basis. These results are measured in terms of the incomes of the people we're working with. We track that very closely, and we see cash going into their pockets, which is what we're looking to do.

It's also definitely satisfying that government in this country looks to us for advice. It's not that way in some other countries. Here we're seen as a partner, and our opinion is taken to heart.

[What are some of the frustrations in your work?]

Probably our biggest frustration as an organization is related to the fact that our work is geared toward helping communities to help themselves. There are a lot of other organizations out there that still have a very strong "charity orientation." They give things away, even when they don't need to be given away. I'm not saying that relief should not be given in dire situations like war or when there are refugees. But if the goal is development, I think you destroy people's motivation by giving things away too readily. And yet a lot of organizations continue to do that, which hinders us in our ability to get things done sometimes.

This is especially a problem in a country like Ghana that is lagging in agricultural production. The only way for the sector to grow is for people to make money. And the only way they are going to make money is to adopt a business-like approach to farming. But if people are constantly giving things away, well... If you or I were given a piece of machinery, when it breaks down we would be less inclined to put some money into fixing it than if we had bought it ourselves. That kind of charity just leads to a sense of dependency and to unsustainable ventures. This country doesn't have a lot of time to waste, especially with donor funds drying up. The spark has to catch here in Ghana. It is catching to a degree, but we all know the country has a long way to go.

Also, not everyone else works with the same time lines as we do. We work with different institutions. And it's also frustrating when you're dealing with people who just don't have the same level of motivation. It's understandable--they're not paid particularly well. But that's frustrating because we're all trying to get something done. Even within our staff, there is a spectrum of people here--some highly motivated, some less, some highly skilled, some less. It's frustrating for a manager anywhere in the world who sees some people who just don't seem to be stepping up to the task. You spend a lot of time directing them, going over things you thought you had been over many times. But I don't think that's peculiar to Ghana.

[What advice would you give to someone who might be interested in development work like you're doing?]

I spoke with a young Peace Corps Volunteer about this very topic earlier today. I got an undergraduate degree in development economics, and was looking around for things to do. I ended up in the Peace Corps. What I tell people is that the Peace Corps is sort of a bachelor's degree for international development these days. While it may be necessary, it's definitely not sufficient to get a job. The developing world is developing more and more. For foreigners to justify their existence in a place like Ghana, they have to have a higher set of skills to offer because they have to compete with local talent. And that talent base is growing. There is an increasing backlash against using expatriates rather than nationals.

Frankly, right now I'd have to tell someone to think twice about going into international development, because the funding for this sort of work is shrinking. It's not exactly a growth industry. But there are opportunities for individuals and organizations that can be creative and that can link up with the private sector, for example. That's the future of a country like Ghana--developing a vibrant private sector. For people who can work in that area, there are win-win situations that can be set up for organizations and individuals. This is not to say, of course, that there is not endless work to be done in public health or many other fields.

[Could you say something about your working conditions here?]

Our conditions have vastly improved since we occupied this building. Until a year ago we were downwind from an asbestos factory in a building that had no water for 14 months and electricity three days a week, if we were lucky. It was a tough place to work. It was de-motivating. One reason we decided to invest in this place was that our staff spends an average of three to five weeks at a time in the field, bouncing around on very bad roads going to the rural communities. I like them to come back to a place where they're comfortable and motivated, a place that has a professional environment. I think that the people who come here from other organizations, the World Bank and so on, form first impressions about our professionalism from the surroundings. Some people say non-governmental organizations should be in old buildings with no water or electricity but I don't agree.

[Do you experience any hazards or physical discomforts in your work?]

Only when you're traveling. Traveling on the road here is a hazard. And you know, having a young child here makes us think twice. It's one thing for my wife and me to put ourselves "at risk," but we're reconsidering the whole thing now that we have a young son. He's now three. He came here at two months and had a bad bout of malaria, which scared us. You just worry.

[How is the organization's work evaluated?]

Each year we have to submit a business plan to our headquarters indicating what we are going to accomplish. We have quantifiable goals, such as the number of businesses we're going to assist, revenues we will generate, both at the business level and at the individual level. For example, in our palm oil mill business, the people who make money are not the owners of the mill, but the women who come in and pay to use the mill. We have to track those sorts of indicators. We also track employment generated, changes in farm-level productivity. Those are our key indicators--productivity, jobs, incomes. We have a significant data collection operation to do this. We collect our own data because we have questions about available figures, even from official sources.

[You've mentioned your staff. What number and types of employees do you have here?]

We're 45 people. In terms of job categories, there are agronomists, engineers, accountants, financial analysts, sociologists, and general administrative staff such as drivers, secretaries. Only two of us are expatriates.

[You've already mentioned a number of types of people that you deal with. Are there any others that should be mentioned?]

I deal with headquarters twice a day by e-mail. Other than that it's basically farmers, bankers, people who work in the government ministries, representatives of institutional donors such as the World Bank and USAID, private sector businessmen who deal in commodities we're promoting, suppliers and vendors, and teams from the World Bank and other agencies who are doing seemingly endless studies on agriculture--I easily see a team a day.

One of the interesting pieces of work we're doing for the government is a compendium of studies done in the past five years on agricultural marketing in Ghana. There were about 90 studies done, making recommendations on how to improve the system. You know, one reason our organization does so well here is that we have the ability to implement. There is no lack of very good people here with very good ideas. We do well because we follow through. Now, we don't hit 100% of our goals--on a good day we're hitting 60%, but we do follow through, get results, and give coherent reports on those results.

[Could you comment on your pay and benefits?]

I'm well paid. I basically go out of the country on leave annually. I am sent to the States only every 18 months.

[How does your work affect your family life?]

The twelve-hour days I mentioned go six days a week. This has a very strong impact on family life, in fact. On the plus side, my house is only about a mile from here. So when I'm not traveling, I'm home daily for lunch, which I wouldn't be able to do in the States. I'd probably be working just as long hours in the States. And when you're living here, when you're out socializing with people, you're also probably dealing with work. It becomes a 24-hour a day job, 7 days a week. That's why I think one does need to get out of the work environment occasionally. If I were working in the States, I think I would do a better job of separating myself from work.

We're so close to the equator in Ghana that it's dark when you get out of work. That makes it hard to get exercise. I'd say things are less balanced here than they are in the States. And you're out of touch with your family back home--that's difficult, especially for my wife who comes from a large and very close family. My wife works here as well, for another non-profit organization, and I think that's good. She is a consultant, so she controls her work time. She certainly spends more time with our son than I know she would in the States. So there's a trade off between health care and quality time with your children.

[Do you have a philosophy of work that you could summarize?]

Well, yes. I think people who work for me would say I have a philosophy of challenging people and pushing them to their limits, not letting them give up easily on things, challenging them to be creative. And I do that to myself as well.