Doing life together

The Industry

Thursday June 9, 2011
Below is a rant/reflection I had this morning, enjoy!

Wake up in the morning
Under the mango tree, fried eggs with tea
World Vision, Care, Ibis, IFDC,
CIDA, Action Aid and WFP
They make up the development industry…

Every morning while I’m enjoying my egg and bread (fried eggs in a loaf of bread), the herds of white land cruisers drive past me. You’ve got the really obnoxious ones with the snorkel intake and the 7 ft. radio antenna on the front – they’re usually UN or World Vision trucks. Then you’ve got the common Nissan Hardbody and Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks. They usually belong to smaller NGOs like Ibis and Action Aid. Almost every SUV or pick-up truck you see in Tamale has an NGO/development organization sticker on the side. You’ll probably never see these vehicles being driven by individual people because of their price tag; 60,000GHC – 90,000GHC. Yes, this is but one of the ridiculous indicators of the development industry in Northern Ghana.

Toyota Landcruiser UN Edition

Car Sticker

I think that most people in the west are unaware that “poverty reduction” is simply an industry. There are development consultants that design, monitor, and evaluate development projects that are supposed to reduce poverty, and they get paid unbelievable amounts of money (pretty similar wages to consultants in the private sector in Canada or the US). There are also the numerous businesses who survive solely on NGO business, like the many flip chart dealers in Tamale. Then there are the government employees who subsidize their salaries with Daily Subsistence Allowances (DSA) provided by donors during often useless “capacity building” workshops, and of course we can’t leave out Toyota who would not be the number one car manufacturer in the world if poverty did not exist! Seriously, Toyota Ghana is the biggest company in Ghana and I’d bet that 70% of their sales are to development organizations!

And then you’ve got the fancy offices. NGO offices are usually the nicest office complexes in Northern Ghana. Far nicer than private sector companies, and Government offices. They’ve got 24 hour watchmen, air conditioning throughout, running water and clean toilets, flower beds, and grass. Check out the Christian Children Fund of Canada’s office, and the UNICEF headquarters in Accra. Yep, probably $15 of your $30/month donations help build these beautiful offices. Sometimes, when I ride my moto through Tamale I wonder how much prime real-estate is being used by development organizations and how this is systemically preventing private sector economic growth.

Christian Children's Fund of Canada Country Office

Ghana UNICEF Headquarters Accra

To be honest the development industry often makes me sick. I’m beginning to lose respect for individuals who label themselves as lifetime “poverty reductioners.” These people jump from donor project to donor project, and often don’t really care for sustainable long-term change. They live better lives in 5 bedroom mansions with personal drivers in Tamale than they would in New York or London.

And then there are the millions of Ghanaians who are employed by the development industry. There are the drivers, the secretaries, the accountants, the watchmen, the program officers, the project managers, the country directors, the chiefs of parties…the list is goes on. I’m often reminded of something a co-worker in Zambia told me, “Poverty can never be eliminated! We would have no jobs.”

Obviously, I disagree. Because I believe that poverty actually can be eliminated by providing new opportunities for people to make a living through economic growth and private sector development, and through partnerships with developing country Governments. This is how India and China are reducing poverty, and this is how some innovative development projects and organizations are approaching poverty reduction. But unfortunately, they’re such a minority in a machine that seems to care less about long-term change and more about immediate outputs. It’s often frustrating, and depressing. When will the day come when there is not a single NGO truck speeding around the streets of Tamale, or signs demarcating UN Offices and completed projects?

Images of Development


These are the reasons why I’m working with EWB and not somebody else, because EWB sincerely believes in working its way out of a job. We never fund projects, and we solely work with partners to help improve their efficiency and effectiveness in creating poverty reduction. We’re not a donor darling, chasing donor dollars without regard for sustainability. It’s refreshing to work alongside others who understand the complexity of development and who use their minimal resources towards creating the most positive change possible.

The Industry is complex, and entrenched but hopefully the more we understand it, the more we can change it.

That’s enough for now.


20 responses

  1. Ha, great observation. Although surely some of the money does trickle down. There must be armies of people to service, fuel, and sell those Toyotas. It takes hundreds of men to build and maintain those nice offices. Maybe there could be a NGO that has no mission but just devotes all its resources to consumption in the country. Ha! They might accomplish more than some of the other NGOs.

    Where did you get your moto? I’m looking for one.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:03 am

    • minashahid

      Great points on the number of people employed by the development industry. I don’t know exactly how I feel about it, yes it’s good these people have jobs, but is this really a sustainable job source? Ideally, these NGO jobs would be replaced by private sector jobs but you don’t find too many stories about that happening. At least in Ghana, you hear more and more people wanting to get into the development sector, and why wouldn’t they – private cars, good salary, good benefits, good life…

      June 16, 2011 at 8:50 am

  2. Cathy

    Hey Mina. Good article. Definitely provides a different perspective to the development industry than what we are used to seeing. And yea, this is what your parents would have said, but I’m proud of you. Keep up the good work and the blog posts 🙂

    June 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  3. Mina, I’m finally filming a documentary about Global Engineering! Would you mind making a video of this, or audio recording of you ranting against this so I can include it in my trailer? That would be wicked!

    June 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  4. Florin


    I’m going to challenge this post. I would say while there is a lot of truth in your points, it may be hard to understand the reality of a “development consultant” or of a “donor” from our perspective within EWB. Arguably and EWB overseas volunteer lives and works in an environment that is superbly supported, cared for, and with minimal external pressures. This is precisely why EWB does such great work, because they are accountable to no one on paper, but to themselves and to Dorothy. Being on the other end of this when I worked in Ghana at SMIDO, I can tell you it’s not easy dealing with donors, funding, management, etc in those other complex organizations. As an EWBer you pretty much decide what to do, can spend months testing hypotheses, finding out what works and what doesn’t. In the end your stipend and your job is fairly guaranteed, without much of anyone breathing down your neck. Maybe more NGOs need to start working like that. I’m sure many people as passionate and smart as you and I are stuck in a web of complexity that restricts them like the mud that restricts a LandCruiser.

    As EWBers we are also 20-something year olds and wear the “I live in a mud hut and you don’t” badge proudly beside the “I get malaria and use a latrine” badge. I’m not sure how sustainable this is beyond your 20s. I wouldn’t mind a real house and a Toyota and air conditioning. I bet most Ghanaians probably would take those if they could. Your wife and kids would probably not want to live in a mudhut and take a tro-tro Mina.

    As for Toyotas, I agree they tend to be very shiny white from too much time in the city and not enough in the field, but those drivers and mechanics and office guards are all getting a somewhat formal employment. Toyota’s presence is enhancing the availability of spare parts, transportation infrastructure, and overall logistics within the country’s economy.

    None of this is either good nor bad, just the reality of the society in Ghana and in the world. We can try to change it, but it’s not all as pad as it can seem.

    Florin 🙂

    June 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    • minashahid

      Hey Florin, thanks for being critical. As for the 20-something year old mud hut living, malaria loving point, I, no longer think that’s true. At least in Ghana, APS tend to live pretty stable lives. We try NOT to get sick because it ruins our work productivity, and no one really lives in a mud hut anymore (they might start out that way for the first 4-5 months to learn about Ghanaian culture, but it’s recognized as unsustainable). Everyone wants to live a comfortable life, even me!

      My primary points are not to hate on NGO workers who drive land cruisers, and live in gated compounds. It’s to hate on the system that creates this unsustainable world in developing countries like Ghana. I’ll tell you some rationale. Almost every government worker I’ve spoken to dreams of working for an NGO. You get the best civil servants being poached by international NGOs who give them a land cruiser, an amazing salary, and a beautiful office. Who wouldn’t want that?

      The problem is that this “parallel private” sector is unsustainable. And if it’s not focused on creating a sustainable job market where people can work and buy all the land cruisers they want, then it’s a waste of money and is misleading people. And from what I’ve observed in Ghana, there are few development organizations interested in going out of business. In fact, almost all are interested in getting more and bigger projects, with larger budgets, and more land cruisers! 😉

      June 16, 2011 at 8:58 am

  5. Caoimhin

    Wow. This is quite a post Mina; it’s definitely an eye-opener. Especially the completed project signs.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:36 pm

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  8. I’m going to agree with Florin on this one. EWB does a fantastic job of finding people who are truly dedicated to the task at hand and who are ready to immerse themselves culturally and physically in the realities of poverty.

    That being said, the development industry is quite a complex web. Is it insidious? The Land Cruisers and upscale guesthouses (even in Tamale) demonstrate this well. While EWB JFs and APS will live in huts off modest stipends and support-raise funds for their work, these do not translate into similar-looking careers (esp if one wants a partner, family or a retirement to look forward to). Most folks over 30 need a little more encouragement to manage aid projects worth millions of dollars and evidently it does not come cheap. I won’t comment on the utility of said projects, but there is a market at play here. (HRI demonstrates this with sickening hilarity: )

    Back to praising EWB: their experience has shown that quality people can be brought in to do important development work and it has challenged the existing model described above, completely bypassing it. It will be fascinating to see how this new model will develop over the next decade or so and if others will seek to emulate it, or if cushy salaries, air conditioned offices, SUVs, guesthouses and hazard pay will rule the day…

    June 13, 2011 at 12:12 am

  9. So, I’ve been thinking alot about this industry in the last couple weeks. It seems that every educated Ghanaian I meet either works for an NGO, worked for an NGO, or one day dreams of working for an NGO. At first this really, really bothered me, for all the reasons you just outlined. But the more I think about it, I think, well, this industry is a serious employer in Africa. Would employment on this scale, with these salaries and other perks, have been made available by the private sector if NGOs had never come around? And then, if creating positive change is nothing more than a great byproduct of this employment, isn’t that still more than the private sector can offer? This industry is nothing more than an industry, basically private in all operations except for how it generates money, so maybe if we just start calling it an INDUSTRY outloud, its okay?

    June 13, 2011 at 6:38 am

    • minashahid

      Hey Bailey,

      I think what I’m jaded about is the whole positive change as a byproduct argument. The development industry WAS in fact created to create positive social change and improve the lives of people living in poverty. I think your point about positive change now simply being a byproduct illustrates my point that for the most part the development industry has been corrupted and is not really focused on any long-term systemic change. Yes there are individuals within this industry who are passionate social change workers, but they are stuck in a machine that doesn’t want to change

      June 16, 2011 at 9:05 am

  10. I think you’ve raised a lot of good points here – in Bamako theres not just a ‘UNCIEF house’ but what is called ‘UNICEF Village’ (really). I don’t have a problem with the fact that development has become an industry in itself however, what I do have a problem with is notions of accountability, and how they are generally skewed towards being accountable to donors, rather than looking more at mechanisms for downwards accountability.

    Look forward to reading more of your posts

    June 13, 2011 at 10:36 am

    • minashahid

      Great points on downward accountability. I think this is what frustrates me most about the development industry, incentives are skewed and nobody really seems to care whether or not a farmer is no longer poor. As long as quantitatively that farmer is doing “better” everyone is better. Donors only seem to care about the numbers, and implementers only seem to care about providing the numbers to the donors. The “client” of development is often ignored, and because the industry has skewed incentives this is ok. Whereas if a company in the private sector ignored their clients they’d be out of business almost immediately!

      June 16, 2011 at 9:08 am

  11. Steve

    I find it interesting, if I understand you correclty, that you use India and China as an example of how to reduce poverty, and you take exception to the alleged fact that “millions” are employed by the development industry. Do you know who is funding the road to Accra to Kumasi and the how many Ghanians are used for anything other than labor? If only it was so easy to do without the “industry” which would include your organization, and convert to some other industry, say tourism as you imply in some other missive, with all its ramifications.

    This no criticism or even disagreement with your concerns, just random thoughts that come to mind.

    June 15, 2011 at 9:32 pm

  12. Hi Mina,
    Thanks for sharing your reflections. They actually inspired me to write a sort-of-reply ‘Who is “the development industry”?’ on my blog @ I take a more global and maybe theoretical approach to argue that ‘we’ are almost always part of ‘the industry’ and that the dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in those Landcruisers) does hide many of the complexities of the system. Thoughts and comments most welcome!

    June 16, 2011 at 8:40 pm

  13. Amir

    Mina, thanks for the great post. I know you started off by mentioning this was going to be a rant, but I’m glad it started a great discussion on two different blogs! Nothing like a strong opinion to get the critical thoughts rolling eh? Here are some of mine:

    1. Lets start with your ideas around supporting industries. You argue that businesses such as Toyota, flip chart manufacturers/resellers, etc all reap the benefits of this development industry. This is, at first glance, frustrating and counter-intuitive. But in a slightly different light, EWB itself is a supporting player in the industry. If larger NGOs and projects that didn’t understand on-the-ground realities did not exist, what would our role even be? Our entire model of change revolves around influencing multiple levels of an inefficient, dysfunctional system! My point is that industries grow from a demand-basis. Where there is a demand, supply will develop. This leads me to my second point…

    2. You mentioned jobs (careers even) that are built on development dollars. You use NGO workers and truck drivers and support staff as examples; this ‘parallel’ private sector. I think it is frustrating for you to see these misaligned intentions, values, and accountability because you really care. It bothers me too. However, note that this is not just an issue with the development sector. Working in private-sector engineering here in Toronto, I see very interesting parallels. Basic economics will tell you that where there is money to be made, people will find a way to make it. That is why the consulting industry is so screwed up; there is no focus on quality, on purpose, or on making something substantial (that you believe in) happen. There are many people who truly do want to do good (ie. reduce energy consumption, fix wasteful processes in water distribution) working in the grant-funded and subsidized public and private sector in Canada. But there are MANY MORE people who just want to make money and go home. And why shouldn’t they? Not everyone wants to align their jobs with their life-purpose like you and I do; and this is not a bad thing, it’s simply a life choice. Thus, coming back to my point: the ‘parallel’ private sector of the development industry you talk about is born out of the same natural, human system. One that does not overwhelmingly work to help others, but to align personal incentives with common societal goals; and not always successfully.

    3. Continuing from my point #2, lets look at development projects that work in private sector agriculture. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but you personally believe in and are interested in the private-sector approach. Well, the same issues exist here: the players will try to increase their profits whatever happens. I would hazard a guess that input suppliers and farmer-support services are not primarily concerned with helping rural farmers earn more. They will do whatever they can to increase their own incomes, with the least amount of effort possible. Now, again, this is not a bad thing, in my opinion. But it is important, because it allows us to ask: how can we make it “worth it” for these private businesses to work with farmers, and vice versa? In fact, we can take it a step farther and say that the rural, poor people you and I want to “work for” have the same mentality: they want to profit, whatever it takes. It is easy to say “this is understandable, you live on less than a dollar a day” but the overriding nature of the drive is the same: it is human. Since it is these attitudes of profit, circumvention, and lack-of-common-purpose that have created this development industry (and any other industry, really) in the first place, do rural people make you angry? Do you get frustrated when the poorest of the poor want to do whatever it takes to earn money? If not, then why is it true for the higher levels of the industry?

    4. Slightly different point: I would argue India and China are reducing poverty a lot less than popular opinion/media states. Those two countries have economies that are rapidly polarizing: the rich are getting richer, poor getting poorer. Their GDPs and GDP per capita may be increasing, but what is the wealth distribution like? What are people’s rights and freedoms like? What is the quality of life really like? Economic growth alone is not development; it’s only a piece (albeit a big piece).

    So, to tie it together, where do we go from here? Well, here are my two cents:

    – It is about people. The whole industry cannot change, but you as one person with a strong belief in purpose (rather than simply personal gain) can have a slight impact on the industry. You can be the person that works truly for the ultimate goals of the sector: increasing opportunity for rural communities. This does have an impact. It really does. It does here in Canada in the municipal water sector (in which I’m working), and it does in Ghana in the development sector. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone will do it. You can’t change everyone and everything. Not too much anyway. Hey, what if I got my satisfaction from having a family and supporting them? Would I be a bad person for simply getting a good job, and putting in my nine-to-five?

    – It is about systems. These network of problems and relationships are really complex. We’ve all said it. But, the good thing is that there are characteristics of the system that are fairly predictable. One such characteristic is the one about people wanting increased profits I mentioned earlier. How can we use these small predictabilities to restructure the system that it better accomplishes it’s ultimate goal?

    These two points together encapsulate EWB for me: bringing together specifically the smart people who want to do this work for a greater purpose, and setting them loose on making these systemic alterations to align incentives with purpose; management with productivity.

    Sorry for the super-long convoluted response. I wish we could use block diagrams or something; structuring complex thoughts in point form is difficult! But I hope I made some sense.

    I’d love to hear what you think. Keep on chugging old friend.

    June 18, 2011 at 3:33 pm

  14. Lucas

    Hmm, interesting. Similar to your reply about downward accountability, the part which frustrates me most about the development sector as an industry is that the the customer is split in two. The “gods or services” are being provided to the rural villager, but the “purchasing power” is in the hands of donors. Because of that, the “invisible hand” in this free market doesn’t actually exist. This in turn leads to the possibility that NGOs may spend as much time making what they do look good as they do actually doing it, because that’s what’s going to let the project continue. Sort a form of survival of the fittest really. The worst part is that, in the private sector, that time would be spent improving the product to suit the customer, or stakeholder in the development industry.

    July 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm

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