When I was assigned to USAID/Ghana’s office this summer, I could not even begin to imagine the learning experience and adventure that awaited me in this country. My original scope of work included tasks like helping develop USAID/Ghana’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) and working with the West Africa Regional Mission to amend Development Objective Agreements with regional partners. Ultimately, this was not my summer experience with USAID, and while a part of me is slightly disappointed I did not get to be involved in these exact processes, what I did take away from this summer is invaluable and has better prepared me to join the foreign service upon graduation.
There is a joke within the agency that USAID is an acronym for the phrase “usual standard answer, it depends.” Following this, if you were to ask me what I focused on this summer in my work, I would have to respond with “it depends.” While USAID is a large government agency with its bureaucratic processes, work at a USAID mission abroad feels a little more removed from this. Thus, while there is an overarching strategy determining programming and activities for a mission guided by USAID/Washington policy, the day-to-day work that goes into making this strategy a reality in host-countries can change very quickly. In general, I focused on ensuring I completed the duties of USAID/Ghana’s Program Office (PO). To this end, I have helped clear a seven-month backlog in responses to unsolicited proposals and completed a restructuring of the office’s electronic filing system, which will help streamline internal processes. Over the past month though, USAID/Ghana has awakened to start developing its new CDCS, and as the saying goes it is “all hands on deck.” Among everyone gearing up for this process, other opportunities to support the PO and technical offices came up. As a result, I have been invited to help draft our gender assessment scope of work, participate in procurement meetings, contribute to concept notes, develop fact sheets and provide operational support to a team of consultants conducting an assessment of democracy, rights and governance in Ghana. Therefore, I say, “it depends,” when asked about my work because I was supporting the needs of the PO, the technical offices and adding value wherever it was needed.
As I reflect on these opportunities, I am particularly grateful for my experience supporting the democracy, rights and governance assessment. Although not in my original scope of work, the opportunity arose because the Democracy and Governance Office for USAID/Ghana was understaffed for the summer and the team needed some extra help. This experience stands out because I saw so many parallels with what we learned in our Political Economy and Macroeconomics courses while participating in the data collection phase of the assessment.
To provide some context, Ghana, as a model for democracy and economic growth in West Africa, is at a pivotal point in its development. President Akufo-Addo has even tasked his administration with developing a strategy for using the country’s natural resources to finance its development. Ghanaians, development actors, the Government of Ghana among other stakeholders nonetheless recognize there are still many challenges to address before the country can actualize its goal of becoming an established middle-income country and move “beyond aid.” Two major concerns raised during the last USAID DRG Assessment (2011) were the excessive concentration of political power in the executive branch and Ghanaian’s unmet expectations of the economic and social benefits of democracy. As part of the 2018 DRG assessment process, these were just some of the topics I got to learn about first-hand.
My main role during the three week in-country assessment period was to act as the point of contact within the mission for the external team of consultants conducting our assessment. Additionally, I participated in the various meetings with USAID/Ghana staff and local development partners, including UNDP, GIZ, and Danida, and was invited to travel with the assessment team to Ghana’s Central and Western Regions to conduct interviews. Other parts of the team went up to the Northern Region. During these travels, our team met with District Assembly members from various districts, USAID implementing partners, local civil society organizations, media professionals and members of Cape Coast’s Peace Coordinating Council. We wanted to ensure our interviews were representative of the different stakeholders working within the space of democracy, rights, and governance. The assessment team also placed emphasis on exploring youth and women’s engagement in governance and the democracy, rights, and governance issues USAID/Ghana’s other technical teams confront in their work.
Overall our team was pleased with the data we collected from these interviews, however there were some challenges. Firstly, our role as the assessors was to just listen to what these actors had to say – we were not there to pass judgement or provide recommendations of any sort. Those we were interviewing often thought the latter was the case so when we asked questions, they answered with what they thought we wanted to hear, which meant we were not always hearing everyone’s true perceptions on democracy, rights, and governance in Ghana. Secondly, group dynamics sometimes made it difficult for everyone to speak openly. Within our assessment team, there were two women and one man. In some interviews, there was gender parity, but the women were not given the opportunity to be as vocal as the men. In those interviews with mostly men, our interviewees often only spoke to the male on our assessment team. Luckily upon our return to Accra, our assessment team was able to sit down with different women-focused civil society organizations led by women to hear more about the Ghanaian female perspective on these topics. All of the information collected was then used to inform and deliver a presentation on the team’s preliminary findings and recommendations to embassy staff and will be turned into a final report on democracy, rights, and governance in Ghana. This report and its recommendations will then be used to inform the DG Office’s and Mission’s programming over the next several years.
It is not common for a Program Officer to participate in such an assessment process, so I am lucky to have had this opportunity to learn not only about a USAID assessment process but about Ghana itself and the status of democracy, rights and governance as a Program Fellow. One idea from this process, which several Ghanaians mentioned, is: “If Ghana actually implemented its laws and policies, most of Ghana’s problems would be solved.” I remember hearing this and immediately thinking about the role of inclusive vs. extractive institutions along with Paul Collier’s points on democracy from The Bottom Billion. So, while I did not directly work on the CDCS, I did get to support in its development indirectly through this assessment and was able to connect our GHD coursework to my work with USAID. Ultimately, I am ending my time in Ghana pleased with the diversity of my work, all that I learned, and the contribution I was able to make to our team. Beyond this, I am also happy with the fact I traveled four different districts in Ghana (Northern, Central, Western and Volta) and two West African nations (Côte d’Ivoire and São Tomé), learned a lot about Ghanaian culture through my colleagues, and developed a strong community of friends and professional network in Accra. I have been asked if I would like to return to Ghana, and with a smile on my face, I say, “Yes, please.”