Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Big questions, small questions...

Bag of Sorghum Grain

I haven't been as eager to update my post recently. Part of the problem is that I have very much settled into my life here, and I find it hard to think of the things that others might find particularly novel or interesting. I know many aspects of my life are very different from my life back in Canada – but it’s become so normal that I don’t instinctively know which observations or experiences are worth sharing. That is part of the problem; the other issue is wanting to share with you some more meaningful thoughts on my experience working in the development sector. I have hesitated on that front because I feel quite overwhelmed with the complexity of what development is trying to achieve. Even closer to home, I am not sure what is the best approach to take within the context of my specific project! So instead of sharing insights, I thought I would share some of my questions related to the sorghum project and development in general:

We are working with cooperatives – many of which were formed purely to access government fertiliser subsidies (The Zambian government said – “Form farmer’s cooperatives and we will deliver fertiliser!”…or something along those lines). Do these organisations have the desire and ability to run a sorghum business? Are we (the sorghum project proposal writers and implementers) expecting too much of these loosely formed farmers groups?

If we are not expecting too much: how long does it take to learn adequate business skills to run a bulking and selling business? What attributes are basic prerequisites and which ones can be learned? What incentives are needed to keep the right people involved once the project implementation phase is over (we are no longer involved)?

The new cooperative leaders having a look at last season's sorghum harvest

Farming is an unbelievably risky business – this year there was too much rain causing significant losses to farmer’s crops. Last year it was drought, the year before disease, the year before de-valuation of the local currency, next year higher input prices due to the big leap in bio fuel demand, higher transport costs, alien invasions, etc... How do farmers reduce their exposure to calamity AND increase their profit margins?

How much are subsidies necessary to keep an agriculture sector alive?

What do you need first: a stable and competitive supply or a sufficiently substantial demand?

And one bigger picture question:

Development organisations need to promote their work in order to gain access to further funding. In light of this I feel that all internal evaluations by an organisation are going to be biased by the need for ‘self preservation’. I understand the need to self promote in order to maintain funding and continue helping – but at what point is shameless self promotion unethical? What would honest evaluation look like? What would ensure development organisation are accountable for their projects successes and failures?

Wonder what I am doing??? Sometimes so do I.

I will leave my questions at that for now(save some for another day!) . If you are interested I've updated a bunch of photos to my web album that give you an idea of some of the things I've been up to since January.

Big hugs,