Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Learning and Adjusting

The last few months have been up and down. I’m slowly starting to recognise the extent to which they have been down (I’m pretty good at ignoring the negative). I was initially going to write about all the great things that have been happening (and there have been lots – my parents visit was a highlight – showing them around my home and introducing them to my friends and Zambian family, not to mention paddling on the Zambezi, seeing loads of wildlife and Victoria falls).
Me paddling on the Zambezi surrounded by some pretty incredible scenery

But the reality is the project I am working on is far from achieving the results it set out to achieve, failure is a strong word but in a lot of senses this year has failed to live up to expectations (profitable sorghum enterprises, food security and increased income amongst small scale rural farmers). There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost, the sorghum crop has done poorly. Farmers have not harvested the yields we had forecasted, meaning farmers do not have the sorghum for home consumption, let alone the sorghum to sell to get a ‘profitable sorghum enterprise’ off the ground. The rains were heavy and sporadic this year resulting in poor germination and then poor growth.

The amazing part is that the farmers still manage to be optimistic – “we have learnt a lot and we will know better next year". I guess we will, but it doesn’t change the wasted effort this year. I can’t imagine being ok with someone interfering in my life, telling me to try something new, investing my time and resources only to see it fail or fall seriously shy of expectations. Maybe I’m not used to the life of a farmer. I think farmers knew well ahead of the project team that things were going badly. We put our blinders on and tried to be optimistic, telling ourselves that thing’s might work out. The farmers on the other hand knew way back that the yields were going to be next to nothing this year, perhaps they were prepared.

This farmer (on the left) harvested the sorghum that is drying on her roof. She did better than most.

So where do we go from here? I think the first step is understand why sorghum did badly – is it due to the rains, or is it the soil type, the seed variety, the planting dates, insufficient weeding, or alien invasions? Can we learn from this year and prevent it in the future? I also have to recognise that this year was a lot more than just growing sorghum; we spent a lot of energy on skills development. The skills that we’ve been developing with the farmers are more long lasting than the sorghum season. Hopefully the business skills we’ve been working on with farmers and their cooperatives are transferable to another crop or even sorghum if it still makes sense? Perhaps it is these skills (finding inputs like seed and fertiliser, arranging the sale in terms of transportation, price, timing and quality) that will benefit the farmers in the long run.

This is a side of development that some would argue is best not to talk about. People need to feel like their contributions (financially and in kind) are benefitting people. The reality is some of it is and some of it isn’t. Even in Canada people are debating the wisdom of development – and on the ground here it is a very common topic. I believe it’s better to do something – even if it’s not as efficient or effective as you would like it to be- than to do nothing at all. I think that maybe you need to change your expectations – instead of hoping 2000 farmers grow sorghum and increase their annual income by $100, why not accept that that might not happen but if a handful do and another few learn more about business and a few more think diversifying their crops is a good idea. Maybe the key is understanding that the wins take different shapes, a lot of them unpredictable but equally valuable. I definitely agree that development has to be more effective – it’s ridiculous to spend so much money and NOT improve people’s lives. But if it were easy there weren’t be poverty anymore. We have to keep working, learn from our failures and mistakes and keep trying. The key I think is to LEARN and ADJUST. So if sorghum doesn’t make sense can we try something else?

The trouble is that these aren’t lab experiments – this is real life and real people and when I say sorghum failed, it doesn’t affect me the way it affects the people that have invested their time and resources. It’s not comforting to know that some farmers appear used to it. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think the most important thing is that development organisations recognise when something’s not working (like sorghum) and actively work to address it. Unfortunately I think that is the exception rather than the rule (other priorities like reporting to donors, keeping staff employed, etc get in the way). Pushing the organisation I work for to LEARN and ADJUST will be the focus of my last two months in Zambia.

My mom and dad doing a bit of learning and adjusting.