Ghana: What I know so far

You may be aware that, in a little over a month, I will be heading out to Ghana for twelve weeks, as part of DfID’s International Citizenship Service programme. I have already blogged about my experience living below the line for four days, which I undertook as a way of fundraising, so now seems like a good time to talk a little more about the entire scheme, and my role in it.

It all starts at the top. One of the greatest achievements of the Coalition Government (though that isn’t saying much) was its realisation of the commitment made by all G7 countries to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on Official Development Assistance. This is roughly £13bn, and we were the first of the G7 states to reach this target. About £11bn (about £180/person) of this is spent through the Department for International Development, which works across a huge range of issues from improving education and health, to climate change prevention and improving governance and security.

One small part of this £11bn is spent on the ICS programme (by my estimates, about £2.5m/year at current volunteer numbers, based on the cost of the smaller pilot programme). DfID covers 90% of costs, and volunteers fundraise the final 10%, a process which helps reduce the total cost, and which begins the processes of skills development and understanding among volunteers, helping them understand the programme and confirm their commitment.

Volunteers like me apply to the programme and go to a selection day. We also select the charity we want to volunteer with, from a list of a dozen, including Tearfund, VSO, YCare (part of the YMCA) and the charity I selected, International Service. International Service, which began life as a rather different volunteering organisation, run by the United Nations Association, appealed to me because of its rights based approach to development. They work on the basis that ensuring equal access to fundamental rights, particularly regarding equality and access to education, helps people move out of poverty (rather than just alleviating immediate need). International Service is also the only ICS charity which currently works in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. My longstanding interest in foreign affairs made the potential of working on rights based development in a country (I choose to recognise it as such), which is under an illegal occupation in breach of international law, incredibly appealing.

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Bolgatanga, about 20 miles south of the Burkina Faso border, will be my home for 12 weeks.

The next stage was pre-departure training in York. At this training, I met the other volunteers who will be going to Ghana in April. There are some 40 of us (including people who had been expecting to go to Burkina Faso, and people who had been pulled out of Palestine), and they are a great group, who I am excited to get to know better in the coming months. We were given a wealth of information on Health and Safety, on sustainable development, on Ghanian life, and, most importantly, on our placements. Volunteers are allocated a placement with a local organisation, which might be working on access to education, or on sexual health, or disability rights. We help these local organisations work on projects which are important to them (and hopefully leave them in a position to continue, with or without our support).

I hadn’t bee quite certain what placement I wanted to do – though I wanted something more office based, since this would feed into my career development – but I was quite happy to be allocated to a project at the Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, based in Bolgatanga in the Upper East region (jut south of the Burkina Faso border). International Service has worked with the RCPD before; several local organisations operate out of the centre, however I will be working on a new collaboration, with the Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled, with three other UK volunteers (a group of people I am very pleased to be with), and four ‘in country volunteers’ or ICVs. This being a new project, we don’t entirely know what it will entail, but as far as I can make out, it will involve a fair amount of things like conducting baseline studies on provision for people with access needs, and access to justice, as well as starting to build collaborations with other organisations. A quick google tells me that GSPD has received Disability Rights Fund grants in the past, and has also been based in Accra, so I suppose this must be an expansion. It is simultaneously exciting and daunting to be on the ground floor of a new project, helping set its direction, but so far I can’t think of a nicer group of people to do it with. (On which note, if anyone still wants to support me, and hasn’t done so, could you instead support my team mate Cecilia, who has to reach a far higher target than me, and only found out she wasn’t going to Burkina Faso about 6 weeks ago – you can do so at www.justgiving.com/Cecilia-Lock.)

Of course, I have yet to meet half of our group. A key part of the ICS programme is that each UK volunteer is paired with an ICV, who works on the same project. ICS is first and foremost about development, so it makes sense that local young people have equal opportunities to gain skills and experience. The projects are certainly not about giving volunteers a government sponsored gap year (we aren’t allowed to travel outside our project community, except for work-related reasons), and helping British young people bolster their CVs is only a secondary benefit. And when I say paired, I really mean it. Volunteers live in host homes (as far as possible), getting immersed in local society and life, and each UK volunteer lives with one family along with their in country partner. In many cases, the two of us will share rooms.

So now I have had all my necessary injections, I am collecting anti-malarias and getting prescription sunglasses this week, and I am regularly trawling charity shops for linen shirts and lightweight chinos. I have about a month to go, and the reality of what I am doing hasn’t entirely sunk in yet. I imagine this will change rapidly when I land in Accra, but I will keep you all updated right here.

Food for Thought

footerThis weekend, in advance of a 12 week volunteering placement in Ghana (a placement organised through the DfID backed ICS scheme), I spent four days living on £1 per day, to help raise money for the charity I will be volunteering with. My few days ‘living below the line’ secured a great deal of sponsorship, and I would like to reiterate my thanks to everyone who supported me. But it also had deep value in making me think about how I live.

First, some context. About 1.2bn people live in ‘extreme poverty’, which the World Bank defines as having $1.25 income per day, before any expenses. $1.25 is about 85 pence (but £1 is a much nicer, round number to work with for fundraising). About a quarter of Ghana’s population lives in extreme poverty. These numbers are frankly shocking, but it is one thing to think about the numbers, and another to live them.

In a spirit of openness, I should point out that my £1 per day went on food – I didn’t have to cover the cost of heating my home, or cooking my food. I also didn’t cut out things like internet usage. I DID make certain concessions – I only went places by car if other people were going to be driving that route anyway, and didn’t let people buy my drinks – I didn’t do anything which was not free at the point of access. But I wont pretend that my experience wasn’t far easier than that of most people living in extreme poverty. I wasn’t worried about the gas being cut off, or losing my home. I didn’t worry about where the next meal was coming form.

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What £4 gets you at Asda –  pasta, bread malt loaf, baked beans, tinned tomatoes, apples, aubergine, onion, mushrooms and tuna

Still, I learnt a lot from my experiences. First of all, with an Asda as my local shop, I could easily source four days’ food for only £4. I was expecting to live on plain bread and pasta; in fact, I was able to get not only some tins of tomatoes and beans, but some fresh fruit, vegetables and even a tin of Tuna. Of course, most of the developing world isn’t stuffed with Walmart. This is probably a blessing of sorts – globalisation has its drawbacks – still, I can’t help but wonder who Asda is under-paying to keep their prices so low.

And that’s the rub. What this weekend really showed me is that all to often I *don’t* think about what I am doing. I absent-mindedly snack during the day, I grab a cup of tea and don’t finish it, I get into the car and pick up a sweet from the bag in the glove box, I have a glass of wine with my parents because it is what we do on a Saturday evening. It was the lack of freedom which most surprised me.

Of course, I knew my constraint was self-inflicted and temporary. On Monday, I could indulge my sweet tooth, or grab that cup of coffee I had an urge for. But imagine living in such poverty that you aren’t even free to eat what you like – if you have enough to eat at all. It would be so easy to slip into the belief that other parts of your life are not free, that you are doomed to a life of struggling and suffering. It is all to easy to see how cycles of poverty and isolation are reinforced and perpetuated.

And of course, just as I was frustrated by my family being able to eat and drink and live as normal, with the freedom to control their diets and their lives, so too do people living in extreme poverty live alongside those with great wealth. In South Africa, there are gated communities to separate the haves form the have nots, but these very gates are reminders of what people are denied. Living with the reminder that you do not have enough, but other people have more than they need, only ingrains the isolation and subordination of people in poverty. They can see a better world, but it is a world out of reach.

It is down to those of us with enough to make sure everybody has that same luxury. This is why the Fairtrade movement exists, why the UK commits 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid (a lamentably small amount, but second only to the EU and the US in value, and to Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg and Denmark as a percentage of GNI), why activists tirelessly campaign to cancel Third World debt, and why people like me take part in schemes like ICS. If life were a hundred-meter race, people in poverty would be running just as fast, but they would be starting 20 meters behind everyone else. The least we can do is help them catch up.

To find out more about what I will be doing in Ghana, or to make a donation, visit justgiving.com/jfefleming