“So what will you actually be doing this summer?”
The answer to this question, which I’ve been asked repeatedly since hearing I was Ghana-bound, is a little bit complicated.
Here’s my one-liner: “I’m going to Ghana to do research for an EWB venture called VOTO Mobile which aims to help improve communications between governments, organizations and the people they serve”.
And if you still look interested after that, here’s what comes next: “VOTO uses a voice and text-based surveying and information distribution platform to gather public opinion and distribute helpful information for development. The platform minimizes traditional communication barriers like language, literacy, location and social roles. It allows typically under-represented demographics to advocate for their needs and to benefit from information they typically cannot access.”
That’s usually about as far as I can get. This boiled-down explanation doesn’t do justice to VOTO’s nuanced work, doesn’t place it well within a Ghanaian context, and doesn’t give a clear picture of what I’ll actually be doing. In an effort to bridge this communication gap, here’s a whirlwind tour of everything I know so far about Ghana, VOTO Mobile and my placement. There will be more to come as the weeks go on. Fasten your seatbelts.
“So, wait, where are you going?”
DISCLAIMER: The following is BY NO MEANS a complete description of Ghana. I would need to fill volumes and probably get a PhD in order to come close to generating a true description of this country. This is a snapshot primarily based on statistics taken from open information sources. No country, and no person, can be described by a single story.
Ghana is a West African country bordered by Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and the Gulf of Guinea. If you want to look around the region and place it for yourself, here it is on Google Maps. It has a population of approximately 27 million people, and covers an area of 238,535 square kilometres.
Ghana is divided into 10 regions (Upper West, Upper East, Northern, Brong-Ahafo, Volta, Ashanti, Eastern, Western, Central and Greater Accra). Check out this page from the Ghanaian government for detailed information about each region. The regions all have different cultural, economic and climatic features. For instance, the Northern region is much drier than the Ashanti region. As another example, while the majority of the Ashanti region population is Christian, the majority of the Northern region population is Muslim. The ten regions are further subdivided into 275 districts. I will be working and living primarily in Kotei, which is part of the Kumasi metropolis in the Ashanti region.
Ghana’s population encompasses diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious demographics. The population spans many ethnic groups including Akan, Mole-Dangbani, Ewe, Ga-Dangme, Gurma, Guan, Gurma, Grusi and Mande. While English is the country’s official language and lingua franca, many other languages are spoken including Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Dagaare, Dagbani, Dangme, Ewe, Ga, Gonja, Kasem, Fante, Nzema, Wasa, Talensi and Frafra. The majority of Ghana’s population are Christian. There are significant minorities who are Muslim or who follow traditional/indigenous belief systems. You can learn more about the country’s demographics from this super wicked Ghana Census Summary Report.
There are public education and health systems in Ghana, just like in Canada. Ghana’s public education system has a mandatory requirement of eight years of schooling. Enrolment has increased in the country’s recent history, with 90% of the country’s children now enrolled in school. (Fact check me – here’s the article I’m quoting, which is also a great read). This is quite high in comparison to other developing countries. Despite this statistic, traditional educational barriers still affect Ghanaian youth, including drop-out due to marriage, pregnancy or the requirement to work, difficulties in ensuring female attendance once menstruation begins, and limited support for students with mental or physical disabilities. Ghana also has eight national public universities and several private universities. Ghana’s public universal health care system provides health care services for Ghanaian nationals. The majority of hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are concentrated in the country’s urban centres.
Ghana’s economy includes mining, hydrocarbons, manufacturing and agriculture among other sectors.
Ghana has a rich traditional culture built upon the practices of its many ethnic groups. Some highlights are listed below:
- Traditional Ghanaian cuisine features savoury and spicy stews accompanied by starchy staple foods such as Banku or Fufu (made with maize, cassava or plantains). Meat is less commonly used than in a typical Western diet. Traditional cuisine varies by region, as different foods are more prevalent in the North than the South.
- Ghana has many traditional clothing styles. One of the most well known is traditional clothing made of kente cloth which is native to the Akan ethnic group.
- Ghanaian music and dance vary by region and ethnic group. Styles and instruments of traditional music include talking drum, Akan drum, goje fiddle, koloko lute, Akan Seperewa and Akan atumpan. The most well known Ghanaian dances are celebratory dances. Popular dances include the Adowa, Kpanlogo, Azonto, Klama, and Bamaya.
Like I said, this is just a quick taster of information about Ghana. If you’re interested in learning more, a quick Google search will do wonders. Ghana’s Wikipedia page also has some pretty wicked resources listed in its references if you’re interested in further reading.
“So what’s VOTO Mobile? I thought you were working for EWB”
VOTO Mobile is a venture of EWB Canada. EWB’s international work is accomplished through investment (both financial and human) in organizations and innovations which have the potential to alter the systems which cause and perpetuate poverty. We call these organizations and innovations ventures. Instead of “importing” ideas into unfamiliar contexts, EWB collaboratively develops or discovers ventures from the grassroots of poverty-stricken regions. We help ventures grow and build their capacity such that they are eventually independent, self-sustaining initiatives.
VOTO Mobile is a tech startup and social enterprise which aims to amplify the voices of the underheard. Their mobile phone survey and notification platform enables insightful communication between citizens and the organizations that serve them, such as governments, businesses and NGOs. Essentially, VOTO collects and shares information to drive positive social change. In doing so, they empower citizens to advocate for themselves and increase accountability in service provision. VOTO endeavours to overcome traditional communication barriers such as distance, language, literacy, access to infrastructure, bureaucracy, social roles, and power dynamics.
While based in Ghana, VOTO’s work has international reach. Their platform has been employed by more than 200 organizations operating in 20+ countries in the fields of health, education, governance, investigative journalism, agriculture, and urban planning.
Some examples of VOTO’s work include:
- Get-Out-The-Vote: VOTO collaborated with the World Bank to help turn out the vote in a provincial participatory budget process in Brazil. They sent non-partisan emails, SMS and voice messages to registered voters. Their intervention was proven to increase voter turn-out by more than 30%.
- Ebola Intervention Design: Along with UNICEF and the Government of Ghana, VOTO is leading mass awareness raising campaigns and surveys in Ghana for knowledge and attitudes towards Ebola.
- District Panels: VOTO is helping governments in Northern Ghana set up 300-person panels comprised of >75% traditional marginalized groups (i.e. women, youth, and disabled people). The panels are regularly surveyed to prioritize and rate government infrastructure projects like bore holes, clinics and schools.
- Public Health: VOTO ran national polls in Nigeria, Uganda and India for McKinsey & Company and the Gates Foundation to understand how long vaccine refrigerators would need to remain cold without power.
VOTO recognizes the need for information instead of assumptions in development work. Informed development – based on local knowledge and public opinion instead of the beliefs and biases of an organization – has a much greater chance of being sustainable than uninformed alternatives.
It can be frustrating to consider the investment required to gather and distribute the information required for successful development (“You’re not actually doing anything!”). However, this frustration is misguided. Take this simplistic example: we would consider it preposterous and absurd if a school was built in Canada without consulting the local neighbourhood, evaluating the environmental impact of the construction, considering the socio-economic effects of the school placement, and manifold other factors. So why do we consider this acceptable – and actually expect this approach to work – in developing countries? This assumption-based approach is a key culprit in failed development work. Development failures are often “swept under the rug” in order to appease western donors. However, EWB does not accept this narrative, and instead chooses to learn based on our failures and the failures of the development sector. VOTO provides a platform to avoid failures resulting from a lack of information. While information may not be as “sexy” an investment as physical infrastructure, it can enable more efficient, responsible, sustainable and empowering development than assumption-based alternatives.
Check out this video for an overview of VOTO’s platform and approach.
“So what are you doing there anyway?”
This summer, I’ll be doing research for VOTO. I will be seeking insight about how VOTO’s services are used and about how they can be made more effective. The research will involve a lot of interaction with people who use VOTO’s platform. My research will be focused on one theme and one “big question”, which is still being ironed out; VOTO is evaluating which research focus would be the most valuable to them. I’ll post another blog about my specific research focus as soon as I get more details.
To give you guys an idea, here’s a little about the work completed by last year’s VOTO JF, Hilary Stone:
Hilary did extensive research on how VOTO can better reach rural women. You can see some of her research blog posts here (see the “Engaging Rural Women” series), or her personal blog here. Her research was important to VOTO because there are many social and economic obstacles when it comes to interacting effectively with rural women through mobile technology. Rural women are one of several underserved demographics which can benefit from VOTO’s services, and as such VOTO wants to minimize any obstacles they may face in using the services. These obstacles can include:
- The lack of economic autonomy which can lead to women sharing mobile phones with their husbands
- Power dynamics in households with shared phones (Will the husband resent the wife using the phone? Will her usage of the phone be restricted?)
- Socially-appropriate timing of calls (Will women answer at times when they typically have other duties? Is there a one-size-fits-all solution to call timing, or must the timing be personalized?)
- The effect of the presentation of call content on how information is received (Are certain voices more/less trustworthy? Does the gender of the voice affect the perception of the call content?)
- Technical literacy (Does the woman know how to complete surveys and take advantage of interactive content through her device? Can she answer calls? Can she place calls? Can she receive and send text messages?)
Hilary researched these obstacles and presented VOTO with recommendations for improvements to their service to enable more effective engagement of rural women.
My research will follow in a similar vein to Hilary’s. While I may not be addressing rural women in my research, I’ll likely address the obstacles facing another user demographic.
If you’ve made it this deep into this post – Congratulations! You’re my new favourite person. I hope this helped to satiate any curiosity about my placement. As I said, stay tuned for more information and details in the coming weeks. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions I didn’t answer!