Omniloquence

Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Defining Development in Ghana

What I have are a very specific set of skills. I don’t mean that I have several very well developed skills. What I mean is the skills I do have are limited in number. That’s what I’ve learnt in Ghana. But I’ve also learnt where my strengths lie. I’m good at research, analysis and maybe to a lesser extent, writing. What I don’t get is maths. I hate Maths. When my high school teacher told me that I would need Maths in later life I respectfully disagreed by rolling my eyes. What situation would I possibly need algebra? But I do need it. I need it right now. I work for a development consultancy firm based in a city called Kumasi and what they need right now is a set of social survey methodology tools. Right now I’m justifying the number of participants they’ll have in their next survey. My life for the past week has been solving equations with symbols I’ve never seen before. I was content not knowing they existed. Ignorance can be bliss. My legal background compels me to argue a sample size. My Sociology background wants to involve factors that aren’t relevant. But Maths is Maths. Black and white. Cold and logical. I hate Maths.

When people ask me what exactly development is I never know how to answer them. It’s taking a situation that isn’t ideal and making it better. But what is better? And more importantly, how do you get there? It’s not a satisfying definition. Capacity building is the current buzzword of the development world and one of the routes development is meant to take. But the concept is as illusory as development itself. How do you build somebody’s capacity and why? Sitting in my cubicle, I’m trying to learn the equivalent of a three year undergraduate statistics degree in a three day binge fest of YouTube videos, wolfram alpha and geeky forums. If this is capacity building, it’s capacity building on steroids. Our present project requires us to collect data, part of which will include conducting a massive survey of 32 communities. My job is to justify the sample size and design the survey instruments. Then I’m to return to my colleagues, present my findings and justify them so that they may learn as I have. That’s capacity building. We find shortfalls and gaps and we work to fill them. We use research, analysis and focus to develop our skills and impart them on others. That’s development. But it’s not something you can quite capture in one sentence, because it’s an action. It’s a connection. It’s sitting in an office with no air conditioning or power trying to explain the difference between probability and nonprobability sampling. It’s helping develop the skills of colleagues so that in the future they can do their job more quickly and professionally.

To those considering a career in development or those who are just curious about what development or capacity building is, I probably can’t give you a satisfying answer. I can regurgitate an academic definition and if you’re attention span is resilient enough you may take some of that in. It’s not a concept that you can satisfactorily summarize, nor should you. It’s something that’s best illustrated by example. It’s a personal connection. Its moments of time where we share knowledge, our hopes, our skills. It’s an attempt to work towards a brighter future.

Eventually I was able to overcome the animosity I held towards Maths. My colleagues are that much more confident using samples and plotting statistically significant trends. It was a good moment for all of us. But that’s all it was, just a moment. Because tomorrow we’ll be presented with another challenge. And tomorrow we’ll do it all again.




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