Mar(k): Travel, Hiking, and "Doing Good"

musings on our life of travel and volunteering

Archive for the ‘Life in Ghana’ Category

Celebrating Leadership in Social Accountability

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When we were volunteers in Ghana, we had the great pleasure and privilege to work with some amazing people.  One of those people was Ibrahim Tanko Amidu, or “Tanko”, as everyone calls him.  At the time, he was the Country Manager for VSO in Ghana.  We had various conversations with Tanko during the time that we were in our placements, including towards the end of our time in Ghana, at a Volunteers Conference (which is where this photo was taken, August 2010).

Tanko (second from left) celebrating a "significant" birthday with VSO colleagues and volunteers (August 2010)

Tanko (second from left) celebrating a “significant” birthday with VSO colleagues and volunteers (August 2010)

Right from our first meeting, Tanko always impressed us with his open door policy, his inclusive leadership style, and his utter commitment to work in the development sector.   So it was with much happiness that we recently found out that Tanko has been awarded the prestigious Leadership award in Social Accountability from the Global Partnership for Social Accountability – for the Africa region.  You can hear Tanko talk about what leadership means to him in this short video.

We are happy to celebrate this kind of success!   The world is a better place when people like Tanko are working hard for others.   Well done, Tanko!



Black, White and Shades of Grey

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shades of greyDuring the festive season, there are countless posts about giving, generosity, the “Top 10 _____” (insert whatever is appropriate).   But we thought we’d take a slightly more somber look at development issues generally, but using a specific example closer to our (Australian) home – that of the plight of Indigenous Australians – in particular, the acute housing shortage that is found in remote parts of the country.

We are not going to delve into this particular issue ourselves, but would refer you here, where you will find an excellent, multi-media summary that highlights the acute housing crisis in the Tennant Creek area of the Northern Territory.  As this excellent article points out, the myriad of issues facing Indigenous Australians is unlikely to be solved by addressing the housing crisis.   It is the tip of the iceberg, but certainly SHELTER features pretty high on Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy.

What we did want to share was our experiences in dealing with development type issues.  Part of the training we did (with Australian Volunteers International) before we set off to Ghana, was to help us understand that things are rarely black and white.  Indeed, at first glance, many issues appear to have a simple solution.   As we found on the ground, this is rarely the case.   If things were as black and white as this, then the multitude of development issues (poverty, lack of education, lack of sanitary conditions, racism, lack of water, discrimination, disability, and the list goes on….) would have been solved long ago.   Greater minds than ours have looked at these issues, and have tried to find solutions for decades.  Instead, what our experience as volunteers has taught us, is that there are many shades of grey.  Things are rarely as they originally appear, and the day to day experience of people needs to be understood thoroughly before aid can make a qualitative (and quantitative) difference in people’s lives.

We are always mildly bemused when well intentioned (or perhaps ill informed?) people quickly jump to a conclusion that will look something like this:   “What the _____(insert disadvantaged group here) need to do is _____”.    or this:   “The problem with _____ is simply that they should be doing ______”.     You get the picture.

In our experience, the bigger the problem, the more complex it is to solve.  The dependency of a number of factors, coupled with things like generational trauma, systemic discrimination, and poverty more generally serve to put people behind the eight ball.   It is difficult to ever get in front if you are constantly scrambling to just keep afloat.

There are no easy answers, but we can all do our part.   May 2014 be filled with abundance and blessings to you.  Thank you for continuing to read our blog, and we look forward to bringing you more material into the new year.   We are going to be heading off to India, where we will be seeing some “development ideas in action”, that we look forward to being inspired by.   Stay tuned!

When did “Charity” get such a bad name?

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One of the things that we often talk about – and shake our heads about – is the discussion of how much foreign aid should be given to those less fortunate than ourselves.   Currently in Australia,  our overall aid budget will fall to 0.33 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), while our defense budget will rise to 2 per cent.   Hmmm….  that seems a bit unfairly skewed in our view.   For a more comprehensive discussion about our current aid vs. military spending, click here.

Millions of people around the world struggle to make ends meet;  yet rich countries like Australia continue to reduce the amount of money going to foreign aid.

Millions of people around the world struggle to make ends meet; yet rich countries like Australia continue to reduce the amount of money going to foreign aid.

The bottom half of the world’s people survive on barely 1 per cent of the world’s wealth; the top 10 per cent hold 86 per cent of all assets.  And somehow, we are supposed to reconcile that sobering statistic with a reduction in foreign aid?   Wow.   Makes no sense, does it?!  But these kind of thoughts are sadly, alive and well out there.   Even in social media, we occasionally see such narrow minded, mean spirited thinking in posts that people we know (in fact, coming from people that we may even be related to!).   Sad, but true.   How best to combat such thinking?

Well, as with most things, there are no easy answers.   But one thing we have observed during our time on this planet, is that sitting with, sharing, and experiencing life with someone less fortunate than ourselves, is an eye opening experience.   And doing this in a country that isn’t as wealthy as our own, is even more eye opening.  We live such a privileged, day to day existence, that it is sometimes hard to fathom how tough it is in the rest of the world.   So travel is a great way to expand our world view, our compassion, and our belief system.

And for Mar(k), one of the ways we try to help is to simply post little things like this blog, simply to get a few more people thinking about what they do, why they think the way they do, and maybe one little thing that THEY could do to make the world a more equitable place for all.   Would love to hear what you are doing!

Thanks for staying with us.

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Written by Mar(k)

November 4, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Factivism: Eradicating Extreme Poverty – can it be done?

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The Shox have just watched a very empowering video which you can also watch by clicking here.   This is a TED talk which talks about the POWER OF THE PEOPLE.   The message here is that extreme poverty CAN be eliminated, and it can be done within our lifetimes.

power of the people

For those of us who work in development, it can be very disheartening sometimes to read/listen/watch the media machine churn out the bad news stories.   Floods, famine, subsistence farming, drought, and more.   But the fact of the matter is – there ARE some good news stories out there, and they need to be shared.   Facts like the huge success that the use of anti-retroviral drugs has had in halting / stopping the spread of AIDS, particularly in children.  Facts like the decrease in some countries of the killer malaria by up to 75%.   Facts like the decline in child mortality.  Facts like the POSSIBILITY that we could live in a world by 2030 that has eliminated extreme poverty (which is defined as those who live on less than $1.25 per day).   This is all exciting, good news stuff!  And unfortunately, for some reason, these stories don’t sell.  But it is important for people to know that there IS hope, and that the good work that so many great NGO organisations do, really can (and do!) make a difference.

So we just wanted to help put it out there, to help spread the word – that extreme poverty CAN be overcome, and we can all help to make it happen.

We would love to hear what sort of things YOU are doing to help make this world a better place for everyone!    Thanks for reading, people!

Great work being done in the Upper East Region – RISE Ghana

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For many people who have been to Ghana, they may think of the Upper East Region as the home of the amazing Fra Fra music!   This is so true, and it is wonderful to get a taste of this traditional music.   But there is also some excellent development based work going on in this region of the country that people should be aware of.   One such organisation is called RISE Ghana (Rural Initiatives for Self Empowerment – Ghana).   We like this organisation because it is a grass roots organisation, run by committed locals who are passionate about the development issues they represent for disadvantaged others.   As their website states, they are “a group of young environment and human rights activists who were concerned about the widespread poverty, environmental degradation, failed approaches and widespread human rights violations. Desirous of influencing change, they decided to advance human rights and promote environmental sustainable practices.”

RISE Ghana has a number of good initiatives being run at the moment, including a project to help eradicate tuberculosis in the country.   Local media source Ghana Web has reported that this newly launched project will help not only people with tuberculosis, but also health advocates, local media, and other service providers to come together to try to find ways to stop the spread of TB in the region.   Further information about this new initiative can be found here or here.

Rise Photo2

Although the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are sometimes out of the “spotlight” in Western cultures, they remain very much a focus of efforts in developing countries.  Tackling tuberculosis is one of the ways that Ghana can move towards achieving its MDG’s, so we applaud this initiative.   As with all large and complex goals, the responsibility does not lie with only one group (ie: the government) or one organisation.   Instead, it takes the concerted cooperation of many different people to come together to look at ways of reaching these tough targets.

Another worthy initiative that RISE Ghana is leading is towards greater peace in the Bawku region which has been plagued by conflict over the last number of years.   More details about the actions being taken for peace, justice and accountability in Bawku can be found here.

This is one organisation which deserves to be funded.   This organisation has been formed after identifying a need to create an enabling environment for disadvantaged people to harness their full potential to influence change, realize their rights, access/control resources to make the desired improvements in their lives.    Good luck to you, RISE Ghana!

Written by Mar(k)

February 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Helping others help themselves – Show us the money!

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Happy New Year everyone!   I am fascinated by the amount of articles I have read over the past few weeks about resolutions, that somehow 2013 is going to be THE YEAR WE STICK TO OUR RESOLUTIONS.   Yet we hear this every year!   So in turning over a new leaf for the Shox’s, what we have been doing is a bit of a stocktake about what is important for us, and how we best follow our passion(s).   For us, that includes helping others.   But how do we go about helping others?   This takes a myriad of forms, and the answer is different for everyone, even if the goal is the same.   Some people are time poor, yet are able to dig into their pocketbook and assist others by providing some financial assistance.   A wonderful, and worthy thing to do.

Small change for some!

Small change for some! But for others, this can be life changing.

If this is you, can we suggest an organisation that you may (or may not!) be familiar with – Kiva.   We are big fans of Kiva, because it is all about helping others lift themselves out of poverty through the use of small loans.   Yes it is micro finance, and it works!   Kiva has been around since 2005 and since that time has lent over $392 million dollars to over 875,000 people.    Impressive figures.  But what makes it even better is that they have a 99% success rate on repayments.   The website is great – you can look at a variety of investment opportunities (ie: people!) by searching by gender, by country, by type of business people have, etc…   And for as little as $25, you can help someone get on their way to helping themselves.

Altantuya, a small business woman in Mongolia

Altantuya, a small business woman in Mongolia

We have a number of small  investments, and it is always with excitement when I see an e-mail from Kiva in my inbox, advising “You’ve received X repayments!”.    It is a sign that the system works.   And it is humbling.   In my last email, one of the women I had lent to (Altantuya who lives in Mongolia), had provided her first repayment.   It was for the sum of 69 cents.   Yes, that’s right.   She was able to repay back 2.76% of the original loan amount of $25.00.   And let me tell you, that made me feel great.   Such small amounts to some people are truly life changing amounts for others.

Once loans have been paid back, you have the options of taking back your original investment, or else re-investing it with others.   So through the great multiplier effect, a comparatively small initial amount can keep working to help others over time.   Try it!  We think you’ll like it!

The above example is great for people who are time poor, but want to help.   But for others, they may have time on their hands, or they may be employed in the development sector, making a career out of helping others!   What can we offer these people?   Well, another recent post that was brought to my attention by a former colleague in Ghana (thank you, Tanko, if you are reading this!), was the concept of “helping others” by “shutting up, and listening!”.     Great advice!   So many people think they have all the answers for others, but never stop to consider what it is that people need help with.   No question – the best person to be able to tell you what they need – is that person themselves!    You can listen to a TED talk here that explores this idea in more depth.   It is 15 minutes in length, so have a cuppa and a listen when you want to be inspired.

So while we are on a bit of a roll, I also wanted to share a link with you about a great idea that builds on the concept that THE PEOPLE who we want to “help” are in the best position to know what they need.   In this case, the idea is simple:  Give them money!   We’re not talking about vast sums of capital here – we are talking about small, life changing amounts (similar to micro finance amounts) that can best be directed according to people’s needs.  Again, not a panacea for all the wrongs out there, but another innovative, out of the box idea to work towards a more equal society for all.

Another close race in the Ghana 2012 elections

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One of the things that we learned from our time in Ghana was that the people of Ghana are fiercely political.   We mean REALLY political.   Almost everyone seems to take an active interest, and often a very vocal interest, in what is happening politically in the country.   Talk back radio in particular is a huge way for Ghanaians to get their message out to the public;  we used to listen to talk back radio almost every morning, and could not believe how much more engaged these folks were about issues that affected their everyday life.   Certainly in Australia, the general apathy that is present around political matters would seem very misplaced indeed in this lively, politically engaged country.

for the love of Ghana

So it is with great interest that we are eagerly watching the process unfold of the country selecting its new leader.  Of course, our fingers are also crossed that Ghana does itself proud (yet again), by having a peaceful voting process, and a smooth transition to a new government, if indeed that is the outcome.

Preliminary results seem to indicate that it is, once again, going to be a very close race.  This was the case four years ago when the National Democratic Congress (NDC) won the election under John Atta Mills by less than one percentage point.   With the passing of Mills, the leadership of the party is current held by John Dramani Mahama.  The main political opposition to Mahama is Nana Akufo-Addo, who leads the New Patriotic Party (NPP).

Ghana put herself at the forefront of the world by being the “little darling” of the governance world, as she has successfully moved forward without excessive violence in no fewer than five elections since military rule ended in 1992.   So once again, the world’s eyes are upon her.

However, the game being played out this time is one of higher stakes, as the last four years has seen the Ghanaian economy grow substantially with the commencement of oil production in the Jubilee field.   This is an area that we watch closely, and know that the stakes are high for all Ghanaians to hopefully benefit from the royalties that the oil will provide to the government.   But of course, this makes it even more imperative that whoever wins this election, ensures that the distribution of the oil royalties is done in a transparent and open manner.   Only then can Ghana truly raise its hand to the world to demonstrate what a true “little darling” she is!

This election was run by the Electoral Commission, and as such, it is only the EC that can officially announce results.  No doubt people are impatient to know the outcome of who will be at the helm for the next four years.   But irrespective of the result, we certainly offer our congratulations to this amazing African country for demonstrating their commitment to democracy by exercising their right to vote, and for doing so peacefully.  Our hearts are with you, Ghana

UPDATE:  Mahama of the NDC has been declared the winner!  Another close race, but at this stage it looks like the NPP will be challenging the results.   Keep calm, and carry on everyone!

Written by Mar(k)

December 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm