Over the course of our five-year impact evaluation of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Northern Ghana, I was part of the immersion research, referred to as reality check approach (RCA). The RCA was undertaken by a large research team across six Millennium Villages (MV) where each researcher lived with a family and had extensive conversations, observations and experiences over several days.
I had the privilege of living in the home of an extended family in one of the MVs on three separate occasions. The RCA was integrated within the independent mixed methods longitudinal impact evaluation of the Millennium Villages project in Northern Ghana and took place at key moments in the evaluation; at baseline, midline and after the project had closed. It was intended to gather people’s perspectives on change and to provide an emic (insider) interpretative lens on findings from the other streams of the evaluation.
Real life experiences
For me, each stay involved sleeping several nights on a mat in the courtyard of the dwelling side by side with mother, grandmother and three aunties, helping them during the day with peeling shea nuts or preparing leaves to cook, having extensive conversations with them, their large family, neighbours and others in the village. These opportunities to hang out helped break down barriers between us. We got to know each other rather well, we laughed, danced and cried together.
What struck me over the years were the small changes that had made a difference in their lives. These were not the grand theories of change expounded by the project but modest enhancements to life that was, on the whole, both hard and cheerless.
There was little evidence that things had improved materially for them. They had two new plastic chairs, one son had acquired a motorbike on credit, another son had purchased a small second-hand TV also on credit and the aunties had earned a little cash of their own selling maize cakes and porridge. But they all still ate simply, each wore one set of clothes and stayed at home or worked in the fields. However, I felt a tangible change in their sense of well-being on the third and final visit in 2017. They were seeing changes which they liked.
Real life changes
Chief among these was the electricity connection to their house which meant they could watch TV. The aunties were excited to demonstrate how ‘we play in the evenings now’ meaning they dance and sing along to music videos and stay up later than they ever used to when I first lived with them. They told me how happy this made them feel and that life was more fun. I was able to experience the other much-noted benefit of having lights on at night. We all slept on the ground outside the huts with lights on, as has become the norm throughout the village, we felt much less vulnerable, the elderly felt safer when they needed to venture out of the compound to relieve themselves and the young mums were able to care for their babies in the night.
I sat each morning with one of the aunties who sold fried maize cakes. She made minuscule profits, some days none at all, but what she did earn was hers to spend and she had never had cash herself before. Her best time had been when there had been many construction workers in the village rehabilitating the school building and the health facility, repairing the road and installing the electricity poles. When they all left she shared with me a concern that it might not be worth continuing. Similarly, there was a proliferation of small general stores and people selling goods from their homes over the project period. They also benefitted from the custom of the outside workers and some shared with me that they have only been able to continue because of the ‘outsiders’- the staff and their families of the now fully staffed school and new health clinic – who constitute their main customer base.
Having teachers and health staff living in the village was significant, not so much because of the services they offered (people complained about lack of medicines and the poor quality of teaching, for example) but more symbolically. People talked about them serving as role models for their children to aspire to and not to think of their futures only in terms of farming. And a village with outsiders prepared to live there is viewed as powerful assurance that the village is not neglected. It was this sense of being ‘on the map’ which I recall as being the most important aspect of being selected as a millennium village that the Chief of the villages shared with me early on. He had a vision of a village with electricity and roads and ‘proper toilets for guests’ so that they would not be passed over for outside support.
As noted in the MVP evaluation, little has changed in terms of economic development as a result of the project but as my own experience with the family I lived with demonstrated there was a palpable change in outlook. People felt improvements in their social well-being and felt less neglected. Whereas they had been used to waiting on the infusions of investment and promises that happened every five years at election times, the MVP provided a long and welcome period of special attention. But as one teacher said summing up what others too had shared during my last stay in July 2017 ‘…it has gone now and that’s that’.