An interview with Siera Vercillo, African Programs Staff
By: Roxanne Desouza, Staff Writer
In an increasingly competitive job market, international experience is becoming more important to employers. Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a Canadian-based non-profit, provides young professionals with the opportunity to gain work experience abroad in the development sector. These positions are a minimum one year commitment, including preparative training and debriefings. One of EWB’s focus areas is agricultural development, where recent graduate Siera Vercillo worked with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in northern Ghana. Upon her return, Siera shed insight into her experience living and working in Africa.
Tell me why you decided to pursue international experience with EWB?
EWB’s approach is people-focused, and takes a systemic approach to development. They work through partner organizations and collaborate with local people for developing systemic innovations. The organization’s values are also strongly practiced through its people and programs, and are very much in line with my values.
They are also an organization that was (and still currently is) willing to invest in my personal development and shape my professional development. They worked with me to design my placement so it was a good fit for my professional growth strategy in addition to their team strategy. My mindset throughout the application process was to be very honest, and I trusted them to decide whether I could contribute and fit within the approach and culture. They ensured that all of my expenses were paid, in addition to the opportunity of coaching/mentorship and network support that was dependent on my initiative to take advantage of. My main objective for working overseas was to gain a good understanding of the “field realities,” and the impact donor finances have on the ground. EWB placed me with a team that needed a “Searcher” to better understand the behaviours of those we are trying to impact, and provided me with a motorcycle and other means that allowed me to pick my own partner organization that was best suited to my needs to work towards strategy.
What are the core values of EWB, and how do you relate to them?
Their core values Strive for Humility
- We do not assume to know more than local people.
- Invest in people – they remain the centre of decision making
- Address root causes for [greater] impact
- Dream big and work hard
I would like to change the work hard to ‘work smart’
- Courageously commit[ted]
- Ask tough questions – no matter how difficult they are to address
We put “Dorothy” first
- Dorothy is the person we are trying to impact. He could be a farmer or a student or business owner. As long as he/she remains at the forefront of our decision-making than we are living our values.
What position did you undertake with EWB, and why?
I decided to take on the African Programs Staff role because I wanted to work in the field for more than 6 months. I wanted to take on serious responsibility that required more long term commitment and have the opportunity to work with both local people and other international development workers. I knew working with EWB I would be both on a Team of EWBers striving towards a similar goal or vision but through and separately with a local partner organization.
Why do you feel that agriculture is crucial for development?
In Ghana, agriculture is crucial for development because the economy is so heavily dependent on it. In a country where 70% of the population works directly in agriculture, it seems like a natural step in poverty reduction processes. Agriculture is crucial to both the public and private sectors in Ghana, and has shaped the social and political context greatly.
I also have an interest in gender-based development. Because the majority of small-scale farmers in the region I was working in were women, it gave me a unique understanding and learning experience to having impact on gender. In addition, I have gained proficiency in the issue of food security, in which Ghana plays a large role in the effect of the current drought and crisis in the West African region and Sahel area.
They worked with me to design my placement so it was a good fit for my professional growth strategy in addition to their team strategy.
Describe a typical day during your time working in Ghana.
For the first 3.5 months, I was going around the Northern Region working with various Ministry of Food and Agriculture staff and the farmers they interact with. I was living in both guesthouses and village dwellings. After that, I decided then to settle in a rural village with a high involvement in the agricultural sector about an hour away from the main city in the Northern Region, because I preferred village life over city life. I lived in government allocated housing that had the Ministry of Food and Agriculture district office, animal husbandry unit, main vet laboratory for the country, and an agricultural college. I lived with a Ghanaian man named Moses who was the same age as me and worked at the Vet laboratory and was also a foreigner to that region.
I would wake up at 6:30am, sweep all the mess the animals and winds brought in during the night, then take a bath with bucket water that I fetched from the polytank in my backyard and use the pit latrine down the road. I would have maybe 5 different neighbors drop by in the process to wish me good morning. I would then get changed in an office appropriate outfit and make breakfast. I would usually have some bread with peanut butter and coffee for breakfast. Then I’d pack my bag and hop on the motorcycle to my office, which was on the other side of the village. I would check my email and do other administrative work, greet other staff and my Director, and then head to visit some farmers at around 1pm who needed some advice that day or I needed to meet with for research purposes. I would either eat lunch with them or grab something along the road to eat. I would come back at 5pm and finish off my notes from the day. I would pick up some ingredients for dinner and get home to play football at the field behind my house. I support a Boys under 25 team in a competitive league. Around 6:30pm, as it gets dark and I would go home, bath again, change and prepare dinner (usually something simple and Canadian, or head over to my neighbor’s house at around 7pm to have dinner with them). By 8:00 I am home again chatting with my roommate and friends while we listen to the news and debate politics. I would go to bed around 10pm.
The placement requires you to work independently in an ambiguous environment, which is tough work. It is your responsibility to find solutions to problems in your work and in your everyday life, whether it is finding a place to live, a hospital to visit or building a work plan.
What was the most gratifying aspect of your time in Ghana?
Understanding how development initiatives do a good job/poor job of impacting the people they are intended to impact and why they do/don’t do so. I put a face behind the spreadsheets and equations. I put people behind the theory and understood the realities.
What was the most difficult? How did you cope with daily challenges?
The most difficult task was dealing with being a foreigner. The more time you spend in a community the more difficult it tends to be. The more you realize that despite how much you love these people and how you can share their goals, the values and rationale behind these decisions are very different. This places greater influence on being nonjudgmental and adaptive.
In your experience, what were the greatest challenges to local development?
Developing the understanding/mindsets and behaviors of local people. Change is necessary for any adoption of a new practice or technology and it takes a long time to understand and adapt. Moreover, most economic theories function on the assumption that people are rational actors and defines what rationality is, when there is such diversity in why and how people rationalize. Local economic initiatives need to adapt to local tendencies cultural, political and economic contexts and not make so many assumptions that are stated as facts.
Knowing what you know now, what do you wish you knew before you departed for Ghana?
To calm down; Ghana deserves patience and the way of doing work requires flexibility. All the anxiety I had and preparations that fuelled those anxieties contributed to unnecessary stress and less open-mindedness.
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