Monday, October 06, 2008

Alumni Report: Karen Miller in Ghana

Here's a report from Karen Miller (IPE '05):

When I graduated from UPS three years ago, I never thought I would be given the kind of responsibility or be faced with the types of challenges I am encountering today. I moved to Ghana two months ago to witness development in practice, and have gotten the opportunity to work with incredibly strong and talented African women in their struggle for economic empowerment.

One day I sat across the desk from a weathered woman in a colorful sari who leaned over with folded hands and said, “We need money.” Her eyes were piercing through thick-rimmed glasses but a grin soon crept across her face and erupted into hoots of laughter. “We really need money,” she repeated through heaving chuckles. I tried to laugh along with her, relieved that I had time to gather my thoughts before continuing our discussion. Her statement was in response to my questions about what the young women in her organization were struggling with the most, and what type of assistance my organization could offer. She is the head of an NGO in Ghana called Ghacoe Women’s Ministries, which is currently focused on training poor, unskilled women to make a type of cloth called batik. The organization I volunteer for in Ghana, African Business Network (ABN), provides microfinance and training services to women who own or want to start small businesses, which is why I was visiting her office. Her unexpected response was telling of the micro-business climate in Ghana, where countless poor are struggling to put skills to use, but have no means to start a business, and tend to spend capital in the wrong places if they are lucky enough to acquire it. Even more telling was her laughter, which revealed how absurd she knew her request was: financing the startup of her batik makers’ businesses was never in the cards. But at least they were off the streets, she said.

When I graduated from UPS with a degree in IPE, I had no idea what I wanted to do with it. After working and traveling in developing countries and bouncing around in odd jobs, I decided to pursue a career in international development, which brought me to West Africa. Having very little knowledge of the continent or country I was about to move to, I found another IPE alum, Sarah Brabeck, who had departed for the Peace Corps in Ghana after graduation and was able to give me advice. She had also worked with women in Ghana and hoped to find a way for them to add value to their products, such as incorporating Shea butter into cosmetics. Most of the employed population in Ghana works in the informal sector, with very few links to resources, finance, or services. Moreover, women comprise a disproportionate number of the poor, reinforcing the cycle of high birth rates, chronic disease, malnutrition, and lack of education. ABN is one of the many NGOs in Ghana attempting to break that cycle and bring women economic empowerment, but it is an uphill battle and too few resources are available. I have appreciated that Ghanaians approach these problems with a sense of humor as well as a sense of determination. It is also amazing to see the community of expats who have come to live in Africa and work on development issues alongside Africans. I had sometimes felt a sense of hopelessness for Africa when studying its problems in the classroom, but seeing the cooperative efforts being made up close is encouraging for Africa’s future, as well as our own.

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