Informal settlements. Informal economy. Informal education. There are no shortage of terms for describing systems of infrastructure in Ghana and many other developing countries (and arguably all countries—but rightly or wrongly these terms are often only applied to developing contexts). I studied these terms and ideas. I talked about the merits of saying “informal settlements” vs “slums” and vice versa. I researched the benefits of supporting, instead of suppressing, the informal economy. But I was not quite so well versed in how every aspect of life here in Tamale is managed through informal channels.

This manifests itself in my personal life—I find a good taxi driver through the recommendation of a friend. Because I have a taxi driver I’m able to go out at night for dinner, where someone else tells me the best place to buy meat, and so on and so forth. I’m not used to this system and at times I find adjusting challenging.

These same systems also play out in the workplace.

URBANET is implementing a new project, engaging young boys and girls from two schools about gender issues through interactive training events, drawing contests, and community meetings, with the specific aim of encouraging boys to support girls. Young girls, particularly in the north, are responsible for a disproportionate amount of household chores. When interviewed, young girls indicated that their household work makes them tired, and means they have less time to devote to school work. Both the group of young girls and young boys explained that, because of this, boys tend to do better in schools. The program is designed to facilitate activities that allow the participants to express their thoughts and feelings about the gendered roles they play at home and at school, so that they decide how best to support their sisters and other girls in the community. Some of the strategies the boy participants come up with include helping their sisters with some of their chores, and assisting them with homework.

A girl displays her drawing showing boys' farming and hunting Two boys place sticky notes on a Venn diagram showing girls' and boys' work

Right: A girl explains her entry in the drawing contest, showing the different roles that boys play at home. Left: Two boys use a Venn diagram to explore how household tasks are gendered, and which tasks could be done by all genders.

I was part of the initial planning process in collaboration with the rest of the programs department, helping to research about issues faced by girls in northern Ghana, write portions of the project proposal, and design guiding questions to use while interviewing children in the school.This is where the informal connections come into play. The schoolchildren we interview had been involved in a previous project of URBANET’s. Having notified the teacher, a previous contact, that we were coming, he collects some students to sit and talk with us to inform the project planning. URBANET takes on a friend and former partner to help implement the project.

My immediate response is to feel profoundly uncomfortable—I’m not used to how informal connections are relied on so heavily in a professional context. I’m swept up thinking, does the school even want us here? Are the children interested in the project, would they enjoy taking part in a drawing contest? Is this the best community in which to implement this project?

And while these are all valid, and important questions, my western-based perspective clouds my ability to see the benefits to utilizing personal contacts and informal planning to implement a project. My nature is to view the informal project planning mechanisms as completely inefficient and unprofessional. But I want to challenge that thinking. URBANET was able to very quickly engage the community, earn their trust and plan their first training event. This would not have been possible if not for their personal relationships, with the community and with others involved in the planning process.

I suspect the best practice for planning and implementing development projects lies somewhere in the middle. Not so formal the human connection is completely obliterated, but not so informal that friends reap unfair benefits. It may be impossible to find the perfect balance, but I believe it’s important to be aware that there is more than one way to successfully ‘do development’, and while development projects should absolutely be open to criticism, they should not be evaluated solely on the basis of western criteria.

Author’s note: I think it’s really important to obtain consent for any photos shared. I want to make it clear that the participants shown here were aware their photos were taken to be shared with other people.