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The Village Concept project in Ghana: international students helping to improve rural living conditions

G. Andrian

G. Andrian is a graduate student in forestry at the Land-use and Agroforestry Department, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Padova, Italy, and former president of the International Forestry Students' Association (IFSA).

Iniversita degli Studi di Padova,
Facolta di Agraria - corso di Laurea in Scienze Forestali ed Ambientali
Agripolis, via Romea 16,
35020 Legnaro (PD), Italy
tel: +39 49 827 2692
fax: +36 49 827 2686
e-mail: 3mcorso@agripolis.unipd.it

Introduction and background

The key to achieving effective and sustainable change in international development projects is through the education and involvement of the local inhabitants. Through networks of their international associations, students are exploring ways to be involved in designing and managing development projects. The Village Concept Projects represent interesting examples of these kinds of initiatives.

The original Village Concept Project (VCP) was pioneered by the International Federation of Medical Students' Association (IFMSA). It is a series of development projects for rural villages in different parts of the world, which also serve as models for similar international students' activities. In the 1980s, IFMSA wanted to promote the World Health Organization's (WHO) concept of "health for all" by the year 2000 through primary health care and the project idea came from a joint WHO-IFMSA leadership programme held in Geneva in 1986.

Ghana was selected for the first project as a result of strong and dependable local cooperation from Ghanaian students who are supported by the Ministry of Health and the University of Ghana Medical School. The pilot project started in October 1988 in a village called Ojobi and was later extended to two neighbouring villages, Akostsi (1989) and Kweikron (1990).

VCP aimed at improving the socio-economic conditions of villagers. It was designed to start from the needs felt by the villagers and actively involve them in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the project. Involving the community to the greatest possible extent was emphasized and specific social groups, such as women, children, the elderly and disabled, were consulted to ensure wide acceptance of the project. The project was interdisciplinary, realizing that improving health is not simply a matter of giving medicine. A key element of the project was a mutual exchange of information between the volunteers and the villagers about local habits, social structures and cultural differences.

The volunteers worked on a rotational basis for a minimum of 12 weeks with an overlapping week at the beginning and at the end of the fieldwork. The first overlapping week was planned to provide the participants with training in the technical aspects of the project and a general introduction to the country. The second overlapping week, at the end of the rotation, was designed to give the students who were leaving the project the opportunity to share their experiences with the incoming volunteers and pass on instructions so their work would be continued. In each rotation period, specific tasks were outlined to fulfill the overall project requirements.

In 1990, it was decided to extend the project for one year, as some of the activities originally planned for the village had not been completed. In addition to the time required to conduct the technical activities, extra time had been needed to learn about the various social groups within the village. In 1991, the International Association of Agriculture Students (IAAS) and individual Danish pharmacy students joined the project in Ghana and, because of this, the project was again extended for another year. Volunteers were selected from diverse geographical origins in order to promote collaboration between countries. The project was completed in October 1992, having involved 68 foreign students from 15 different countries.

The second Village Concept Project

Upon the successful completion of the first VCP, it was decided to implement a second phase. The village of Odupong-Ofaakor, located near Accra, was selected for a second Village Concept Project (VCP-II).

VCP-II was designed taking into account the different disciplines that would be involved and how they would interact. Most aspects of villagers' everyday life were intended to be addressed, from health care to the supply of energy. The following four international students' organizations were involved:

Each of the organizations elected an international coordinator who was responsible for choosing the participants according to the local needs. In addition, a special working unit was created within the framework of the Intersectoral Meeting of International Students' Organizations (IMISO) to coordinate VCP-II. During annual IMISO meetings, the working group defined the general strategies to be implemented at international and local levels and designed strategies to promote the initiatives outside IMISO.

Each association also had a local coordinator, a Ghanaian student, who supervised the various phases of the project, provided orientation and assisted the foreign students during their stay in Ghana. The Ghanaian universities and government were involved at several levels and provided specialists, technical supervision and bureaucratic support for the effective running of the project.

The overall objectives of the project

The general objectives established by the first project were retained for VCP-II. Under the general aim to improve the socio-economic conditions of the inhabitants of the rural village, specific attention was given to decreasing mortality rates from disease. In addition, the promotion of the individual's responsibility for his or her own health care was a priority.

Among other goals, the project aimed to:

In addition to the medical and health aspects of the project, attention was placed on improving the nutritional balance of the villagers' diet and on natural resources management, including fuelwood supply. In order to enhance production, the introduction of new agricultural and forestry techniques that emphasized sustainability and environmental protection became new objectives for the project.

Consistent with the philosophy of the initial VCP, each proposed intervention was submitted to a Village Development Committee for approval before implementation. This committee was established specifically to discuss proposed ideas with the decision-makers of the village. All initiatives had to be approved by the Chief and the Council of the Elders.

The educational aspects of the project were taken into special account. This project gave students from developed countries the chance to collaborate with their African colleagues to promote public health and primary health care. Interdisciplinary teamwork was promoted as the basis for the appropriate management of such a project and as an essential element for sustainable development. Each participant, regardless of his or her discipline area, had the opportunity to use problem-solving skills, strengthen their research abilities and increase their knowledge about the reality of fieldwork in a developing country.

Specific objectives of the agriculture and forestry components

A baseline survey was conducted in the village and, from the results, the following activities were identified as priorities:

Demonstration plots of cowpea and soybean were established, together with a model poultry farm. Near the village, a woodlot was established with fast growing species (Cassia sinea and Eucalyptus spp.) and a nursery was set up. These activities were run concurrently with farm visits and discussions and lectures with farmers which were jointly organized with the agriculture extension officer of the area.

Specific steps were designed to undertake the above activities. Taking crop production as an example, the students trained the local farmers on cowpea and soybean production based on the use of improved varieties and technologies, with a focus on sustainability. Students then demonstrated various ways the crops could be used as a protein source. Finally, the students assisted the farmers to identify marketing opportunities for the crops.

Interested villagers received help in setting up and managing a chicken farm as an additional source of income and were taught to identify and treat some common chicken diseases.

The priorities of the forestry component were to:

The community woodlot

Education for school-age children was a priority in Village Concept Project-II

Education was considered to be the key element in the project, so special attention was devoted to school-age children. Lessons using audiovisuals were given to show the importance of trees and how to plant and manage a woodlot. A hands-on approach was used and involved the children in planting operations in the woodlot. A special forestry subcommittee was formed and visual aids, such as posters, were distributed to various heads of households.

Films were shown at meetings to present important agroforestry and deforestation information. The films generated interest in planting trees around houses for shade, fruit and windbreaks. Alternative ways to conserve soil fertility were introduced, such as using organic waste materials in compost piles and using cultivation systems including crop rotation, strip cropping and intercropping. The villagers were also shown how to implement soil conservation practices to avoid land degradation and integrated pest management was promoted for the control of plant diseases and pests.

The student rotations were the same length as in the first project. The rotations were three months, with the first two weeks dedicated to an intensive orientation course held at university research stations and other working plots. The final week was spent evaluating the work by means of a progress report.

Evaluation of the project

To evaluate the project, a mid-term evaluation and a final questionnaire were used. The final questionnaire was distributed randomly to 165 households and gave special attention to the agriculture and forestry components of the project. It was conducted by a team from the Community Health Department of the University of Ghana Medical School.

Out of the total number of people interviewed, 82 percent were farmers who cultivated crops and raised livestock and birds. This was an increase from the mid-term evaluation. The farmers in Odupong-Ofaakor are predominantly small-scale farmers; 71 percent cultivate a land are of between 1 and 5 acres (0.4 to 2 hectares), 7 percent own farms of between 5 and 10 acres (2 to 4 hectares) and 6 percent farm between 10 and 50 acres (4 to 20 hectares) of land. Out of the total number of farmers, 33 percent have been farming for between one and five years, 16 percent for five to ten years and 33 percent for over ten years.

Awareness of the agricultural component of VCP-II had increased to 92 percent of respondents, compared with 62 percent in the mid-term evaluation. Of the people interviewed, 81 percent were aware that the agricultural component of the project educated farmers, kept the poultry farm and planted trees, soybean and cowpea. The remaining 19 percent did not know about the activities of the agricultural sector.

The results indicate that 96 percent of the people are aware of the poultry farm that the students had set up in the village. Of this 96 percent, 50 percent had benefited directly from the poultry unit by frequently buying eggs and by occasionally buying live birds. The remaining 6 percent benefited indirectly by having learned how to keep birds and how to construct a modern poultry coop. Of the people interviewed, 75 percent agreed that the poultry unit had benefited the community immensely by providing eggs, birds and employment. Five percent believed that the community had accrued sufficient income from the poultry to support the project in the village. However, 24 percent thought that the community had not benefited from the project in any way.

Some 73 percent believed that the poultry unit was for the community, but 27 percent thought it was for the group of people who ran the project. There were differing views on who should manage the poultry unit at the end of the project; 15 percent said it should be the chief and the elders, 49 percent said it should be a selected committee of dedicated people who reported periodically to the community, 14 percent said it should be the present caretakers in collaboration with the chief and community, 11 percent said it should be the entire community with communal labour and 21 percent expressed no opinion on how the unit should be managed.

There was a remarkable increase in the number of people who were aware of the agroforestry demonstration plot, from 44 percent at the mid-term evaluation to 95 percent. Of this number, 80 percent had visited the demonstration plot and 41 percent said they had realized the importance of trees in improving soil fertility, preventing environmental degradation and making furniture and electric poles. Although 27 percent reported that they had learned how to grow, plant and maintain trees and how to intercrop, 32 percent claimed that they had learned nothing from the plot. A willingness to adopt agroforestry farming systems was expressed by 67 percent of respondents, while 33 percent expressed their disapproval. Commending the demonstration plot were 64 percent of respondents, while 36 percent did not comment on it.

When asked about the nutritional value of soybeans, 60 percent replied that they provide protein, vitamins and energy, but 40 percent did not know their nutritional value. A desire to cultivate soybeans in the forthcoming season, when they would have access to seeds, was expressed by 50 percent.

Of the total of those interviewed, only 30 percent said that they had attended the farmers' meetings organized by the agricultural sector. Various reasons were given by the others for not attending these meetings. Those who did attend reported that they learned about the importance of trees and how to plant and maintain them, how to use improved seeds and how to improve their farming methods.

From the evaluation it was established that:

A look to the future

Each of the international students' organizations involved are investigating the possibility of organizing more Village Concept Projects in other countries and students continue to volunteer for projects. The final evaluation papers of each student organization offer some very useful suggestions for future projects.

The total costs of the project were kept very low showing that interdisciplinary cooperation among specialists from different backgrounds is possible without high costs.

One of the participants summarized the nature of this initiative in her final paper with: "the journey of a thousand miles begins with just a step". This project was a small but concrete example of how an interdisciplinary effort, which brings together people from different continents to work for a common objective, can be conducted successfully.

Bibliography

Andrian, G. (n.d.) L'Associazione Internazionale degli Studenti Forestali in Africa: l'esempio del Village Concept Project-II, Montie Boschi.

Duah Nsenkyire, R. 1995. Annual Report of the IFSA-VCP, Odupong-Ofaakor, Ghana. Presented at the 23rd IFSS, Finland.

IAAS International. 1996. Proposal on the Village Concept Project (VCP) at Odupong-Ofaakor, Ghana (1994-96). (not published)

Ossom, G. (n.d.) Ghana Village Project II, Evaluation of the Agricultural Sector. (not published)

Raasthøj, M. P. Strategies and recommendations for implementation of a local project of the Village Concept. (not published)

Raasthøj, M. P., Strobel D., Appiah-Odame, B., Klemmensen, Å. & Rommelmayer L.A. 1993. Ghana Village Concept Pilot Project (1988-92), Evaluation Report. Copenhagen.

Schleenbäcker, A. 1996. Annual report of the IFSA-VCP, Odupong-Ofaakor, Ghana. Presented at the 24th IFSS, Australia.

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