Without doubt, my internship experience has been a roller coaster ride up until now – exciting, dramatic and rewarding.
Two months in, I finally have the time (and internet) to recount some of the experiences so far. Back in April, when I managed to secure an internship at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) Ghana, my greatest concern was getting the visa in time. While that proved to be a valid concern (I got my visa one day before the flight), the bigger challenge was to find myself a new project . Initially I was selected for an exciting agricultural project that aimed to employ information, technological and financial interventions to bolster the agricultural profitability of farmers in Northern Ghana. However, two weeks before my flight, I was told that this project was facing implementation delays and was told to look at other projects within IPA Ghana.
After two weeks of interviews, I opted to join the Teachers Community Assistant Initiative (TCAI) project. As this was a very last minute decision (I was literally boarding the plane at JFK as I confirmed my participation) I did not know what I would be doing exactly. Luckily for me, in retrospect, things have turned out to extremely well.
Landing in Accra, I was not only engulfed by humidity, but also had to fight off street hawkers and deny around 20 taxi drivers from driving me to the domestic terminal, which was approximately 30 seconds away. I was also struck by nostalgia as the sea breeze, the loud noises, the traffic, the bustle, the heat, all reminded me of Karachi, and I was quick to retrieve my bargaining skills and bargain down my excess luggage charge. Fifteen minutes after landing in Accra, I found myself boarding a flight to Kumasi, accompanied by another colleague from LBJ. We were going there to check up on Exponential Education, a remedial education organization that she has been running in Ghana for the past two years. As the organization had started expanding and attracting traction, I had volunteered to consult with them – helping develop a proper organizational structure, implement better financial and reporting systems and design an M&E framework.
After landing in Kumasi we went straight to the school where one of their programs was being run. I was awestruck at the similarity between schools in Ghana and Pakistan. Apart from the colorful uniforms and machetes in schoolbags, everything from the teaching methods to the paint on the buildings looked the same – remnants of the British colonial era. Later on , during my fieldwork with TCAI, I would learn that much of the both countries also share many of the same education challenges – low learning levels, rote memorization and teacher absenteeism. In one of those schools, we participated in a graduation ceremony for the children who just completed an Exponential Education program. These kids were presented with certificates, special honors and scholarships and once the ceremony was over, they all rushed to shake our hands and warmly welcomed us into their community. Also, within one day I had a managed to attract few marriage proposals by female teachers in our host school.
Soon after drawing up expansion plans for Exponential Education and conducting meetings with prospective partners, I started my internship with IPA. I quickly brought myself up to speed and learned that the TCAI project was designed to provide evidence on which remedial education interventions are the most effective and cost efficient when it comes to improving learning outcomes and informing national level education reform. Surprisingly, Ghana spends a whopping 23 percent of its budget on education and has high school enrollment rates. However the quality of education is woefully low with less than 50 percent of grade 3 children having minimum competency in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. In order to address this issue, lessons from randomized controlled trials performed in India (for remedial education) and Kenya (for class splits according to ability levels) were pooled to develop the TCAI project. Over the past two years, IPA has run four different interventions across 450 schools and 42 districts, examining their effectiveness over on a nationally representative sample of approximately 40,000 pupils. The project has been a collaboration between IPA, Ghana Education Service (GES), the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) and other government agencies and is now at its closing stages.
Joining one day before the endline survey commenced, I was thrust right into the middle of everything . For my first task I was asked to devise a data monitoring and reporting system for TCAI which incidentally happened to be IPA Ghana’s largest project. In the initial weeks, I not only had to quickly update my vocabulary (both in basic Twi and organization-speak) but also learn to navigate through myriad databases and .do files and develop relationships with the very large evaluation team. Once the system was in place, the next task was to conduct one-on-one sessions with the surveyor teams and update them on their performance and data quality. Conducting fieldwork is one thing, but traversing half the country while being thrown around inside a 4×4 while trying to run stata on your laptop is a whole different experience. We travelled on average over 6 hours a day, visiting remote schools in the lush green bush of the Volta region and the misty mountains of the Ashanti region and monitoring the surveyors, meeting students, teachers, district officials and sharing fufu and jollof rice with the teams. Everywhere we went, I heard chants of “Obruni (white man) how are you? Im fine, thank you” which makes me think that they all memorize this as a song at school. Loud Ghanaian “hip-life” dance music has also been omnipresent, like an extended soundtrack.
My experiences in the field (still ongoing) have without doubt provided me with some much needed context and appreciation for my work here. Since then, I have been working on tracking the projects performance, auditing data quality and am now working with the principal investigators to conduct basic analysis of the learning outcomes. Two months on, I am still surprised and excited by the level of responsibility I am given and am always amazed by how the team tackles the daunting challenges that come with administering a nationwide evaluation. I have already learned a lot – from specific technical skills to techniques on eating Ghanaian soup with my fingers. Apart from the work at IPA, I am partnering with the team at exponential education to launch a for-profit enterprise that will provide SAT tutoring and career counseling to Ghanians at competitive prices, with part of the profits going into making exponential education more sustainable! There are exciting times ahead!