A new organization called What Went Wrong? has started operations in Ghana. Anyone can call or tweet reports of aid projects gone awry or unfinished.
This is an exciting development, because programs like this have a great deal of potential to improve service delivery, particularly in hard-to-reach places. It's not a new idea; for example, an organization called WaterAid is working with local partners to report and map broken water pumps in Malawi.
There's something about What Went Wrong? that makes me a bit uncomfortable though. Perhaps because its team appears to be photographers and visual designers, it seems to focus more on documenting an "experience" with aid, instead of making aid work better. Shaming aid behemoths like USAID or the World Bank for poor performance can be deserved and bring necessary reforms, but I'm not sure tweeting pictures of unfinished aid projects at NGOs is always the most productive way to improve delivery, especially for small local NGOs in a culture that values saving face. I can appreciate development disaster porn-- I've saved a copy of a newspaper article titled "Goats Infest Tomato Factory" for years-- but I would love to see an organization like What Went Wrong? partner more closely with organizations delivering aid, to create a link between identifying problems and providing solutions.
Twice since arriving in Georgetown, I have seen a disproportionate amount of disarray caused by someone who simply appeared to be completely oblivious to how their own position was affecting others' ability to get around.
The first time was in a small grocery store. Two women and a small cart stopped in an aisle, parked their cart, and proceeded to peruse bagged nuts and candies. The problem was, this aisle was the main entry into the store. A shopper trying to enter asked several times if she could please get by before the pair notices and squeezed over to let her pass, then moved themselves back into position blocking the aisle. I watched from the checkout line as a long line of customers formed, eventually out the door, all trying to get by. The women were not rude, and when asked to move they would allow a single person to pass, but they seemed completely unaware that a major traffic cart jam could be avoided if they just moved their cart to the end of the aisle, instead of blocking the entry.
The second time was in traffic. I watched a minivan back up out of a parking spot, and then stop, blocking both lanes of traffic. The minivan sat there for a full five minutes while (I can only imagine?) deciding which direction to drive. Other cars tried to leave space in all directions for the van to go where it wanted to go, but it just sat there. Meanwhile, traffic backed up through an intersection, and down three arterial roads in the center of town.
In fairness, both situations were exacerbated by poor infrastructure. The aisles in the grocery store were too small for two carts to pass each other. The roads in Georgetown are narrow, and their configuration can make it easy for a blockage on one street to affect multiple intersections and roads. However, I have noticed that many people in Georgetown seem very unaware of when their physical position is hindering others. In a tight spot, people rarely automatically move to make space, although they are quite happy to on request.
Every place has its own norms with regard to physical positioning. Coming from the Western United States, when I moved to the East Coast I was initially appalled by how close people would stand to me while chatting. I always run into people in London because when I encounter someone walking at me, I instinctively move to my right while they veer to their left. In Ghana, people are often forced into tight conditions on overloaded minibuses and in crowded markets, so close quarters are fine when necessary, but generally avoided when not. In Guyana, I rarely feel crowded (even minibuses tend to keep to a reasonable number of passengers), but I am surprised by how often people seem oblivious to how inconvenient their physical position is.
While these norms could just be cultural, I generally tend to think there are environmental conditions that influence them. People in cities have to be tolerant of having a lot of people close by, for example. So what accounts for Guyana?
One theory I have is that Guyana is fairly uncrowded, but sometimes poorly designed. As a result, people don't often get in each other's way, and aren't used to thinking about it. However, in some spaces, getting in the way suddenly becomes much more likely, and can have preposterous results.
The other theory I have is that people are just used to being asked to move, and therefore don't employ the same vigilance as a socially awkward, outdoorsy girl when it comes to avoiding being in the way. This theory is supported by the norms of driving here, where anything seems to go until someone starts honking at you to move.
I don't expect this to change any time soon. Guyana's population growth is near zero, and it has a long way to go in improving its infrastructure. Changes to traffic or parking arrangements often increase chaos before reducing it; when minibuses were moved out of the central market, Main Street in Georgetown was practically impassable for a week. In the meantime, maybe it's not so bad to actually communicate with strangers while moving past them on the roads or in supermarkets.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.