Ed Fail: Lessons in Building a Nursery

by Edward Carr, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina

  • Project: Village Improvement Project
  • Location: Dominase, Ponkrum, Ghana
  • Sector: Community Infrastructure
  • Professional Designation: Academia


Yep, no sooner do I post on failure and how we account for it and learn from it, then I come upon a big fail of my own.  That I can learn from. Irony, anyone?

As many of you know, I have been working in Ghana since 1997.  I’ve spent some 20 months there, though it has been a while since I was last on the ground (I need to change that) – basically, the last meaningful research trip I took was in the summer of 2006.  That work, along with the fieldwork that came before it, was so rich that I am still working through what it all means – and it has led me down the path of a book about why development doesn’t work as we expect, and now a (much more academic) complete rethinking of the livelihoods framework that many in development use to assess how people make a living.

One of my big findings (at least according to some of my more senior colleagues) is that inequality and (depending on how you look at it) injustice are not accidental products of “bad information” or “false consciousness” in livelihoods strategies, but integral parts of how people make a living (article to this effect here, with related work here and here, as well as a long discussion in Delivering Development).  One constraint specific to the livelihoods in the villages in which I have been working is the need to balance the material needs of the household with the social requirement that men make more money than their wives.  I have rich empirical data demonstrating this to be true, and illustrating how it plays out in agricultural practice (which makes up about 65% of most household incomes).

In other words, I know damn well that men get very itchy about anything that allows women to become more productive, as this calls one of the two goals of existing livelihoods strategies into question.  Granted, I figured this out for the first time around 2007, and have only very recently (i.e. articles in review) been able to get at this systematically, but still, I knew this.

And I completely overlooked it when trying to implement the one village improvement project with which I have been involved.  Yep, I totally failed to apply my own lessons to myself.

What happened?  Well, to put it simply, I had some money available after the 2006 fieldwork for a village improvement project, which I wanted the residents of Dominase and Ponkrum to identify and, to the extent possible, design for themselves.  We had several community meetings that meandered (as they do) and generally seemed to reflect the dominant voices of men.  However, at the end of one of these meetings, one of my extraordinarily talented Ghanaian colleagues from the University of Cape Coast had the experience and the awareness to quietly wander off to a group of women and chat with them.  I noticed this but did not say anything.  A few minutes later, he strolled by, and as he did he said to me “we need to build a nursery.”  Kofi had managed to elicit the womens’ childcare needs, which were much more practical and actionable than any other plans we had heard.  At the next community meeting we raised this, and nobody objected – we just got into wrangling over details.  I left at the end of the field season, confident we could get this nursery built and staffed.


Five years later, nothing has happened.  They formed the earth blocks, but nobody cleared the agreed-upon area for the nursery.  It was never a question of money, and my colleagues at the University of Cape Coast checked in regularly.  Each time, they left with promises that something would get going, and nothing ever did.  I don’t fault the UCC team – the community needed to mobilize some labor so they would have buy-in for the project, and would take responsibility for the long-term maintenance of the structure. This is on the community – they just never built it.

And it wasn’t until yesterday, when talking about this with a colleague, that I suddenly realized why – childcare would lessen one demand on women that limits their agricultural productivity and incomes.  Thus, with a nursery in place women’s incomes would surely rise . . . and men have no interest in that, as this is not the sort of intervention that would drive a parallel increase in their own incomes.  I have very robust data that demonstrates that men move to control any increase in their wives incomes that might threaten the social order of the household, even if that decreases overall household income and access to food.

So why, oh why, did I ever think that men would allow this nursery to be built?  Of course they wouldn’t.

I can excuse myself between 2006-2008 for missing this, as I was still working through what was going on in these livelihoods.  But for the last three years I knew about this fundamental component of livelihoods, and how robust this aspect of livelihoods decision-making really is, even under conditions of change such as road construction.  I have been looking at how others misinterpret livelihoods and design/implement bad interventions for years, all the while doing that very thing myself.

Healer, heal thyself.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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  1. rog says:

    This website is really brave. It’s wonderful to read about honest accounts of failure with the aim of increasing future success. I was somewhat disappointed to read this post, however, since you spend a lot of time criticizing men. You do not show any interest in understanding why they might be uncomfortable with higher earning females. I should imagine the females would be uncomfortable with a plan that would jeopardize their beauty in some way. This post smacks of macktivism. It puts women on a pedestal, implying they can do no wrong. This is a failing of many aid workers, who assume females are better whilst males are sometimes implied to be psychopaths. Tell me the failures caused by assuming social issues can be resolved by attending to one sex only.

  2. Ed Carr says:

    To be fair, this was a blog post about my own failure . . . and the fact is that my interpretation of livelihoods, which has held up to empirical tests and peer review, does help to explain a rather vexing project outcome. Because that interpretation had been validated repeatedly, I think it is worth noting that I failed to apply it to my own work. That was the point. And it sort of defeats your macktivism accusation (which, as I understand it, is pseudo-activism motivated by the desire to gain access to cute girls who believe in saving the planet).

    That said, I have a fairly long paper trail looking at household livelihoods strategies and gender, including a bunch of articles and a book. In that rather detailed work, I spend a lot of time explaining why men are uncomfortable – and there are fairly significant, deep-rooted reasons why. I’m not sure I agree that the post in any way suggests women can do no wrong. Certainly, women have their own biases and ideas, and in many complex ways are bound up in and help to reproduce the very social conditions that lead to livelihoods inequalities and the sorts of outcomes I am describing here. I’m not sure how my post excludes that issue . . . and it certainly does not suggest that men are psychopaths, or that gender issues can be addressed by looking at either men or women (or, in some societies, alternate categories) only – gender is a relational category.

  3. rog says:

    “Certainly, women have their own biases and ideas, and in many complex ways are bound up in and help to reproduce the very social conditions that lead to livelihoods inequalities and the sorts of outcomes I am describing here.”

    This is the first time I have seen any aid worker acknowledge that females may play a part in causing the difficulties faced by these communities. Perhaps this is simply due to my inexperience. I’d be interested in reading more about this if you have any references. In everything I have read and all of the training I have been to, ‘man bashing’ (it is as blatant, and dull, as that) is a preoccupation when it comes to explaining social inequality, lack of economic stability, poor services, poor infrastructure, you name it. I get the impression no one is brave enough to challenge the possibly western ideal that a female can do no wrong. Or maybe they think it will make their work more appealing to pander to the Western academic’s obsession with feminism. I charge that this is a failing, since, as mentioned in a recent article in The Guardian [1], the rape of men was not so infrequent in Uganda during past conflicts. This may surprise some, given the assumption that rape is used as a weapon of war against females. Additionally, the abstract of a study [2] begins by stating that “Of all noncombatants in the former Yugoslavia, adult civilian men were most likely to be massacred by enemy forces.” Note that this mentions noncombatants. Aid work will be regarded with suspicion by men who perceive their legitimate concerns are ignored or even derided.

    [1] Storr, W., (2011). The Rape of Men. The Guardian, accessed 30/10/2011 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/17/the-rape-of-men.

    [2] Carpenter, R. C., (2003). ‘Women and Children First’: Gender, Norms, and Humanitarian Evacuation in the Balkans 1991–95. DOI: 10.1017/S002081830357401X.

  4. c0mputar says:

    You had me until you blamed men. Nurseries would most definitely free women to become more financially independent… I get all that, but to just blame it on a conspiracy by men without any evidence except the supposed reality that all men are oppressing all women… Gimme a break.

  5. Tim says:

    I to have this knee-jerk reaction to the idea thats all the communities’ failure are the result ment. It seems to over simplify the situation. But it might have some historical logic to it. Men have controlled Africa for Centuries, Africa has many difficulties therefor it must be men’s fault. The data would reflect the natural fear of the group in power being afraid of losing power.

    That being said was it only be the men’s fault. Two things need to be looked at closer. The lack of community work and the role of UCC as the manager. Since the women supported the project why couldn’t you get the women to clear the grounds? Could it have been billed so the men might have had a use of it? Maybe a night school when it wasn’t a nursery. Finally why didn’t the UCC find out why the area was not being cleared and adjust for it.

  6. Erika Vohman says:

    Great story and I work exclusively with women in Central America, to the exclusion of men, which is very much criticized (by the men) but i realize that there are many many opportunities for this type of situation to arise when you try to solve a problem in the same context which is creating it. this is why we create women-only programs and, while certainly the women are difficult in many ways and have many problems cooperating with each other and with leadership and hierarchy, our methodology permits women a chance to identify and resolve their own problems and very rarely do men step up in the beginning to help them. over time, we are seeing that the men, once they realize that an empowered, income earning wife is not going to leave them or make them miserable, but that their wives actually are happier and help provide for the family (this can take 3-5 years) then the men start to help and things get more egalitarian in the villages. Its a very painful start (excluding men is traumatic for everyone) but the end result is what we were seeking. Please go back and help the women build their nursery if that is what they want. it will be an amazing experience for everyone. Men are extremely oppressed by their role in oppression of women because they struggle so hard to maintain their position and they too suffer greatly, though they may not be aware of it now. Good luck.

  7. Ed Carr says:

    Rog, if you go to my website and look under the preprints page, there is a pretty technical and academic article that explains how men and women create problematic situations that are often oversimplified to “men’s oppression.” For a larger take on the issue, my book <> summarizes a lot of my academic work in these communities for a general audience, and might be worthwhile.

    c0mputar and Tim, there is plenty of evidence to support my claims about gender roles and this outcome, but seeing as how I burned 90k words laying a lot of that evidence out in a book, it wasn’t going to fit into a blog post. My book is there, and a bunch of my articles that lay out evidence are available on my webpage. It is a little too easy to assume that someone is operating without evidence if you don’t bother checking into their background first . . .

  8. Sam says:

    Thank you for sharing your lesson Ed. I don’t think I have the dedication necessary to read many books, so I appreciate you sharing your insight on gender dynamics from your experience.

    And thank you Erika for your input. Your experience and sympathy for all parties involved made Ed’s understanding more palpable for me.


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