The Development Dilemma: Give a man a fish or teach him to fish?

A mapping exercise in Ghana reveals the tensions between addressing immediate needs and fighting for long-term solutions

By Ishmael Adams, Director, IncluCity Project

This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Ghana street
In Sekondi-Takoradi only 24% houses are legal. Does that mean those living in illegal properties should not get development assistance?

On a recent trip to Washington DC, I delivered a presentation (pdf) on mapping the informal settlements of Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana. I was asked a question: "By uniformly mapping and addressing properties in these slums, are you endorsing illegal homes and other buildings?" My response was: "In Sekondi-Takoradi, only about 24% of property development conforms to the city's layout or plan. We either map the city in its fullness or we produce something useless. If we only map the 24% legal buildings the map is of no value."

Although the answer I gave was very straightforward, the question cut to the core of one of the quandaries we face in development today. I am currently overseeing a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which involves mapping the whole of Sekondi-Takoradi, a Ghanaian city the size of Edinburgh, as well as subsequent street naming and property addressing. We have named 3,440 streets and alleys, from Galaxy Street to Jerk Close, numbered all of the properties, and mapped them using GIS technology. This is a tremendous advance for the city. But we address properties to get somewhere, not as an end in itself.

In this case, we have used the mapping and addressing to develop a system of municipal revenue generation – council tax – to help the metropolitan authority pay for public services. These services were decided based on a citizens 'report card', which identified citizen priorities across the city, and the tax system is designed to protect the poorest – they pay the least.

In our case, it was a simple decision. The addressing has to be full and accurate in order for the maps to be useful and for taxation to be effective. We put urban planning safeguards in place to ensure that we do not interfere with land titles and legal boundaries but, ultimately, if 76% of the city is built not according to code, you simply have to map all the properties.

But what if it is was only 10%? Or even 1%? Should we exclude the illegal properties – in other words, families – then?

At what point do we, as development professionals, refuse to help a community? When do we insist that they have to change their basic conditions before we can provide assistance? And by providing assistance to people living illegally, do we create incentives for behaviour that is unsafe and unsustainable?

Ghana e-waste
A recent report identified that Agbogbloshie imports 215,000 tons of consumer electronics from abroad each year for recycling, and generates another 129,000 tons of electronic waste each year – and this will double by 2020.

If the families had built their properties on a toxic wasteland, for example, we would be more inclined to re-house them than to map those properties. And yet in Accra, Ghana, we have Agbogbloshie, possibly the most toxic place on earth. A recent report identified that Agbogbloshie imports 215,000 tons of consumer electronics from abroad each year for recycling, and generates another 129,000 tons of electronic waste each year – and this will double by 2020. Nearly 250,000 people in the vicinity face serious health and environmental hazards. But activities in Agbogbloshie form the core of comparatively well-paying employment to nearly 40,000 people.

Over the past few years, Global Communities has worked with these recyclers to provide subsidised healthcare, tetanus injections, safety equipment and to lobby Accra's local government to provide indoor facilities for burning toxic materials. Our focus has been on their health, but it would be preferable if the recycling site were completely abolished; or if such activities took place legally in carefully controlled environments with proper equipment and toxic materials disposed of safely. But to do so would take tremendous political will from the government of Ghana and the international consumers and businesses who benefit from our young labourers who become sick every day. It would also involve public investment in diversifying income for tens of thousands of people living in Agbogbloshie.

There is no simple answer to the problem of Agbogbloshie because the problem is not simple: there are many people who benefit from the existence of this dangerous wasteland. In each challenging case, we must examine the circumstances and evaluate what is the best approach. The health needs of the thousands of young people working there are immediate and pressing and must be addressed. But we also have to invest in education, making it clear that they are endangering their lives, and bringing pressure to bear on those in power who can change the situation.

In my home country of Ghana, just as it was in the west, development should be about evolution, not revolution. Sometimes that involves putting the basics in place during an uncomfortable situation – such as counting illegal settlements in Sekondi-Takoradi – even if we would rather jump to a more ideal result. But, until that time we must work with communities to educate and advocate for the best long-term solutions.