A recent trip to Ghana -- my first trip to Africa -- affirmed for me that there is so much more to aid and development than one prosperous nation giving to another in need.
I travelled to Ghana's Volta region last month with a colleague and a small Canadian TV crew to capture footage and interviews with children and their families who are benefiting from Plan Canada's Volta community sponsorship project.
I expected to see and hear things that I would find troubling, even heartbreaking.
After all, this is a region where many people live in poverty. A place where malaria and diarrhea are common and where a contaminated lake is the community's main source of drinking water. Hospitals and health clinics are hours away -- little comfort for families who can only afford to travel by foot. Young people lack viable employment opportunities and even younger children are at risk of abuse and trafficking. I knew all of this -- at least in a textbook way.
Even so, I was still taken aback by what I saw upon arrival. The lack of basic amenities such as paved roads, reliable electricity, and running water. Schools having not much more than wooden desks and a blackboard to welcome children. One community's "health centre" was simply a table and chair under the shade of a tree, run by a community volunteer. In short, people in Volta are not living with a lot.
But they are far from powerless.
At one local Plan-supported school, I met smiling, articulate, and bright-eyed children eager to learn. In speaking with them, I was struck by their bold ambitions, their positive attitudes, and their willingness to put in the hard work required to succeed.
Perfect is one of those young students I met. She's 16 and wants to become the next Ghanaian president. She starts her days at dawn with household chores like sweeping, fetching water, or cooking. Then she's off to school to pursue the education she knows is the path to a productive future, both for herself and her community.
Perfect is also part of a Plan-supported Rights of the Child group. In this group, young people learn about their basic human rights, including the right to an education and to be free from abuse. Armed with an education, Perfect is one of the next generation of girls in Ghana asserting themselves and preparing to take leadership roles.
Other young people I met already have an innate sense of the needs of their community and how their future aspirations can help to bridge gaps. Favor told me she wanted to be a nurse so she can "help more people," Fabian wants to be a teacher, and Makafui aspires to the medical profession because, as he explained plainly, "the community needs more doctors."
I saw the same take-charge attitude among their parents when I attended a local meeting of a Plan-supported Village Savings and Loans Association in Volta. At this meeting some 20 women, proudly donning green t-shirts with the words "Banking for Change" across their backs, gathered to review loan applications from other women in the community.
While Plan originally planted the seed and training for this local bank, it is the women who now contribute to its financing, set the priorities and manage the business. They too, like the men, are making decisions for their personal and community's future, demonstrating the leadership that is essential to creating self-sustaining communities no longer in need of outside assistance.
One woman, Lornya, told me how her loan allowed her to buy more reeds for the floor mats she weaves at home and sells in the nearby market. The sales contribute to her household finances, make her self-reliant and lead to enhanced respect in the community.
I also met Eric, a father and fierce community mobilizer. In partnership with Plan, Eric has been working with other community members to establish and promote healthy water, sanitation and hygiene practices and systems. When I asked what he wants most for his community it wasn't big-box superstores, restaurants, movie theatres or other amenities. "Good, healthy drinking water" was his immediate and only reply.
Perfect, Eric, the 20 women "banking for change" and so many other people I met in Ghana are examples of what aid and international development is and can be. Not a handout and not just one prosperous nation giving to those in need. It's people taking even the smallest investment and channeling that into a better future for themselves and their communities, like the children and families I met in Ghana who are clearly in the driver's seat of their own lives.
After my journey, back in the comforts of my Toronto home, I felt a little wave of embarrassment. I was embarrassed by my initial impression that the people I met lacked so much. Now, I realize they are well-endowed with those attributes that are the building blocks of personal and community success, and that Canadian dollars, and the work I do today, is definitely making a difference.
Abigail Brown is a senior manager with Plan Canada.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
VolunteerMatch" width="52" height="52"/>
Like an online dating site, VolunteerMatch pairs your volunteer interests with similar opportunities in your area. From grant writers to pro bono jobs, you can browse the variety of options or tailor your search for a specific cause or organization.
Cause.it" width="52" height="52"/>
A nifty rewards program for volunteering, Cause.it give you a certain amount of points for an everyday act of advocacy, volunteering, or social activism. In return, you can redeem your points at the participating local businesses, scoring shopping deals for your good deed.
PayItForward" width="52" height="52"/>
A small action can have a big impact. That’s the idea behind this app, which suggests a daily act of altruism and encourages you to “pay it forward,” by inspiring others when you share good deed through Twitter, Facebook, or email. To see the impact of a single act of kindness, you can view the app’s worldwide map, a feature which demonstrates completed good deeds all over the globe.
Kiwanis International" width="52" height="52"/>
A networking app that connects you to local Kiwanis clubs, this program provides a variety of service projects in areas such as education, poverty, and disaster relief. User-friendly, this app tracks both your time volunteered and dollars raised; with its fun Piggy Bank option, it also allows you to record virtual dollars you could donate by giving up luxury expenditures (like that extra chai latte).
Maranatha Volunteers International" width="52" height="52"/>
Making global service more accessible, the Maranatha app utilizes videos and photos to broadcast available projects across the world. Primarily dedicated to constructing high-demand buildings, such as hospitals and schools, the Maranatha organization successfully mobilizes volunteers through its app.
The Salvation Army Bellringer" width="52" height="52"/>
This musical app lets you virtually experience the bell ringing tradition by inventing your own Salvation Army song. Use the 12 musical notes to create a unique tune or play a favorite holiday jingle. As a fun option for those too busy to ring in person, the Salvation Army Bellringer app also includes an option to make a donation to the Salvation Army.
Charity Miles" width="52" height="52"/>
Giving you extra incentive to exercise, the Charity Miles app rewards your workouts by donating 10¢ per mile when you bike, and 25¢ when you walk or run to the charity of your choice.
Donate A Photo" width="52" height="52"/>
Johnson & Johnson’s creative app harnesses the charitable potential of our shutter-happy society. For every photo you share through the app, Johnson & Johnson donate $1 to the charity you choose from its trusted list of causes.
Shout For Good" width="52" height="52"/>
This self-described “micro donation platform” from Australian creators allows you to “shout,” or virtually pledge, an everyday item to the non-profit or cause of your choice. For example, shouting a cup of coffee donates its actual dollar amount, making giving a simple part of your everyday routine.
Sidekick Cycle" width="52" height="52"/>
Partnering with the Global Gaming Initiative, a company that connects mobile games with charity causes, Sidekick Cycle is an obstacle course game where you ride a bike through an African landscape, earning coins for tricks and stunts. 50 percent of in-app purchases contribute to the nonprofit World Bicycle Relief, which provides much-needed bikes to people in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Charity Miles
Follow Plan International Canada on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PlanCanada