Good intentions can sometimes only go so far when it comes to delivering international aid to the poorest children in Africa. Joseph Asunka discovered that the hard way in his native country of Ghana when he worked for the humanitarian organization World Vision eight years ago.
During elementary school in Ghana, Joseph Asunka and his classmates did their writing in dirt on the school floor. Thanks to his parents and UCLA professor Daniel Posner, he's earning his Ph.D. in political science at UCLA.
Then a new graduate from the University of Ghana, Asunka worked with a team to provide educational and welfare support to the poorest schoolchildren in the most resource-starved northern region. Once identified, children could be sponsored by World Vision donors and given textbooks, school supplies, clothing and sometimes bikes to get to school.
"We designed programs and projects to implement on the ground to improve basic education," recalled Asunka, 42, now a Ph.D. candidate in political science in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. "But then going into the field and talking to local leaders and politicians in these communities, you realize they sometimes have different incentives … They would either want the programs implemented where they always get their votes or take it to a community where they had their own people."
Today, in his research on the politics of development and his work with organizations like the World Bank, Asunka is trying to understand the conditions under which politicians choose to implement good development policies.
"The basic question is: How can you shift the incentives of politicians so that they are willing to implement good policies and programs and still meet their own objectives?" Asunka said. "The bottom line is that politicians want to get reelected. If you have a well-designed program that will benefit the poor and still benefit politicians electorally, they might welcome that program."
Last February, Asunka delivered a paper to the Africa region of the World Bank group in Washington, D.C. on what drives local government officials in Ghana to practice good governance. His exceptional work won him UCLA's 2012-13 Charles E. and Sue K. Young Outstanding Graduate Student Award.
Asunka has also been active in researching other obstacles to democracy and justice. Over the last year, he’s been on a team of five UCLA political scientists, headed by professor Miriam Golden, that investigated electoral malpractices in a hotly contested presidential election in Ghana held last December. The team looked at how the presence of election observers affected the prevalence and frequency of fraud, primarily over-voting.
With the cooperation of the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, an independent civil society group that observes elections in Ghana, the UCLA team collected data from 2,000 randomly selected polling places and found that observed polling places experienced 60 percent less fraud than those without oversight. However, rather than totally eradicating fraud and electoral irregularities, the presence of observers tended to push these practices to neighboring polling places, they found. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the study suggests the need to increase the number of election observers nationwide.
Asunka’s commitment to alleviating poverty in his country comes from his childhood experiences of deprivation. Although his family grew crops, they had no means of long-term storage. So getting through the three driest months of the year when food was scarce was a constant struggle and required Asunka and his six siblings to forage for wild fruits. "You didn’t expect that your parents would always provide your meals. They would do their best, but that was not an expectation."
Mixing a little flour with water, his mother would flavor it with pepper and give it to her children "just to give you a feeling that you were eating food," he recalled.
Asunka, shown here preparing educational packets for poor students in Africa who lack basics like notebooks and pens, is working to make sure relief supplies reach their intended targets.
But growing up in one of the most deprived regions in Ghana, the Upper East region where educational opportunities lag behind the relatively better endowed regions of the south, provided an ironic opportunity.
"If you were poor, you went to school. If your family was well-off and had property, particularly cattle, you didn’t, because you had to watch the cattle," he said, smiling. "School was for people who couldn’t afford anything and didn’t have anything else to do. It was considered a waste of time."
But Asunka’s father, a security guard at a slaughterhouse who, like his wife, never had an education, wanted his children to go to school to improve their chances in life.
The community school provided Asunka with a distraction from hunger. Encouraged by his teachers, "I just stuck to my books most of the time," he said. "I invested everything I had into my education." For the first three years, he and his classmates piled dirt on the classroom floor so they could write with their fingers. In the fourth grade, small slate boards and chalk appeared.
"In middle school, you got notebooks and pencils if your parents could afford them," he said. Asunka inherited the unused pages of notebooks belonging to his older brother. While his good grades got him admitted into the best high school in the region, his father couldn’t afford to transport him there. So he had to settle for a closer but less prestigious public boarding school, which still required a 16-mile walk to reach. At the start of each semester, he sometimes walked three hours while his dad carried his son’s school supplies on his bike.
Years later, while attending a summer school at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Asunka met and studied under a visiting professor, UCLA political scientist Daniel Posner, who urged him to consider UCLA for graduate school and guided him in writing an award-winning paper.
"He was just awesome. I liked him from the first time we met," said Asunka, who, with lifelong aspirations to become a professor, admired Posner’s teaching strategies.
Today, Asunka’s parents’ commitment to education has had a big payoff. Not only is Asunka aiming to file for his Ph.D. next year, but three of his brothers have also earned Ph.D.s at American universities. One brother earned a M.S. in chemistry at UCLA before going to Columbia. Asunka’s wife, Patience, a physician from Ghana, is also at UCLA, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in public health. They have two children, son Joel, 1, and daughter Roselle, 4.
One recent day when Roselle had to stay home sick from school, she looked glum, Asunka recalled. When he asked her why, she told him she was sad to miss school. "I understand that," he said, proudly.