Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Waiting for the Rains

One of the nice things about being at school in the fall term was seeing the first snowfall through the classroom window. Of course the novelty and wonder usually wore off quickly (I remember one November a Prof. barely took the time to say ‘How nice’ before continuing to berate the class for doing so badly on the midterm), but waiting to see the first flakes fall was always exciting.

I’ve been feeling similarly these past few weeks as I wait for the rains to arrive in Malawi. I arrived in Malawi in March this year at the end of the rainy season. On my first bicycle-taxi trip into Dedza town I got caught in a sudden downpour and turned up to my first day at the office sopping wet. Since then there’s been no rain and Malawi’s undergone such a gradual transformation that I can’t remember what it looked like during the wet season. The trees and buses are still green, but the fields and roads have turned dry and dusty.

I’m not the only one impatient for the rains to come. Mrs. Boniface, my landlady, is up at 4 each morning to hoe her fields for a few hours before the sun gets really hot. She’s racing to prepare her fields for when the rains get here and can’t wait for them to arrive. The rains represent food for the coming year. Most of the fields in Malawi aren’t irrigated and so farmers rely on the rains - poor rainfall and a poor harvest means hunger in the coming year. Even with good rains and a bumper crop of maize last year the radio is reporting pockets of hunger in areas of Dedza district. While we were out walking this weekend Mrs. Boniface pointed out women coming down a path from Dedza mountain with impossibly large piles of wood balanced on their heads, telling me that selling firewood is what many women resort to raise money to buy maize when they’ve run out of their harvest.
Mrs. Boniface hoeing one of her fields (the ridges in the foreground are left over from last year, the ones in the background are newly hoed)

Mrs. Boniface's sister Aurelia hoeing, with Dedza mountain in the background

So good rains are a vital element of farmer self-sufficiency, but they can also be destructive. In part of my project’s working area the soils are very sandy and the rains cause latrines to collapse. When people go ‘free range’ instead of using a latrine the rains wash the ‘damages’ into streams and unprotected water sources, and cholera, diarrhea and other water borne diseases hit the villagers who rely on those sources for drinking water. Diarrhea kills 18% of the children under five who die each year in Malawi. Malaria (which accounts for another 14% of under-five child deaths) also hits hardest in the wet season as mosquitoes breed. It’s harder (and sometimes impossible) for extension workers to reach many villages as the dirt roads turn to mud.

So I’m waiting for the rains with trepidation as well as excitement. When lightening flashes across the hills at night I can’t wait to find out what the wet season in Malawi will bring.

And as a bonus....here's a picture of my little house (actually quite a big house for just me) in Kankudza village, Dedza, that I took this morning!

Friday, October 24, 2008


Here's another article written for the Iron Warrior. I don't have pictures yet of the Boniface family but I'll put some up soon!

During my five years in engineering at Waterloo I’d often find myself completely within the Waterloo bubble. At times my world consisted only of the lab, the systems hallway, the EWB office and Kismet. Things outside the bubble seemed far away and it was always a bit of a shock when events from the outside world (like the time I forgot my mom’s birthday) broke through the bubble. I was reminded of that feeling this past weekend when I visited my good friend from work, Loti. Loti has a TV and after a few weeks of living without electricity in my little village house I was looking forward to indulging. I switched on the international news station and was actually shocked to realize they were still talking about – were fixated, really – on the financial crisis.

Of course I had already heard all about the crisis, but at that moment I realized talk about it must be so much more omnipresent in Canada then it is in my daily life here. The Malawian newspapers cover it but their headlines are mostly captured by the roll-out of the national subsidized fertilizer program and the political jockeying taking place in the run up to next year’s presidential election. The effects of the crisis seem distant to me personally since my salary is already zero. And lately the bubble of my life hasn’t seemed to include bank bailouts and stock markets.

At the end of every day I walk home from the field office half an hour down a dirt road to the village of Kankudza. Usually I sit on the front step of the small tin-roof house I rent from the Boniface family reading my Chichewa lesson book until the light fades, then head across the road to the Boniface’s house. Mrs. Boniface, her sister, her two daughters and I squeeze into her kitchen hut, cook and eat dinner around her fire, share stories from the day and laugh at my Chichewa. They are my family here and little by little I’m connecting to their lives. Last weekend Mrs. Boniface took me on a tour of the dry-season garden she’s growing as part of an irrigation scheme supported by a local NGO and another day she told me about the 15 HIV positive neighbours she cooks for as a home-care volunteer. One night her daughters kept me up late teaching me the dances for a local wedding, but I’m usually in bed by 8 along with the rest of the village. Economic upheavals seems far away.

But that distance is an illusion – world crises and trends affect my family in this quiet village. The rise in the price of oil is one reason why the price of the fertilizer that Mrs. Boniface needs for her maize fields shot from 4000 kwacha per bag last year to 11,000 kwacha this year, putting it nearly out of her reach. All four of the countries to experience a financial crisis in the past 20 years dropped their foreign aid by at least 10 percent, and if that happens worldwide the funding for NGO projects like the microirrigation scheme that helped Mrs. Boniface create her garden may disappear. I can joke about my $0 salaray but Mrs. Boniface is so much more vulnerable; her ability to continue sending her girls to school, growing enough maize to feed her family and having the time to care for sick neighbours will weaken if she can’t afford fertilizer for her fields or loses the support of local organizations. Global troubles are coming a lot closer to this Malawian village than I realized.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

This fall I'm contributing articles to the engineering student newspaper at the University of Waterloo, and thought I'd post them here as well. Here are the first two...

Power and Action

If there’s one thing I miss about Canada, it’s the apple turnovers from the C&D. Ok, I guess I miss my friends and family a bit too, but they can’t really compare to that sweet apple-y deliciousness. Even the fresh fried banana fritters they sell on the streets here in Malawi don’t quite measure up.

Now imagine you’re standing outside the C&D, out of cash but with a powerful yearning for a turnover, and you ask your friend to lend you the money. He says sure, but only if you walk all the way down to the corner store his parents own at University and King and buy it there. You might protest that that’s not fair – it’ll take ages to walk all that way and his parents store only sells the hugely inferior cherry turnovers! But your friend won’t listen – either his money goes to a turnover from his parents store or you don’t get to eat.

The turnover analogy might be a bit flippant but it’s not that far off of what can happen with tied aid in development. One of my good friends at work, Loti, was listing the drawbacks of the pickup trucks that our water and sanitation project uses: they can only carry three people, they breakdown a lot and they can’t make it to many remote villages during the rainy season. He said that project management should have bought more robust trucks, so I asked the obvious question – why didn’t they? Turns out it’s because the main donor to the project stipulated that all the vehicles had to be bought from the donor country, and these sub-par trucks were the only choice. The same sort of tied aid conditions meant the project had major trouble finding a borehole drilling rig they were allowed to buy, putting them over a year behind schedule.

It’s Malawian villagers who pay the price when they have to wait an extra year for a borehole they need so that they can stop using an open pit as their well for drinking water. So the news that last week Canada untied all its aid made me prouder to be Canadian, especially a Canadian overseas. It also reminds me of the immense opportunities we have to take action in Canada. Advocate of untying aid had access to information about how our government spends its aid budget, could engage with MPs who would listen to them, and broadcast their voice through public events and media coverage. It’s something that any one of us can do on any issue if we want to, and my work is helping me see how rare and valuable that opportunity is.

I’ve just started working on a pilot called ‘Citizen’s Action,’ or Liwu la mzika in Chichewa, that’s trying to help villagers understand what water services they’re entitled to and demand those services from the governments departments and NGOs who are supposed to provide them. I was shocked to find out from a co-worker that the policies about water services (for example the one that says every person in Malawi should have a safe water supply less than 250 metres from their home) aren’t even widely available to district government employees, let alone to most villagers. So how can villagers hold their government accountable for providing water services if they don’t even know what services they’re supposed to receive? Who can they go to when an NGO promises to drill them a borehole but then doesn’t return to their village for over a year? Hopefully this pilot will help villagers find answers to those questions. It’s a small step towards helping Malawians access the kind of opportunity – to get information, to make their voices heard, to hold accountable the government and NGOs that are supposed to be working for them – that we enjoy in Canada, and the power to change their lives that comes with it.


I’m sitting in a training centre in central Malawi. A warm breeze is blowing through an open window into a roomful of government health workers. Their eyes are glued to a guest facilitator from Concern Universal (my partner NGO) who is walking them through a new monitoring system that I’ve helped to design. I’m trying to appear attentive, but the truth is it’s hard to pay attention to training that’s being done in Chichewa (Malawi’s national language) when I so far have learned how to order a beer and say thank you. This training session is two days long, and when they’ve finished, the health workers will train 514 villages to fill out the new forms that go with this new system.

I graduated from Systems Design last year and the fact that I’m in this humid room, in a foreign country, listening to a facilitator I can’t understand seems perfectly normal.

Being a System Design engineer, I like feedback. It lets me know what’s going on in a system and whether or not the inputs I’m feeding in are giving me the outputs I’m looking for. Without feedback, us System Designers would be out of work, and those circuits labs would be a big waste of time, not just a big pain in the ass. But how do you get feedback from a system that’s unimaginably complex?

I work with a water project that deals with 514 villages – that’s over 200,000 villagers, who mostly farm maize and tobacco. They work hard, and CU tries to help them access clean drinking water and improve their sanitation. CU inputs new boreholes, subsidizes cement and trainings into this system of villages and hope that people will start washing their hands or covering their latrines with concrete slabs so they’re less likely to collapse. There’s little doubt that those are valuable outputs – it’s estimated only 64% Malawians have access to a basic latrine, and going ‘free-range’ means that the rainy season washes all those ‘damages’ as locals call them into water supplies. People use soap for cleaning dishes and their clothes, but rarely use it to wash their hands. (Disease data) But how does CU know if those outputs are happening? How do they get the feedback?

In the previous system that CU used, this was a problem. Monitoring forms were returned late or not at all by villages, the data was often wrong and staff didn’t know how to analyze or use the information they received. Two other EWB volunteers and myself worked with CU’s staff to create a system that helps villages track information so they can fill-in monitoring forms more easily and accurately, and most importantly has helped staff concentrate on the most important information they need and taught them skills to help them analyse and use it well.

This system is the first step in the partnership between EWB and CU. I learned the hard way in circuits that it’s not enough to get the feedback – if the little light at the end of your circuit doesn’t light up, you need to learn from it and change your circuit. It can be hard, when there are so many things that could be going wrong, and you only have 2 days to write your lab report, and you’re worried about your grades, to put the time into learning. It’s not that different for many Malawian NGOs, CU included - between meeting stringent reporting requirements, worrying about getting enough funding to keep afloat every year, and staff that is so busy with day-to-day activities they don’t always have time to learn from the information they get from the field. It’s vital that they do – we don’t yet know how to get people to wash their hands, or use latrines 100% of the time, and so CU needs to keep learnings. My vision for my placement is to help CU develop the processes and systems and staff skills it needs to be learning organization

Friday, September 26, 2008

The UN released a report yesterday on the world's progress towards the Millennium Development Goals that included the news that not one sub-saharan African country is on track to meet all of the goals. If like me you find the goals hard to visualize, check out Gapminder's MDG visualization thingy. (Thingy is the technical term). It's pretty awesome:


I'm not sure how I feel about the MDGs - I wonder whether publicizing big-picture goals takes too much focus off of understanding the field-level details that need to be in place for the big-picture to be realized. Can we talk both about halving the number of people without access to safe water worldwide as well as the changes to incentives and motivations for government health extension workers in rural districts of Malawi that are needed before we can acheive it? I worry that the news that all the goals are unlikely to be met will overshadow the small steps that are happening on the ground (like the fact that the Malawian fertilizer-subsidy program looks like it will be somewhat better run this year over last year) and the learning that we should be doing from what has worked and not worked up to this half-way point to 2015. I also worry this report will lead to a 'blame the victim' mentality on the part of rich countries directed towards poor countries (and poor people) that will overlook the fact that the failure to acheive the goals is as much a failing of rich countries' to commit financially and of the global development system that needs to change. The thinking I fear is along the lines of 'We gave it out best shot and it didn't work. Lesson learned: we cannot beat poverty and we probably shouldn't try.' Heaven forbid the current systems and committment to development represent our best shot.

But if you want a warm and fuzzy feeling on top of worries and questions, load up the thingy, click Malawi and 'show trail' and graph access to improved sanitation versus infant mortality rates. It's what I did this morning :)

Monday, September 01, 2008

I prepared a flipchart showing my placement so far for the ’08 Malawi JF retreat, and I thought it might be useful to help shiny OVs envision what their first few months in a placement might look like. If this is helpful for you then great! If not, feel free to laugh at the drawings…
(CU is Concern Universal, my partner. They’re one of the major water and sanitation NGOs in Malawi. I’m based in the Ntcheu field office for their water and sanitation project)

My placement continues the work started by EWB volunteers at Concern Universal before me. Brett, with the short hair, was the first EWB volunteer at CU. When she started work as one of the EWB Southern Africa director Luke Brown and his square glasses finished out the last months of Brett’s year at CU before passing the baton to me

In this case the baton was the new M&E system Brett and Luke developed with CU staff. They designed new records to help villages keep track of how many sanitary facilities (latrines, hand-washing facilities, etc) they’ve built and new monthly and quarterly forms to report that information to CU. My first responsibilities were to help CU staff finish training villagers in the new forms and records and figure out how we should be using the new database to analyze the data.

One of the huge benefits of taking over the placement was that CU staff already had a lot of trust in Brett and Luke that they transferred to me. This is Loti, the training and monitoring officer I work with closely. We had a pretty great relationship from the start, which means I feel like I can ask him all my questions, and he asks me a lot in return.

As I started working on the data analysis part of the new system, I started thinking a lot about how people were actually going to learn from the information from the new system and act on it to adjust the way this project or future projects is implemented. I realized that the graphs I was designing in Access were only one part of helping people transform information into knowledge – I think people’s ability to increase knowledge is also affected by their skills (e.g. critical thinking), the constraints they’re under in the organization (e.g. whether they have the resources to act on their new knowledge), or whether they have the time to discuss or reflect on knowledge

A lot of this thinking crystallized into an 'A-ha' moment after I had attended a few staff meetings. I noticed that during meetings staff would bring up lots of valid points about the challenges they were facing but meetings rarely finished with a clear plan for how to solve the issues.

My hypothesis based on this a-ha moment was that if meetings continued like this then the staff would have trouble discussing the data they get from the new M&E system in a productive way that allows them to create plans to adapt to what they learn from the new system and follow-through on those plans. In that case, the new system would have limited usefulness, no matter how much effort I put into producing clear graphs and data analysis. So I started having conversations with people at work about how to address this issue.

Based on these discussions I split my work into two areas -continuing to design graphs and reports using the database, as well as looking at teambuilding and facilitation skills. I had my first meeting with the manager in the Ntcheu field office where I'm based, and we agreed to have weekly coaching facilitation skills coaching sessions. We've also started planning a multi-day teambuilding workshop for the project staff that will focus on the most common issues they identify that make it difficult for them to be a high-performing team. I feel like the Ntcheu manager and I are both aiming for the same mountain peak although I'm not sure exactly what path we'll take to get there.

I’m still working on designing the data analysis tools for the system, which to me represents three things: a tool that the project staff can use to better understand what’s happening in the villages; time, because by using the database to quickly analyse monthly data I can save the monitoring officers time each month that they can instead hopefully spend on reflection or digging deeper into issues; and a cake, in that the graphs and reports I design will be the first thing I give to CU that I know they want, and so I feel it’ll help me establish my credibility

I’m also coaching two JFs, Emily and Janelle, who are assessing how well the new M&E system is working at field-level. They’re being managed by the monitoring officers, and I think I’ve seen an increase in Loti’s confidence and skills because of it. Loti and I have weekly coaching/check-in sessions so that he feels supported in taking on this new management role.

A big concern of mine is that time seems to go at triplespeed in Malawi, and that if I don't focus on the data analysis it'll drag on too long! I've realized that the 6 months I have left in my placement will go by incredibly quickly! I'm seriously thinking of extending my placement, but even so I need to get a move on!

So now, about 6 months into my placement, I have a wholelot of questions to answer. What's useful in what I'm doing to building the EWB team and direction in Southern Africa? Do I have the skills to execute on the two tasks I've started or do I need to bring in other people? How do I maintain relationships and presence at the two field offices in Dedza andNtcheu as well as at head office in Blantyre (without living in a minibus)?And where should I live? (I tried out living in a village family for a month but found the lack of English and the amount of traveling I was doing hard to balance, so now I'm looking for a new place to live. I have some good leads but haven't moved in anywhere yet, so at the moment I'm staying with Loti).

And most importantly - what balance can I strike between building CU's ability to execute their projects by building management capacity and helping them learn about and adapt the approach they currently take with their projects?

All of these questions feed into the decisions I have to make about where I want to focus my efforts for the rest of my placement (which I cannot believe will be over in 6 months!) When I'm finished with designing reports in the database I could work on the district wide sector-planning and citizen's action initiatives that CU is just starting in Dedza, or work on designing the M&E system for a new upcoming water and sanitation project at CU, or do a post-project impact assessment of a project they finished three years ago. I want to make sure that what I work on feeds in to improving management capacity at CU and helping the organization to better learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the approach they're taking.