What's New at Engineers Without Borders

Jun 21 2012 @ 19:40

Letter from George Roter – The human face of systemic change in Malawi

My goal was to visit EWB's water and sanitation venture (WatSan for short), and to see the progress that they're making first hand. Over the coming week I would spend a few days at each level of the “the system” – village, district and national levels – spending time with government, NGOs and citizens. EWB's talented team members are embedded at each of these levels as part of a coordinated approach to achieving truly systemic change.

I've shared a story below that's representative of what I saw, but I'll ruin the ending by starting with the two biggest conclusions from my time in Malawi.

First, EWB's water and sanitation venture is having a transformative effect on the country. We have a great reputation and a lot of influence at every single level of the system. We have incredible cumulative “wisdom” about how systemic change will happen in Malawi and are able to put it into practice.

Second, I'm tremendously optimistic about the pace of change in the country, and I'm ecstatic to see that it's being driven by Malawian champions in the field, at local and national governments, and within NGOs. Together, they will ultimately realize a Malawi where there is clean water and improved sanitation for all Malawians.

I'd like to share a few experiences from my trip that lead me to these conclusions.

24 hours after arriving, I was in a village in Chisitu, repairing broken water pumps, eating corn porridge (locally called Nsima) by the light of a solar LED lantern, and taking bucket showers. All of my trips are like this, and all of our volunteers and African Program Staff (APS) live this way. They learn Chichewa, the national language, and trade running water and electricity for something much more valuable – context and insight into the "pointy tip of the spear" where change really happens. They gain an appreciation for how rural Malawians experience water and sanitation services, and what's important to them – these are the people who we are ultimately serving.

I soon found myself on the back of Medson Bwezani's motorcycle. He's a Water Monitoring Assistant (a government field worker) for the Mulanje District government water office. It was quite a ride as we weaved along narrow dirt paths, through yellowed corn stalks on our way to meet Emmanuel, an "area mechanic" in the Chisitu area of Mulanje district, who we found waiting for us in the shade of a large tree.

Fixing broken wells is more difficult than it might seem.

Emmanuel is amazing. He's a jack of all trades! A welder, painter, farmer, and an area mechanic for boreholes. "Why are you an area mechanic?" I asked through Medson's translation. "It's the right thing to do for the communities in the area" he responded, with a big smile beaming back at me.

And then off he took us to service a borehole that had been broken for about 6-weeks (Here's where it's located). This meant that for the past 6-weeks, women and girls in the village served by this water pump had to walk twice as far to gather water from another village. Talking with people in the village, they did not identify this as a huge disruption – people adapt after all. But it's dozens of small "inconveniences" like this, seemingly small indignities that collectively accumulate and undermine quality of life.

But the borehole sat broken because the village hadn't raised the $16 required to purchase the parts needed (a brass plunger and rubber u-seal) to fix it. Instead, they'd held out hope that a local politician, district government official or non-governmental organization (NGO) might purchase the parts for them. It's a common problem – why pay your own money when you can get it for free? This mindset makes it difficult to build sustainable systems.

Success in Mulanje, and EWB's role.

Despite this borehole not being fixed, a lot was going right. There are 25 area mechanics, like Emmanuel in Mulanje, who get incredible support from Water Monitoring Assistants like Medson. They understand the problems that the mechanics face (like communities not being willing to pay for repairs), and are working to find innovative solutions. A lot of this can be traced back to EWB's work over the past year.

Last June, Sydney Byrns (a volunteer on our WatSan team) was working in Mulanje, alongside Mr. Chrispine Songola, an amazing district water officer. District water officers are the technocratic government heads of water and sanitation in Districts like Mulanje. Sydney was helping him make better decisions and manage and coordinate an enormous set of projects funded by outside donors, including a large NGO funded project to setup an area mechanic network.

EWB had been working with area mechanic networks in Malawi for a few years, and we'd even partnered with the same NGO on a similar project in nearby Zomba district. The project in Zomba was set-up in a way that meant limited involvement from the district government, which is a problem – the district government is supposed to be providing services after the NGO has gone. District government water monitoring assistants – the people on the front lines – had no formal accountability over the area mechanic network and weren't involved in troubleshooting any problems. Moreover, the level of support being provided to the area mechanic network by the NGO was far in excess of what the district government would be able to provide on their own. It was doomed to fail.

In fact, Sydney had another data point that confirmed our concerns – another NGO had set-up a similar network in Mulanje about 9 years ago with limited involvement from district government, and only 5 of about 30 mechanics were still active.

Armed with this knowledge and EWB's extensive experience with districts, Sydney worked to influence the new project. I heard the whole story during lunch with Mr. Songloa, the district water officer.

He described how he and Sydney prepared together for the initial meetings with the NGO. And he was animated as he told me about his ultimatum: that the district government would not accept this project unless it was in the driver's seat. Think about that – he was ready to say "no" to the money in order to ensure it was done right. That's incredibly rare, and it was amazing to hear from Mr. Songola, a true champion for change! The result?

Where the NGO started: We'll manage the network for 7 years until the project ends, and pay fuel money and allowances (kind of like daily stipends) to your water monitoring assistants to train the area mechanics.

Where the negotiation ended: The district is responsible for managing the area mechanic network, including ongoing training and support, reporting, and strategic planning. The NGO is making an investment in increased district capacity, which creates space for innovation and testing of new ways to support the area mechanics. The NGO support also provides the space to integrate this project with other activities, such as initiatives to affect communities' willingness and ability to pay for repairs.

The project is successfully underway. 25 area mechanics were trained by the district government staff in December 2011, and some great innovations are already emerging – for example, having area mechanics and local spare parts suppliers support each other's business activities.

The impact of this is ongoing and will take time to ultimately gauge; but this is already a huge success for the half-million people in the district who are one step closer to reliable, sustainable access to clean water. It's a tremendous testament to the leadership of Mr. Songola and his partnership with Sydney.

Linking success in Mulanje to systemic change.

Sydney is in charge of EWB's contribution to changing how operations and maintenance is done in the entire Malawi WatSan sector – true systemic level change. So, she is using her experience and success in Mulanje to influence similar interactions with NGOs in another few districts.

She's also translating these experiences and lessons to the national level.

Because of successes like Mulanje and other districts, EWB has been invited to join a national working group of leading NGOs and top-level government officials. Being part of this group will allow us to partner with government champions in order to bring field level learning and best practices to national-level discussions. We will be able to advocate for the mindset and policy shifts that will result in a stronger and clearer role for district governments in operations and maintenance of rural water infrastructure.

And this isn't just wishful thinking. Toward the end of my week in Malawi, I put on a tie and attended successive meetings with senior government and NGO officials, hearing them say "we need to work with you", "come into my office anytime so that we can strategize", "we want your experience from the field."

Conclusion: An inspiring trip. Remarkable progress.

You can see why I'm leaving Malawi so inspired about EWB's investment in our water and sanitation venture! They're not working at the level of installing one or two or even a hundred water pumps or latrines, nor are they going to go around district-by-district to set-up 28 new area mechanic networks or to support 28 district water officers.

Instead they're integrated at every level of the system, measuring their success in progress toward sustainable change – in the way that decisions are made and strategies are formulated country-wide. They're creating incredible change by finding human leverage points.

On this trip I saw a glimpse of how all of this is all fitting together, and having a cumulative impact that's literally changing the way things are done. There's lots still to do, and it may still not work (they are, after all, trying to transform an entire sector in a country of 15 million people!), but I can't help but come away with great optimism.

With optimism and support for incredible Malawian champions of change,

George Roter,
Co-founder & CEO,
Engineers Without Borders Canada


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