Welcome to Malawi!

This blog is about my life in Malawi and how it relates to the lives of the other 13 million people in this country. Each and every day it gets a little more interesting. Thoughts, stories, moments, ups, and downs. As I learn more and more what it means to have your life in Malawi, I will share it with you, and I hope to hear your reactions.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The responsibility of the intervener - understand how you change what you fund!

Hi everyone,

It's been about 2 years since I updated this! EWB's current "perspectives challenge", a fundraising and outreach campaign, prompted me to put some updated thinking on here.

I've learned a lot in the past couple of years, trying to move past thinking about the "what" and more about the "how". It's true that the whole system is important if you want water and sanitation solutions to be sustainable, but what can actually be done about it?

My updated perspective is that we need to understand the contexts in which water and sanitation challenges persist as complex systems take responsibility for an integrated way of thinking - take responsibility for understanding the problems from the perpsectives of those who are have to worry about the issues after the end of a project or program or outside the scope of one particular intervention. The local government staff, private operators, central government authorities, and most of all communities are the ones who actually have to live with all the infrastructure, planning documents, new organizational structures that result from the aid sector's inputs, and like it or not, we are making more work for them every time we intervene!

When you are the African Development Bank or the World Bank, who for example are bringing $48,000,000 and $170,000,000 into the Malawian water and sanitiation sector respectively in the next few years, you have to recognize that these numbers represent the majority of the resources in that sector. The money, ideas and people an intervener brings into a system change that system for better or worse the same way a private company would respond if two of their 50 clients accounted for 70% of their revenues. The difference with state in a developing country is that they are also expected to be accountable to the central government, who controls thier careers, all the other donors, who are still bringing in a lot of resources, the people via democratic structures, and literally hundreds of NGOs implementing one-off projects around the country. A private company can ditch the revenue sources not worth its time and focus on the two big contracts, but a local government has to do it all.

The effect is a highly fragmented system that confuses and ask too much of local authorities who are ultimatley responsible for change. Consider post-Taliban Afghanistan. After the Taliban was removed from direct administrative control and a transitional authority was established, the Minister of Finance found himself spending 60% of his time coordinating his government's efforts with the dozens of donor agencies and NGOs who had rushed in to provide assistance and fill gaps in services, making it impossible for his to focus on creating an effective financing strategy with medium or long-term goals. From the user's perspective, a fragmented system is costly in a way an intevening donor or NGO can barely attempt to understand**.

So what's the answer? It's not easy, that's for sure, but there's still a lot we can do. Consider the government of Uganda, who sucessfully created an overal basket fund into which all donors must put their funds so that the country can move forward with their own strategy instead of trying despartely to manage dozens of strategies at once. That solution comes with its own problems, and the success of that strategy depended on the strenght of the state to enforce the strucutre, but it's a step in the right direction. In countries where the state remains weak, the onus is on the donors to undertake integrated thinking to determine how thier resources are affecting the effectiveness of the state, the local people, and local organizations who are ultimately responsible. Want to do a water project? Coordinate and plan with local government before you start. Want to fund a nation-wide sanitation program? Consider budget support for local government instead of implementing through dozens of NGOs with different strategies (you can always earmark it)!

Thanks for reading!

**Thanks to Clare Lockhart and Ashraf Ghani for their great book, Fixing Failed States, from which I pulled these figures.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Critters 2: The Return

Even from beyond the grave, they can still get to you. Check out what got to me last night.

Playing a little game at Megan's place in Blantyre.

Looks like the competition is stiffer than I thought.

Post game analysis. Another job well done!

And here's what got to me in Thyolo last week. Even with a missing leg, a spider this big is scary as hell. This is a local resident of the guesthouse in Thyolo where I was staying. Slowly creeping movements, vicious fangs, and with menacing red streaks on its 7 remaining legs…

Up close and personal.

Don't ask me why I brought my "Save-on-More" card to Malawi, but it came it handy to show the size of this thing.

Watch as I set my camera for a close up video of the spider. I must admit, he gets the better of me...

At least there are no crocodiles where I live.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Justice, Ignorance, and Action – Knowing which fight is whose

Hey all,

Justice is contextual, right? So what we can define as just and unjust must depend on a number of factors – what’s just for one person may be unjust for another. Right or wrong? I’m really asking because I’m not sure. Maybe the contextually-weighted injustice factor is…

InjusticeP = (What ought to beP What isP) X (Right to Take Action) / (Ignorance)

The subscript P’s stand for “perceived”. I have been told before that I over analyze things. I then spent two weeks developing my theory that the people who tell me that are subconsciously taking an easy opportunity to vent repressed childhood angst through passive-aggressive yet constructive feedback. Either that or I actually over analyze things. ;)

I have been thinking a lot about ignorance and action, and under what circumstances action in the face of acknowledged ignorance can be considered responsible. I’ve been reflecting on this even since I got involved with development and have had plenty of opportunity to explore it since living here. Any ideas you might have are more than welcome.

In EWB we talk about the concept of “Dorothy”. Dorothy is a concept we use in EWB to give a face and a name to the people around the world who live in poverty. When I worked with my EWB chapter at UBC, I found it to be a useful metaphor for activities in EWB because it works as a vehicle for discussion – “how will this affect Dorothy?”, “how would Dorothy look at this situation?”, and so on.

The EWB overseas team is writing weekly emails to each other these days to talk about our “Dorothies”. I struggled a bit to come up with what to say because of this metaphor throws me through a bit of a loop these days. Below is an email I recently sent to the EWB people about Dorothy:

“For a few years, Dorothy has been for me an archetype that I found quite useful and even motivating. Dorothy was a face and a name of a person whom I could imagine - she lacked opportunity, she may have lost one or more children, she spent much of her day carrying unsafe water, the list goes on and on. Dorothy provided for me a language with which to make sense of my emotional reaction to what I perceived as one of the world's biggest injustices - continued extreme poverty despite the efforts of a system that claims to be trying to end it. When I thought about a kid, any kid, who doesn't see his or her 5th birthday because of god damn diarrhea, that gave me all the fuel I needed to stay up until 2 AM on a Friday doing important work for my chapter.

Things feel a little different for me now. I always that knew my understanding of how this injustice played out in real life was over romanticized, under developed, and largely based on my own egoic drive to "make a better world", but I didn't know precisely how. I think a person's sense of justice and how it makes them him or her feel is a function of 3 things - the facts of the situation, the control you feel you have over it, and the right or responsibility you feel you have to intervene. Living here and seeing for myself what development looks like, I see that Malawi is as Malawi is, and I'm not always sure I have the right or the responsibility to make it any different. And that makes it hard for me to feel the same pang of injustice from which I have drawn so much strength over the years.

This has left a bit of a hole in my emotional vernacular - I'm no longer sure how to make sense of what I see even if, a year ago, I thought I could. Quite simply, I don't always know how to feel about anything, Dorothy and Malawi included, and for someone like me that is awfully scary. It's been a personal project of mine for some time to figure out how to fill that hole.

Who is Dorothy? I don't really know. I guess Dorothy is just a name to which we add a bunch of baggage about a certain person's living situation, a certain ‘reality’. With that idea in mind, I can say that maybe I never really cared about Dorothy, rather I cared about the injustice I perceived to be causing the difficulties of said reality. And while the actual concept of Dorothy is getting harder and harder for me to reconcile emotionally and intellectually, at least I can still confidently say that there was injustice in the young boy's funeral I went to in February, and in the birth of the many children Chileka who immediately become HIV positive because their positive mothers couldn't get to a proper clinic to deliver them safely, and even in the choice that someone makes to spend their 70 MWK on Chibuku instead of food for their family. These situations are crazy and unjust one way or another, I'm sure of it - that's why it's hurting me to even write this right now and why my time in Malawi hasn't been without its share of tears. But still, my responsibility, my right to take any responsibility, how and whether to do something that I hope beyond hope is not just making it worse, how to intervene - none of these things are clear to me.

That makes taking action difficult - all you can do is rely on your gut to tell you if you are doing the right thing. And right now my gut is whispering to me about my friend Odala. Odala Banda is my friend from Chileka. He is a strong and intelligent man with a good head and a good heart. He is the voluntary Chairman of the South Lunzu Post Test Club, an AIDS awareness CSO. He does this because he has resolved to spend the rest of his life doing as much as possible to end AIDS in Malawi. He does that because he's lost 3 siblings to AIDS (not to mention 5 nieces and nephews to other diseases). He is working hard and slowly making progress, but he knows it's not enough. Still, he smiles and thanks God for what he has every day. Thinking about Odala, I am reminded of the article Graham Lettner sent out written by JK Rowling, in which she says:

‘Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.’ - JK Rowling

And I realize that I can't actually imagine Odala's situation. Try as I might I can not put myself in his shoes, nor the shoes of any of the people for whom Malawi is their whole world, not just a 2 year project or a distant exercise to keep azungus emotionally fulfilled and intellectually stimulated. If I can't really imagine his situation or anyone else's, then I can't imagine what choices I would make in the same situation. That means that the aforementioned hole in my emotional processes, my inability to know for sure how to feel, this is my own problem and mine alone - and it doesn't matter a damn bit what I would do in his situation.

I said before that the pang of injustice I have been milking for the last few years is harder to find these days. But that doesn't mean it's gone, because if it was I don't think I would be extending. Perhaps Odala is my Dorothy after all, and even if I'm not sure whether I'm still ‘Doin' it for Dorothy’, I feel just fine ‘Doin' it for Odala.’”

This is where my head is at right now. When I sent that, I got a reply from a colleague of mine reminding me of what was written by Eric Dudley for an EWB conference a while back. I’ve quoted Dudley in this blog before – remember back in November when I asked the question “who is this guy and what’s his angle?” The concept of “Recognized Authorities” used in that post was Dudley’s, from his book “The Critical Villager”. Here’s an excerpt from his stuff for the conference:

“Socrates taught us to recognise our own ignorance. It is about time that we got used to it. The only thing of which we can be certain is that we can be certain of nothing. History is a continuous record of the ways in which that lesson has been forgotten. We know that many of the problems that we face today are of our own making, problems resulting, more often than not, from our own and our forbears’ genuine good intentions.

It is an understatement to say that the process of development is complex. Development encompasses all human activity and the environment as well. In our own lives, both individually and in society, we make decisions which have unintended consequences. This is because we do not fully understand our own situation, and never will. It is hardly surprising that when we start to intervene in the lives of others we make mistakes.

This is our dilemma. Progress is not achieved by those who wring their hands with worried uncertainty and yet we have every reason to believe that we should be uncertain. The greatest leaders, whether in politics, the military, business, or science, are those who manage the paradox of confident action tempered by profound doubt. While acting boldly, they keep a part of their mind alert to the possibility that they have got it wrong and that a change of direction is required. Highlighting our ignorance is not a counsel of despair or impotent inaction. The recognition of ignorance is another way of saying that we should recognize our assumptions and question them. After all, it was Socrates who laid the foundations for the whole edifice of western thought. The relentless questioning of our assumptions is the characteristic that has been the engine of our progress.

At a practical level we cannot doubt and question all of our assumptions about everything – that way leads to madness. But, in any project, we should try to make explicit the key assumptions that define the context, the problem and our proposed solution.”

Dudley basically argues that we need to change our minds of action in the face of undeniable ignorance if we are going to avoid our worst fears:

The Approach:

Change our minds.

Traditional processes of planning are predicated on the assumption that we know what we are doing; we identify a problem, we state an objective and then identify the resources and a series of actions which, when executed, will result in the achievement of that objective. This is the mechanistic process underlying industrial production. In the context of development projects such certainty is a dangerous fiction. If we are to have any hope of success we require an approach of constructive humility. Such an approach will need to include three characteristics:


o Recognize our own ignorance.

Socrates taught us to… [above]


o Design projects as testable hypotheses:

…the implicit assumption that development projects can be treated as industrial delivery mechanisms is profoundly flawed. Development projects should be regarded more like scientific experiments. A project, like an experiment, embodies an hypothesis…


o Learn from unexpected consequences, in particular failure.

… In a sanitation project in Pakistan a workshop was established to make pour-flush latrine bowls which could be sold at a subsidized rate to householders. The project evaluations reported on how many thousands of bowls had been produced and sold. The indicators spoke of success.

The report did not say how many latrine bowls had been bought but not installed nor how many were installed but were reserved for the use only of guests. Neither did the report tell how the pour-flush latrines in use had drastically increased the work of women who carried the water from distant sources.

It is clear that many development projects fail. The reasons for their failure usually relate to a failure of understanding either of the context of the project or the processes by which the project has been implemented. In either case, the mistake is potentially a vital piece of knowledge which can point to future lines of enquiry and changes of policy. As long as funding depends on perceived success, the understanding of failure . the very information which can provide the greatest insights will be suppressed…

Dudley goes on to define “the problem” as “understanding change”, and “the solution” as “change-like aid”. This is good stuff but I won’t quote it here because it’s not quite on point. Though these quotes are not from “The Critical Villager”, I highly recommend reading this if you are all interested in development. The original publication from which these quotes come is also highly recommended.

Eric Dudley is a funny guy. Check out his take on how development implementation can bastardize linguistic jargon:

It’s just that easy!

I guess he’s making fun of how “community participation” is a box that is checked off in development projects as if it will accomplish, like magic, complete community ownership over the initiative simply by inviting the community members to the planning meeting or something.

He finishes with a bang. I get the sense that Dudley may have felt, some years ago (or maybe sometimes now), the way I was feeling when I wrote my Dorothy email:

“The known unknown - The Good Life

From one perspective development aid is simple. We want to do good -we from the wealthy world want to help the poor of other countries. An easy sentiment to understand, a hard one to implement.

…Development [used to be] about finance from the World Bank, technical assistance programs, and replicating the institutions of the developed world. Today, despite a rocky history, some people see this model as vindicated. For them, globalisation is demonstrably successful. Fundamental indicators such as infant mortality rates show that globally the situation is steadily improving; infant mortality has dropped world wide by over 60% since 1960. The phenomenal economic growth in India and China and elsewhere demonstrates how developing countries can indeed develop. The interconnectedness of the global economy has made the possibility of large-scale international wars appear more remote.

It is clear that the success of India and China owes very little to the western compassion industry, whether through the institutions of the UN or countless international NGOs. A case can be made that a couple of generations of Indian and Chinese nationals winning scholarships to attend western universities has contributed significantly to this growth and indeed to other notable achievements such as developing indigenous nuclear bombs. Another case could be made for large-scale vaccination programmes that have made a real impact in eliminating diseases such as small-pox. But as for the rest - whether improved hand pumps or loans of questionable worth, even where they have been considered successful, their impact on the lives of millions is dwarfed by the relentless gallop of industrial growth and the accompanying benefits of health and education that come with wealth.

So, why bother? If the system is working what is the problem? Some argue that globalisation has resulted in winners and losers, where Africa is the big loser. For them the real problem for development is how to bring Africa up to speed; how to replicate in Africa the kind of successes seen in Asia. Other critics see winners and losers within the emergent economies, with small minorities getting very rich while others remain marginalized…

…But others, including myself, are more than a little uneasy….Of course, the poor are as deserving of the benefits of wealth as the rest of us, but it is clear that a world in which everyone enjoys the current life-style of middle-class North America can not be sustained. Yet that consumerist life-style has been the implicit target of development for the last half century.

It remains the embodiment of the good life for billions of people. If that goal is not attainable, then what is the objective of development in the Third World? We have never been less clear about what development means. The framework outlined in this pamphlet is less than useless until we know what the Good Life really is. If we do not know our goal, how can we pretend to offer signposts on the route?”

So, basically, while I’m saying:

“I don’t know if working in development is working towards justice or against some injustice, and I have a feeling it might not be. But I still see problems that need solving. It’s all very confusing. I guess I’ll keep going.”

Dudley seems to be saying “Yep, I hear you, welcome to my career sonny. You may be even be right, but don’t let it cripple you – just keep acting while asking these questions, and always keep learning. And by the way, get over it you whiner!”


Maybe he has a point.

Questions for thought and reflection – I’d love to hear from you:

  1. Do you agree with Soccrates? Is Dudley’s approach to recognizing our ignorance, working through hypotheses, and expecting the unexpected good enough to avoid, well, whatever you might feel the need to avoid? What about “the known unknown” – what does it mean for the cause if we can’t define our objectives?

  1. Hypothetically, if you have an opportunity to act, but fear that acting could make matters worse, but can’t bring yourself not to act, what do you do?

  1. How do you define what’s just or unjust? Is it different in different contexts or is there an “absolute” definition? Like how, in boxing hitting someone square and hard is a clean and respectable play, but in soccer it would get you a red card. If you knew about some aliens on Mars that were oppressing their people according to your understanding of societal value systems, but you acknowledge that you don’t understand anything about the Martian system, is that injustice to you?

  1. How do you reconcile your own ignorance when doing things you value? Is it that there are things you know you know and be comfortable acting based on those, despite all the things you know you don’t know? Or do you just not think about it all that much?

Credits (I don’t make enough to get sued, and I doubt J.K. Rowling reads my blog, but still…):

Dudley Quotes from “A Guide to Positive Change” – Eric Dudley, Author of “The Critical Villager” (one of my favourite books)

Drawing of Harry Potter by Eric Dudley

Harry Potter © J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros.

J.K. Rowling quote Copyright of J.K. Rowling, June 2008 - From her Commencement Address at Harvard, Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, June 5, 2008

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