Ahh, the Elusiveness of Field Level Change

OK, a Mwanza district work blog at long last! So here follows a rather long blog that is all about the stuff I’ve been working on here in Mwanza District in Malawi. Either before or after you read this though, I would also definitely encourage everyone to check out the following link to my Perspectives fundraising campaign for Engineers Without Borders Canada, which is the organization I’m over here working for. A large chunk of the money that is needed to fund the Malawi Water and Sanitation team, along with all our other operations, comes through charitable donations, so any support you feel you can provide to continue the work we’re doing would be really appreciated! Thank you so much!


So anyway, I’m here based in the Mwanza District Water Office for a period of about three months to work on two different initiatives here. More on those in a bit, but first a little bit of background on what the Water Office and its staff are like:

The Mwanza District Water Office where I'm working

Mwanza district is actually quite a small district, and so the water office does not have a huge number of employees. In fact they number a total of five, which are as follows:

  • Edgar is the District Water Officer (DWO), so he’s in charge and is the key decision maker for all water related matters in the district, so he’s the key person I’m working with on the goals of my project.
  • Willard is the Water Monitoring Assistant (WMA), has been in the district for 15+ years and has extensive field knowledge of the district and where all the water points are, so he’s been the person I’ve been going out to the field with whenever I need to do research.
  • Charles is Borehole Maintenance Overseer (BMO), which is actually a position that no longer exists, but because a job with the Malawian government is basically a job for life, he’s still working in this job until he retires. Essentially his role is to repair broken water points, which is a function that is now supposed to be filled by private sector Area Mechanics.
  • Joseph is the driver for the water office’s truck, along with the two motorcycles the office has (all provided by UNICEF).
  • Winter is the office janitor

Edgar the District Water Officer and myself

So when I got told that I was going to be placed in Mwanza District, I was given explicit assurances that this was a ‘High Functioning District’, which I now find to be a somewhat terrifying idea when I then think about what a low functioning district would look like. Basically a standard day in the high functioning Mwanza Water Office looks something like this:

  • I arrive sometime between 8 and 8:30 in the morning. Often I’m the first one there. I get the key from Charles who lives right next door, and with that his role in the office is basically finished for the day.
  • Edgar is usually in by 9, everyone else is usually in by 10. Edgar and I set to work in the office, the rest of the staff get out the office benches and radio, place them nicely under the shade of the Mango tree outside, and proceed to relax in the shade for the rest of the morning.
  • At noon, everyone locks up and goes for lunch. I go to one of the nearby restaurants, they tend to go home and have their wives cook them lunch, and they are almost always back in the office by no later than 3PM.
  • After a few more afternoon hours of Mango tree shade time, everyone locks up for the day right at 5PM, we hand the office key (key singular, there’s only one copy with no backup) back to Charles and head home, satisfied with our good day’s work.

The District Water Office staff in the office

So you may be forgiven after reading this that the people in the office are very lazy and not good for anything, which is actually not the impression that I want to give. Instead, there are serious institutional problems with how Malawi functions that discourage people from working to their full potential.

More specifically, when you get a job with the Malawi government, you basically have that job for life. Nobody ever gets fired or laid off from the Malawi government. Also, as far as I can tell there’s not really any such thing as a performance review. So what happens is people are locked into a situation where there is no incentive for hard work because there is no avenue for advancement, nor any consequences for poor performance. Thus you get this ongoing status quo situation where everyone just carries on with the motions of doing their job, content to be getting their steady pay cheque which is a valuable commodity in this country.

It’s interesting though that when properly motivated, these same people can end up becoming quite useful in their jobs. Everyone has been very helpful to me and is always ready to take on tasks if there is something they can help out with the work that I am doing. Willard the WMA in particular has spent long hot days out in the field with me to help me on my project, which has been quite useful. The difference here is that they care about helping me, not because they are motivated by the goals of their job description. Similarly, there are individuals in the system who are high performers (Edgar being one of them, which is why I got put in this district), but where this happens it is despite the system, not because of it.

The building manager, Willard the WMA and me

An interesting episode that happened last week is that apparently one of the water points in the home village of the local Member of Parliament broke down. At this point, the people in the village, rather than doing what they should have done, which is have their local Water Point Committee contact a local mechanic to come and fix the water point and then pay him for the repair, instead bypassed the system and contacted their Member of Parliament directly. Apparently then the MP then went and contacted the District Commissioner to demand that this water point be fixed immediately, the District Commissioner had to come in from vacation to deal with this, and then the staff of the water office had to put everything else on hold to immediately go out and repair this water point, which it turned out was a minor repair that the village could easily have dealt with on their own.

Aside from the issue of politicians wielding power they perhaps should not be wielding, the speed at which that water point got repaired was quite impressive. Probably less than 24 hours from the point the district found about it to the time of repair. Obviously an extreme situation, but it served to illustrate to me that there is nothing fundamentally preventing the water points in the district from being in working condition, provided the correct resources and motivation are in place.

Which is of course the crux of the problem, and solving it is not a trivial matter, otherwise it would have been done long ago. During my time here in the district I’m focused on making progress on two little pieces of this puzzle, which are as follows:

Water Point Mapping & Analysis

So it’s the responsibility of the District Water Office to ensure that the rural areas of the district have a sufficient number of functional water points that are effectively distributed so that as many people living in the district as possible have access to safe water. Fundamentally, that mandate is pretty hard to fulfill if the water office has no idea where all the water points are or what their state of functionality is. As such, a self-evident first step is to create a database and/or map of where all the water points in the district are and what their status is.

As always, easier said than done. The district on its own doesn’t have the resources to pull off something like this, and there have been many attempts by NGOs and so on to do this over the years, generally resulting in failure. In taking a look at these past attempts, a key commonality has been that high tech ‘Western’ approaches such GPS mapping have been used which are not all that well suited to the on the ground situation in Malawi. Regarding GPS for example, there are probably about 10 people in the country that have the tools, training and experience needed to analyze and manipulate GPS coordinate data, so to expect the district water staff with their one computer and two people capable of using it to keep such a database up to date over the long term is just not realistic.

Instead what our team is trying is a low tech approach that the district can move forward with and maintain on their own without outside support. Basically it looks like this:

Once the data's collected it gets compiled into this pivot table

Once the data's into the pivot table, it get's put on to this neat color coded map of the district (this is the Salima district map, not Mwanza)

So a pretty basic excel based spreadsheet with some snazzy pivot tables in there do to some basic calculations and visual color coding to denote good vs. bad water point coverage. It’s also got a color coded map to show you which parts of the district need more functional water points and which don’t.  So going forward, when the district has a decision to make on where new boreholes should be drilled or which water points are most in need of repair, this is a really good tool to refer to, in contrast to the standard procedure for picking locations which includes the following:

  • Which villages are closest to the district capital and main highways, and thus easiest to get to
  • Which villages complain the loudest
  • Which villages have the most powerful politicians

‘Course, in order for this thing to be useful, it has to be populated with accurate and current information. So that’s the other part of the challenge is collecting field data on a regular basis using current district staff to make it sustainable. So on that front we have a hardcopy water point functionality form looks something like this:

The form that we're giving to the District field staff. Mainly assembled by my predecessor Ali Molaro

The idea here is that every quarter we get the Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) from the District Health Office to fill in this form. HSAs are ground level health workers who are embedded in the villages and can thus figure out how many boreholes each village has and what their condition is without too much trouble.

So this is what I’ve been trying to in Mwanza. Basically set up a system where data collection forms get distributed to the field staff once per quarter, they get filled in promptly and accurately, the forms are handed in on schedule, the information is entered into the database correctly, then the results are analyzed and conclusions are drawn from this data set.

This sounds easy enough from a Canadian standpoint, but from a Malawian standpoint here are some of the challenges I’ve been facing:

  • None of the field staff has an e-mail account or access to a computer, nor would they know how to use a computer even if they did have one. So everything has to be done by hardcopy forms, and if those forms get lost, then the data is lost
  • There is a grand total of one computer in the District Water Office, with a total of one person with a computer experience level of anything more than simple data entry (Edgar).
  • We had a lovely occurrence where one of the Health Zone Supervisors swears up and down that he turned his forms in to the Health Office, and the Health Office swears up and down equally as much that they did not receive any such forms. The hardcopy forms are now lost.
  • This project is a collaborative effort between the District Water Office (who needs the information) and the District Health Office (who has the staff needed to collect the information). So two different government departments and bureaucracies that don’t naturally work together, being asked to work together for the greater good.
  • As always, getting the staff in the district to take ownership of this project and move it forward without my help is crucial. If this initiative falls apart as soon as I leave, then I’m not doing much good here.

So where we are now with this is we’re presently at work with Round 2 of the form distribution to the field staff. Round 1 was done back in August, but unfortunately we only got 16 out of ~135 forms back. So we’re trying again, but this time really pushing to ensure that a proper orientation gets done so the field staff understands the importance of filling in the form and making sure they know how to fill it in properly.

Understanding the Causes of Non-Functional Water Points

So then the other area I’m working on is investigating the causes as to why broken water points are not getting repaired. This is where the field research comes in, since we’ve been trying to get out to as many non-functional water points as possible to interview members of each village. Each water point is supposed to have a Water Point Committee (WPC), and it is their responsibility to maintain and repair the water point as problems occur with it. So we’re looking at situations where this is not occurring and trying to understand the underlying causes of why.

Which means field research! We go out by either truck or motorcycle to far flung parts of the district where we have information that there is a non-functional water point, find a member of the local water point committee, and then interview them about the causes of why the water point is broken, what they’re doing to fix it and so on.

Non-functional borehole out in one of the villages

All sorts of challenges with this as well. Some of the key ones being:

  • Translation. I speak English, they speak Chichewa, so I have to rely on Willard the WMA who comes with me to translate, which is a less than perfect set up. More than once he’s started rambling on in Chichewa for an extended period with the village member, then I get a five word reply back from him in English…
  • People in the villages telling the rich, white Mzungu what they think he wants to hear, rather than what is actually happening with the water point.
  • People intentionally giving the wrong answers for cultural or political reasons

Here’s an example of this last issue. Actual conversation between me and Willard (the Water Monitoring Assistant for the district):

Me: Willard, how far away would you say this broken pump is from the nearest working water point?

Willard: Oh, about one kilometre.

Me: Willard, that can’t be right. We just passed another water pump coming over here. It’s right over that hill, it can’t be more than 200 metres away.

Willard: Oh no, it is one kilometre away

Me: No, that’s definitely not right. We could walk over there in less than five minutes. I’m writing down 200 metres for this one.

Willard (after long silence): It is because the government says that water points must be distributed one kilometre apart, so I do not want it recorded that we have two water points so close together.

After that little episode I had to have a discussion with Willard about the importance of having reliable information when making decisions, and then had to go back and take a second look at my ‘distance to the nearest water point’ data and try to figure out if it was even still usable. Sigh.

Willard at a Malda pump (shallow well) checking to see if it's working

So after gathering as much information as we can from the district on this subject, the goal then is to identify the primary causes of water point non-repair and potential solutions for them. Some of the causes we’ve been investigating are:

Communities lack the ability to pay for repairs

This is sort of the cop out, ‘we’re too poor, we need you to give us money’ answer that is often the obvious first response that people give. This is definitely where knowledgeable questioning and follow-up interview questions come in handy, so as to determine if this is actually the case, or if they’re making use of the fact that a white westerner with (they assume) money to spend has come asking them what they need. There are indeed cases where it is true that communities are just flat out too poor or too small to afford to raise money for a repair, but it’s not nearly as common as one would think at first glance. Even for a community of say 250 people where people make $2 a day, they are still capable of coughing up $30 for a typical borehole repair, that’s only a one time cost of twelve cents per person for a basic necessity of life.

The broken boreholes are of little value to the community, who are thus unwilling to pay for repairs to them

This is the scenario where the non-functional boreholes have something wrong with them (other than the fact that they’re broken J). This could be things like they’ve dried up or are producing very little water, or the water is salty and thus undrinkable. It can also be things like they drilled the borehole right next to another borehole, so what’s the point of repairing it if it’s right next to a functional one? Or, it could be just a lemon of a borehole that keeps breaking down every time you repair it, which really kills enthusiasm for spending money on yet another repair.

So this definitely comes up as an issue, but it’s not the top reason, at least not in Mwanza. Also, a lot of times these types of problems are the result of mistakes that got made when the locations of the boreholes were originally being picked, and remedial action once they’re actually drilled is pretty difficult.

Trust me, there are more things wrong with this one than just the handle missing...

There is confusion regarding who is responsible for repairing water points (the community or the district), and consequently they don’t get repaired at all

This problem stems from the fact that there are all sorts of different actors in the rural Malawi water sector, such as communities, districts, politicians, NGOs, and so on, and they’re very often not on the same page as to who should be doing what in terms of repairing water points. Some problems:

  • Communities think someone else should be repairing the borehole when they should be
  • Districts refuse to help for simple repairs because it’s not their responsibility and they don’t have the resources anyway
  • Politicians get involved and force the districts to spend precious resources on low priority repairs in politically important areas (see the example I gave above)
  • NGOs come in with budgets to spend and go off and repair a bunch of boreholes for free, thus driving the local Area Mechanic out of business.

The community doesn’t have the capacity or institutions in place to effectively raise money and repair the water point

This is another significant problem in the district, relating to the fact that communities don’t always do a good job fulfilling their role of being responsible for water point maintenance, even if they know it is their responsibility. For each rural water point there is supposed to be a Water Point Committee (WPC) that is in charge of maintaining that water point. These committees are made of up volunteers, so their capability varies greatly from one village to another. Sometimes they’ve fallen apart altogether, sometimes they’re functional, but half the members of the WPC have little to no reading or math skills, which makes it really hard for them to be effective book keepers on how much money has been raised.

Anyway, those are some of the key things we’ve been finding from the field research so far. Of course, identifying causes are just the beginning, and identifying solutions comes next, which is what we’re working on right now.

Whew! So yeah, that’s my ‘What is Kevin working on in Malawi?’ blog. Hopefully this has made for interesting reading, and if any of this is unclear, feel free to write back and I’ll try to clarify. Thanks!

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4 Responses to Ahh, the Elusiveness of Field Level Change

  1. Lynn Sharpe says:

    That was a very interesting report Kevin. Looks like you have your hands full. Three months is not a long time to get things started. Hopefully someone follows you as your replacement, and they continue your work.

    • Kevin Hanson says:

      Thanks for the comment. The good thing about being part of a team over here is that there will still be about 15 people in the country after I’m gone, so if all goes according to plan the work I’m doing now will be continued after I’m gone.

  2. Tom Knott says:

    Kevin, from the pictures in this blog, I have finally realized that the term “borehole” which sounds like a 5 thousand foot oil well-type of hole in the ground, is actually just what is commonly known to all prairie folk, as a “Well, with a hand pump”. Talk about using big words to make mountains out of molehills (chortle, snicker). Hang in there, be glad you arn’t in a quasi government hellhole,, like my mind numbing railway career.!!
    Uncle Tom.

    • Kevin Hanson says:

      Thanks for the comment Uncle Tom. So there are two parts to the water point, the pumping tool at the surface and the hole underneath it. It is indeed a hand pump at the top, but the hole underneath it is actually more similar to an oil and gas borehole than a shallow well. Shallow wells don’t work all that well in Malawi, the water table at that level is too prone to drought, so they have to go deeper. The boreholes they drill are usually between 50 and 100 metres deep.

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