The Roller Coaster of Development Successes and Failures

So I’m getting closer and closer to the end of my time here in Malawi. Wow it’s gone by fast. As such I’ve been increasingly focussing on ways of wrapping up the projects I’ve been working on and ensuring that everything is in place for these initiatives to move forward on their own without me once I’m gone.

At least that’s the goal. I had some interesting experiences this week that sort of illustrate the ups and downs of how tricky that is. Over the last few days we had two really inspiring successes for the projects I’ve been working on, and two equally demoralizing setbacks. So it’s been a pretty interesting week as far as work progress goes:

Inspiring Success #1:

So as you may recall from one of my earlier blogs, I spent the first few weeks of my placement up in Nkhata Bay district working on some Area Mechanic advertising support initiatives there. At this point it was about time to do a three month follow-up assessment of those initiatives and see how well they were proceeding on their own without my active support. I would have done this follow-up myself, except that Nkhata Bay is way up at the other end of the country from Mwanza where I am now, and I just didn’t have enough time remaining here in the country to justify taking a week or more to go up there and come back.

So instead, one of my coaches Duncan McNicholl went and did the follow-up. First initiative to check on was the Area Mechanic business cards that I had put together. What he found was that the District Water Office had taken the business card template that I had given them, adapted it for each and every one of the 41 Area Mechanics in the district, and at their own expense printed off a starter set of 10 cards for each Area Mechanics and distributed them out! A great of example of the District Water Office taking an initiative, making it their own, and without any further encouragement from us needed, scaled it up to their entire district using their own funds and their own resources in a totally sustainable way. Really exciting! Duncan also talked with some of the specific Area Mechanics we had given business cards to as a pilot project, and they reported good success with it, the cards were being widely distributed, and their business was increasing, and they were getting new calls from villages they had never been to before as a result of the business cards! So a win-win scenario for both the mechanics who are getting new business, and the villages who are having their water points repaired as compared to before when they weren’t.

To be sure, not a complete success since the printing shops we had given the template hadn’t seen any business yet of Area Mechanics coming in and asking for more copies of the business cards (why would they if the District is giving them cards for free?), but definitely a major step in the right direction.

Demoralizing Failure #1

So the other initiative from Nkhata Bay that Duncan checked up on was the Area Mechanic advertising sign that had been painted for Herbert (he’s the person I stayed with while I was up there). As you may recall for this one, the sign had already been partially painted by the time that I got there, and for a number of reasons I won’t get into here the full cost of painting that sign thus far ended up getting covered by EWB (Hebert didn’t have to pay anything for it).

Going forward, we had resolved that for sustainability and ownership reasons that we would not subsidize the cost of completing this sign any further. This was Herbert’s sign, and if he was ever going to take ownership of it, now was the time and he was going to have to take the lead on finishing this sign. So before I left I sat down with Herbert and gave him exactly that message, that this was his sign, it was his responsibility to finish it and that we would not be finishing it for him. I said this to him in person, and again several times in follow-up phone calls.

Three months later when Duncan checked up on it this week, the sign still isn’t finished. Herbert hasn’t lifted a finger to get it finished during this time period. Upon more detailed questioning by Duncan, there was no specific problem preventing him from finishing it (he had access to all the resources needed, and sufficient cash available to pay for the sign completion), so when Duncan asked him why he hadn’t finished the sign yet his response was “Am I Supposed To Pay?”

When Duncan told me this over the phone, I pretty much flipped out (swear words were involved), and it was possibly a good thing that I hadn’t done the follow-up in person on this once, since I don’t know if I would have been able to keep my temper after that little gem of a response. Basically it seems like he’s gotten the idea into his head that if he waits around long enough, a nice Mzungu (white person) will come around and finish the sign for him and he won’t have to do anything himself, because that’s exactly what happened the first time when the sign was originally painted. If there’s a better example of why simply giving things to people when doing development work is a bad idea, I haven’t heard it.

So at this point Duncan has reiterated firmly (again) to Herbert that this is his sign and his responsibility to pay for finishing it. As far as EWB goes, hell will freeze over before we give him another cent to get that sign finished, because all that would do is reinforce the notion that other people are always going to come in and solve his problems for him. Whether or not Herbert gets that message and finishes the sign on his own is anyone’s guess at this point, but we’ve pretty much given up and declared failure on this one. REALLY frustrating…

Inspiring Success #2

Now back to Mwanza District. One of the projects I’m working on here is the water point functionality mapping project, and this was a big week for it. As you may recall from my last blog, Round 1 of getting the survey forms back from the field staff happened in August and we only got 16 back out of ~140. So pretty disappointing. This second time around we tried this again, and this time I worked closely with the District Water Officer and District Health Officer to make sure we did a really good job on the form orientation to the health office field staff. We identified already scheduled field staff meetings that would work well for these orientations and then arranged for one of the key district people (the Water Officer, the Health Officer, the Water, Environment & Sanitation Coordinator) to personally attend these meetings and do the survey form orientations. We had a really good prep meeting where we went over the problems encountered with the forms in Round 1 and identified ways of resolving them in Round 2.

As a result, the orientations went really well, all the forms got distributed, the field staff asked thoughtful questions that indicated they actually intended to fill them out, and we collected them this week. 105 forms out of 140! A major improvement over Round 1 and we may still get a few more trickling in! The District Water Officer (Edgar) and the District Health Officer both showed excellent leadership and collaboration during this initiative, and it was their willingness to communicate directly to the field staff that this was an important initiative that needed to be carried out played a major role in successfully getting these forms filled out and collected.

Demoralizing Failure #2

So it’s pretty evident that the next step in this water point functionality process is to enter all of the hardcopy form data into the spreadsheet so that we can take a look at the data, analyze it and start drawing conclusions from it. This last week would have been the perfect week for this task too, since Edgar the District Water Office was out of the office all week at a conference giving a paper, so the computer was available all week for me to train up Willard, the Water Monitoring Assistant on how to do the data entry for this initiative.

This didn’t happen. Willard flat out refused to do it. I talked to him about it repeatedly, and he kept coming up with excuse after excuse for why he wouldn’t do this. There was no power in the office (we had already moved the computer over to another building that did have power) The computer was too far away (it was 50 metres away in a country where everyone walks everywhere). It was too hot out (the office was the coolest place anywhere in the vicinity), and so on. Eventually on Friday afternoon the truth came out, which was that Edgar had not informed him in advance that he would be away for the week and had not provided him with any tasks to do, and as such as some sort of payback, he was not willing to do any work that week, preferring simply to sit around underneath the mango tree the whole time.

The underlying cause of this tension is that Willard the Water Monitoring Assistant is the older employee with lots of field and practical experience but very little formal training, and Edgar the District Water Officer is the young, ambitious, up and coming guy with a fancy university degree under his belt, but not a lot of time spent on the ground or in the field. So the two men don’t like each other very much, and this week it came to a head, and this initiative we’ve been pushing has been the casualty of petty, childish office politics. Definitely not one of the things I came to Africa to experience.

The only positive is that this initiative we’re pushing is at present a bargaining chip in this disagreement, not the cause of it, so the hope is that this is just a temporary setback and nothing more. Definitely though another tear my hair out moment of frustration.


So yeah, a pretty mixed week, and it sometimes seems like for every step forward we take in one place, we end up taking a step backwards somewhere else, but I’m still confident that over the long run, these success add up and we overall are making forward progress, it’s just REALLY slow going sometimes.

Anyway, three and a half weeks left in my placement! My flight out is on December 28th, so I’ll see if I can get in at least two more blogs during that period. Thanks for reading!

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6 Responses to The Roller Coaster of Development Successes and Failures

  1. Thelma Hanson says:

    I haven’t commented lately but I love reading your blogs! Well written and informative. So often we think that $$$$$ will help a situation. Not so, your patience and positive reinforcement will last long after you have returned home.

  2. Nancy Hamilton says:

    Hi Kevin, really enjoyed this piece in your blog– not to be racist but it sounds like getting the
    locals to work and focus is much like the native problems we have in Winnipeg.

    I am sure you have made a difference in your time with EWB despite the frustrating situations
    that are part of their everyday life.

  3. Nice reflections Kevin. Your excitement and frustration come across in equal measure in this post and I think it accurately reflects the rollercoaster ride we all share as we try to facilitate sustainable change that will have a positive impact on people’s lives in Africa.

    Hang in there and keep up the good work.


  4. Vivian Hanson says:

    Hi Kevin, just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying reading your blog. It seems that change comes slowly there but you are making progress. Thanks for the updates.

  5. Larry says:

    Wow Kevin, this post sounds very uncharacteristic of you…”I pretty much flipped out (swear words were involved), and it was possibly a good thing that I hadn’t done the follow-up in person on this once, since I don’t know if I would have been able to keep my temper after that little gem of a response”. I hope Africa hasn’t claimed your innocence.

  6. Todd McBride says:

    Don’t know if that last reply sent so I will try again.

    I got your blog address from Larry Hanson at Cimarron Engineering in Calgary as we discussed EWB and developing countries.

    I would be interested to know if the supply of cooking fuel is an issue in Malawi, and if wood poaching is destroying the environment as it does in many parts of Africa. If wood harvest is at issue, are the government or NGOs promoting propane or LPG? If so what is the going price? Are there other alternatives to poached wood?

    My interest in this topic stems from pondering markets for Canada’s huge wood pellet production potential, and other innovative opportunities to utilize the 500mln m3 of pine bettle kill biomass in BC. I calculate that bulk pellets could be landed in Africa for less than the costs of LPG or other hydrocarbon fuels, and without the pollution, safety, and political problems. It seems there should be an opportunity here somewhere.

    If you have time could you please email a brief reply.

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