Archive for October, 2011

Finding the Trail Again

Often when you go hiking, you find yourself looking above you at the beautiful trees, out at some view in the distance, or way up at the mountain ahead of you. Certain trails are like second nature — they are simple enough, or you have done them enough times, that it is seemingly impossible to get lost. But every once and a while, often on the most exciting/new/challenging of hikes, you find that all those distractions have led you to lose the trail.

In a similar fashion, I have had a lot of distractions over the past few weeks that have pulled my mind out of the work loop and made me lose direction. Some of those distractions have been lovely (such as having a very special person from home recently join my life in Malawi), while others have been challenging and confusing (like trying to figure out what exactly I want to do when my contract finishes next May). Being distracted — by both the immediate beauty and fun of life here and by the somewhat frightening grey area that is my future — in addition to running into some challenging situations/roadblocks in my work, has led to frustration and a lack of full concentration on my part.  Unfortunately, in a work environment that is very much self-driven, this is a huge challenge.

My work here is focused around two major programs — the first directly supporting the District Government to improve their work, and the second indirectly supporting them through community level pilot projects and providing information from field research (neither of which they have the time/funding to do themselves) . The first chunk of my time is centered around building capacity within the staff of the District Water Development Office (DWDO), and helping them to improve the processes that they follow with respect to water projects throughout the district. For the most part, this is focused on improving the way that the DWDO collects and manages data in order to use that to make informed decisions on future projects. For example, if the DWDO is given funding from UNICEF next year to drill 30 new boreholes in the district, it will be challenging to place those new boreholes in the communities that really need them most. If, however, the DWDO has access to correct and up-to-date village level data related to the status of water and sanitation in the district, they may be able to do a better job at siting those new boreholes. This data collection/management initiative is one that various EWB staff members are working on within multiple different districts in Malawi, and usually takes the form of a comprehensive yet simple database used for organizing and regularly updating village waterpoint information. In addition to data management, I will also try to support the improvement of other DWDO processes–such as how they monitor and evaluate their programs–in order to make the most of the small amount of funding that they receive.

The second chunk of my time is spent working a bit more independently, developing pilot projects to (hopefully) increase villages’ willingness to pay for their community water sources and/or for water purification methods. The district faces a lot of challenges resulting from communities not wanting to collect/save money for waterpoint repair, and the functionality rate of boreholes being quite poor as a result. The DWDO, however, barely has enough funding to do the borehole installations/repairs and basic Water Point Committee training sessions that are required of them, let alone focus on seemingly secondary issues such as long-term community financing. Lack of community level financing for operation and maintenance, however, creates an ongoing negative cycle: poor functionality –> higher need for government support –> overstretching of government staff/resources –> ineffective community trainings and district monitoring of communities –> further decreasing functionality rates. EWB’s plan is to take the community pressure/shaming concepts used in Community Led Total Sanitation (http://www.communityledtotalsanitation.org/page/clts-approach) and apply those to water issues in order to shame people into understanding the significance of clean water, and therefore the importance of investing in it. This approach, called the Water Investment Triggering (WIT) Approach, is based loosely off of a project developed by a past EWB staff member a couple of years ago. That project focused on shaming communities into better water handling practices (covering the buckets where they store water, not putting their fingers in the water, washing hands before water collection, etc.) and was fairly successful in Mzimba, one of Malawi’s northern districts. I am now taking ideas from those pilots, combined with field learnings from recent research I did in Mangochi and research done by other EWB staff/Junior Fellows, to create an updated plan for a village triggering process. Over the next few months, I intend to organize, oversee, and follow-up on these triggerings in order to gauge the effectiveness of this method at inciting people to pay for clean water sources/water treatment.

During the past few weeks, however, I have been somewhat distracted and my thoughts/efforts on both of these initiatives seemed to have slowed, faltered, and gotten a bit off track. After doing some field research on community financing and willingness to pay, I was still stumped by various aspects of the WIT approach planning and was unsure who would be the most effective person to run these pilots (government, private sector, NGOs, etc.) — the trail seemed to be lost under a thick layer of leaves and I was unsure in which direction to head next. With respect to district office support, I had been consistently trying to hunt down people from various district offices to discuss various ideas/topics, but had been unsuccessful at doing so for almost a month. In addition, the fact that only one person in the DWDO knows how to even turn on/work a computer (let alone manage a semi-complex data management system), was continuously nagging me and demotivating me to work on the data collection/management initiative — it seemed as if the path I was on led directly into a rock wall and there was no way to get around it.

However, when I took the time to clear my head, concentrate on where I was standing right at that moment, and think of ways around the apparent roadblocks — I managed to find the trail again.

A series of fantastic meetings last week enabled me to refocus on my work and get back on the path to achieving what I hope to in my work with the district. When I finally hunted down and met with the District Environmental Health Officer, I was given a copy of a relatively new district database, which not only includes village level information on water points but is also intended to be updated bi-annually by the DEHO’s staff (I can’t believe I didn’t know about this sooner!). Then, the (never-ending) petrol crisis allowed me to actually sit down with all of Mangochi’s Water Monitoring Assistants (who are usually too busy in the field to be at the office) at one time and discuss the ways that I can best support them with their data issues. In addition, the WMAs then gave me great advice/guidance on my plans for the WIT Approach and their opinions on who would be best at actually implementing/facilitating those triggerings in the communities. Meetings with various other district staff members — the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Community Development Assistant, and District Commissioner among others — also revealed new and exciting opportunities for partnership in my upcoming work.

Each meeting gave hints as to where I should go — eventually not only leading me back to the trail, but also giving me the restored confidence and concentration to keep pushing forward. I guess I have to try to keep my head out of the clouds and on the path so I don’t get lost again in the future.

If you have any questions about the specifics of any section of my work, feel free to comment and/or email me directly and I’ll try to fill in those detail for you! I also promise to write more details about the WIT Approach during/after the pilot process has begun and I have more details to share (it is still very much in the brainstorming/planning phase at the moment). Hope all is well at home — am missing you all dearly!

Peace, love, and trailblazing,


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