Archive for January, 2012

Failing Forward

Within EWB, there is a culture of admitting failure, accepting it, and learning from it.  By doing so, we are able to move past small failures and consistently improve and innovate on the ways that we are working, thereby (hopefully) avoiding larger failures later on.  We refer to this process of learning from mistakes as “failing forward.”  My first attempted pilot project, which took place right before I went on vacation to Mozambique for Christmas, was the perfect example of failing forward.

As I explained in a post a few months ago, one of the focuses of my placement here in Mangochi is to run a series of pilot projects to test and develop a community triggering approach.  The term “community triggering” comes for a widely practiced sanitation process called Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS).   I have discussed CLTS in various older posts, but if you have not read those and/or just forgot, it is a participatory community development technique intended to use shame and disgust in order to trigger communities into changing their behaviors surrounding sanitation.  The intention of my pilot projects is to take this successful community development technique and adapt it to be used for water — specifically to shame and disgust people into not ever drinking from unsafe water sources again.

One of the largest issues with water development in Malawi (as it was in Tanzania) is not actually installation of new infrastructure (boreholes and protected shallow wells), but instead the maintenance and upkeep of the infrastructure that already exists.   Many communities let their boreholes fall into disrepair, are unwilling to raise funds to buy spare parts, etc.  We believe that one major reason as to why communities are unwilling to pay for upkeep on these systems is because they do not actually value clean water, and thus do not see the significance of paying for a system when there are other alternative free (although unclean) sources nearby.  Therefore, the goal of my pilots projects is testing the assumption that if/when communities fully understand the significance of clean water, they will therefore be more willing to collect money for operation and maintenance of their system and boreholes will be repaired more quickly.  Because of this, the process has been named the Water Investment Triggering (WIT) Process.   Although I am specifically focusing on testing this one assumption, our team has many ideas as to what is leading to communties’ lack of willingness to pay — and it is likely to be some combination of them all.  Other major ideas include: lack of role definition (people think that the government or an NGO will just fix it for them for free and don’t understand they are expected to do it themselves), mistrust within the community (whoever collects/collected the money in the village is not considered trustworthy or has blatantly mismanaged funds in the past), and the poor quality of boreholes to begin with leads to abandonment (contractors were not adequately monitored as they drilled/installed the pumps resulting in poor quality, various reoccurring problems, and/or poor water yield).

The WIT process, like CLTS, is pretty much an exercise in acting.  The facilitators act as if they are simply doing research — asking lots of critical questions to make the community members think instead of simply “teaching best practices,” which is generally ineffective at producing improved community management.  There are four main steps to the WIT process (as it is currently being tested by me and my colleagues):

  1. Community Mapping:   We start off in the community by having them draw up a fairly detailed map of the village in the dirt, and subsequently place their homes, waterpoints, and other health/water related landmarks onto the map.  This allows the facilitators (my colleagues from the District Water Office) to get an overview of the village layout, where the protected water sources are located (boreholes, water taps, and/or covered shallow wells), where the unsafe water sources are (rivers, uncovered holes in the ground, lakes, etc.), and who uses water from each source.  This also serves as a good introductory activity to get people involved, in addition to making them excited/intrigued about discussing water issues in their village.
  2. Transect Walk and Unprotected Source Demonstrations:  Next, we take the entire community on a walk across the village, heading to each water point (unprotected and protected).  This should allow us to see each waterpoint (WP) and discuss it while at the actual site, making it easier to point out lack of cleanliness surrounding a WP, wearing parts on a pump, etc.   At the unprotected source(s), we do demonstrations that are supposed disgust and disgrace the community.  For example, asking a random person to take a drink from a cup of water (which they will), then sticking a piece of hair into feces or dirt, placing it in the same cup of water, and asking them to drink it now (which they won’t).  The trick to this demonstration is that the water still LOOKS clean, but people are aware that it no longer is — therefore making them rethink their qualification of what water is/isn’t safe to drink.
  3. Cost Calculations/Comparisons:  Either during the transect walk or after arriving back to the original meeting spot, we discuss with the community the cost of upkeep of their borehole and how money should be collected from community members for operation and maintenance (approx 10-60 cents per household per month).  Often this results in statements like, “But we don’t have any money — we can’t pay for water.”  What that usually means is not actually “we CAN’T pay for water,” but instead, “we don’t WANT to pay for water.”  To challenge this, we compare the average cost of a hospital visit due to water-borne diseases to the cost of borehole maintenance costs.  We also compare the suggested maintenance cost to what the average household spends per month on sugar, salt, hair products, or other everyday products.  This helps to show that they do have money to spend, but they simply deprioritize water as something to spend it on.
  4. Action Plan:  After the community is (hopefully) “triggered” to care more about clean water and be more willing to pay for waterpoint operation and maintenance, then an action plan is created for how they will collect funds in the future (monthly payments v. quarterly payments v.  community garden), how the savings will be stored (in cash v. in a bank account v. in form of spare parts), and other such issues.  The community will also pick dates for follow-ups to be conducted by the district staff in order to check-in on progress.

Despite a lot of effort taken in brainstorming/developing this process, as well as two weeks of discussions/planning in the office prior to going to the field… our first pilot attempt was an absolute failure.  Long story short, pretty much everything went wrong:  the village was selected for the wrong reasons and was not appropriate for this type of triggering, my colleagues were generally unprepared and unsure of how to act, there were kids consistently getting in the way, we lost almost half of the initial audience as the process went on (they became disinterested and left), we never even did the shameful/disgusting demonstrations because we couldn’t find an unprotected source, etc.  BUT there was a silver lining to the whole ordeal.  Being unable to actually help facilitate because of the language barrier, I was mainly an outsider observer who could take notes on all that went wrong during the process.  After we finished the triggering, however, I quickly realized that I was not the only one to see such flaws.  During the walk back to our motorcycles to head home, my colleagues enthusiastically discussed almost EVERY issue that I had written on my sheet of notes, and threw out ideas on how to improve next time.  The initial action of getting out into the field and trying the process not only helped us to see the 100+ things that we hadn’t properly prepared/planned for, but it also reenergized the District Water Office staff and made them much more excited to continue to test/develop WIT.

Our next shot at a triggering will (hopefully) happen at the end of next week and will (hopefully) go over better than the first!  More updates to come later on.  In the meantime, cheers to a New Year (yes, I know, I’m very late) and to me emerging from media darkness to pick up blogging again!  I’ll likely only be here in Malawi for a few more months though, so let me know if there is anything you want me write about before leaving!

Peace, love, and second attempts,



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