Friday, September 26, 2008
I'm not sure how I feel about the MDGs - I wonder whether publicizing big-picture goals takes too much focus off of understanding the field-level details that need to be in place for the big-picture to be realized. Can we talk both about halving the number of people without access to safe water worldwide as well as the changes to incentives and motivations for government health extension workers in rural districts of Malawi that are needed before we can acheive it? I worry that the news that all the goals are unlikely to be met will overshadow the small steps that are happening on the ground (like the fact that the Malawian fertilizer-subsidy program looks like it will be somewhat better run this year over last year) and the learning that we should be doing from what has worked and not worked up to this half-way point to 2015. I also worry this report will lead to a 'blame the victim' mentality on the part of rich countries directed towards poor countries (and poor people) that will overlook the fact that the failure to acheive the goals is as much a failing of rich countries' to commit financially and of the global development system that needs to change. The thinking I fear is along the lines of 'We gave it out best shot and it didn't work. Lesson learned: we cannot beat poverty and we probably shouldn't try.' Heaven forbid the current systems and committment to development represent our best shot.
But if you want a warm and fuzzy feeling on top of worries and questions, load up the thingy, click Malawi and 'show trail' and graph access to improved sanitation versus infant mortality rates. It's what I did this morning :)
Monday, September 01, 2008
(CU is Concern Universal, my partner. They’re one of the major water and sanitation NGOs in Malawi. I’m based in the Ntcheu field office for their water and sanitation project)
My placement continues the work started by EWB volunteers at Concern Universal before me. Brett, with the short hair, was the first EWB volunteer at CU. When she started work as one of the EWB Southern Africa director Luke Brown and his square glasses finished out the last months of Brett’s year at CU before passing the baton to me
In this case the baton was the new M&E system Brett and Luke developed with CU staff. They designed new records to help villages keep track of how many sanitary facilities (latrines, hand-washing facilities, etc) they’ve built and new monthly and quarterly forms to report that information to CU. My first responsibilities were to help CU staff finish training villagers in the new forms and records and figure out how we should be using the new database to analyze the data.
One of the huge benefits of taking over the placement was that CU staff already had a lot of trust in Brett and Luke that they transferred to me. This is Loti, the training and monitoring officer I work with closely. We had a pretty great relationship from the start, which means I feel like I can ask him all my questions, and he asks me a lot in return.
As I started working on the data analysis part of the new system, I started thinking a lot about how people were actually going to learn from the information from the new system and act on it to adjust the way this project or future projects is implemented. I realized that the graphs I was designing in Access were only one part of helping people transform information into knowledge – I think people’s ability to increase knowledge is also affected by their skills (e.g. critical thinking), the constraints they’re under in the organization (e.g. whether they have the resources to act on their new knowledge), or whether they have the time to discuss or reflect on knowledge
A lot of this thinking crystallized into an 'A-ha' moment after I had attended a few staff meetings. I noticed that during meetings staff would bring up lots of valid points about the challenges they were facing but meetings rarely finished with a clear plan for how to solve the issues.
My hypothesis based on this a-ha moment was that if meetings continued like this then the staff would have trouble discussing the data they get from the new M&E system in a productive way that allows them to create plans to adapt to what they learn from the new system and follow-through on those plans. In that case, the new system would have limited usefulness, no matter how much effort I put into producing clear graphs and data analysis. So I started having conversations with people at work about how to address this issue.
Based on these discussions I split my work into two areas -continuing to design graphs and reports using the database, as well as looking at teambuilding and facilitation skills. I had my first meeting with the manager in the Ntcheu field office where I'm based, and we agreed to have weekly coaching facilitation skills coaching sessions. We've also started planning a multi-day teambuilding workshop for the project staff that will focus on the most common issues they identify that make it difficult for them to be a high-performing team. I feel like the Ntcheu manager and I are both aiming for the same mountain peak although I'm not sure exactly what path we'll take to get there.
I’m still working on designing the data analysis tools for the system, which to me represents three things: a tool that the project staff can use to better understand what’s happening in the villages; time, because by using the database to quickly analyse monthly data I can save the monitoring officers time each month that they can instead hopefully spend on reflection or digging deeper into issues; and a cake, in that the graphs and reports I design will be the first thing I give to CU that I know they want, and so I feel it’ll help me establish my credibility
I’m also coaching two JFs, Emily and Janelle, who are assessing how well the new M&E system is working at field-level. They’re being managed by the monitoring officers, and I think I’ve seen an increase in Loti’s confidence and skills because of it. Loti and I have weekly coaching/check-in sessions so that he feels supported in taking on this new management role.
A big concern of mine is that time seems to go at triplespeed in Malawi, and that if I don't focus on the data analysis it'll drag on too long! I've realized that the 6 months I have left in my placement will go by incredibly quickly! I'm seriously thinking of extending my placement, but even so I need to get a move on!
So now, about 6 months into my placement, I have a wholelot of questions to answer. What's useful in what I'm doing to building the EWB team and direction in Southern Africa? Do I have the skills to execute on the two tasks I've started or do I need to bring in other people? How do I maintain relationships and presence at the two field offices in Dedza andNtcheu as well as at head office in Blantyre (without living in a minibus)?And where should I live? (I tried out living in a village family for a month but found the lack of English and the amount of traveling I was doing hard to balance, so now I'm looking for a new place to live. I have some good leads but haven't moved in anywhere yet, so at the moment I'm staying with Loti).
And most importantly - what balance can I strike between building CU's ability to execute their projects by building management capacity and helping them learn about and adapt the approach they currently take with their projects?
All of these questions feed into the decisions I have to make about where I want to focus my efforts for the rest of my placement (which I cannot believe will be over in 6 months!) When I'm finished with designing reports in the database I could work on the district wide sector-planning and citizen's action initiatives that CU is just starting in Dedza, or work on designing the M&E system for a new upcoming water and sanitation project at CU, or do a post-project impact assessment of a project they finished three years ago. I want to make sure that what I work on feeds in to improving management capacity at CU and helping the organization to better learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the approach they're taking.