Thursday, October 02, 2008

This fall I'm contributing articles to the engineering student newspaper at the University of Waterloo, and thought I'd post them here as well. Here are the first two...

Power and Action

If there’s one thing I miss about Canada, it’s the apple turnovers from the C&D. Ok, I guess I miss my friends and family a bit too, but they can’t really compare to that sweet apple-y deliciousness. Even the fresh fried banana fritters they sell on the streets here in Malawi don’t quite measure up.

Now imagine you’re standing outside the C&D, out of cash but with a powerful yearning for a turnover, and you ask your friend to lend you the money. He says sure, but only if you walk all the way down to the corner store his parents own at University and King and buy it there. You might protest that that’s not fair – it’ll take ages to walk all that way and his parents store only sells the hugely inferior cherry turnovers! But your friend won’t listen – either his money goes to a turnover from his parents store or you don’t get to eat.

The turnover analogy might be a bit flippant but it’s not that far off of what can happen with tied aid in development. One of my good friends at work, Loti, was listing the drawbacks of the pickup trucks that our water and sanitation project uses: they can only carry three people, they breakdown a lot and they can’t make it to many remote villages during the rainy season. He said that project management should have bought more robust trucks, so I asked the obvious question – why didn’t they? Turns out it’s because the main donor to the project stipulated that all the vehicles had to be bought from the donor country, and these sub-par trucks were the only choice. The same sort of tied aid conditions meant the project had major trouble finding a borehole drilling rig they were allowed to buy, putting them over a year behind schedule.

It’s Malawian villagers who pay the price when they have to wait an extra year for a borehole they need so that they can stop using an open pit as their well for drinking water. So the news that last week Canada untied all its aid made me prouder to be Canadian, especially a Canadian overseas. It also reminds me of the immense opportunities we have to take action in Canada. Advocate of untying aid had access to information about how our government spends its aid budget, could engage with MPs who would listen to them, and broadcast their voice through public events and media coverage. It’s something that any one of us can do on any issue if we want to, and my work is helping me see how rare and valuable that opportunity is.

I’ve just started working on a pilot called ‘Citizen’s Action,’ or Liwu la mzika in Chichewa, that’s trying to help villagers understand what water services they’re entitled to and demand those services from the governments departments and NGOs who are supposed to provide them. I was shocked to find out from a co-worker that the policies about water services (for example the one that says every person in Malawi should have a safe water supply less than 250 metres from their home) aren’t even widely available to district government employees, let alone to most villagers. So how can villagers hold their government accountable for providing water services if they don’t even know what services they’re supposed to receive? Who can they go to when an NGO promises to drill them a borehole but then doesn’t return to their village for over a year? Hopefully this pilot will help villagers find answers to those questions. It’s a small step towards helping Malawians access the kind of opportunity – to get information, to make their voices heard, to hold accountable the government and NGOs that are supposed to be working for them – that we enjoy in Canada, and the power to change their lives that comes with it.


I’m sitting in a training centre in central Malawi. A warm breeze is blowing through an open window into a roomful of government health workers. Their eyes are glued to a guest facilitator from Concern Universal (my partner NGO) who is walking them through a new monitoring system that I’ve helped to design. I’m trying to appear attentive, but the truth is it’s hard to pay attention to training that’s being done in Chichewa (Malawi’s national language) when I so far have learned how to order a beer and say thank you. This training session is two days long, and when they’ve finished, the health workers will train 514 villages to fill out the new forms that go with this new system.

I graduated from Systems Design last year and the fact that I’m in this humid room, in a foreign country, listening to a facilitator I can’t understand seems perfectly normal.

Being a System Design engineer, I like feedback. It lets me know what’s going on in a system and whether or not the inputs I’m feeding in are giving me the outputs I’m looking for. Without feedback, us System Designers would be out of work, and those circuits labs would be a big waste of time, not just a big pain in the ass. But how do you get feedback from a system that’s unimaginably complex?

I work with a water project that deals with 514 villages – that’s over 200,000 villagers, who mostly farm maize and tobacco. They work hard, and CU tries to help them access clean drinking water and improve their sanitation. CU inputs new boreholes, subsidizes cement and trainings into this system of villages and hope that people will start washing their hands or covering their latrines with concrete slabs so they’re less likely to collapse. There’s little doubt that those are valuable outputs – it’s estimated only 64% Malawians have access to a basic latrine, and going ‘free-range’ means that the rainy season washes all those ‘damages’ as locals call them into water supplies. People use soap for cleaning dishes and their clothes, but rarely use it to wash their hands. (Disease data) But how does CU know if those outputs are happening? How do they get the feedback?

In the previous system that CU used, this was a problem. Monitoring forms were returned late or not at all by villages, the data was often wrong and staff didn’t know how to analyze or use the information they received. Two other EWB volunteers and myself worked with CU’s staff to create a system that helps villages track information so they can fill-in monitoring forms more easily and accurately, and most importantly has helped staff concentrate on the most important information they need and taught them skills to help them analyse and use it well.

This system is the first step in the partnership between EWB and CU. I learned the hard way in circuits that it’s not enough to get the feedback – if the little light at the end of your circuit doesn’t light up, you need to learn from it and change your circuit. It can be hard, when there are so many things that could be going wrong, and you only have 2 days to write your lab report, and you’re worried about your grades, to put the time into learning. It’s not that different for many Malawian NGOs, CU included - between meeting stringent reporting requirements, worrying about getting enough funding to keep afloat every year, and staff that is so busy with day-to-day activities they don’t always have time to learn from the information they get from the field. It’s vital that they do – we don’t yet know how to get people to wash their hands, or use latrines 100% of the time, and so CU needs to keep learnings. My vision for my placement is to help CU develop the processes and systems and staff skills it needs to be learning organization

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