Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's been a long time...

It’s been so long since I’ve written now that it’s hard to even know where to begin. The rains have dried up and it’s getting cooler, the maize is ripe and ready for grinding, life in the city is becoming normal and I’m another year older! Work has been incredibly busy lately and to be honest I have struggled to get used to my “office job”. I miss the daily gratification of field work, of interacting with beneficiaries and getting my hands dirty and seeing the results of our efforts first hand. But after some growing pains, I’m adjusting to my new role and have found the silver lining which gives me the drive to keep at it, despite the delayed or slow pace of change.

My role has changed drastically from what I was doing in Machinga. I was a sunburnt country bumpkin but I’ve turned high-rolling “big” city girl! I now am working primarily in the head office in Lilongwe and working on sector coordination and planning at both the district and national levels. At district level, we are supporting the district assemblies in the preparation of district wide sector strategy and investment plans. These plans aim to localize the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of the people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. This is a lofty and abstract goal without determining what it means in terms of actual water points/latrines and serviced population on the ground. By analyzing existing information, we are hoping to assess how many water points/latrines are required and where in the district to ensure increased and equitable service provision across the jurisdiction. In many cases, service coverage along major routes (or in the home villages of politicians!) are already very high, but are often still the target of new boreholes or system expansions. Remote areas or those without strong traditional leaders may be struggling in relative silence. It is hoped that by looking at the whole district, we can aim to ensure more equitable distribution of services for both water and sanitation. In addition, the plans take into consideration the identification of the human, material and financial resources necessary to ensure the infrastructure is established and the communities are properly supported to provide effective management and operation. Many of the districts do not have sufficient numbers or properly trained staff required to undertake their responsibilities. They may not even have an office or computers. This plan will look holistically at what is required and set out an investment plan determining how much it is going to cost to achieve. Once the plan is costed, it provides a type of “shopping list” that can be taken to donors to request funds.

At national level, similar plans and coordination mechanisms are in the works. The national ministry for water development is embarking on the development of a Sector Wide Approach (SWAp). This is a total revamp of the current method of “doing business” in which donors and government undertake various projects in an ad hoc and disjointed manner. The result is very inequitable development with a lot of gaps in some areas and duplication in others, often with conflicting approaches used that undermine project successes. The SWAp aims to develop a holistic sector strategy, identifying priority areas and agreeing on common implementation approaches that apply to all sector players. The objective is that sector development will progress more effectively with all stakeholders working towards a shared common vision. Having an overall sector strategy will attract more funding and the money, whether it be from government or donors, will be better spent. It is important for sustainability that this process be domestically owned and led rather than imposed from donors. Malawi has taken some great steps so far to lead the SWAp process, however, it is a huge and complicated task that will take years to implement.

The SWAp process is fraught with many challenges. Reaching consensus on sector priorities and approaches amongst all stakeholders (government, donors, NGOs, etc.) is an expensive undertaking often without guaranteed results. Fostering trust between stakeholders, primarily between government and donors, is difficult. It requires that donors release some of their control on funding and allow that government systems will ensure it is used honestly and for the purposes for which it was intended. Governments have to be willing to be open and transparent in their reporting and financial management. The tasks are daunting. But the potential benefits are also great if it can be implemented successfully.

So that’s the quick and dirty update on what I’ve been doing at work. On a personal level I have struggled a bit with adjusting to this “higher level” development work. Arguably, however, the impact will be greater and I am happy and excited to have the opportunity to learn more about how the government and donors function in development. I have been working… a lot… and haven’t had much opportunity for down time or to go out exploring. I did however take off over Easter weekend to Likoma and Chizimulu, two gorgeous little islands in Lake Malawi. It was absolutely wonderful to get a change of scenery, clear my head and get a bit of colour back! By looking at me, no one would believe me back home if I said I’d been working in Africa for almost a year! The down side of a desk job!

Things at home are going well. Frank is busy preparing for his wedding in July. He will marry my friend Enellece from Machinga which will be fabulous – a collision of my two worlds in one big party! Grace is a studying machine getting ready for her business administration exams in June and we have played host to a number of guests in the last few months as they pass through town. Speaking of guests, my parents will arrive in just over a month so I am really looking forward to that. It will be a busy visit but good to show them some of my work and life here, introduce them to friends and family, and explore some of the areas of the country I haven’t yet had time to visit. I even have them lined up to do some volunteering at a medical clinic near Machinga! They are excited and looking forward to the new experiences.

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