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A Perspectives Proposal

December 23, 2011

Each year around the holiday time EWB initiates an annual holiday ‘Perspectives’ campaign that is a mixture of fundraising, outreach and awareness. People such as myself share our perspectives on why EWB’s work is important, and in turn ask for contributions to help us deliver on it. You can view my contribution here:

I’m confessing right now that my participation this year has been mediocre at best. I wrote up my perspective, but have been less active on the sharing of it and recruitment of contributions for it. This is in no small part due to the fact that over the last 8 months, I have let this blog, which many of my friends and family seem to enjoy, fall significantly to the wayside. I feel like I haven’t held up my end of the bargain. Despite my enjoyment of writing, and knowledge of the value others find in it, I have de-prioritized this activity over other seemingly more pressing matters that grab my attention. Your on-going support means the world to me, but yet, I don’t manage to keep up with something that we all enjoy.

I’d been mulling this over for some time trying to figure out the best way to proceed (beg forgiveness? Make promises to improve that I may or may not keep? Justify and defend my choices that I put above blogging?) And then it hit me – I need motivation and accountability to write, you seem to need blog posts – isn’t there a way to combine these things into something extraordinary?
After a bit more thought, here’s my proposal… I think it has the potential I think to be win-win for everyone involved.

For every donation that I receive on or before January 6, 2010, (of any value) to my perspective campaign, I hereby commit to write a blog post at some point in the coming year, sharing my perspective on a topic of your choice.

For all of you out there – support a great cause, and get to hear more about what’s going on in my world. For me – a tangible reason why it makes sense not to de- prioritize blogging over other activities and a fountain of ideas of which to write about.
Not too bad, eh?

Of course I have to throw in some Terms and Conditions
i. The topic has to be somehow related to my work, life, or experiences in Malawi – that’s what the blog’s all about (e.g. no perspectives on ancient roman history)
ii. Each person is allowed one donation and one corresponding perspective request
iii. This deal is retroactive for this year only, so those who have already donated can let me know what they’d like me to share my perspective on.
iv. I’m given full artistic license to take your perspective request and run with it in whichever direction I so choose.
v. Time sensitive requests will be taken into consideration, but can’t be promised to be delivered on (written within a year is the best I can do)

All you have to do to participate is go to the website above, and make a donation, then let me know what you’d like me to write about – either in the comments section of the donation page, in response to this post or by personal email. Simple.

Ok, that’s the deal. What do you think? Who’s in?

ps if you don’t care about hearing about what’s going on in my world, and want to just donate to a good cause, you’re most welcome to do that as well.

pps wishing you all a very merry Christmas, happy holidays and a healthy and prosperous new year from the warm heart of Africa🙂

What’s in a Name?

May 9, 2011
Alyssa and Maria

It’s surprisingly not uncommon to receive calls bright and early here in Malawi. So when my phone rang at 6:45 Saturday morning, and I saw it was my good friend and one of the field staff from our office, I didn’t think much of it.
That changed quickly.

After the initial greetings, Maswaswa shared his exciting news that he had a new daughter born that morning. I quickly congratulated him, and expressed my excitement. He’s a great guy, amazing extension worker, lives very close to me, and was the one to set me up with my family here (who he is distantly related to). A new baby in the family/neighbourhood is something to celebrate!

Then he dropped the bomb; he asked me to name her.

Yikes! A name is important! It’s the first thing people will hear about her, it’s one of the few things that will stay with her for her entire life. This is something people pour over, that they agonizingly search out and debate. Can I do that for someone else’s baby? It took me almost a week to name my cat, how am I going to come up with a name for a child? Even more importantly, someone else’s child, in a different culture.

Malawi has some interesting naming practices to say the least. First there’s the sentiments: Gift, Happy, Thankful, Blessings, Precious, Trouble, Mercy, Clever. These can be given in English, Chichewa or Chitumbuka (probably other languages too, those are just the ones that I know). Then there’s the random nouns; Toyota, Oven, Nation, Pumpkineater, Boston, and there’s even a Canada in my niece’s class, the list goes on. Finally there’s a whole host of just name names. Some familiar, some not so much.

And in the end, it was one from that last category that I settled on. If this little girl is going to know that she was named by a Canadian, I felt like she should have somewhat of a Canadian name to reflect that. I decided on Maria. A tribute to my Mom’s Mom, on this weekend of mothers. A strong name, shared by both cultures, a connection to Canada and to Malawi. Hopefully a prediction of things to come for her.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Hope Floats in a Vote

May 4, 2011

I’ve always been a strong proponent of voting, and although during this most recent Canadian election, I was physically farther away than during past elections, my belief in the importance of this act was stronger than ever.

Malawi has only been a multi-party democracy for 17 years. That’s shorter than I’ve been on this earth, by a considerable margin. The right to vote is not a given here, like it is in Canada.

More importantly, over just the last nine months I’ve seen a very interesting, and somewhat concerning chain of events unfold around me. They are well summed up in this article written by Farai Sevenzo for BBC News. Thankfully, Malawi is still a peaceful nation, but the challenges to democracy and freedom of speech are real and apparent.

When I ask Malawians about what they think of what’s happening, there’s usually a shaking of the head, and response something to the effect of ‘In the next election we will just have to vote against.’ And the more I think about it, when it comes down to it, I’m not sure how much more they can do. The next election however is still a couple of years away, and a lot can happen within that time.

Canadians on the other hand, had a chance to vote yesterday in an election that reflected not altogether unrelated challenges, admittedly to a lesser extent. The last few years of the Harper government in Canada has demonstrated a lack of transparency, increased control, and decreased honest in the way the country is governed. Matthew Hays writes about this in a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail. Despite these actions, Canadians voted to give him more power and control, rather than less.

It’s interesting how democracy works, isn’t it?

Bike Path Lessons in Development Work

February 24, 2011
Bike Path

Now that the rains have come, I need to carefully pick my way over some pretty rough paths and roads on my bicycle commute to and from work each day.  As I concentrate on navigating rocks, bricks, potholes, chickens, people and wash outs, I’ve realize that I’ve learned some important lessons to help me get there safely.  I’ve also began to notice, that many of these lessons about navigating my path to work, also apply to navigating the path of my work once I get to the office.   Here are some examples that illustrate what I mean.

  • Stay alert, the road is constantly changing with each storm.  Just because it was fine last time, doesn’t mean it will still be fine today.
  • Look to find the good parts of the path instead of looking to avoid the bad.  If you focus all your attention on the rough parts, you’ll surely hit them.
  • Learn from your mistakes.  If part of the path caused you trouble yesterday, try a different approach today.
  • Making the effort to greet people along the way makes it a more enjoyable ride for everyone.
  • Listen to what people have to say about the route, they’ve been around longer, and know the paths better than you.
  • Get out of your seat when the going gets tough – bumps in the road feel worse when you just take them sitting down.
  • Going downhill is always quicker and easier than going uphill… although it won’t necessarily get you where you want to go.
  • Don’t be ashamed to get down and walk if you need to.  It may take longer, but you could be preventing a catastrophic fall (just remember to move out of the way of those who are still riding).
  • Things are going to get a muddy and dirty along the way, you can’t really avoid it, just be prepared to clean up a little when you get where you’re going.
  • Even the best planned route, may require some modification as you go – be ready to change course if needed.
  • Sometimes you have to shift gears really quickly, just be careful you don’t break something in the process.
  • Carry some tools in your back pocket; you never know when you might need to pull them out to tighten things up.


decisions, Decisions, decisions – Part 2

February 9, 2011

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the importance of data in decision making for a District Water Office.  At that time, I was supporting the district in data collection about village water supply in the district.  Well that data is all coming back now, and it’s time to move forward.

The trouble is, it’s just not all that easy.

Imagine someone dumped a pile of data collection forms on your desk today, listing villages, with their populations and numbers of functional and non-functional water points.  Then they said “here’s your data, where should I put a borehole?”   Would you be able to answer just like that?

No, probably not.

But, why not? That is the more important question, I think.    What do you need in addition to data to make good decisions?

Here’s some of my hypothesis:

1)      You need to have the data in a format that allows it to be easily analyzed;

2)      You need to be able to evaluate that data once it’s in a useable format;

3)      You need to have criteria to base your decision on (how many people can a borehole sustainably service? How far can people travel to a water point? Is it better to completely service one community first before moving on to another, or partly serve many communities at once?);

4)      You need to present or communicate the decision as well as the data and criteria you based it on; and

5)      Above all else, you need to know how to do each of these things.

What I think all of these can boil down to, is that in addition to data, making good decisions also requires knowledge.   Knowledge of how to manage data, knowledge of how to analyze data, knowledge of what factors contribute to making a good decision.

Now, you may assume that some of this knowledge would already be in the district water office.  And while it’s true that it does to some extent, it’s also severely lacking in many ways.  If you’ve never had a reliable set of data to base decisions on, how would you ever develop the skills to do so?

That’s why along with helping districts develop processes to collect data, EWB is also working with districts to understand how they can use data.  For the past four months, I’ve been spending an hour roughly every other week individually with six district officers who are active in the water and sanitation sector; we explore how they currently use data, develop a better understanding how they could use data, and build skills to reach that point.  Those principles form the basis of a learning program that we are calling ‘Evidence Based Decision Making’.   Each meeting consists of a new skill that we discuss, practice and use in their everyday work.  The aim is for it to be ongoing, integrated and applicable.

Overall the program has been one of the highlights of my work here.  I love seeing the excitement when someone sees how a new skill will improve their current work, or the moment of realization when a new concept is fully grasped.  The real test is coming up now though.  Now that our data is coming back, how will this program have helped the staff to prepare to use the data?  How thorough is the learning and understanding?  Will individuals be able to pull out skills and apply them to new situations and contexts?

Days Like This

February 4, 2011

They told me there would be days like this.

Days when you were up sick the whole night before, and your internet access becomes slim to none, and the meeting you were preparing for gets cancelled after you muster all your strength to make it in to the office, and you fall off your bike on the way home.

What they didn’t say is that you have good friends, with indoor toilets, who welcome you to stay when you’re throwing up, and your colleague happily volunteers to take your internet stick to Lilongwe with him to get it fixed, and your parents call out of the blue just when you want to talk to them the most, and your host family detects your scrapes and insists on warm water and a soft cloth to wipe them off, and your 10 year old niece is extra protective and helpful and sweet because she knows you’re not feeling great.

And so you go to sleep with a smile, knowing that despite the highs and the lows, everything is going to be just fine.


Update: 02/09/10 – Thanks everyone for all the kind words and good thoughts.  I’m definitely feeling all better, and really didn’t mean for this to be a draw on all your sympathies, (although its been really great hearing from everyone!) but rather a demonstration of the ups and downs that come with living in a developing country and the importance of friends and family.  Thanks for reading,  al

Making Friends With Failure

January 16, 2011

I’ve been trying, at least as much as my less than desirable internet connection will allow, to follow along with the 2011 EWB National Conference Kumvana, through the #EWB2011 Twitter feed.  Seeing as I can’t be there in person this year, hearing the most thought provoking ideas and thoughts through the tweets of others will have to do.

One of the most exciting things I’ve found so far is the release of EWB’s 2010 Failure Report and even more importantly, a site, called Admitting Failure, dedicated to sharing failures between different development organizations, so that we can all learn from each other’s mistakes.  The failure report has only been out for a short time, but already it’s been pretty advantageous for my work in particular.

Followers of this blog will know that I’m working with the Mzimba District council to support their implementation of a water point monitoring process and this week the district has been working on their annual work plan for the funding organization that provides the majority of funds for district water and sanitation activities.

I was somewhat concerned this week to see a line item in the 2011 budget to their funding partner for water monitoring activities.  The idea behind the water monitoring process has always been that it is district led, and doesn’t require an outside funding source.  This is by design, as having a process that is not funded by an outside party, means that the district has increased control over what and how data is collected, the process is more likely to last into the future even if funding is removed and cut, and most importantly it demonstrates the district’s demand which will lead to resulting use of the system.  If they are willing to pay for it themselves out of their own limited budgets, it is more likely to be used, appropriate to their needs, and something that they can and will really use.

The timing of the failure report this year is especially serendipitous.    The first story in the failure report was submitted by my colleague in Malawi, Owen Scott, about a District monitoring program in Machinga, which went through a very similar discussion when implementing their process.  Now, I was aware of the challenges that happened in Machinga, but his failure report has given me concrete evidence of why this is not a good idea, and a tangible starting point for discussions with the district as to why relying on outside funding for these activities, when its possible without, may not be a good idea.  It was also a bit of a wake-up call, and reminder of what the effects could be. Having Owen’s story spelled out in front of me once again, not only reinforced my ideas, but provided a great sharing platform for others in my District to also learn from what happened.

Sharing failures with others doesn’t take away from our credibility, everyone makes mistakes.  The problem comes when you don’t learn from them.  The failure report has been out for approximately 48 hrs, and I’ve already found value in it.  Take that value and multiply it by the number of entries and lessons we can get by opening it up to other organizations, then by the number of people who will hopefully read the report, or visit the site, and then again by the amount of time into the future these lessons will be shared.   The possible effects are quite stunning.

So, in short,  I for one am making friends with failure; by bookmarking the for both future contribution of my own mistakes and learning from others, and hoping that the international aid and donor community will join me.