Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tying Things Together

“And now I would like to invite Miss Binnu to come to the front to dance.”
Those were probably the most terrifying words I have heard in my entire stay in Malawi. I was busy working with my director to coordinate the representatives of different companies and the media reporters who had come to our big event – the Sanitation Marketing Day. Dancing in front of the excited crowd of over 1000 community members was the last thing I wanted to worry about.

John getting the crowd excited about hand-washing soap on the Sanitation Marketing Day

The Sanitation Marketing Day – what a day that was! It started at 7am with my co-workers preparing a touring vehicle with posters, banners and a loud sound system. They spent the entire morning going around our project area of Makata with over 10,000 households, dancing, playing music and telling people how the sanitation market was now open. John Chinkata, the unbeatable MC, (and the same one who would later go on to ask me to dance) was getting the crowds thrilled about latrines (he is good!) and telling them where they could buy good latrines and other sanitation products. He kept the momentum going as the vehicle arrived at the Makata school grounds, where we had a mini-fair set up to introduce the community to all the suppliers of sanitation facilities. Now John was standing at the stage that seated several dignitaries, and he was talking to an eager pumped-up crowd sitting in a massive semi-circle around the stage. On one side of the gathering were the booths of the manufacturers of plastic hand-washing facilities and soap and on the other side were the booths of the builders of latrines (who are also from the same community) and other organizations in the community. John got people to mill around and go to the different booths, and when the crowd looked restless he’d bring in an incredible troupe of dancers. I’ve never seen an information session be so energetic and fun!

Looking at all the suppliers and the people in the community I felt like we were along the right track. The market, if it works, will ensure that people will have ownership of the toilets that they buy with their hard-earned cash, and most of that money remains in the community since it is the local builders who are constructing the toilets. No need for hand-outs, and creating a sense of dependency on outside aid! Wow, what a shift from the traditional idea of just digging boreholes and handing out free water purification systems.

It’s not that digging boreholes and giving hand-outs is a completely bad idea. I think there are situations where you need to put in a lot of inputs from outside, but the key thing is community involvement and getting them to see the value in it. An unfortunate example of this is Mrs. Sowani. Mrs. Sowani is this great energetic 50-something-year-old lady who heads up the local volunteer hygiene group called Kwagwanji in the Makata community. I sat by her on her porch while she led one of their meetings. Her voice is earnest and she talks with genuine concern for the sanitation and hygiene situation in her community. She tells me with pride how she and her volunteers help sick people get to the hospital that’s an hour away, even in the middle of the night. But you can also see her frustration as she describes how people don’t always listen to her group’s advice to take simple steps to improve sanitation in their area and how her group barely has any resources to carry out its activities.

After asking her questions in my broken English/Chichewa combo, I found out that the group was originally empowered by World Vision in 2006 to make concrete slabs, which they built for free for people to construct pit latrines. These are basically a circular disc about1-m in diameter and 6” thick with a hole in the middle. Put this on top of a pit and voila, you have a latrine! It was a great idea, and it gave the group a specific focus. But when I asked them how many slabs they had made so far, they said 6 in 2006, none in 2007 and none in 2008.

It was disheartening. Here was a group of 10 dedicated people who really wanted to change their community and they seemed to have lost their voice. I think what happened was that the community was never really reached out to recognize this group properly and to recognize the value in what they were doing. The Kwagwanji were originally funded by World Vision, but funding only lasts so long. And they were not coached on how they could raise their own funds to sustain themselves. In fact, re-constructing the 2006 project in my head, I feel like a lot of money was poured into the materials and technical training for the project. But really what the project needed was more focus and resources for the soft side of the project – the capacity building, the coaching, the creation of an identity for the group and the involvement of the community in recognizing the value of their work.

But I think there is still hope for Mrs. Sowani. We can involve the Kwagwanji in our project, have them work as a promotion team for us, get them recognized through our events, coach them and train them during their meetings. I hope it we do it right. There’s a lot riding on it. Not just our target of 1000 toilets, but also the dignity and aspirations of hard-working people like Mrs. Sowani. whooooo… the pressure!

Mrs. Sowani and her volunteers show off their new t-shirts at our Sanitation Marketing Day

: LWS End.

So how did our project come to be such an innovative approach on sustainability? Our funding organization Water For People, a strong believer in sustainability and community ownership found this in line with their guiding principles. But how did their guiding principles come to be like that? Their donors, just average every day people who donated money/resources to a cause like so many do, in Denver thought it would be a good idea. (Water For People is a Denver-based organization with largely autonomous branches in different countries) It’s a very simple way of looking at the chain of decision-making and influence. But it made me realize how much I owed to the people in Denver the fact that I was able to be part of this really thoughtful and creative project.

It makes me wonder how much we can influence real projects on the ground by leveraging our donations. It’s just like voting for the government. We can change how things are done by choosing which organizations we support and what expectations we have from them. They have to respond to our choices and demands as donors, since all implementing NGOs need us to support them.

It’s an interesting way to look at all this development. Here I am, hands in the dirt working the little levers and knobs in the field trying to create some change. But I could have pulled bigger levers and turned more knobs from Canada just by using my voice as a donor.

Oh, and about the dancing? It was great! I pulled in a few kids and we danced up a storm to some Zambian pop. Ine mechanico wako…

Zikomo po werenga!