By Jones Ntaukira
KAPITA, Malawi (IDN) — Most development agencies fail because they don’t listen to the people and end up imposing projects on people. This is an important lesson I learned over 10 years working as a development worker here with Empower Malawi.
I joined the Empower Malawi team in 2010 as a fresh young graduate with no experience in development work. A scientist at heart, equipped with theories, hope and confidence amassed from the long lecture hours, I was eager to get down to work. I cared less where and how. I just wanted to work and enjoy myself.
I always tell people the story of how Shanil Samarakoon, a stranger, thousands of miles across the other side of the world, believed in me and my ability to get things done. Born in Sri Lanka, Shanil has spent his childhood in Malawi, where his father worked as an expat Chartered Accountant. Now migrated to Australia and qualified in Economic Geography, he has set up Empower Projects to help grassroots development projects in Malawi and his native Sri Lanka.
Two years after joining Empower Malawi, I was appointed Executive Director for Empower (Malawi), a project implementation arm of Empower Projects headquartered in Sydney, Australia.
My very first project was a sustainable livelihood project in Kapita, south-east Mzimba District in northern Malawi. I had spent some considerable time of my childhood in my village in Ntcheu but I had never seen the level of the remoteness of Kapita in my life. Isolated, destitute, ignored and forgotten.
Kapita lies at the end of the famous Nkhotakota Game Reserve, about 70kms off the national highway reached only via a dirt road. The road is very bad so much so that when it rains, even military four-wheelers get stuck for days. The nearest clinic is 20km away and the nearest market and banking services a further 80kms away.
But amidst all this lies hope and abundance. Kapita is richly blessed with resources and hardworking people. This was a fertile land for Empower to launch its first development project in Malawi. Over the past decade, Empower has been working in Kapita, I have learnt a lot of lessons in development practice. I would like to share the three key lessons that I have learnt working with the people of Kapita.
The people know their own problems
This is probably the most profound lesson that I have learnt. When we did our site appraisal, our top three recommended interventions included improving access to potable water in the area, improving sanitation and improved food security.
If you had visited the area at the time, identifying these challenges was backyard science. Before starting any projects, Empower conducts a participatory Vision Workshop, which is a process that can take up to six months for communities to identify their challenges and propose possible solutions and how to go about implementing these solutions. At the end of the Vision Workshop, the people of Kapita identified three key challenges in order to attain self-reliance.
These challenges were: lack of access to electricity, lack of access to finance for business and lack of a central community meeting place, a hub for civilization. This was in sharp contrast with what Empower appraisal had proposed.
Indeed, when Empower tried to launch a project to teach people to make water filters to improve access to potable water, the project failed to even take off because the people didn’t consider water as their “priority challenge”. They didn’t feel excited about that project and hence participation was a problem. On the contrary, projects to promote solar power, access to finance through cooperative development and construction of a community centre were all a success because this is what the people truly wanted.
We realised why many development agencies and organisations fail—they impose projects on people without listening to them. This results in a waste of money, time and other resources. Maybe this explains what I heard at a NGO meeting somewhere else that there are more than 200 water boreholes in one particular district in Malawi all of which don’t work. Never assume, listen to the people.
Invest in capacity building
The second lesson I learned is that to successfully implement a project, it requires that people understand the rationale of the project and to a larger extent requires some shift in mindset and adoption of new ways of doing things.
The very fact that most NGOs rush in with the implementation of projects, is one of the biggest challenges that most organisations have. How do you convince a person that the water they are drinking is not safe when their parents and grandparents all drunk the same water and never got sick? Telling someone that tilling soil every year leads to soil degradation, therefore they must adopt zero tillage methods to conserve soil, can be a nightmare because tilling is what they learnt from their parents and they have been doing it for decades.
Empower spends close to 70 per cent of its project budget (excluding human resources) on capacity building and skills training geared at mindset shift. This requires patience. From training in business management, basic savings and financial management, leadership skills, governance it took almost two and a half years out of the five-year project duration.
Five years on, the community in Kapita has a vibrant savings and credit cooperative where they save money and borrow for business. They have a community centre, and they have two nursery schools (parallel) run by themselves and professionally trained teachers. They have adopted sustainable agriculture methods like compost production. They have a cooking oil refinery plant built by themselves, they have started providing breakfast to school children at their Kapita Primary School.
These initiatives will last because they have been built on strong leadership and a foundation of local ownership. Kapita now attracts the attention of other organisations and financing institutions to support them on their journey to self-reliance.
Thirdly, Empower’s approach to development work is holistic. While many organisations are intervention specific, that is, focus on one thing like access to clean water, or HIV and AIDS, Empower believes that all community challenges are crosscutting.
To make sure Empower remains true to our mission, that is why we conduct Vision Workshops to give people a rare opportunity to discuss their challenges and chart their own way to prosperity. We are partners with the Kapita community, and we stopped looking at them as a poor community. We did not adopt the community, we supported them with what they wanted. So, I have learnt that communities must be allowed to develop as they wish—helping them to cross the river and not carrying them on our backs (well-intentioned as that might be).
In Kapita we partnered with four different organisations in the quest to help this community achieve their goals. In developing local cooperatives, we partnered with the Ministry of Trade as they were the best poised to provide the relevant expertise. In promoting solar power, we partnered with a university to provide training in basic solar installation for people who have never been to school.
The fruits of these partnerships meant that the third level of partnership is community to community or peer to peer learning. By sending leaders in Kapita on exchange visits to other similar projects within Malawi, we noticed that willingness and zeal increased every time they learnt from their peers than from Empower staff. Seeing how others did and achieved success, helped the people of Kapita to stay focused. The good thing is that these community-to-community partnerships will continue to exist even after Empower exits the area. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 March 2021]
Photo: Women Vision Workshop in Malawi. Source: Empower.
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