Friday, August 20, 2010

A Football Analogy

Dan on a breakaway! Playing football with some of the neighbourhood kids on a pitch near our house

Today, August 20th marks exactly three months for me in Malawi and on Sunday I will be making the four to six hour journey by bus to start EWB’s “re-integration training” in Lilongwe, the capital city. This will likely be my last in-country post and I would like to thank everyone who’s supported me on this journey.

Playing soccer (or bola in Chitonga) here in Malawi is definitely an experience. It’s an even more remarkable community event when I join into play, with all the kids within view or earshot dropping whatever they’re doing and rushing to witness the foreigner flailing around the pitch and tripping over himself, and occasionally my host father standing beside the field shaking his head and smiling.

It is amazing how much soccer goes on without a soccer ball. Kids collect discarded plastic bags and through a careful process melt and tie bits together forming a surprisingly live ball which works perfectly for pick-up matches. Despite this some NGOs spend their time and money handing out soccer balls, and around Mpamba a few carcasses of these free balls can be seen, busted open from hard use. That’s not to say they’re not more durable than the home made balls, those things fall apart all the time! Luckily, with a bit of string, or a knife heated in the fire and a scrap of plastic a quick, cheap repair can be made to the ball and the game continues.

The same could be said for the water sector in Malawi. Many NGOs, and research papers spend time obsessing over the breakdown rates of their, and other organizations pumps. Many of them re-engineer designs every few years in an attempt to make their pump more durable. Though counter-intuitive, this is a bad thing.

No matter how well engineered, eventually every pump will break down and require maintenance of some sort. Just like our two soccer balls, a pump that can be repaired at a low cost, with materials that can be found nearby is ideal. Many NGOs, EWB included put a heavy emphasis on setting up a particular community member as designated to perform maintenance on a number of wells, usually as a business. As well, spare parts need to be available in shops relatively near these communities, such as Trading Centres where they purchase other day-to-day necessities. A pump with breaks down frequently, and is cheap to repair has the potential to drive enough demand to create a profitable supply chain of spare parts, making it possible for shop owners to stock the parts as a viable business. It also means that trained individuals keep their knowledge up to date by doing frequent repairs and maintenance, and business is more profitable for them.

This dichotomy, where well designed pumps lead to bad water programs has taught me to never look at another aid program the same way again. Instead of asking questions about technologies, ask questions about approach, where are decisions in the organization coming from? Does the program convey patronism or empowerment? What evidence is there of sustainability?

After three months in Malawi my footwork on the pitch may not have improved much, but I like to think that my thinking has.



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