The 3 Greatest Lessons I’ve Learnt Through 5 Years of Working in Development

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The 3 Greatest Lessons I’ve Learnt Through 5 Years of Working in Development

January 10, 2016

Jones Ntaukira here…

I joined the Empower Malawi team in 2010 as a fresh young graduate with no experience about 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 about 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. Two years later, I was appointed Executive Director for Empower (Malawi), a project implementation arm of Empower Projects headquartered in Sydney, Australia. A much bigger task for a person of my experience at that time. I had read somewhere that when you are given a task that you don’t know how to perform it, never say no. Instead, grab it with both hands, quickly learn how to do it, perfect the art and get it done. That’s exactly what I did.

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 remoteness of Kapita in my life. Isolated, destitute, ignored and forgotten. For context, Kapita lies on the end of the famous Nkhotakota Game Reserve, about 70kms off the national highway on a dirty road. The road is very bad so much so that when it rains, even military four wheelers get stuck for days. Nearest clinic is 20km away and nearest market and banking services a further 80kms away. But amidst all this luck, lies hope and abundance. Kapita is richly blessed with resources and hardworking people. This was a fertile land for Empower to launch its first work in Malawi. Over the past 6 years that Empower has been working in Kapita, I have learnt a lot of lessons in development practice. Today, I would like to share the 3 key lessons that I have learnt working with people of Kapita.

  1. The people know their own problems, never assume

This is probably the most profound lesson that I have learnt. When we did our site appraisal, our top 3 recommended interventions included improving access to portable 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 3 key challenges that wanted to work on in order to attain self-reliance.

These challenges presented not in order were: a) lack of access to electricity; b) lack of access to finance for business and c) 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 portable water, the project failed to even take off because the people didn’t consider water as a 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. Most development agencies and organisations fail because they don’t listen to the people and end up imposing projects on people. The result is a waste of money, time and other resources. Maybe this explains what I heard at an NGO meeting somewhere that there are more than 200 water boreholes in a one particular district in Malawi all of which don’t work? Never assume, listen to the people.

  1. Invest in capacity building, results will follow through

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 business unusual kind of thing. The very fact that most NGO rush in their implementation of projects, is one of the biggest challenges that most organisations have. Overlooking the power of training and knowledge. 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.

Development requires patience. Empower spends close to 70% of its project budget (excluding human resources) on capacity building and skills training geared at mindset shift. From trainings in business management, basic savings and financial management, leadership skills, governance it took almost two and half years out of the 5 year project duration. Five years later, the community in Kapita have a vibrant savings and credit cooperative where they save money and borrow for business, they have a community centre, and they have 2 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.

  1. Partnerships, partnerships and partnerships

Empower’s approach to development work is holistic. While many organisations are intervention specific, i.e. 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 chant their own way to prosperity. The challenge with Vision Workshops is that multiple projects usually come up of which the community must be supported. That’s where the first partnership comes in. We partnered with Kapita community, stopped looking at them as a poor community but as a working partner with us having the privilege to provide technical support and guidance. 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 with necessary support helping them to cross the river and not carrying them on our backs (well intentioned as that might be). Secondly, when multiple projects have been proposed, Empower did not have all the skills and resources to implement the projects.

In Kapita we partnered with 4 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 of 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 partnership meant that we were able to achieve more than we could have had we tried to do everything ourselves. The third level of partnership is community to community or peer tom 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 continue to exist even after Empower exists the area.

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