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Putting low resources to work for rural O&M

This is a guest post from Duncan McNicholl and Alyssa Lindsay who lead the Water and Sanitation Programme of Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Malawi. For more on their work please see the recent case study by Triple-S available here.

Mr. Oswald Nkhuwa is the District Water Development Officer for Nkhotakota District in the small and densely populated Southern African country of Malawi. His District is home to over 300,000 people that live within the 7500 km2 District that stretches out along the pristine lakeshore of Lake Malawi. To serve this population and manage approximately 2500 water points, his office has two other field extension staff and a monthly budget of approximately USD$200. Most would balk at the apparent impossibility of the task – and understandably so.

The temptation to simply provide resources in this situation is strong, but temporary additional resources risk producing only temporary results. Furthermore, the resources that do exist need to be directed to where they are most needed. During a rehabilitation exercise in the District in 2011 Mr. Nkhuwa and his staff used valuable fuel funds to travel to the field and perform basic maintenance type repairs, that were within communities ability to perform, and would likely need to be repeated within months.  This happened simply because they did not have the staff or resource capacity to identify where major repairs were needed.

Seeing this inefficient use of funds, one of the local Area Development Committees –  comprised of community and traditional leaders – became upset.  They wanted to see District Water Development Office activities addressing bigger challenges in their area that were outside of their ability to address on their own.   Recognizing that both the District Water Office and the Area Development Committee cared about the same outcome, EWB staff worked with both the Area Development Committee and Mr. Nkhuwa’s office to facilitate an improved relationship and understand activities that both sides could  undertake to most effectively strengthen WASH services with their available resources.

Through this interaction, and an understanding of the limited resources of the District Water Development Office, the Area Development Committee decided to form a sub-committee specifically for water issues called “Madzi ndi Moyo” (“Water is Life”).  This committee now provides basic technical support to water point committees, connection to spares suppliers, mediates community issues that impede water point repairs, and provides relevant information to Mr. Nkhuwa’s office about where major borehole repairs are needed.   His office, in turn, provides the committee with some stationary for reporting purposes, technical knowledge on community engagement and ongoing communication on water issues.

Although only recently formed, the “Madzi ndi Moyo” committee has engaged one hundred and five communities with messages on the issue of waterpoint repair, of which sixty-two have raised a total of over USD$700 for repairs.  Furthermore, the committee and the District Water Development office maintain regular communication and the District is receiving valuable information about where major repairs are needed. These services were extended without expensive support from Local Government and without external funding aside from facilitation support from EWB to co-develop the approach with the District and the committee. The total cost to Mr. Nkhuwa’s office to undertake the initiative was just over USD$20 (twenty USD).

Strengthening Local Government capacity for service delivery remains a key challenge for the WASH sector. Our experience in Malawi has found that, when the long-term capacity of permanent institutions is not strengthened, the impact of WASH programmes begins to fade shortly after the external resources cease to exist. A recent paper by ODI on using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery highlights the importance of building on existing mandates and systems, even if these mandates are initially imperfect or poorly implemented. We agree.

Our work in Malawi continues to support strengthening of Local Government service delivery by working closely with these existing systems to help strengthen them.  By extension, our strategy has grown to encompass the interactions of other WASH stakeholders throughout the country because of the effect this has on Local Government management of services. As we continue to support Local Government to strengthen its systems, there are a few key approaches highlighted by the example in Nkhotakota that we plan to carry forward.

Key lessons learned

  • “Low capacity” is different than “No capacity” – The Nkhotakota District Water Office, despite very limited means, was still able to make a difference by using existing resources strategically and creatively. We will continue to appreciate what does exist and build on it rather than despair when an ideal approach is not yet possible.
  • We shouldn’t force it with funding – It takes longer to develop systems without inflated external funding, but provides the guarantee that existing resources can sustain an initiative if the pilot is successful. We will continue to critically assess approaches and avoid subsidizing them where existing resources need to sustain a workable, and often creative, solution.
  • The best ideas usually come from partners – At the outset of co-developing an approach, we often have our own ideas that we must let go of as we learn more about the realities of our partners and the communities they serve – their constraints, motives, and potential. We will continue to help develop ideas and strategies to bring those ideas into practice by providing the thought partnership that busy practitioners often struggle to find the time or tools for.
  • “Workable” is usually better than perfect – The development of the “Madzi ndi Moyo” committee is not something we had foreseen from the outset and we are surprised by its nascent success. While first ensuring to properly assess risks, we will continue to test ideas with partners before those ideas have been “perfected” to access the rich learning that action provides. Partners are then better able to surprise us with their ingenuity and adaptation when applying ideas in practice.

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