About Me

Currently working with Engineers Without Borders Canada, in partnership with an international NGO, in the area of rural water supply. I've worked at the National level on a governance initiative and currently at a District trying to develop a water point monitoring system. My key area of interest is in designing user-centered systems and services.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Link to a much better writer

Left Malawi over a year ago and since then haven't really focused on this blog at all. So if you are interested in water-related issues, I'm going to refer you to Owen's blog: http://barefooteconomics.ca
I worked with Owen in Malawi and trust his perspective a lot. His blog posts are insightful, provocative and definitely not the typical "I'm helping Africa - here is my daily diary" blogs. I learn a ton every time I read a post. Highly highly recommend checking it out.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Good Intentions

I came across a website about a series of films on the aid industry - called Beyond Good Intentions. I was reading the directors blog and it seems really interesting. Unfortunately, my internet access is through a sim card modem and I'll have to wait till I get back to the land of broadband to check them out. But I'd encourage you to take a look and let me know what you thought.

The title of the series reminded me of Ivan Illich's speech from 1968, To Hell with Good Intentions. It was a part of the training material during pre-departure. I just re-read it and found that it put words to many of the thoughts I've had out here. Hope it makes you question some assumptions too.

Friday, May 1, 2009

It's all about power

Only 19 days till election day here in Malawi. A common sight for the past few months have been the truckloads of people wearing their party colours parading to rallies. Even as I write this, I can hear horns blaring and cheering not too far away. And there was quite the scene in front of the office a few days ago. The leaders of both opposition parties (who are now in an alliance) were passing through. Dozens of people lined the streets a few hours ahead waiting for their chance to greet the convoy. Witnessing all this left me with a question- what makes someone want to jump on board an overcrowded truck or wait on the street for hours to support their politician?

I guess one answer might be that "democracy is alive and well" and people are excited and engaged in the political process. On a more cynical day I found myself wondering if politics is merely another form of entertainment- "let's take the afternoon off and go to the circus". Then, in the span of a few days, a conversation, a radio broadcast and a quote all suggested an alternative explanation.

I was speaking with a coworker who remarked that village chiefs (and by extension the people in that village) have very strong allegiances with a particular party. If that party wins, then the village can access 'development funds'. If their party is not in power, they basically get shut out for the next few years.

This perception was echoed on the radio yesterday. The candidate for vice president was talking about her recent visit to the district where I work. Historically, this district has favoured the current opposition party. The candidate was lamenting how there was practically "no development here and that the conditions were horrible". But if her party was elected, then "there would be development in this district".

Finally, I'm reading Tracy Kidder's
Mountains beyond Mountains, an account of Dr Paul Farmer's work in Haiti, and I came across this line:
"Politics, I supposed, was one means by which Haitians avoided hopelessness".
Avoiding hopelessness? That’s a pretty strong incentive for doing everything you can to make sure your party wins. For the rural population (over 80% of Malawi), where their standard of living is very dependent on development programs, it means that politicians represent a source of great power. So that's what this is all about - throwing their weight behind politicians is one of the few ways to access power.

I've heard that "
it's all about power" many times and although I can intellectually grasp it, I don't think I really understand what it means at a deeper level. I just came across it again in a blog where the author suggests that distribution of power in society is the ultimate cause of inefficient states, leading to poverty. I've never really been interested in politics nor have I really thought about 'power distributions' in society before. But it seems like this is central to understanding the world we live in. One more to the list of "things I want to learn about".

Would love to get some recommendations on books, authors, blogs that can enlighten me. Email me at enamrabbani (at) ewb (dot) ca or leave a comment below.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Your customer defines your business. So who is your customer?

I recently tagged along on a field visit by an NGO in the area where I work. The purpose of the visit was so that a senior manager, who had come from the UK, could report on what was happening on the ground back to the Board of Directors. We arrived at the 'target village' around mid-day where the residents had already assembled. For the next hour, there were speeches by various key members, expressing their gratitude for the assistance that the NGO has provided and highlighting some of the challenges they have been facing.

I wondered how useful this visit was in terms of capturing what was 'happening on the ground' if that really was the purpose. There had been trips to this village by the project staff earlier in the week to make sure the water was flowing and the people were informed that an important visitor was coming. It seemed a little strange to me that all this time and effort on the part of the project staff and the residents of the village was spent to make sure that the 'visitor' left with a good impression [ironically, the tap wasn't working that day].

But I think it makes complete sense if I look at the event from a 'customer service' point of view.

For any business to exist, there needs to be someone who pays for the product or service…a customer. So if we look at the source of the revenue for NGOs, the donor is the customer and not the residents of the village we visited. And any business owner will tell you that customer satisfaction is the key to success.

So what might this customer want? The customer is disturbed by the dismal situation in villages which lack access to safe water and strongly desires to see changes. She feels that the best way to help is by giving money to an NGO which is delivering "results" on the ground, and has a good reputation. And so it becomes absolutely crucial for an NGO to tell convincing stories and maintain a trustworthy reputation, in order to compete for this customer's hard earned money. The NGO will focus on processes which improve customer satisfaction. Compelling marketing, convenient donation channels, annual audits, celebrity endorsements, messages that ensure the donor that their money is making a difference…all of it to maintain confidence in the brand. The customer knows this and is ok with having 20% of her money go towards those administrative activities.

But here's the critical issue- If the donor is the customer, then what the donor views as "results" is what the NGO must focus on to keep the customer happy. If the customer wants convincing stories and clear accountability, then the operations in the target country (where the 80% of the money goes) must focus on delivering those things, first and foremost. This means that a decision to dig brand new wells will be made over the decision to set up systems which ensure that the well is still functional in five years. The incentives are set up to encourage quick-wins, especially ones that can show visible and tangible results. It also explains why preparing for a visit by UK staff, who is ultimately accountable to the donor and not village residents, is worth the time investment by the project staff.

As I glanced around the circle in that visit, I was wondering what the residents were actually thinking. I'm sure they were fully aware that if they impart a good impression on the visitor, then ultimately the donors will be happy, which will mean that the NGO will continue to work in their area and they will receive some of the benefits.

But I wonder how different those 'benefits' might look like, if these people in front of me were the
real customers. I wonder if the project staff would focus on making sure that the tap is running to keep these customers happy, and not because a visitor from the UK is coming.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

How little I know

Amazing how time flies.

It's been a year and two weeks since I began a new chapter in my life. I had just said goodbye to my job and I was going to take a few months off before starting a volunteer placement with Engineers without Borders Canada. During those months off, I wanted to travel around North America on a 'learning tour' to seek out new ideas and ways of thinking.

So exactly a year ago, my brother and I were sitting in a classroom in Columbia university, attending a lecture on the global food supply chain by Raj Patel. It was very clear to me that I knew almost nothing about a system that plays such a huge role in my daily life.

A week later I was attending a workshop in Rhode Island, where Andrew Hargadon's talk on "how breakthroughs happen" made me realize how little I knew about the way some of the most significant innovations of our time have emerged (Edison's light bulb or Ford's automobile).

That 'learning tour' was taken to a whole 'nother level since August '08, as I began my work in Malawi. A constant stream of new experiences over the past year have made me realize how little I know about the world we live in.

And that is a very uncomfortable feeling. From junior school all the way through university, I've been expected to understand, to figure things out, and come up with the 'right answer'. So for many months, this feeling of ignorance dissuaded me from sharing any thoughts online. "I can't write about something until I really understand it". Then just recently I came across this interview with Richard Saul Wurman (the founder of TED among many things) which helped me to get out of this rut.

"I had an epiphany at about twenty years of age, a true momentary epiphany. It had nothing to do with making things understandable for the world. It had to do with my own ignorance.
Everything comes from that terrifying moment, that milli-second, that terrifying moment of utter truth when I understood that I understood nothing.
I'll tell you the fundamental NEXT thing that happened in my life. I started teaching at the University of Carolina at twenty-six years of age, an assistant professor of architecture. The epiphany there occurred in the first day of class was: Do I teach about what I know or do I teach what I want to learn about?"
Working out here in the development sector in Malawi, I feel that it's my task to communicate 'lessons from the field' to friends and family back in Canada. But when I read that interview, it became clear to me that the reason I was finding this task so difficult, was because I was trying to write about what I know. And instead what I need to be doing is to share the observations and stories that make me go- "hmm, I had no idea". It's in that spirit that I hope to write this blog.