Friday, July 31, 2009

Poverty and Vulnerability

(Or My Hypothesis Discussion #2)

What is poverty? Hefty question? Of course. There are plenty of definitions, interpretations, metrics and numerous contexts. During a workshop in our pre-departure training in May, all of us Southern Africa JFs were put to the task on this question and we came out with more questions and uncertainty than when we began. I would consider it part of the JF program to observe, understand and even experience it to a degree and then be able to at least formulate some sort of personal answer to this important question.

Only a few weeks left but you’ll still have to give me a bit more time for a full answer!

I want to address the concept of vulnerability which is often tied to poverty and which played a big part in one of my original placement hypotheses. First, the designation "subsistence farmer" tends to have a negative connotation. In my mind it was always used to imply a family who is barely scraping by, living hand to mouth with no leeway. This is where the concept of vulnerability played in: with no room to spare the family would be especially susceptible to shocks, whether environmental, health or otherwise, and thus vulnerable. For just a moment let’s remove coffee from the equation in Misuku and see what’s left. Generally speaking all of the farmers here would be subsisting just nicely. They are able to farm all their own food even with a degree of diversity in their vegetables. I’ve basically lived with farmers the whole time I’ve been here and seen clearly that the majority of their day is spent on food, whether cooking, harvesting, preparing or eating, but they could in theory just live off their land in a stable sort of equilibrium. Misuku is food-secure.

Healthy banana trees and bean crops in front of your average Misuku home.

Some of Misuku's women who work extremely hard to put food on the plates of their families every night.


I read an interesting article in an old African magazine here on the $1 USD per day World Bank benchmark for "extreme poverty". They make a good argument about the absurdity of this measurement which is somewhat in line with what I’ve seen in Misuku. Most people here are farming to live: there is little actual money involved. You could say many actually use closer to $0 per day. So then why use a financial measurement to describe their condition? Interestingly, if you look at the value of the food being harvested they would be actually pretty wealthy in a Canadian context where their organic produce would go for a nice premium in a trendy Yaletown market! I’m sure the World Bank tries to account for these things through tools like purchasing power parity (PPP) but I would guess for most people the measure only carries the very simple financial meaning. Regardless it is probably the most quoted "definition" of poverty around. In conclusion, I believe it misrepresents realities here so I’m putting in my vote to abolish the whole idea!

Further, in terms of susceptibility to health risks, the key ones of course are HIV/AIDS and Malaria in sub-Saharan Africa which both happen to have particularly low rates in the Misuku region. Thus, overall it appears to me that the chance of shocks on farming families is low. Now, even in a situation where something unfortunate was to occur to disturb a family, I am quite confident that there are sufficient informal social safety nets through friends and family to cushion all but the worst blows. So then where’s that big-bad-dangerous beast we call poverty?

Re-enter coffee, stage right.

Coffee farmers at Chanya pulping factory doing quality-control sorting of their freshly picked coffee cherries.

In Misuku, coffee production is what makes the difference between a static, stagnant existence of subsistence and one of progressive development.

Quote from a letter written to Canada by the Cooperative Board of Directors:

We have a vision for Misuku and the profits from our coffee sales will make this vision into reality. We should develop to a sufficient standard of living with our own hospital, roads which are passable year-round, iron sheet roofs, modern secondary schools with quality teaching staff. Coffee allows us to pay secondary school fees for our children and increase the level of education in our communities. We believe that development goes hand in hand with education. Coffee also gives full lives and opportunities to our communities’ HIV/AIDS orphans. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has not missed Misuku and there are many children left behind who need support.

Where I see real vulnerability is in the farmer’s control over their own development and this future they are dreaming of. I believe there is indeed potential. The most serious farmers are able to bring in MK 100 000 per year or $830 CAD. Here's the catch: coffee is very susceptible to international market fluctuations and this directly impacts the income of the families of Tebbie Chawinga, Jairos Musopole, Milward Kabaghe, Minney Kabuye, Lusubilo Kuyokwa, Bestine Msukwa and 600 other families in Misuku. (See Annette’s recent post about coffee markets.) Last year they were hit as hard as many others around the world by that financial crisis. Planning and budgeting for their development is a monumental task as it is. How do you explain to farmers in rural northern Malawi that they have to take a hit in their development because some damn American brokers were reckless in their lending?

Please buy Fairtrade coffee.

Insight: International Donor Project

Early in my placement I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting between a selection of farmers and a representative from a major international donor organization. The goal of this meeting was participation of the farmers.

Of course I came in rather skeptical having heard plenty about disconnects between the field and the donor level (EWB has an entire program to work on this in Western Africa!): excessive top-down demands, tied budgets and misguided priorities imposed on the "beneficiaries". Not to mention the stated goal of simply "participation" which smacks of the gratuitous and careless application common in the development sector of what can be a very good principle.

I have to admit that I’m tentatively pleased with how the donor has operated so far. However, the final returns to the co-op are yet to materialize and the project is to last several years yet so I reserve a final judgment. I’m sure the telling moment will be when implementation begins and we begin reporting back but unfortunately I won’t be able to follow that process.

The original applications were submitted by the management of the Co-op with support from the Union. As I understand it the application was mainly to express the general need and merit. It was subsequently accepted by donor which meant confirmed support to the tune of about $240 000.

Now all that was needed was participation from the beneficiaries. A cross-section of farmers from across the 18 Zones of the Co-op were gathered in our meeting hall and asked questions: What are the biggest problems in the Co-op? What are the biggest opportunities of the Co-op? (I got mention here!), Why are you deserving of the support? What are the goals of the Co-op? This discussion was rather disappointing and seemed to validate my concern for false participation. The support had already been confirmed and these questions had already been addressed in the original application. We were simply pretending that this information was new and relevant to the donor.

Next came an especially onerous process of participatory budgeting. (I tweeted about this fun activitiy.) There were too many people involved and it was extremely slow as we tried to look up exact costs. But, from fertilizer to pulping machines, panandi panandi (little by little) the farmers themselves identified how they wanted the funds to be allocated up to $240 000 or 33 million Malawi Kwatcha. This was carried through to be used in final technical arrangements between staff and donor. In this case it’s my view that the end justified the means. Pretty neat actually! No imposed priorities or ideas from the donor.

The following day I joined the staff for a follow up meeting with the donor rep. Here I was able to get a few more of my questions answered…

The support is allocated in two categories: 75% is pure grant and 25% is a loan. However we don’t repay the loan to the donor - it is actually termed a Community Reinvestment Grant and that 25% must be reinvested into the Misuku community after 3 years. Interestingly the loan is interest free though in this case I would say that’s a bad thing!

The donor is flexible on the budget as the actual sourcing and purchasing begins, allowing about +/- 15% on all line-items. The Union and donor will work in partnership on sourcing and base choices on both the farmer’s budget and quality of the items, not at all on the source. It appears there’s to be no tied aid here!

Now for reporting, always a burden from donors. This one didn’t disappoint. They are very strict about reporting, holding deadlines very hard. Each month 2 are required: one on financial progress and one field impacts. The Co-op management didn’t even bat an eye on this point but just nodded vigorously. They are at the mercy of the donor of course and can’t really put demands the other direction. At the time I thought this was particularly harsh on the part of the donor but having now spent a few months working here I feel that the reports will be valuable for accountability. The management and business practices of the Co-op aren’t particularly rigorous by western standards and these reports will serve to ensure good financial and impact management. I hope that it might also simply teach the staff by getting them to follow some rigorous yet (hopefully) reasonable procedures. Of course this also depends on the nature of the required reports – I’m imagining an ideal case for now!

Saturday, July 18, 2009


This post is dedicated with much love to Annelies.

"If you ask members of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to
explain who Dorothy is, you would get a very different answer from each person.
This is because Dorothy means something different for each member. Dorothy is
the figurative person that EWB works for in Africa, the person that keeps us
accountable and always questioning the decisions we make and the actions we
take. Dorothy is the person that drives us to carry on in our work, and
motivates us to push for a better world where she is able to reach her
potential." Quote

Although I'm not capable of checking myEWB, I hear the the OVS team has been taking turns posting about their Dorothies. I'd like to quickly speak of mine.

But first! What makes a "Dorothy"? When I settled on these two individuals below it wasn't a matter of close scrutiny. I didn't pull out a checklist of criteria. I didn't discuss with them their hopes and dreams, didn't look into their personal history or family. Heck, I don't even know the name of the man. In both cases it was "Dorothy at first sight" -- it was just instinctive.

No, I don't think I have special Dorothy-sense, but what I do have is a regular old people-sense transferrable from Canada. I would say that I just got a really good vibe from these two and if I'm going to be committing myself to someone, I'd like it to be to them.

Deliwe Shaba. This women is a Misuku coffee farmer and the Chairwomen of our one all-women farmer group. She's not a loud leader but is clearly hard working and forward-thinking. The farmers here in Misuku like to speak of their development in terms of things like steal roofs but in my opinion this women's group is the most significant sign of development in the community. And Deliwe is quietly leading the charge. She is soft-spoken, thoughtful, sincere and earnest. I'm already in admiration of her and I think she would make a very good boss for me as well.

Anonymous lorry driver. I know even less about this man. I drove in the back of his truck between Kapoka and Karonga on my most recent journey from Misuku to Mzuzu. I probably said a total of two sentances to him, "I am going to urinate" and "Thank you sir, you were a good driver." But nonetheless he just seemed like a really good person, representing all the good I see in Malawians here.

As Annelies puts it above, these people motivate me to push for a better world.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Coming up next…

I don’t know when I’ll next have an internet connection so I’ll provide a forward looking post to tide you over. Just a quick rundown of my programme for the next few weeks. (Aside: around here we refer to any set of activities as someone’s ‘programme’ whether work related or just plans for a Saturday.)

I’ve got 5 zone M&E assessments coming up. Kasaghala and Chanya on the 15th, Chanya and Chisi on the 16th, then Chinongo on the 23rd. I’m really hoping these are received well. It may be an evaluation coming down from the Union but I think they have potential to be quite useful for the zones.

The JFs are rejoining at Senga Bay from June 19-21 after a month apart getting to know our placements. Should be a fun reunion with some good discussions about our respective impact plans and change projects.

Speaking of change project I’ve got some specific ideas rolling around in my head and hopefully will have something definite to outline next time I get to the blogging.

I’ll be attending the Misuku Co-op Board Meeting on June 26th followed by the Misuku AGM on the 27th. I’m hoping for a good look into the democracy and decision making capacity of the co-op structure as it stands right now.

Enjoying the village life

I’d like to introduce you to two especially good friends I made here in Misuku.

My first weekend in Misuku I jumped right into the field to spend some time with a farmer. Mr. Winston Silungwe was gracious enough to welcome me into his home. Thus I joined his wife Winith Kayange, sons Stan and Max and daughter Wez in their rural life in the coffee farming village of Chanya. Mr Silungwe is a very serious coffee farmer with 2600 coffee bushes which he proudly showed me right away. He’s also the local chairman of the emerging honey producers business group with 50 hives of his own spread across the hills of his village. I had the chance to learn from the expert and help him hang one of his new hives while I was there. Although he wasn’t able to complete secondary schooling himself he believes very strongly in education and, while his own children are still in primary which is free, he is financing secondary education for two of his nephews through his coffee profits. It was a bit challenging to break through his serious and business-like exterior but I managed a few laughs as we sat around the fire at night contemplating the world. He is certainly a very driven man and benevolent with his contributions to his family and community.

This first weekend was also my proper initiation to the famous label ‘mzungu’. Walking through the hills I could hear the call before I could see the little faces gathering and staring bright-eyed. “Wisa! Mzungu!” (Come! White man!) It’s a story that’s been told by every EWB volunteer but it bears repeating I think. Calls to neighbouring compounds brought more children to the roadside. What an event! There was a white-man in the village! Some giggled, some waved, some stared blankly and some tried desperately to hide behind something while continuing to gawk. Feeling a bit like a minor celebrity I waved and greeted them “Mwaghona” eliciting either deeper silence in some or gales of laughter in others (Pr. Mwa-oh-na, Good morning). This of course was only the beginning and is bound to continue the whole time I’m here. I certainly don’t feel special but at least I can bring some excitement to their day just by walking by!

Two weeks later I was right back out in the field this time welcomed by Simon Mwanguku of Ndolopa village. Simon is a bit more laid-back than Mr. Silungwe though he’s also a strong farmer as zone vice-chair with 1200 coffee plants to his name. He’s a bit goofy too as you can tell from the photo above. His wife Catherine Simwela is also a strong coffee farmer and secretary of the all-women Business Centre in Ndolopa. Simon is quite proud of this and during one discussion acknowledged ruefully that women spend money more effectively and usually on family development. They have two young children, a son Joles and daughter Aggieness though Simon is aiming to eventually add a couple more to his brood. While in Ndolopa I was worked hard doing some weeding and fertilizing in his field of Irish potatoes, helping plant a bed of onions and harvesting a load of ground-nuts. Finally I had to get back to work at the co-op but we parted ways on great terms and decided we were indeed brothers.

Some reflections on the rural livelihoods in Misuku:

  • The largest portion of their average day is spent on food: planting, growing, processing, preparing and eating.
  • Farmers are of varying busyness throughout the year but always work 6 days a week for about 5 hours or so in the morning out in the field. During the harvesting season this can double.
  • Local social networks are very important whether simply for passing time or for providing impromptu help hanging a bee-hive or harvesting ground-nuts. People love to just stop by to chat in the morning and evening.
  • They’re primarily interested in hearing about our food and weather in Canada – this seems to be consistent with the main concerns in their own lives.
  • Football is always a good discussion topic!

Getting down to business in Misuku

So this Andrew character, he’s ‘working’ in Malawi eh? What does that really mean?

I’m working for the Misuku Coffee Cooperative which is part of the Mzuzu Coffee Union. I described previously the gist of my job here as I understood it from back in Canada but it has since evolved and clarified a bit. My work plan involves 3 facets right now but is meant to be pretty dynamic to adjust to evolving circumstances and needs.

First, this is a cultural exchange. I’m here to learn about Malawians and their livelihoods. I’m here to learn about coffee growing. I’m here to learn some new skills. And everyone I meet certainly wants to speak to learn something from me as well! Whether I’m learning about the labor that goes into primary coffee processing to share with friends back home or their thinking on gender in development is being stretched, both sides have much to gain.

Second, I’m assisting the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) team from the Union (that’s Robert’s group) with facilitation of farmer group self-assessments to investigate the effectiveness of records, planning and organization in all aspects of their coffee business. The structural assessments I spoke of before are embedded in this task.

Third is capacity building with staff. The areas identified so far are computer skills, communication skills (ex. reporting), presentation skills and general M&E attitudes.

Currently my focus is on the learning side as I get to know my environment. This has led to lots of field work and the 2 field stays. So far I’ve not yet settled in with a full-time family as I’ve been jumping around. I’m based out of the co-op guest house but the plan is to move out within the next few days.

Aside from that I also have a certain background agenda as well which is basically as follows: have positive impact wherever and however possible! This means keeping my eyes open, looking for gaps to fill, capacity to build, systems to enhance, and essentially identify leverage points to create some constructive change somewhere between the coffee seedling and the manager. Whatever I can come up with will be formed into a bit of an impact plan or change project to be integrated into my general plans above. This is partly where the dynamic nature of my work plan comes into play.

My co-workers here at the Misuku Cooperative are:
Isaac Nyondo, Cooperative Development Manager (CDM)
Maclean Nyasulu, Cooperative Accounts Associate (CAA)
Levi Siyame, Cooperative Extension Training Associate – Misuku West (CETA)
Mwakambonje Msukwa, CETA – Misuku East/Centre
Mr. Manda, Stores Clerk
A third CETA and a senior managing CETA will also be joining us here shortly.

And how’s that all going for you?
So far the language has posed some barriers making me feel like I’m not getting the full picture despite efforts by my friends in the office to translate. Although the focus is on learning right now to become integrated into the community and understand farmer realities I’m feeling an imbalance with the office work. A big part of my work will involve the co-op itself of course so I need to begin taking more initiative to help and search out leverage points there – I’ve only got 9 weeks left here after all! I’m hoping to be able to eventually start integrating and work on the boundary between the co-op and the farmers. Overall though I’m pretty happy and feel quite welcomed and appreciated by all the staff and farmers I talk to.

Malawi Votes!

My travels up through Malawi happen to have corresponded with the 2009 National Malawi Elections so they were some pretty exciting times. I’ve come to the conclusion that Malawians appreciate their democracy more than we do in Canada. It’s not as strong as ours, lacking things like good media scrutiny, but they are all very engaged in the process they have.

I was in Mzuzu for election day and visited one of the polling stations. You can see above how ridiculously busy it was. Those line-ups were taking 20 minutes to get through! I bet people would turn away from lines like that at a voting station in Canada.

Annette is posing there with a local proudly displaying the black ink left on his finger from casting a presidential vote.

Another interesting phenomena was the massive and wholehearted support I saw for presidential candidates and MP candidates. Well actually it was only one presidential candidate I saw people supporting – perhaps because I was in the northern region. Truthfully I’m not even sure who the contender was! Everywhere I looked I saw posters for Bingu wa Mutharika, current president and 2009 candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In development people sometimes speak of challenges with rural implementation and distribution, however when it comes to elections there was clearly no trouble getting out endless Bingu shirts, hats, notebooks, buttons and posters all across Malawi. I don’t quite understand the craze and celebrity-like status of Bingu but it seems he is good at delivering very tangible returns to the public, connecting them with his face and using that for his political marketing. Farmers I spoke with here in Misuku really latched onto the subsidized fertilizer he had been able to provide them.

Finally, I had a cool experience in the evening just as we were driving through the last hills to get to Misuku. The sun had just finished setting and the hills were peaceful. The moonlight occasionally caught tin-roofs of huts along the roadside and cooking fires dotted the slopes. Then a strange ruckus started to build ahead of us and we rounded a corner to find a veritable street party in our way. Fires were burning, music was playing, women and men alike were dancing away, hooting and hollering. I was happy to see some fun but had no concept of the meaning and didn’t really question it. Moses, the driver clued me in. It was now two days after the election, just about sufficient time to have counted the votes and announce the results of the MP elections at least. Apparently these folks were rather pleased that their candidate had won! Again, would you ever see anything of the like in Canada?

PS. Bingu of course eventually won the presidency for a second term. Everything went without a hitch as far as I can tell and Malawi completed a successful and peaceful election.


Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. - Nelson Mandela

If we are to have any hope of success we require an approach of constructive humility. - Eric Dudley