For myself and many others, international internships present a series of “firsts”. First time travelling internationally, first time in a new country, first time speaking Chichewa, first time eating nsima, first time sleeping beside elephants, and the list goes on; however, of all these firsts, none has been so revealing as the first time working in project implementation.
Based on the shared experiences of others, I anticipated that my lifestyle in Malawi would be drastically different. On the contrary, the nation’s growing urban centre has presented few moments of culture shock. Although there are obvious and undeniable differences between the growing city of Lilongwe and Ottawa, both places offer the small urban luxuries that provide just enough of the comforts that growing up in Canada makes one accustom to. My ability to meet other foreigners, purchase imported goods, and even share in common culture with Malawians, truly illuminates the reach of globalization and the deepening interconnections between all of humanity.
As a result of these conditions of modernity, living in Malawi has come to feel natural but working in the field of development still shocks me everyday. The majority of the time it is a positive shock, and even when it is negative there is an important development lesson to be learned. Most importantly, I now understand that effective project implementation is heavily dependent on a wide variety of indeterminate factors that make development programming an exceptionally difficult field. The Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi (FAWEMA) adopts a participatory approach towards their work and I am grateful for having been granted the autonomy to play an active role in overcoming the challenges facing girls’ education.
For example, the Community Solutions to Gender Barriers in Malawi (CSGBM) project has two main goals: (1) to improve the retention, performance and completion rate of girls’ education by providing access to affordable feminine hygiene products to female adolescent learners, and (2) to improve the livelihoods of community women by establishing an income generating activity (IGA) for Mother Groups. With clear objectives, the project has been celebrated as a valuable “quick fix” to one barrier facing girls’ education. In light of the practicality of this intervention, many unpredictable challenges have arisen such as rising inflation which increase the cost of sanitary pad inputs and rising fuel costs which make travelling from Lilongwe to rural areas expensive.
Working in a developing country where infrastructure is often weak, where human capital may be low, and where institutional capacity varies, only adds to the situation. At the same time, it demonstrates the highly intersectional nature between all sub-fields of human development as the CSGBM project is not just about how FAWEMA runs the project: it is also about whether the local construction project repairs the road so girls and mothers can reach their communities more efficiently, or whether the Government of Malawi pays their teachers so the matron or patron show up to run the Girls’ Clubs after school. These externalities can feel overwhelming at times, but strong organizations find innovative ways to overcome road blocks.
Redesigning the reusable sanitary pad to reduce input costs and step-up to market competition is one of the first initiatives my colleague and fellow Students Without Borders intern, Brittany Thurston and I decided to take. Since the project aims to become a sustainable IGA for Mother Groups, making this adjustment was critical to ensuring the reusable pads are affordable and comfortable for young girls. Although this activity was not initially planned, continuous monitoring and evaluation allowed our organization to identify and address this challenge before further resources were spent.
Despite operating within difficult contexts, international development organizations face more scrutiny and criticism than many other fields. Corruption has damaged donor trust and forced NGOs to jump through hoops to secure funding for the rapidly approaching fiscal year. While many under-funded, local organizations struggle to meet these expectations, the progressive partnership between WUSC, Match International, and FAWEMA has proven that donors and recipients can work collaboratively to account for the rapidly changing conditions of the 21st century. As a SWB and uOttawa international intern, observing the complex institutional relationships that govern program implementation in the developing world has been extremely revealing. Thankfully, the lessons I have learnt in these past few months will stay with me in my professional and personal life for decades to come.