One of the biggest challenges working with communities in Africa and the international development field is finding the balance between donor budget and the communities need. We are not a one fix all organisation and believe very much in linking and not leading. We try at every turn to ensure the work we take part in is sustainable- offers meaningful experiences for our international visitors and sustainable growth and development for the communities they interact with. We believe in empowering the local organisations we work with to ensure development is long lasting, community owned and sustainable. Sometimes this could be achieved easier by extra funds, more power from above and a harder push but we choose to take the longer future approach keeping the decisions local and the assessment (both needs and impact) community owned. This has many challenges and we are still unsure if this is the best method but in a territory fairly untrodden we are learning as we go and believe with continued communication, dedication and research this is the best way forward.

The more we work with communities and government bodies in Malawi the more we realise that no size fits all, there is no easy solution and how important it is, and should be, to rely on that local voice. Below are three case studies that outline these challenges. In each case a thorough Needs Assessments was taken by the local community organisation and RSC prior to projects being started.

‘The Water Project’

Objective: To extend the main water lines to bring mains water to lakeside villages.

Challenge: The water board did not have funding to do this from the government.

Solution: Funds needed to extend the piping and undergone the work.

Travelling throughout Malawi in most villages boreholes are evident. Most are sadly poorly maintained and some even sit broken while hours are spent by the women and children to collect water from nearby rivers. The community organisation we worked with understood that their water source needed to owned by the local water board and maintained by the government to make it a sustainable asset to the surrounding villages and avoid falling into the above trap. They approached RSC for funding. Easy solution would have been to pay for the extended pipes and get the water supply in within a few weeks but we chose instead to look at a shared solution that allowed community control and ownership. This took around 18 months. The local community organisation lobbied surrounding businesses to pay for labour to install the pipes, RSC provided funding (privately not publicly) for the materials- piping etc- and the local water board signed an agreement that with piping installed they would ensure the water supply reached the villages.

Outcome: Running water with a small nominal fee that is paid by village members to the water board and pays for the upkeep of the wells, piping and parts.

‘Community Builds’

Objective: To construct a village clinic and village secondary school.

Challenge: Donor funds versus Community need

Solution: Time, patience, communication and perseverance…

In 2013 and 2015 two teams fundraised to construct a village clinic and secondary school. Prior to their arrival both projects were assessed by RSC and the local community organisation, the government bodies were contacted, and realistic budgets were put in place. The teams arrived and worked hard to complete the structures within their budget and time frame.

The Clinic

The completion of the clinic in 2013 formed part of a film for RSC which can be seen here Soon after the group left in 2013 the community organisation once again contacted the Ministry of Health to organisation a handover date for the building and for the clinic to officially open. They were met by little response. A lot of perseverance and many meetings later they were told that the structure was now too small and they had chosen a new site for the village clinic and were starting construction soon. Shocked the community organisation was left with a fantastic structure, built for use a clinic, that now could not be handed to the government, would not be staffed with a nurse and could not be used for its intended purpose. We are now 2 years down the line. Ongoing communication, weekly emails and monthly meetings, has culminated in a reuse of the clinic as a HIV/AIDS centre and the community, with the support of RSC, are now trying to get the centre reinstated and government approval for change of use and hope by the end of 2016 to have the centre up and running.

‘The School’

RSC has worked for 5 years with a local organisation to support vulnerable secondary school children and in 2015 it was assessed that an additional secondary school support centre was needed to support these children. The relevant needs assessments were carried out and funds were raised. Two teams came out to Malawi and took part in assisting local building teams and the community to construct the structure. They left Malawi with the school near to completion but with funds depleted and contingency funding used up the school was unable to open. RSC and the community sat down and discussed at length the issue of the school block needing to be a particular size to fit the government standards, to provide space for the children and why more contingency had not been put to one side. We deliberated over and analysed the approach made for the build project and how most importantly we could move forward from here.

During this process our local team in Malawi approached us with the question: with these build projects do we do what we can afford or what the community actually need? What is the point is constructing a clinic or school that can not service the community needs just because this is what can be afforded? Are we not better to construct half the project and then wait to complete the project when funds can be found and then the structure can be of more use? But is this what a team coming to Malawi is looking for? The groups that travel with RSC choose this route because they trust our judgement to source projects to suit their needs and budgets and they want to be part of something sustainable. This takes time and the panic of quick fix solutions often blinds one when time, communication and planning is all that is needed.

Is the solution to not take on these challenges? Or is it to persevere to see these hurdles as challenges, to find a way around them and see the longer term goal as the most important. The goal in this case is to get the school opened and the secondary school children accessing the education they need. If this takes a 3 week build that does not fit requirements or a 12 month negotiation and search for further funding to open then the latter is the path we choose. (RSC has since sourced further funding and the school is set to open in September 2016)

In conclusion we are learning every step of the way. We need to be more thorough in the projects we take on, we need to expect shift and challenges at each stage and be prepared to support the community organisations we work with in the longer term and not shy away from this and plan for this to be the case.

In a highly volatile economic and social environment we have to be what we are trying to offer the students that travel with us- adaptable, resilient and search for longer term sustainability and not quick fix donor aid solutions…

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