Becki Curtis shares her experiences as she undertakes an internship with Jersey Overseas Aid and Practical Action
Moni and Muli bwanji….
from Malawi! Since arriving in Lilongwe 6 weeks ago, I have been very busy getting involved in Practical Action’s work in Southern Africa. From supporting the introduction of a new awards management system (making it easier to monitor project grants) to a content gathering trip in the rural hills of northern region, it feels as though I have whirled through a whole range of aspects important to successfully running an NGO.
Expectations: Before leaving, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Malawi. I knew that the country was statistically one of the poorest in the world, ranking 171/189 according to the 2017 Human Development Index, with over half the population living below the poverty line. However, I had also heard from many people that Malawi is a beautiful, relaxed and stable country. People here call Malawi ‘the warm heart of Africa’ and after just over one month here, I have to agree that it truly is.
Settling In: That said, it wasn’t the simplest start, as Lilongwe is probably not a capital in the way that you might expect! Upon arrival, I spent my first 10 days in a modest hotel in the old town whilst I began to look for more permanent accommodation. This, I realized quite quickly, involved a fair amount of balancing and prioritizing as the city is not the simplest place to navigate, with most accommodation in leafy suburbs and most facilities a short drive or a very long walk away. Lilongwe has not always been the capital of Malawi, starting life as a small fishing village before being first declared a town in 1947. Most buildings in Lilongwe tend to only be one or two stories high, sprawling out into new districts, whilst in the centre of the city there remains a large expanse of forest that is now a Wildlife Centre. Most of the city’s expansion has taken place in recent years, with its population of about 1.3 million people being double that of 10 years ago. Eventually, I decided to rent a room in a shared house with other expats, just 3km from Practical Action’s office. However, before I had the chance to move in, I was already off on a week-long project trip, travelling the length of the country in preparation for the commencement of a new energy project.
Project Trips: With a new project underway, I have already had the opportunity to accompany team members on two project trips. The purpose of the first trip was to meet with implementing partners as part of a due diligence exercise, giving us the opportunity to discuss and assess each organization’s existing processes and capacity to meet donor requirements regarding reporting, handling of funds and procurements. Alternatively, our second trip involved conducting interviews with both the prospective beneficiaries of an upcoming project and the beneficiaries of a completed Practical Action project, MEGA, Malawi’s first ever hydro-power station.
Speaking with people in the rural communities, it was clear how important energy access is for both economic development and for a simple standard of living. In the communities in Mulanje now living with electricity, proud business owners showed us their maize mills, welding equipment and lit-up shops. A woman at the clinic, who had given birth just hours before, explained how much easier it had been with electricity, as previously she had had to bring candles for the medical staff to use whilst they grasped around in the dark for their surgical instruments. In the northern hills, where the new project is due to be implemented, I also had the opportunity to visit the project site before work began and to understand what the community wanted for the future. Living 60km from the nearest town, teachers spoke about difficulties teaching without lights and of issues trying to explain simple concepts without being able to use a television to show the children a demonstration. People spoke of fear for their safety at night and of how cooking with firewood was very difficult during rainy season, meaning that they would sometimes go to bed hungry.
These stories are not only important for Practical Action to share to raise awareness, but also help to gauge and demonstrate the impacts that such projects have on people’s lives. From my time learning about the international development sector, it is clear that historically there has been very little funding available for monitoring and evaluating the success of projects and the lessons to be learnt. Therefore, it will be exciting to be able to track the progress of the new project in the upcoming years and I hope to be able to return to the community one day in the future to see the difference that access to electricity has made to the people I met.
Rugby to Lilongwe
After four months, my time at Practical Action’s UK Headquarters is coming to an end and soon I will be setting off to Lilongwe, Malawi, to start my overseas placement. Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to engage with various UK teams in Practical Action, allowing me to gain a better understanding, and experience, of the organization.
During my time with the corporate partnerships team I was involved in multiple aspects of their work, from drafting propositions to assessing the risk of developing a relationship with potential corporate funders. This was particularly interesting to me as sources of funding, and the objectives of potential funders, are important ethical questions for NGOs.
I also had the opportunity to work with the UK comms team, which included drafting a social media plan scheduling the promotion of the upcoming BlueDot Festival, where Practical Action is charity partner. I also reviewed a final project report to identify the figures and stories which may be of interest to the media. In order to truly effect change, it is important for an organization to raise awareness of international realities, share knowledge and fundraise for future work. Spending time with the UK comms team, it was interesting to see how their role spans these responsibilities, working to share the stories of beneficiaries, promote fundraising campaigns and engage other institutions and organizations in Practical Action’s research and publications.
Recently, I was also invited to attend, remotely, Southern Africa’s project manager workshop. This was an interesting opportunity to learn about the projects currently ongoing in Southern Africa, designed to improve the lives of farmers through developing skills and market access to result in more sustainable and profitable practices. Each project embraced unique ideas, from drying tomatoes to planting bamboo. The workshop was also designed to allow the project managers to discuss the potential risks involved in implementing their projects and to share possible solutions or ways to mitigate risks.
For instance, in Zimbabwe, recent rapid inflation has meant that any delay to a project could have serious financial implications. Likewise, projects sometimes involve a level of community contribution, designed to promote local ownership of, and responsibility for, project assets. In one instance discussed, the farmers wanted to pay their contribution ‘in kind’, in the form of goats. However, that would place a burden on Practical Action’s team to be responsible for the sale of the goats. As an alternative, it was suggested that the team could help connect the farmers with goat buyers (developing market relations), so that they could then pay their contribution to the project in cash. However, this also comes with complications as, due to the instability of the local currency, contractors currently prefer to be paid in USD rather than Zimbabwean Bond Notes.
All in all, it has been interesting to see the different mechanisms and roles underlying an international NGO. Furthermore, heading to Malawi in the aftermath of the cyclone, which severely affected parts of south Malawi and surrounding countries, there is much to understand about how development projects are impacted by natural disasters, and what role development organizations like Practical Action can have in the long-term rebuilding of impacted communities.
I have now been at Practical Action’s UK office for a month and a half and, since the very beginning, it has been a whirl of friendly faces, deadlines and meetings.
Since my arrival I have been based in the International Programmes Team (IPT), giving me a unique insight into the co-ordination and facilitation of development programmes overseas. Although each project is different, projects such as the BICAS Project, part of which involves Gravity Goods Ropeways [https://practicalaction.org/blog/news/the-gravitational-release-the-hillside-story-of-the-western-nepal/] (funded by JOA and the EU), are implemented in the field by Practical Action Staff and Local Partners and coordinated by the Regional Country Office of Kathmandu. IPT, based in the UK, provides additional support, ranging from partnership brokerage to systems support, negotiating contracts to project development.
Recently, I also had the opportunity to learn more about the sector as a whole when I attended the two day BOND course “Introduction to International Development”. Covering topics from ‘Development Theories’ to ‘Key Players’, from ‘Project Cycles’ to ‘Future Trends’, the course really contextualized the work being undertaken in the international development sector. Over the two days we participated in a range of activities designed to encourage us to consider the complexity of international trade, engage us in developing an NGO adapted to potential future economic and social changes, and question what ‘development’ means to us. It was striking to learn that substantially more money is sent to developing countries every year by migrant workers than is received in international aid. Overall, the course was a really important opportunity to reflect on how we understand, and engage with, the world around and the type of future we are looking to create for everyone.
My time with IPT has also given me the chance to better understand how the ‘systems thinking’ approach interplays with the design and implementation of programmes to catalyze sustainable change across a region. Historically, international aid predominantly involved the provision of emergency supplies which, although life-saving, was only a short-term solution. As a result, the international development sector increasingly sought to change people’s circumstances by improving their opportunities in life, for instance, by implementing clean water sources, building schools and implementing irrigation systems that allow land to be cultivated. However, whilst lives have been undoubtedly improved by this approach, it has become increasingly clear over time that the solution is not that simple. Indeed, proximity to the market place, access to financing and national regulations all determine whether a business will be prosperous, or even possible!
In response to this, the ‘systems thinking’ approach involves identifying an issue faced by people in the developing world, such as a lack of access to electricity, and then looks at the existing structures and key players to determine why the needs of the people are not currently being met. The aim is to identify changes that can be made to the existing systems that will facilitate and catalyze the sustainable improvement of lives in the region.
Excitingly, I will soon be able to see for myself how a ‘systems thinking’ approach leads to projects, like the Gravity Goods Ropeways, which have the power to sustainably change lives for the better as there are only a few months left before my overseas placement begins!
New Beginnings: Introducing JOA!
Now that a hectic October has come to an end, it has finally sunk in that this is real; I am actually working with Jersey Overseas Aid and Practical Action, with the dream of carving out a career in international development.
For those unfamiliar, Practical Action is a global innovator, inspiring people to discover and adopt ingenious, practical ways to free themselves from poverty and disadvantage. Based in Rugby, UK, Practical Action works around the world, including Nepal, where currently two projects are underway in association with JOA. During the course of this thirteen month internship I will be based in Jersey and Rugby, as well as undertaking a six month overseas placement on a Practical Action project. For now though, I am just at the beginning of this journey, working in Jersey at the JOA office to better understand the role of a donor organisation and the JOA’s unique place in Jersey.
I began this internship three weeks ago with an MA in Middle Eastern Studies, voluntary experience in Ghana, Nicaragua and Calais, and a three year career in the legal profession. I have always wanted to pursue a career in development but after years of working every university holiday and still never having the funds to cover the cost of gaining essential experience in the industry, the path forward was difficult to envision. Fortunately, the chance to apply for the internship arose and excitedly I accepted the offer of this incredible opportunity, ready for a new beginning. Not entirely certain what to expect, it became clear that, with the 2019 community work project (CWP) launch and a series of educational outreach workshops ahead, I was going to need to learn the workings of JOA very quickly!
By day two I was on the street, shiny new JOA brochure in-hand, speaking to members of the public about the work JOA undertakes and encouraging enthusiastic individuals to consider joining one of our 2019 CWPs in either Tanzania, Kenya or Lebanon.
October’s outreach activities continued the following week as we took to the Skills Fair to encourage individuals to consider utilising their skills for international development, whether they wanted to be engineers, medics or had an interest in marketing. With our virtual reality headsets, we were also able to truly show people what Jersey can achieve, as countless children and adults excitedly took a virtual tour of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, run by Orbis, one of JOA’s selected partners.
Week three arrived with a flurry of activity as our secondary school workshops commenced and nearly one hundred students undertook our ‘Stop the Spread’ challenge. Led by Practical Action’s education experts Julie Brown and Bren Hellier, the workshops introduced students to the issue of infectious diseases and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, before inviting teams to think on their feet and build a low-cost hand-washing device designed to conserve water and minimise the spread of diseases. During the course of the workshops I led several short tours of JOA’s free public exhibition, set out in the Gallery of the Jersey Museum, in order to introduce students to the impact JOA has worldwide. My role also gave me the opportunity to discuss the workshops and JOA’s activities with students, as well as get more involved than I had anticipated, as occasionally all hands were required to tie, tape and glue the final prototypes before presentations began!
In addition to outreach activities, during these initial three weeks with JOA I have also had the opportunity to review project proposals and project reports, develop a schools section on the JOA website (complete with educational material developed by Practical Action in collaboration with JOA), and assist with social media. With November fast approaching and many months of this internship still ahead, I’ve had a fascinating whirlwind start and can’t wait for everything still to come! Just watch this space…