Sunday, November 24, 2013

Oh, This Doesn't Look Good.

Starting in September of this year, while America was warming up to government shut downs and the roll out of Obamacare, Malawi was already knee deep in its own political upheaval. The Cashgate Scandal has rocked the nation. Billions of kwacha (millions of USD) have gone unaccounted for, seemingly blatantly pilfered from under the Government Accountability Office, both under President Joyce Banda's regime and the previous President. This post by a Malawian blogger provides a great summation of all the drama.

As a result, direct budgetary support by some major external donors (the UK) was suspended this month. There are rumors that this will lead to forex shortages, fuel queues, price hikes in the coming months. This is disconcerting because they are also the leanest months of the year for most Malawians, and this time around, it is also the run up to the May 2014 Presidential elections. This sounds to be like the definition of a tinderbox.

We've already seen the kwacha devalue by nearly a third (it was 330 MWK to $1 when I arrived in July; it's now at 415.) Good if you're holding US dollars, bad if you're not and trying to buy things in kwacha. Basic goods have already gotten more expensive, as the more inelastic goods show us - gas is up by 50 kwacha per liter, and 1/2 dozen eggs went from 390 to 449 MWK.

I recall back in March/April 2012, when fuel queues were long and the country was broiling in protest. We were saved that time around by the precipitous death of the President, and I was personally saved by not living in the country full time. This time though, I'm not leaving. I've made my home here, and I'm a bit nervous about what will happen next. My longer term Malawian friends say that it's par for the course; if not this scandal then another one. One only needs to batten down the hatches, keep your gas tank full and your wits about you.

Regardless, it feels weird to be surrounded by all this uncertainty, kind of like a frog in a pot of water, that may or may not be slowly boiling.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Chronicle of Something Good

Ok, it could be Friday night euphoria talking (I made it!), but it dawned on me during my drive home, that of late, I haven't been focusing very much on the good things here in Malawi. It's been a tough week. Nothing I couldn't handle, but none the less.

I had a discussion with my friend Deb before departing for Malawi about happiness. She was wondering when she's ever be "Happy". I mentioned to her that my thinking on the matter had changed over the years. Happiness isn't a static state; it's more of a fluctuation. One doesn't flatline at happiness; you hover above and below it, like a sound wave or a a frequency. The net effect - the average - is happiness.

With that in mind, the troughs are easier to take because it's only a matter of time before you hit a peak. The problem is that we really only take time to mark the troughs (Ugh! My day was so crappy! My boss did blah blah blah, I feel so fat, etc, etc). So, when we look back at the days, weeks and years, we have a negative reporting bias rather than the average hi's and lo's.

In the spirit of more positive reporting - and just in time for Thanksgiving - here are my positive things about my life in Malawi thus far:

  • I have really, really enjoyed re-learning how do cook things from scratch. Hummus, pumpkin pie, salsa, local chicken (with neck and feet stuffed into the rib cage). I am Martha Stewart ON FIRE. I can't wait for Thanksgiving, because I"m planning a huge feast for 12 of my friends. My table is going to be full of fresh flowers from trees in my garden and mismatched plates. It will awesome.)
  • The food here is more 'fresh' and 'local' than any hipster could ever dream of. If you don't eat your produce with two days, it will start to rot. Tonight I made salsa from tomatoes that were still warm from being outside, green chili peppers pulled from my friends garden, and coriander/cilantro that still had dirt on it. All the while, chickens were clucking outside my back door. It was the best damn salsa I've ever eaten.
  • I love the way things are MacGyver'ed (yes I made up a new verb) around here. It reminds me of being on the farm. Don't have the right size screw? whittle a stick down to the right size. Don't have the right screwdriver? Use a coin. Don't have a bed net frame? Make one out of bamboo. Yeah, the net effect is a little like living in Swiss Family Robinson and usually works only half the time, but it makes me feel so capable. I'm using parts of my brain I never knew existed. I am also really missing duct tape.
  • Constant battle with bizarre bugs where I WIN. Last week it was cockroaches, recluse spiders and scorpions. Just two seconds ago, an African centipede (an inch thick and twelve inches long) wandered onto my porch. After freaking out, I deflected it into my garden with a pillow. I am terrified, I am still bigger than these bugs. There's something to be said about constantly facing your fears, and winning (atleast in the bug wars). 
  • Instant Community. Expats and Malawians alike. I've met some wonderful people who have accepted me with all my homelessness, larium induced hallucinations and poop stories. There are some co-workers who also don't suck. It's a pleasure to get to know these people, and create a community of my own here.
  • The smells. Ok, so I still don't understand how a place with so many flowers can always smell like urine, but for the most part, I enjoy the rich, heady smell of the outdoors.
  • I love that it gets light at 5am here. I often get up early and go for a walk. The fact that it is cold and snowy in Minnesota right now isn't lost on me. 
  • I am thankful that I my family and friends have been so supportive of this move. I've learned a ton about myself and what it takes to run an office (officeS) in Africa. Growing is painful, but atleast now I know how to fix a generator.
A co-worker of mine back at HQ once said to me, when he first started, "I feel like I should be more busy." I told him not to worry, he would be. Taking the easy days as they come (instead of second guessing them and trying to find busy work), makes the days where you are dogpiled a bit easier. Today wasn't a true "easy" day, but it was "easier." No matter, I'll take it. And now I have a record.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Don't Follow Your Passion, Bring It With You

I've been struggling lately with Big Picture Development Questions.  Like: Am I effective? Is this project even making a difference? And even the more day to day struggles like: Does anybody even care?

I think it comes with the territory when face with complicated approaches that may or may not be working in a culture that you don't really understand. I like to think that I'm good with ambiguity, but a few things have let me down lately where it makes me really doubt if what I'm doing I will stand on its own if I wasn't around to push it forward. These things are small - inconsequential, really - holding Monday morning staff meetings, regularly scheduled vehicle maintenance, getting the generator fixed - but they need doing. I'm getting ready to head on vacation for a month at the holiday season, and I'm seriously doubting that anything will continue when I'm out.

I've seen this before, I've had the conversations with other, wizened, cynical Development workers and let me be clear - I hate feeling this way. What's even more frustrating is that I don't think I've been here long enough to feel this cynical. And really, nothing terrible has happened. I just...for whatever reason, feel kind of blah.

Because I'm conducting an experiment to see how long I can go without television (my sea shipment hasn't arrived yet), I've been doing a lot more reading, a lot of more writing and a lot more navel gazing. I came across this recent TED radio hour about Success (published Nov 1). Mike Roe, the host of Dirty Jobs was interviewed for part of it. He mentioned something that struck a chord with me.

"Follow your passion, that's probably the worst advice I ever got," he said. The idea that passion makes a great career choices is a misnomer. What is more appropriate is finding the job, and Digging In. Don't follow your passion, Bring it With You.  It struck because I realized that as of late, I'd lost my passion for development work. I'm not really energized by any of the daily conundrums put before me (granted, recently they've been more along the variety of how to get a trash bin in the ladies bathroom...not particularly stimulating..)

The same TED radio hour highlighted a school teacher, Angela Duckworth, tenured professor at Penn. She recently got a Macarthur Genius grant to study why some students are more successful than others. What she found was that it wasn't the smartest kids that did the best. It was those who had the most Grit. According to Ms. Duckworth, Grit is the disposition to pursue very long term goals with stamina. Grit is living life like it's a marathon.

Grit. Grit is the voice in your head that says - this is hard, but I'm going to do it anyway.Grit is continuing to smile even when the electrician lies TO YOUR FACE that he will arrive the next morning. Grit is staying late to google the different parts of a generator to figure out if you're being overcharged. Grit is asking the external evaluation firm to revise their qualitative tools yet again, even though you're two weeks behind schedule. Grit is tedium wrapped in faith that one day, something will click.

So this is me. Digging in. I must not have packed my Passion, but I have faith it will come.

Perhaps it's in my sea shipment.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

No Strings Attached

I'm beginning to suspect that giving money away is harder than it sounds.

It all started with this NPR piece in August on an organization called Give Directly. This organization has the sexy premise of giving money to Poor People in Africa. That's it. Just giving money away. Gifts range on average around $300, although NPR's piece focuses on $1000.

A few days ago, I came across this article in the Economist, which evaluated the program. I don't have time to recap the whole thing in detail, but in a nutshell - the design of the study was done well (those of my evaluator friends will find that most interesting) and the findings were that - guess what? Poor people in Africa don't all immediately run out and spend their money on banana wine and hookers.

In development speak, we call these Unconditional Cash Tranfers (UCT). A few years ago, Conditional Cash Tranfers (CCTs) were really popular. That is, you give someone money but they have to do something, such as agree to send their girls to school, etc. These are widely popular as incentive programs (and also popular with economists).

Unconditional Cash Transfers kind of go against the grain of development work because most of us are beholden to donors (and taxpayers) that want Accountability, and to some extent, the Good Glow effect. That is, they want to know how and where their money was used so they can  justify to Congress where the money went; or as individuals, feel good about doing something nice for someone.

Makes sense, right? Why would you give something away without knowing how it is used? I mean, what if those resources get misused? (Like spend on - gasp - Overhead? Or banana wine and hookers?)

All of this talk of 'Unconditional Cash Transfers" got me thinking about giving away money, why and how we do it. The more I think about it, the more caught up I am in the term "unconditional". Is anything really unconditional? Think about it, even when you give money to a charitable organization in the United States, aren't you expecting something back (say, at the very minimum, a tax break)?

Giving something away unconditionally (otherwise known as "giving something for nothing") is harder than it sounds. No expectations. No returns on investment. No judgement. And, if you don't know how they spent or used it, then there's not even the warm fuzzy of knowing unequivocally that you did a Good Thing. Looking more closely, being able to give something unconditionally means you set aside your expectations and even your own Good Glow. Giving unconditionally means that you give simply because it is right, or because you are able, because you feel compelled.

And for no other reason.

I'm not arguing against accountability. Far from it. What I'm saying is that when you do something nice for someone - you want that little ego boost of seeing it be used - and used in a manner that falls in line with your values. But it's human nature to want to tie strings to something we give - whether it be operational or emotional. So, while I'm not against Unconditional Cash Transfers, I'm asking: does that really exist?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Big Move

I've moved to Malawi.

This happened about four months ago, and every once and while the enormity of what I've done sinks in. It was a move I contemplated for many, many months, and one that actually took more than a few years to hatch. It was well thought-out, planned. It was the right move.

I'm one of two Deputies, with a triple role of heading up Administrative, Evaluation and Grants components of the project here. It's a big job, but doable. I'm here for two years, but to be honest with you, every day I think about quitting. I liken it to when you start a really good, tough workout. You know you'll like it, once you get into it. But man, those first 20 minutes are hell.

The move itself went pretty smoothly. I still marvel that I was able to sell my house (in one day), inclusive of my cat. I was homeless up until about a months; couch surfing, living out of a hotel, then staying with new friends. The good thing about having a long run up to a big change is that you have time to think you're ready. That I chose to do this, and had thought out all the options, has made the move slightly easier.

I love it here. I love my job, my life. I'm incredibly happy, but it's hard. I'm committed to living in Malawi, in approaching it the only way I know how to tackle challenging things - with my whole self: authentic, clumsy, big-mouthed, frustrated, joyful, curious, messy, hilarious and yes sometimes a bit drunken.

I've also decided to become a writer. After too many years of wanting to do things, I finally see the that isn't enough. My job has taught me that you can be Conflict Expert just by calling yourself the Conflict Expert, so I've decided to call myself a Writer.  As I chronicle my life here, I'm simultaneously (hopefully) evolving into another.

It's nice to have found my voice again.

A Year and Half Later...And Still Malawi

No, I wasn't here the whole time, but it felt like it.

What a year! After losing my literary voice (who was listening? what makes me and what I have to say so important?), seriously considering a move to Peru, choosing Malawi instead, selling my home and moving to Africa - I'm back. 

I'm back to writing, blogging. Back to Malawi.