In Malawi, problems as symptoms

When I started out in development I had no idea what I’d be able to do to help solve some of the huge, complex problems out there. But that lack of certainty – and an absence of obvious answers – turned out to be a far better starting point than I ever imagined. 
After a trip to Zambia in 1993 to help build a school, I knew immediately that my work in IT and finance in Jersey wasn’t the right career for me and that I wanted to spend the rest of my working life doing something more meaningful. But that was all I knew. At that stage I didn’t have a skill set that was particularly useful to international development, so there was no obvious quick and easy way in. Instead I set out on an extended period of learning, one where I spent as much time as I could living with, working with, and supporting the communities and causes I wanted to help – everything from a few weeks helping build a local hospital in Uganda to a year working in rural conservation in Nigeria.
The work was often hard and emotionally challenging, but in a way I was fortunate. That decade of learning turned out to be critical, and included a spell at university learning development and the art of social anthropology. The technology piece didn’t return until much later, and I’m grateful for that. If mobile phones and the Internet been around in 1993 I’d probably have jumped straight into ICT4D and bypassed all the context – and been far the poorer for it.
not-the-tech-tweet
I write this as I sit on a flight from Malawi where I’ve spent a week assessing a teacher absenteeism system as part of my work with CARE. What turned out as a trip to unpick a piece of software turned into one dominated by everything but. Food insecurity, climate change, economics and the politics of education were the real issues, teacher absenteeism just a symptom. The visit reminded me why I got into development – not because of technology, but because of the people, and the very real challenges they face in their lives.
From afar you’d be forgiven for thinking that teachers not showing up for work were just lazy and, although that might be the case for some, for the vast majority the reasons were far more complex than that. It was only after sitting down and speaking to many of them that you realise how teacher absenteeism isn’t the real problem after all, and a technology looking to solve a problem might be looking at totally the wrong thing.
Anyone hoping to make use of today’s vast toolbox of technologies to solve a problem in international development might be better off keeping it closed at first, and taking time to better understand the context of the problem they’re trying to solve. Unfortunately, the availability of technology makes it far too easy to skip that learning step (hence the high rate of failure) and I consider my wider knowledge of development issues to be a far greater asset to those I work with than my programming or technical skills. There’s a dedicated Students page on the kiwanja website promoting the merits of this very approach.
 Food aid distribution at a school in Malawi
With 20% of the country facing severe food insecurity due to an excessive drought, the Malawian Government declared a state of emergency half-way through our trip. We saw piles of food aid at primary schools to feed the children, many of who had little chance of getting it anywhere else, and heard of classes with ratios of 250 students to one teacher, and others with little to no materials and even less hope of getting any any time soon. Many teachers felt undervalued, demotivated and underpaid, struggling as much as the students they were trying to teach. Somehow, the enormity of these challenges – and how they connected and intertwined – only seem real when you come face-to-face with them. Time in the field beats any amount of time in front of a computer screen.
This trip was a stark reminder of something I already knew – the value of local knowledge, local reality and local perspective on any development effort, regardless of what we assume the problem, or solution, to be.