October 3: Knowing the Ropes – NGO’s Trying to do the Right Thing

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The WatSan team of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is an NGO that is trying to work with the local governments in Malawi to make sustainable change in the water sector. For example, my placement involves working directly from the national government offices to help them to achieve their goal of being able to better coordinate the water sector.

Yet, even with these best intentions in mind, we made a blunder that rippled throughout the levels of government. I did a research project to highlight the amazing work being done in building capacity within one of the districts in Malawi, where a project was working very closely with government structures. Permission to do the project was granted by the funder and the implementing organisation before I began and I attempted to include everyone we at EWB thought should be involved, interviewed more people than the original plan at the suggestion of initial interviewees, and asked for their feedback before releasing the paper.

So what was our mistake? We did not initially include ALL of the high level players involved in the project. We have since learned that other national government players should have been at least aware of the project as well, or should have been interviewed directly.

As I said, we did this project not only with the best intentions at heart, but also with the combined years of experience of the WatSan team members who have been working directly with the government.

Later, as I sat in a meeting of district level staff who were discussing all of the NGOs that come into their areas and begin to work (drilling wells, teaching communities, giving away products, ect) but do not notify them or discuss the needs of the community prior to starting. These NGOs are illegally working and it creates an initial level of mistrust in with the district staff.

My question is, if even EWB who is already working with the government directly, and advocating for others to work more closely with them as well can make blunders, how can we streamline the process so new NGOs (and existing ones) know who to talk to, and where approvals should be sought before a new project begins?

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