The Politics of Water 3: Area Mechanics in Malawi

by Naomi Oates, re-posted from University of Sheffield

Competing narratives surround the role of ‘area mechanics’ in Malawi

In November 2017 I started my ‘politics of water’ blog as an outlet to share experiences and findings from my research in rural Malawi on water governance and service sustainability.

The first instalment describes my initial impressions of Balaka District while the second explores the relationship between extension workers and rural communities.

This might have left you wondering – what about everyone else?

Area Mechanics receive hands-on training in water point repairs (Author’s own)

Water services in Malawi are decentralised, at least in theory.  This means two things. Firstly, district councils, together with district water offices, are mandated to develop and monitor water infrastructure in rural areas.

Secondly, communities are expected to maintain and repair their water points with minimal external assistance. For more serious problems, local ‘area mechanics’ are their first port of call, followed by the district water office.

In reality, district water offices are severely under resourced, there are currently few area mechanics, and the effectiveness of community-based management varies considerably. However, where they are present, area mechanics are thought to play an important role in keeping water points functioning.

Area Mechanics: volunteers or entrepreneurs?

So what is an area mechanic? This sounds like a simple question, but the answers are complex and contradictory.

The area mechanics Thoko interviewed in Balaka for her MSc research tended to consider themselves, foremost, as volunteers working for the greater good of the community. After all, they were selected from the local community and have strong social ties with the people they serve. An area mechanic may be a relative, a neighbour or a fellow churchgoer, even the village headman himself. Trustworthiness was emphasised by communities as an important criteria.

This training manual describes area mechanics as ‘artisans in advanced hand pump repair operating on a payment basis’ (GoM 2015)

The depiction of area mechanics as volunteers has been echoed in my own conversations with extension staff and NGO workers, but in combination with another term – entrepreneur. According to national policy, area mechanics are meant to operate as independent businesspersons. They are given training and a few basic tools, after which they are expected to make a small profit to sustain their operations. They are also encouraged to sign written contracts with communities to clarify payment for services.

This model is clearly aimed at economic viability and is meant to incentivise area mechanics by providing them with an income. Arguably, the model has failed to gain traction locally because it ignores the social context in which area mechanics operate.

A third view is that area mechanics are integral to formal water governance arrangements – in other words part of, or plugging a gap in, the government’s extension system. This may not be stated explicitly, but is implicit in the use of government issued ID cards.

To give another example, area mechanics are sometimes (but not always) introduced to communities by a government representative in order to establish their legitimacy. Several of the area mechanics Thoko spoke to wanted their role to be formalised to enable them to negotiate fees with communities, or conversely in the hope of receiving material and financial support from government.

The ambiguity of water mechanics

Despite appearances, none of these narratives is mutually exclusive, and they may be employed at different times depending on the context. As one extension worker explained to me:

“Area mechanics are entrepreneurs by design and should make communities aware of that. They are supposed to have a signed agreement. The area mechanic needs to be paid, a little.”

Area mechanics often prefer working as a team – two heads being better than one! (Author’s own)

He then went on to clarify:

“It is not payment as such but a token of appreciation. It is up to them if they want to work for free. However they shouldn’t deny assistance to a Water Point Committee just because they don’t have money.”

The ambiguity surrounding area mechanics can be confusing and could be viewed as a failure of policy (or its implementation). But, in my view, that conclusion would be overly simplistic and misses the point.

The co-existence of these different narratives, or interpretations of policy, leaves room for negotiation and pragmatism. These are arguably important ingredients for success, especially when adapting policies to local realities. In short, the role of area mechanics in Malawi’s water governance system is not yet set in stone.

In addition to my PhD fieldwork this blog draws on previous work by the authors under the UPGro Hidden Crisis project. Check out our report on the political economy of rural water supplies in Malawi.

Borehole drilling supervision in Malawi: why it is essential, not optional

Guest Blog from Mr Gift Jason Wanangwa, a Groundwater Development Officer with the Malawi Government’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.

New PictureGuest Blog by GIFT JASON WANANGWA


Malawi is one of the least developed countries in Africa. It has a population of more than 17 million people, 84% of whom live in rural areas and rely solely on groundwater for their daily water needs for social and economic development.

Studies of the drilling practices in Malawi by UNICEF (GoM/UNICEF 2011; GoM 2012) and borehole forensics activities done by students of the University of Strathclyde under the Climate Justice Fund-Water Futures Programme  (CJF-WFP Work Records 2017-2018) as well as MSc Hydrogeology masters research students activities into drilling practices in Malawi (Polmanteer, 2014) have all revealed some shortcomings which explained problems in rural water supply through boreholes like poor siting, low yield of boreholes, weak drilling procedures and poor water quality or mechanical failures of pumps and boreholes. This was attributed much to poor drilling supervision.

Continue reading “Borehole drilling supervision in Malawi: why it is essential, not optional”

The politics of water: part two

by Naomi Oates, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Future, UK – re-posted from Grantham

“Communities themselves, when a borehole is drilled, are supposed to be responsible. They are supposed to have fundraising for maintenance. This is challenging. Often breakdowns are due to simple things. They say ‘we are lacking x, y ,z’. And we ask ‘don’t you have the funds’? But they say ‘no we don’t have money, we are poor, we can’t contribute’. And we try to tell them ‘but this water point is for you, it is yours to look after.’ They don’t take it as their own. They have to take responsibility. Sometimes they go to the councillor or MPs for support.” (Extension worker, Malawi)

In November I wrote a blog describing my first impressions of life in Balaka, Malawi, where I am doing my PhD fieldwork. To recap, my research concerns the sustainability of rural water services. I am particularly interested in the role that actors at the district-level play in developing and, crucially, maintaining these services. Several months on, I am starting to make sense of my experiences shadowing extension workers in their day-to-day work. What strikes me is how these actors have to navigate competing interests and find creative ways to get their jobs done. In this blog I focus on their relationship with communities (service users).

How do extension workers secure cooperation from communities?

A community in Balaka learns how to look after their new water point (author’s own)

In my conversations with government and NGO staff, it was evident that the ‘community-based management’ (CBM) model for water governance is not only enshrined in national water policies, but has become deeply embedded in development practice. CBM means that while government or other external agencies may provide the infrastructure, responsibilities for day-to-day management lie with communities. In other words, communities are expected to look after the water point and cover the costs of repairs. Extension workers play a supporting role, providing training, monitoring and technical advice. This approach is meant to empower service users and ensure that services are more efficient and effective.

As the opening quote illustrates, extension workers have internalised key elements of the CBM model and this does inform their decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously. But policy implementation also entails negotiation. Extension workers have to mediate between the demands of formal policies and government institutions, the interests of communities and their leaders (which are not homogenous) and the influences of other actors such as NGOs or politicians.

What went wrong? An extension worker chats to water users about their faulty pump (author’s own)

In this respect, policies on paper are often an inadequate guide to action. I find the concept of bricolage (Cleaver, 2012) useful to understand how extension workers navigate between these different interests, drawing on a variety of resources. The bricoleur is a kind of amateur handyman, making do with the tools available, whether old or new. This might include formal and informal institutional arrangements, social relations or networks, material and financial resources, ideas and technologies, and so on. The result (policy in practice) is often a hybrid.

How is an extension worker a bricoleur?

Firstly, my research participants tend to see themselves as a bridge between state and citizen, not only representing their Ministry but also communicating people’s needs to the District Council and development partners (donors/NGOs). In carrying out their roles, extension workers shift between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positions, drawing on social networks, their status as government employees, and cultural norms.

The insider: Often extension workers are not originally from the areas (or ethnic groups) which they currently serve, hence they have to make an effort to gain and maintain trust from communities. They do this primarily through the development of personal relationships, in other words building social capital. For example, participants talked about stopping to drink beer or attending funerals as an important part of their job.

The outsider: Extension workers are afforded a certain status vis-à-vis community members in recognition of their technical expertise and as government employees. Government employees can also leverage support from local leaders such as village headmen who are expected to facilitate policy interventions.

Access to different resources shapes the practices of extension workers as bricoleurs

Cultural norms play a role in reinforcing these relationships. Hierarchy is accepted and less powerful people tend to depend on more powerful people, whether traditional or state elites. In rural contexts of Malawi, these hierarchies can undermine community self-help as ordinary people tend to wait for orders or assistance from ‘above’ and rarely question the activities of their ‘betters’. This might give extension workers a degree of authority but clearly has disadvantages for a CBM model aimed at citizen empowerment.

Secondly, cooperation from communities is by no means guaranteed but is essential for CBM to work. Extension workers do meet with resistance, and express frustration when community members make their task difficult. For example, a common problem is the collection of water user fees, which in theory provide the funds needed for water pump repairs. People will often assert they cannot afford to pay, labelling themselves as ‘too poor’.

Extension workers employ several strategies in dealing with resistance. The first is evident in the quote above, namely reiterating key elements of the national water policy. Communities are reminded that they have responsibility for managing the water point and raising funds for its maintenance. It is emphasised that they are the ‘owners’ of that water point. Moreover, if they do not take action there are consequences – they will not have water.

Learning the ropes – I help to reassemble a hand pump (author’s own)

Another strategy is to enlist the support of the village headman, for example calling a meeting in which a problem is discussed communally and a solution agreed. This seems to be an effective way of securing consensus, at least verbally. Extension workers can also resort to threats, for example removing the handle of the pump (effectively cutting off the water supply) until the community has complied. For new projects, the infrastructure can be built in a different village, one where the community is more willing to cooperate. However, antagonistic strategies are a last resort and consensus is generally preferred.

To sum up, extension workers play a crucial role in translating policy into practice, operating at the interface between state and society. Shadowing individuals in the field and getting involved in community training and water points repairs is helping me to better understand what this means in reality. I have seen, first-hand, the constraints the water office faces in terms of financial and material resources and their consequent reliance on other actors (particularly NGOs) to deliver services.

At the same time, I have come to appreciate the dedication and creativity with which extension workers carry out their work and engage with communities. Being a bricoleur is certainly necessary to ‘get the job done’ in rural Balaka.

Declining groundwater levels in Malawi impacting rural water supplies

RWSN member, Muthi Nhlema, has challenged the government of Malawi over how groundwater is used for rural water supplies: 30% of water points are not working across the country and he points to declining groundwater levels being a major factor. Mr Nhlema therefore challenged the wisdom of further drilling and groundwater development, if the use of the water resource is unsustainable.

Read the full article: The Nation, 1 October 2017

Still barking up the wrong tree? Community management: more problem than solution

by Dr Ellie Chowns

Received wisdom still suggests that community management is an important component of sustainable water supply in rural areas and small towns. Despite a shift in emphasis “from system to service”, and the idea of “community management plus”, in reality the basic community management model remains standard practice in many countries.  And yet there is plenty of evidence that it is seriously flawed in two key ways.  My own research, a mixed methods study covering 338 water points in Malawi (Chowns 2014, Chowns 2015) demonstrates this clearly.

First, community management is inefficient.  Preventive maintenance is almost never done, repairs are often slow and sub-standard, and committees are unable to collect and save funds.  Average savings are only 2% of the expected level, and only 13% of committees have enough money to buy a single replacement rod.

Equally disappointingly, community management is disempowering. It reinforces existing village power relations, and breeds conflict rather than strengthening social capital.  Often, this conflict is around misuse of funds.  Many committees are defunct; and when they do exist, as one woman said, ‘the committee is higher than the community’ – meaning downward accountability simply doesn’t happen.

There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between.  So we need to take off our rose-tinted spectacles and ask why community management is so enduring, despite its failures.

Why does it remain so popular?  Because it’s a fig-leaf for state and donor failure.  Community management enables government officials and donors alike to abdicate responsibility for ensuring long-term sustainable water services.  Instead, they can blame ‘lazy communities’ for ‘lack of ownership’, and suggest that ‘more training is needed’.

I think we need to question the community management model at a more fundamental level. Slight amendments won’t do the job; a more radical re-thinking is required.  Currently, community management transfers responsibility from people with access to finance, skills, and networks (officials & donors) to people with much more limited access to all those things (rural villagers).  This isn’t just ineffective – it’s unfair.

So what might work better?  Here are three suggestions.

  • Build better water points. As a social scientist I am happy to acknowledge that engineering really matters!  There are still far too many poorly-constructed water points being installed.
  • It’s superfluous and expensive to train multiple committees of 10-12 people each, when all that is really needed may be one skilled Area Mechanic with a bike, a phone, and (crucially) an effective means of financing his or her work (see next point…)
  • Pay for results. There’s promising evidence in many sectors that, actually, top-down accountability is part of the solution.  Civil society can’t stand in for a dysfunctional state; investment has to help build state capacity.  Funding needs to flow through ministries and districts, not bypass them – but they need to be held to account for performance, too.

Currently, community management remains the dominant model because it works better for agencies and governments than for communities themselves.  In no other public service sector is so much responsibility placed on users.  We don’t expect communities to bear all the recurrent costs of health or education services, so why should we do so for water?

It’s time to acknowledge that community management is both inefficient and disempowering, stop trying to reform it, and look towards replacing it instead.

Dr Ellie Chowns is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, working with Professor Frances Cleaver on a project with the Geneva Water Hub: “The everyday politics of participatory water governance: cooperation and conflict in community management”.

photo: Broken Afridev in Malawi (Erich Baumann, Skat/RWSN 2008)

How three handpumps revolutionised Rural Water Supplies: the Afridev

1980 to 1990 was the International Decade of Water Supply and Sanitation and the greatest hand-pump project began.How Three Handpumps Revolutionised Rural Water Supply

In the new publication “How Three Handpumps Revolutionised Rural Water Supplies” from RWSN, Erich Baumann explains how three handpumps, the India Mark II, the Afridev, and the Zimbabwe Bush Pump were developed and Sean Furey explores what lessons can be learned for scaling up WASH technologies today.

As part of that UNDP and the World Bank established a joint Water & Sanitation Program (WSP, which still exists as part of the World Bank) and one of its flagship projects was the Hand-pump Project, led by Saul Arlosoroff, which rigorously tested all the hand-pumps around the world that they could get their hands on. Their final report “Community Water Supply: the Hand pump Option” (1987) is still the defining text in hand-pump literature.

The hand-pump project also defined Village Level Operation & Maintenance (VLOM), the concept of making hand-pumps easier to maintain by the users so that minor breakdowns could be repaired quickly.  The India Mark II was not a VLOM pump because it required specialist tools and some skill and strength to make repairs to the pump cylinder down in the borehole. This was addressed through a design revision, imaginatively called the India Mark III. However the hand-pump team throught they could still do better and so two handpump design projects began.

Continue reading “How three handpumps revolutionised Rural Water Supplies: the Afridev”

Apples and oranges: a comparative assessment in WASH

water services that last

A few weeks ago, an interesting email discussion was held on “water point mapping” D-Group of the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN). Part of the discussion focused on how much it costs to map or monitor all water systems in a country. Various figures were floating around in the discussion. But when looking at these in more detail, it was like comparing apples to oranges. Some of the costs mentioned had included the staff time of (local) government, others hadn’t, as they considered this to be a fixed cost; some referred only to a simple mapping of water points, others had done a more comprehensive collection of all kinds of data of the water points; some of the data were expressed in dollars per water point, others in local currency per person. So, no immediate sense could be made of the numbers. A former colleague once said: “an apple is…

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