Pathways to Sustainable Food Security in Southern Malawi

It's hard to believe that I am already in the third week of what is proving to be an incredible, challenging, eye-opening, dynamic, and enriching experience with Project Concern International (PCI) in Malawi. This summer I am supporting the mid-size NGO, that hails from San Diego, as a Humanitarian Assistance Fellow. Broadly speaking, my role is focused on helping implement Njira, a large multi-year USAID-funded integrated food security project in Southern Malawi. Given that the country is experiencing the worst drought in nearly two decades, and my area of focus is primarily in Disaster Risk Management, I couldn't have joined the project at a better time.

Now, let's back up a moment. What exactly is an integrated food security project? And what does Njira mean? Well, to start Njira is Chichewa (Malawi's official language) for 'pathways.' Through Njira, PCI seeks to empower its beneficiaries so that they are better equipped to access resources to achieve lasting food security through the use of pathways. These pathways are contextual and adjusted over time given the needs of a particular community.

As an integrated food security program, Njira has three purposes or objectives that link to its overall goal of achieving lasting food security: increased access and availability of vulnerable households to diverse and nutritious foods (Purpose 1); improved health and nutrition of pregnant and lactating women and children under five (Purpose 2); and improved resilience of vulnerable households to shocks and stresses (Purpose 3). As such, the program has been divided into three Purpose teams (with a cross-cutting team that works on issues pertaining to gender, the environment, monitoring and evaluation, and behavioral change).  The theory of change (or causal relationship) that underlies all of this is that specific food insecure and vulnerable populations (defined by characteristics including sex, household wealth rank, and livelihood zone) an achieve sustainable food security if pathways effectively combine "empowerment" and "access" strategies that are tailored to meet a vulnerable group's needs and opportunities. 

All of that is certainly a tall order for PCI and when I first read through the technical narrative while traveling to Malawi, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Questions such as, where do I fit in? How is PCI working to achieve all this? Where is the project in its implementation phase? And most importantly, what have been the biggest challenges of the program? 

Since arriving, my time in Zomba, Malawi has been a whirlwind of an experience hence the late timing of my first blog post. Immediately upon meeting my supervisor when I arrived three weeks ago, I was told I'd be in the "field" for my first week. As someone who has never worked overseas and selected this opportunity with PCI partly because of that gap, I was shocked and excited to be diving right in to things so quickly. Furthermore, I quickly learned that I would also be accompanying my supervisor in conducting brief assessments of the communities we were visiting. While my supervisor would monitor and assess progress on the implementation of a series of activities, I'd be doing the same for another set of activities-which means I'd be directly engaging with Njira's targeted communities. Having taken multiple courses and studied issues around participation in development programs, I was amazed to finally have the opportunity to get a glimpse of this process. 

Nonetheless, diving right into the thick of the project has meant that I've had to do a lot of prep work and constantly ask a lot of questions to determine my role and purpose in supporting PCI with implementing Njira. While my day-to-day work seems to change almost daily, I think I finally have a strong grasp on my role. Having outlined the scope and structure of Njira above, my priority is to help my supervisor Burnnet Khulumbo, the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) Advisor in implementing and overseeing all work that falls under Purpose 3:  Improved resilience of vulnerable households to shocks and stresses. Improved resiliency to shocks and stresses in southern Malawi is crucial, particularly over the past year. Given the devastating impacts of El Nino on a country, who's main livelihood is still agriculture, many people are extremely vulnerable to a loss of livelihood as a result of drought and other El Nino-impacts. 

Thus, the work under Purpose 3 is working to ensure that Njira's targeted communities are better equipped and capable in utilizing disaster risk reduction and management tools and mechanisms. This can include the use of disaster risk management plans or contingency plans (e.g. if a flood strikes, how will the community respond?) and the use of improved practices that prevent further degradation of the environment (which in effect increases a community's vulnerability to environmental shocks and stresses) such as the use of drought resistant crops or no longer using river banks for irrigation systems.

In helping to oversee implementation of activities to align to these areas, I am also assessing how PCI is managing its DRM work. So far this has included assessing the DRM Plan templates being distributed to 'beneficiaries'  of the program, developing a meeting minutes template to ensure that the communities are keeping consistent information on DRM work when they meet, and briefing all office staff including our Chief of Party on achievements and gaps in meeting Purpose 3's objectives in Fiscal Year 2016 and opportunities for Fiscal Year 2017. Over the coming weeks, I will continue to travel to 'the field,' or really the Traditional Authorities in Balaka and Machinga Districts (for context, Malawi has 28 districts, which are comprised of about 250 TAs) to conduct rapid food security assessments, which are reported to USAID,  but will also feed into an overall assessment of how PCI is working to reduce vulnerability of Malawians through its Njira project. I am also documenting best practices and lessons learned based on how PCI's staff, through the use of a 'Dynamic Team' approach in implementation of DRM activities. The final product will be a report as well.

Additionally, to help ensure that TAs are adequately prepared to prevent, manage, and/or respond to disasters, I am leading PCI staff in the development of a contingency planning exercise, which we will pilot on two TAs later this summer. And finally, another major deliverable will be developing a framework for PCI staff t that combines scientific knowledge of DRM and technology with indigenous or local knowledge of DRM. This is crucial as it promotes a framework for DRM that is not solely based on outsider knowledge, but rather is inclusive of mechanisms and processes the TAs have been using for several years. In the meantime, I will continue to work on small tasks and responsibilities that come up. As a student studying gender analysis at Fletcher, I am also seeking opportunities to work with PCI's gender advisor and particularly focus on how DRM activities are considering gender dynamics (e.g. thinking of how men and women participate in DRM and how men and women are affected differently by disasters). While this is a lot to accomplish in less than three months, I am excited to be in such a large, interesting, complex, and challenging project. The work Njira hopes to accomplish is critical to Malawi's food security; despite the challenges to implementation, the experience will be enriching from a learning perspective. I hope that at the very least, that my insights from the classroom and prior work experience can contribute positively to Njira.

While this was certainly a long overdue post, I will do my best (internet pending) to keep everyone apprised of Njira's work. Stay tuned for more!