Madonna Makes the Right Move in Malawi

Today we learned of a new strategy by Madonna in her desire to increase access to education in Malawi. As a sharp critic of her earlier plans for a large "academy style" school I welcome this move and hope it can be a point of reflection for many of us involved in the development process.

Defining Success
Working with communities is often a tricky and long road. In order to be sustainable it must respond to the needs of the community yet have a sound model in order to remain in existence long after the initial investment is made. Whether you are working internationally or domestically, if the end users are burdened with an overly built facility they are exposed to more financial risk then had you not intervened. Therefore success should not be defined by how good a building looks but how it is used and how it is loved. This can be best achieved by employing a community led development process.

The Values of Community Led Development
To inspire communities to build sustainably my group, now building in 22 countries, is guided by a participatory design process that defines the client as a complex ecology of stakeholders rather than a single owner or occupant.

In a traditional development model, building services and construction firms bid for projects. In this model the design process is "closed." Community members have little interaction with the design team during the design process and little personal connection to and investment in the resulting structures.

By contrast, participatory design, or community design as it is sometimes called, engages building stakeholders of all ages and walks of life. In the community design model, the design process is open. Stakeholders, be they community members, homeowners, parents, students, or government officials, are invited and encouraged to participate in the design process through planning sessions, hands-on workshops, exhibitions, community interventions. This creates a sense of ownership and pride and empowers community members to become active instigators of change in their community. This process allows the entire group to work collectively to overcome a series of typical challenges including;

1. The removal of typical barriers to participation, such as formal hearings or inconvenient locations

2. Greater communication between different sectors and interests in the community, including government organizations, religious organizations and individuals

3. The prioritization of issues by and with those most affected by the decision-making process

4. Resolution of complex land-tenure issues

5. Mitigation against political instability by defining process and responsibilities

6. The ability to convey complex ideas simply to expert and non-expert participants alike through the use of graphics, 3-D models and other visual presentations

7. Environmentally and Culturally Appropriate Design

8. Opportunities for skills training and advancement

9. Creation of green collar jobs in the construction trades

10. Greater local capacity for local leadership and future economic development

A good example of this is the recently completed Mahiga Hope High School and Rainwater court in Mahiga, Kenya. A collective of small nonprofits and community groups came together and built a holistic approach to education using small funds (less than $200,000) and invested in the community that was already there. The project took just over a year to complete but was done in the time frame of the community not the funders.

Investing in Reality
Rather than investing all your funds in one big complex, it is better to spread your investment to reach a broader impact. In the case of Raising Malawi the choice was one academy vs. upgrading dozens of appropriately sized existing schools that, in turn, can be replicated and scaled. It's a choice of supporting a few hundred children or to impact tens of thousands.

In an industry that only reports success, it is an incredibly admirable thing that Raising Malawi has open and come out and said 'we didn't get it right, we learned and we are adapting'. For every grand project profile there are thousands that disappear into the vapor leaving promised communities in the lurch. Lets hope this tale will reverberate through the philanthropic world and that millions are invested wisely and not in the creation of white elephants that dot the landscape.