MSc International Development: A Self Help Assistance Programme, Malawi:Blog my experiences by Laura Macpherson

Following on from my previous blog on my first impressions of Malawi (May 2013):

Blog Entry 2 19/5/2013OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent the last week at the ASAP office in preparation for our intensive two weeks of
data collection. It has been great to collect my thoughts on the data I require and      to revise
my interview design before it all begins. I also met my interpreter, who I am sure will be a
great help in my research.

Our weekend at Liwonde National Park was amazing- a world away from Blantyre. It was
very isolated and we were the only ones staying at the lodge on the Friday night. I would
recommend the park to anyone, as not only can you do a normal safari, but you can also
see the area from a canoe on a trip down the Shire River.
The food at the lodge was excellent- I had what I imagine to be my first and last steak of
the trip!


Blog Entry 3 2/6/2013

The last two weeks have involved intensive data collection. I conducted 75 interviews in
total, and on many days I was exhausted afterwards. The interviews were all held
outdoors, normally under a tree, and mostly located at local primary schools. It was great
to be able to meet all of the respondents, and my interpreter was fantastic.
These two weeks have also taught me something unrelated to development research: I
cannot eat sugarcane! It is quite a challenge, but Lena was excellent at it!

Blog Entry 4 22/6/2013OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The last three weeks have been very productive, even though I haven’t been able to do as
much data collection due to lack of transport. I interviewed three final respondents, and
today had a debrief meeting with ASAP. I have also had a lot of time to begin thinking
about how to put my research findings together, which I am grateful for.
Besides research and study we also had the opportunity to (finally!) go to Lake Malawi this
week. We spent a very relaxing and enjoyable three nights there… It was so beautiful, I
didn’t want to leave! The souvenirs there are very much superior to those in Blantyre, so I
was also able to buy lots of pieces to take home.
It was sad to say goodbye to everyone at ASAP and those who had participated in the
project, especially my interpreter with whom I had been getting along with very well. But, I hopOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe to be back in the near future.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Africa – a different world

First: Despite of the tendency of generalization, Africa is not a country. It is a continent, painted in multiple colours and impossible to understand for me. It is a place of contrasts that sometimes do not seem to make any sense for me, who was born in a country in the North. A few hours flight brought me to countries like Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Uganda, Sudan, Liberia or Sierra Leone. Since 10 years I have been enjoying the adventure to travel to African countries, jumping from “the first world” to the “third world”, overpassing the second one completely. Contrasts sometime could not have been stronger. In one moment walking through the poor areas of Monrovia in Africa´s hot summer and meeting people who do not know what to eat today. And then, only 12 hours later, landing in Brussels’s winter, were the candies costs more than 3 USD each. The problems in both worlds are very different and it always costs me to understand those problems that are currently discussed in Europe or the US after coming back from the south. This is not to say, that we don´t have serious problems here, but maybe it is helpful to bring them in a global context sometimes. And maybe we don´t even see some of the most serious problems we have. Strange enough to sit in a bus in London were nobody notice you after spending two month in Malawi were people greet you everywhere you go. People in Malawi always ask you how you are, want to know where you are coming from and are truly happy to hear that you come from one of these countries up north. Scotland is very famous, since Scottish help was been historically important for Malawi and, as a side note, the Scottish missionaries have been the only ones that did educate local people instead of just forcing them into Christianity. A conversation often ends with: ”You are most welcome in Malawi!” Nobody welcomed me on my way home from the airport, through the halls of Heathrow, in London’s underground or the speed train back to Edinburgh. It is still hard to understand for me how the poorest people sometimes seem to be happier than those who apparently have nearly everything. And it makes me thoughtful; how can we not only overcome poverty but also the misunderstanding that consumption make us happy?

Case Study Philippe Artner

Why did you choose to do a work based project rather than a university based dissertation?

It was very important for me to choose a project-based topic since I feel this makes my work more relevant to “real life problems”. After I have been working for more than 6 years for a development NGO, the project I chose was the perfect combination between my professional experience and my new field of study. It is hard for me to imagine how I should understand how relevant results of my work are if they are only based on (theoretical) research work. The connection with an organisation and an existing project forced me to face reality, be pragmatic, work with others and deliver results.

What were the key benefits of the experience?

a) For the project / your MSc

The results of my work have been presented to responsible persons within my host organisation, so that I can be sure that they “arrived at the right place”. They will help people with their future work. Working in a project got me back to the habit of fixed working hours (although I worked a lot more) and dealing with other team members. In interaction with colleagues it was easier to adapt the research work I was doing to the needs and requirements of the organisation I was working for and I could understand better challenges that do not exist on paper but only in reality. I will also have further contact to my host organisation and might have the change to work with them in the future. For my studies it was a good combination between 2 “disciplines”, the international development work (focus on poverty eradiation) and climate change issues (focus on improved resilience and access to energy for the poorest).

b) For your personal development

Working in a developing country teaches a lot. Things that seem to be self-evident like stable internet connection, sufficient research resources or even just the availability of electricity are not a matter of course anymore. Perspectives are different between industrialized and developing countries: e.g. while the rich countries see renewable energy as a major solution for the global challenge of climate change, it is mostly just one of many different sources of energy for people who do not have access to energy in poor rural areas of developing countries (without any differentiation from other energy sources like fossil fuel technologies). To understand the daily challenges of people in these countries opens the door to provide solutions that really suit these people. This requires a close work-together with local people rather than a top-down approach. This understanding came only through the work I have done in Malawi.

c) Do you feel this has enhanced your CV / employment opportunities?

I concentrated on a niche market, the combination of development work and renewable energy supply in poor countries. This might be an advantage for me, assuming that I find a job that requires this knowledge. With this specific focus I combined my professional experience of the time before my postgraduate studies and my new filed of study, which makes my profile very “clear”. I am highly motivated but also feel the fear that this might be a too narrow focus and that my profile is too specific. Maybe I missed the opportunity to focus on something that is more demanded in industrialized countries. Whether or not the project work enhanced my opportunities can therefore only be answered after a while.

To revolution or not to revolution?

I am definitely experiencing one of the most interesting summers of my life. Instead of roaming about Egypt’s pyramids, temples and sea resorts, I am spending my time in the densely packed 20million people metropolis of Cairo, The City Victorious. And just this particular summer, Cairo happens to be the stage of a massive revolution, coup d’état, or coupolution, as I would call it.

I arrived in the beginning of June after a long and tiring flight deep in the night. My luggage didn’t make it, so my first taster of Egyptian bureaucracy started right away at the airport at 3am. Also, in the hotel where I stayed the first few nights the water was shut off for that day (water and electricity outages would happen quite frequently lately). So unshaved, unshowered and still wearing the same lovely airplane clothes I rocked up at the office of Nahdet El Mahrousa next morning. So much for making a good first impression…

Luckily, Eirik Hansen, my Norwegian classmate from Edinburgh, had already been there a few weeks and greatly helped me find my way around the office and Cairo. The people at the social incubator we work with are very friendly, highly motivated and capable. Like everything in Egypt though, people tend to work in a very ad-hoc way. Initially, this seems very chaotic and inefficient but after you adjust to it you start to see why it makes sense in a country like this.

Egypt, and Cairo in particular, have been through some tumultuous times. After 4000 years of dictatorship (this goes back to the Pharaoh’s!), Egypt elected its first democratically-chosen president a year ago. This had a massive impact on all aspects of life in Cairo. E.g. after the overthrow of the regime in January 2011, the police force in the city just disappeared for a year. This lack of law enforcement is definitely reflected in the crazy and erratic driving style of Egyptians in traffic. Just imagine what Edinburgh would look like without any active police!

Things erupted around the 30th of June. This day was long anticipated by the opposition to hold the biggest anti-government rallies in Egyptian -and arguably world- history. Millions of people in the whole country hit the streets to protest against President Morsi. A fuel crisis in the week leading up strengthened Egyptians’ anger at the government. It became harder for us to get around in the city because of the long queues for the petrol stations and the high prices cabs would charge.

After an American student got killed while taking pictures of riots, I felt suddenly less keen to act as a local reporter. So From the 30th, Eirik and I just sticked to our neighbourhood, as the office of the social incubator was too close to Tahrir Square. We would call our (Egyptian) friends, check the news and internet, and hang out in the coffee cafés discussing what would happen next. It was very interesting to see the role the international media play in such an event as well.

When the army decided to interfere and remove President Morsi from office I tahir squarewas just on my way to Eirik’s. Amidst the fireworks, honking cars, dancing & shouting Egyptians, and many celebratory gunshots, I quickly made my way back to my apartment. Safe from our balcony, my American flatmate and I watched the powerplay from the Egyptian air force and the celebrating Egyptians at the streets. That same night he, like most other Americans, was urged to leave the country. I also got a phone call from an Egyptian friend inviting me to come to Tahrir to celebrate. I politely declined.

I decided to take a break from revolution and went to the Red Sea for a few days. As it is Ramadan now, things have calmed down a little, but huge challenges for the country remain. Before coming here, I would have never imagined to end up in a situation like this. But although it limited my movements and research productivity, I have never before had so many engaging and meaningful conversations with Egyptian people. This is history as it happens!

Carsten Vollebregt is doing an MSc in International Business & Emerging Markets and is currently in Cairo.



The Answer to Poverty: Agency and Opportunity

Last weeDSC_4537k I reached halftime. I have been in India for about five weeks now and met amazing people, tried delicious food and experienced a completely new and exciting culture.
Over the last weeks I was able to visit a variety of different projects my organization is running such as Self-Help Groups, Farmer Co-Operatives and Community Water Plants. All these projects intend to strengthen local communities and create a sense of ownership and empowerment within these villages. These initiatives are all characterized by the collective efforts of a variety of different individuals and organizations such NGOs, companies and local leaders. It is fascinating to see how everybody pulls together in order to create access to clean water, electricity and information, things we take for granted.

On one of my field trips I visited the family of one of the Farmers. I asked the father if he wanted his son to grow up to be a farmer like him. He responded with a resolute “No.”
I pushed him: “Not a farmer? But you have such a beautiful family and home. Are you happy?”
“Happy?” he repeated the word. “How can I be happy when we have no water and so little electricity? It makes it impossible to farm. No matter how hard I work, I have no control over how much I produce.”

Choice and control. The power to make one’s own decisions and know that hard work can translate into success.  I have realized that the answer to poverty is not simply more income. The answer is agency and opportunity.

After I visited this family I drove only 40km south to Bangalore where I live in a twenty-floor modern apartment tower of western standards including gym, pool and other sports facilities. I ordered Pizza Hut and surfed the internet for a bit. Seems almost unreal…

Being a red-haired German in rural India I obviously created quite some buzz wherever I went including a feature in a state newspaper :)

Being a red-haired German in rural India I obviously created quite some buzz wherever I went including a feature in a state newspaper 🙂

Chris von den Hoff is doing an MSc in International Business and Emerging Markets and is working with Fuziho Health in India.

Where Africa Meet the Middle East

Wow, I cannot believe that my stay in Cairo is coming to an end already. There is no doubt that my experiences from this vibrant city with its passionate and outspoken people will leave a long-lasting impression.
The insane traffic, the extremely aggressive street vendors and the lack of English speakers made my first meeting with Africa’s largest city a very overwhelming experience. However, because of Egyptians very friendly and relaxed nature I felt that I rather quickly adapted to the pace of Cairo. Ranging from McDonald’s to laundry or locally brewed beer; there is nothing you cannot get delivered to you through the city’s vast fleet of scooter-couriers, if you can get around the language barrier. And then of course there is the cultural scene, which includes anything from the remains of the ancient Pharaohs to Islamic architecture to boiling markets. I think that my fellow Business School student Carsten Vollebregt will agree.

with Carstenmosque

Astonishing: The Mohammed Ali Mosque in the Citadel overlooking Cairo

My project is about social impact assessment for the perspective of social entrepreneurs. The social entrepreneurship scene in Egypt is booming as the government continues to fail. Many of these social entrepreneurs have found the need to adopt alternative ways of determining if what they are doing is having the intended impact. Through my research I have been interviewing and observing social entrepreneurs from all over and I must say that their passion and their creativity has been truly inspiring. Combined with the friendships that I have made in Nahdet El Mahrousa, the social entrepreneur incubator company that I have been working with, the dedication of these people have most certainly sparked my motivation for my research.

trafficHectic: Morning traffic from the office window

It is impossible though, to describe my experiences here without including the revolution. In the era after January 2011, every aspect of life in Cairo is affected. Just walking in the street you can see revolutionary graffiti on the walls, people forced out on the streets by the labour market selling whatever they can find and endless lines of cars surrounding every gas station because of the fuel shortage. As the second round of the revolution is very much on the doorstep, life here has become very unpredictable. While I am writing this, thousands of people are gathering in the streets for unscheduled demonstrations. What will happen on the 30th of June, when the scheduled demonstrations are supposed to happen is impossible to say. Many businesses have postponed any serious activity until after Ramadan, which means until the beginning of August.

Tahrir Square Tahrir Square2

Tahrir Square Thursday morning







6 hours later (Photo: Ahram English Online)

All in all though, my experience here has been amazing. This place is just so filled with life that you cannot help but to embrace it.

Eirik Hansen, MSc International Business and Emerging Markets, currently in Cairo

Two Places Called Home

Malawi and Peru – where I am from – have many similarities: beautiful landscapes, friendly people, tasty food, nice weather (although not as of late because of the winter weather), and so on. So when I got here, I really felt like home and my adaption was instant.
However, I never predicted an even warmer treat when I started my fieldwork in the villages. I also witnessed contrasting realities in these places. Comparing to Blantyre city, where my host organization is based, people are dramatically poorer. I remember interviewing a woman, who is the herbalist of her village, who declared that her incomes were around 25 pounds per year. She lives alone with her 3 children who are studying in primary school. She and her family can survive from the livestock activity and some remittance, but the incomes declared are the only “safe” entrance. On the other hand, in despite of their poverty, people never lose the hope and hold a positive attitude towards life. I remember to have been invited more than one time to have a meal when I was still interviewing during lunch time; it reflects that people are willing to give in despite of their limitations.

fieldwork- Malawi A welcome song

A welcome song

I also remember being welcomed in particular ways when I arrived to the villages to do my interviews. People welcome visitors with cheerful songs in Chichewa, sung in groups. When I used to travel from one village to other, people – especially kids – would wave along the roadside almost all the time, in signal of welcome.

The stories told above demonstrated that the “Warm heart of Africa” slogan is not by chance: Malawi is actually a special country because of its people, who in despite of the adversity, are an example of constant effort for survival and at the same time, of hope and cordial attitude towards life.

fieldwork- Malawi 131

Victoria Perfecto has been working with Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust.


A view from the other side

I’m Ben Wilson from Challenges Worldwide, and have helped coordinate the Making the Most of Masters students alongside Rebecca Adams this year.

The best and the worst parts of this job are reading the regular reports and blog posts from the students out in their various exotic host countries. It’s the best part because it brings everything back to the essence of international development; because after months of arranging I love to read how each individual student is experiencing what they spent so long preparing for; and because I get the privilege of reading snippets of a vast array of research into pioneering development activities. It’s the worst part because it makes me incredibly jealous and distracts me from the distinctly less interesting day to day activities of our office in Edinburgh.

As a student I too volunteered internationally and undertook research for my MSc dissertation abroad, in northern Malawi. The set up was similar to that of the MMM students; I submitted my final essays and completed my exams, packed my bags and set off to Africa to begin research I had scarcely had the time to prepare for. At the time you have to take it in your stride, set aside time each evening to collect your millions of conflicting thoughts, and try to put something down on paper that makes some sort of sense. Now from the other side, coordinating the students, I really appreciate how difficult that task is. When you arrive you don’t know the location, the people you’re staying with, the local language, the local culture and etiquette. The food and water might make you sick and the heat might be unbearable.  But that stuff’s fine, usually, you get used to it, and you grow to love it. It’s just a different environment and most have managed to settle into different environments before. The most difficult part is the research.

For a number of reasons international research is difficult, and at times you will think it’s impossible. If you’re distributing questionnaires you might have to travel across the country to do so face to face, like Eve, our recently returned MMM student had to do in Malawi, travelling through the night to the north of the country on a rickety old minibus. Or you might have to undertake interviews with people who don’t speak English, via an interpreter, who seems to say 10 words for every one word you asked him to translate, like our international development students in Blantyre. If you don’t have electricity you’ll find yourself seizing every moment of sunlight to avoid the difficult task of writing a dissertation by candlelight, like Chris Stephenson, a carbon management student currently researching in a forest reserve in the northern region of Malawi.

Last year when undertaking my research I experienced the same challenges. This year, it was mine and Rebecca’s responsibility to prepare the students for such difficulties and support them with methods of overcoming. We did our best to do so, and passed on what knowledge we had to help students prepare for what they were embarking on. Yet there is really only so much you can prepare people for, only so much you can consider before leaving the country, and it is always going to be a difficult and challenging experience.

But in the end you manage to scrape by and collect the data you require. Not only have you had an eye-opening experience in country so alien to your own, but you have a fascinating dissertation that will score highly and read well. The insights you will get into another way of life are unparalleled, and the access to organisations working in development in such fascinating ways is a huge privilege. Its not the sort of dissertation you’ll toss aside, either. Its one that you’ll keep and read with pride in a few years time that will represent a keystone in your university experience.

We’ve had one student return already, and awaiting most of the others returning over the next few weeks. Each will have explored and endured the charms and challenges of their host community. We look forward to hearing more on their return of what they have discovered and how their experience has developed them both academically and personally.