Activities & Learning in the Social Labs Constituent Report–Designed By & For Malawian Changemakers

Alexis BanksRebooting Systems, Reimagining Projects

Over the past two years, Root Change, Youth and Society (YAS), and Keystone Accountability have supported district level social labs in Mulanje and Rumphi, Malawi as part of the USAID Local Works program. As USAID-funded support for the social labs came to an end, we worked with the labs to craft a Constituent Report to showcase their activities, highlight the tremendous learning that emerged, and introduce next steps for sustainability. The report was created for stakeholders in Malawi, including local government, community structures, civil society organizations, and active citizens. The content was generated from workshops and interviews and reviewed by members of the labs. We are thrilled to share the Constituent Report here! 

Social Labs in Rumphi and Mulanje

Launched in early 2018, the Rumphi and Mulanje social labs each brought together more than 60 diverse changemakers–active citizens, members of District Councils, Traditional Authorities (TAs), local governance structures, community based organizations (CBOs), and NGOs–on a voluntary basis to identify local development challenges and test possible solutions. 

Eleven groups worked together to implement short-term activities called micro-actions, which by design, don’t require large amounts of resources or time to complete. For each 8-week micro-action cycle, groups received a small grant of $500. The design, implementation, and use of funds was entirely determined by the groups. The labs came back together every two months to present results, exchange feedback, and work together to improve their approach. 

Youth in Development Projects Micro-Action Group

Youth Development Group with Youth Network in TA Njema in Mulanje

In Mulanje, the Youth in Development Projects micro-action group created critical momentum around youth engagement in development decision-making that resulted in youth seeking established roles within government and forming their own Youth Clubs

Although 40% of Malawians are aged 10 to 35 years, youth lack opportunities to influence decisions that affect their lives. Negative perceptions of youth by elders in the community have also prevented them from participating in community decisions. As Rita Rino, a social lab participant shared, “We have a full [district] council…but there was no one representing the youths…and some influential leaders, they were accusing the youth of being money hungry and that they do not show up on voluntary activities…we had to enlighten them on the challenges the youths are facing, ranging from HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancies and also unemployment.”

The group tested several approaches to address this challenge, including:

  • Working with the chief and local government structures to establish a formal Youth Network, provide leadership training, and an orientation to relevant district policies.
  • Surveying and meeting with critical stakeholders, such as CBOs, NGOs, local government structures to improve youth participation and to establish youth component of programming.
  • Advocating to district government and community structures for youth representatives to be included.

Rita goes on to describe how the group’s advocacy efforts led to the election of a youth representative: “We had to mobilize the youths and have a discussion with the youth office so that we should have a representative in the full council…, [we] now have a representative, who is also a member of the social lab.”

Monitoring CDF/DDF Group

In Rumphi, the Monitoring Constituent Development Fund (CDF) and District Development Fund (DDF) Group developed the capacity of two communities to monitor development projects carried out by the government

The group was formed to address the issue of little community participation in CDF and DDF decision-making despite guidelines outlining community engagement in project identification and monitoring. Together, the group tested approaches to address this challenge, including:

  • Assessing the feasibility of accessing budget information on CDF/DDF projects. The group found the process of accessing information from district government difficult and discovered issues, such as the selection of contractors.
  • Sensitizing communities on DDF and CDF guidelines through agricultural extension officers who then reached out to community structures (ADCs and VDCs) to spread the word.

One member described that one of the biggest improvements the group saw from their work was improved relationships and communication with the district council: “Previously, to get information from the council or any department at the council was somehow difficult.” After building a relationship with the district council, he explains, “they came and [taught] us how guidelines are followed, and later on, they went further, coming as the procurement team to teach us how procurement is done in government departments. That shows that we have made good progress. Previously these things could not be done.”

Social Labs Sustainability & Next Steps

The changes that emerged from the social labs have inspired both to continue their efforts. As USAID funding ended, the labs elected their own leadership structures and Resource Mobilization Committees to lead local fundraising efforts. Many lab participants have donated their own money. The Mulanje lab is exploring decentralizing the social lab model to the community level to allow for greater participation of community members. Read more about the sustainability efforts each lab has taken in the Constituent Report here!