Leaders with influence: critical factors to achieving ODF in Mulanje District

Plan International | Tom Rankin from Plan International, on 22/06/2017 16:57 AEST

In December 2016 the Traditional Authority (TA) Mthirimanja, became the first open defecation free (ODF) TA area in Mulanje District, Malawi. In discussions with TA Mthirimanja and senior health staff within the area, several key factors contributing to this success were commonly identified. These factors are relatively simple and logical, but worth reflecting on and promoting in any endeavour to influence and support leaders for successful social change. 

Clear goals

Clear identification and articulation of the problem and the objective is critical. Both to engage leaders in the first instance and then coming from them, to their assistants and communities, for the same. Not to say that the motivating problem described to different groups can’t vary but it is the clear and succinct explanation of the challenge and goal that is key. For TA Mthirimanja, the low latrine coverage posed the problem and ODF status the goal. 

Benchmarking and pride

In order to promote some friendly competition, the project deliberately encouraged open sharing and analysis of project results across target project regions. This benchmarking of sorts, publicly displayed the performance of each Traditional Authority in achieving project goals; progress towards ODF. Leaning on the pride of leaders, this benchmarking prompted the lowest performing TA Mthirimanja to actively pursue the cause and in as little as three months, became the lead performer and first ODF TA.  

Empowerment and engagement

Many hands make light work and large challenges require all hands on deck. Engaging everyone with the responsibility to play their part is critical in achieving large scale and communal goals. Regular interaction through various chains of government, traditional and communal structures, engaged various bodies and individuals, encouraging and empowering them to respond to the cause. Regular review meetings and customary gatherings between chiefs were used to promote the focus on sanitation and hygiene and invigorate leaders to pursue change in their communities. 

Accountability and enforcement

With responsibility comes accountability and this needs to be enforced. Chiefs and government staff through each hierarchical level were held to account. Chiefs were threatened with removal of their title/authority if their village did not meet expectations (ie. Progress toward and achievement of ODF) and by-laws at village and community levels were imposed on households not owning or using a latrine [1]. Ramifications for non-compliance can help motivate and/or guide participation.

It is not enough to use these tactics in isolation, as they are inherently interlinked and mutually reinforcing. With these elements addressed in leadership, great results can be achieved. For example, under TA Mthirimanja’s leadership there was progress from 0% to 100% ODF in four months in 2016.


[1] These requirements were sympathetic to vulnerable households, many of whom were supported, through chief-led community initiatives to meet minimum latrine standards.