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Barwani Msiska

International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX)

Malawi

Barwani Msiska is the Activity Lead of the USAID’s Youth Landscape and Learning Platform, a USAID/Malawi youth mission wide learning mechanism that fosters pathways towards Malawian Youth Leading Healthy and Productive Lives. She provides senior level strategic advice on youth programming and cultivates learning on the design, implementation and adaptation of youth focused projects.
Barwani is excited to pause and reflect on her leadership and management journey through the WLW fellowship, to get to the WHY and So What. To support her belief that investing in people unlocks transformative contributions for adaptive management and leadership that are people centered and contextualized – leading to gold standards for adolescent and youth development.

Barwani Msiska

About
Me.

What is your story?

What drives your work?

The belief that Malawians and people at the grassroots understand the complex challenges that they face through their rich lived experiences, are pioneering, implementing localized and impactful solutions that hold government and citizens accountable and reach those who have not been reached with services. True and sustainable change will only be achieved if championed and led by Malawians, especially those at the last mile. All that is required is the appropriate, targeted, contextual support that recognizes and accelerates unlocking of local contribution and agency while strengthening existing support structures and local financing mechanisms. Being able to support this in my own way and at different stages, is the reason why I do what I do.

I believe in what I do, my work with YLLP facilitates interrogation in how programming decisions and investments are made and sustained for youth development in Malawi by bilateral, private and non-traditional funders. Redefining how we work (as individual organizations, community of youth practitioners) and investment is framed; increasing flexible funding mechanisms and programming that adaptive.

Describe your biggest strength as a leader

Partnership building for impact: I am able to introduce and create buy-in into new concepts and approaches, develop partnerships to meet a common purpose and results driven by the “HOW”, “SO WHAT” and facilitate effective collaborative working relationships across government departments, within the USAID/Malawi, their implementation partners, bilateral funders, private sector, non-traditional partners, Young People and beyond Malawi. For example: YLLP’s way of working is new to USAID/Malawi and Youth Excel, as such this created opposition from within USAID/Malawi. By meeting our deliverables, YLLP is now recognized as a trusted mechanism with nuanced experts on Youth Development and is called upon to support development of new multi-year awards, review of ongoing flagship programs – recommending shifts within the implementation and applications of lessons, providing senior level strategic advice to United States Agencies.

Systems Thinking and Change: I am a systems thinker, who seeks to have more systematic impact and meet complex challenges in new ways. I do this by setting up teams, partnerships that are curious to learn and drive real change. Guided by these questions: what gives rise to systems thinking and change in our context? When this was done well, who was involved, what did they do? What roles do people play in different positions and what skills and support do they need? Who and what is missing? What practical tools exist and are accessible? What will accelerate or nurture the process? What will it take (context readiness) – time, buy-in, champions, changes to structures to initiate this? What does it mean to fund a change process? How might we measure impact? Where do we begin?

Describe your biggest challenge as a leader

Finding ways to be comfortable releasing ‘interim’ products and resources: This was challenging especially in year one, 2022 of YLLP as we needed to prove our expertise and value against expectations of USAID while collaborating with local partners who had not worked at this level before. In year two/2023, we developed and maintained a clear product submission pipeline with different product versions and formats which USAID/Malawi endorsed, this enabled us to meet deadlines and to deliver products at regular intervals, for me to be more comfortable with interim products and refocus on the bigger picture.

Not asking for support at the right time and taking on more responsibilities to alleviate overwhelm of team members instead of flagging this in the system and making a go or no-go decision on new or additional tasks timely. This led me to feeling stressed and burned out. I started using collaborative work management tools and team meetings, for each team member and myself to appreciate the planned tasks against the capacity and timeline. Additionally, I also developed a task backstopping plan which will this year evolve into a sustainable support plan.

About the
Organization
and the Project.

Sector

Not-for-profit

Vision & Mission

USAID funded Youth Excel is a five-year, $30 million global program that empowers young people and youth organizations to use implementation research to strengthen local, national, and global development solutions in over fifteen countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East and Latin America. The USAID Youth Excel/ Malawi Youth Landscape and Learning Platform (YLLP), implemented under USAID’s global YouthPower/Youth Excel activity and implemented by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), is a centralized mission-wide mechanism that supports the implementation of cross-sectoral Youth Development activities to achieve USAID/Malawi Country Development Cooperation Strategy Objective 2: Youth lead healthy, informed, and productive lives, and the ability to collaborate, learn, and adapt across the Program Cycle. YLLP is a five-year, $ 2.5 million activity which serves as a learning partner to USAID/Malawi. This work is guided by Positive Youth Development Principles: Youth in the lead; Reduced intersectionality, Youth-adult power differentials, Research linked to actionable learning, Inclusive data as intergenerational language, Embracing failure as crucial to learning, Equitable, transparent, collaborative partnerships and Differences spark creativity and impact.

Year Founded

2020

No. of Employees

19

Years in the Organization

2 years and 2 months

Annual Budget (USD)

$4

Geographical Area Served

Africa, Asia, Middle East, Latin America, Europe, USA

Organizational /

Project Description

Overall Goal/Focus: To ensure two YLLP partners effectively and consistently implement, streamline workflow and timely meet their deliverables in-line with YLLP objectives and Youth Excel standards in 2024. Through organizational and team development to enhance effective and adaptive collaboration, communication and management among YLLP support team (internal) and YLLP and Partners (external).

Specific Goals/HOWs:
1. A clear and flexible support and transition plan for each team member (internally for the YLLP support team & externally – local organizations/YLLP task partners). This will build and extend the task backstopping plan initiated in 2023.
2. To identify and reduce incidences of overwhelm and burnout among YLLP staff and YLLP task partners:(1) Have an agenda item included in the bi-weekly team meetings once a month on: [a] Overload: map out triggers, signs and explore how tasks can be shifted/support offered where possible – better balance of tasks vs capacities with evolving timelines. [b] Promote rest as a tool for work-life balance and a norm: assess teams’ time taken vs overtime/increasing demands, managed teams’ rest for continued effective and quality project implementation each quarter.
3. To enhance YLLP staff and YLLP partners’ professional development opportunities. With 1&2 team members including myself, will have adequate time to focus on professional development opportunities, expand partnerships and new business development
4. Efficient, adaptive collaboration and communication between activity managers and YLLP task partners through quarterly workplan reviews (clear understanding of tasks, roles, timelines, steps to collaborate). Timely adapt and adjust and with a shorter decision making process based on lessons and improved understanding of the tasks.

Background/Context: The Youth Landscape and Learning Platform (YLLP) Activity is a buy-in activity implemented under USAID’s global YouthPower/Youth Excel activity (2020-2025). Assumptions Made: (1) Staffing will require only 1.5 full time staff in-country with a 2-3 global support team with limited shared time, (2) Local organizations have the capacities and systems to deliver on high impact and quality products to YLLP on time and efficiently that meets USAID standards (3) Youth Excel and IREX have tools and support to accelerate YLLP work and streamline work in a new country Malawi (4) 50% of the total budget is to go to local organizations to meet the New Partnership Initiative by USAID improving collaboration with new, nontraditional and local actors enhancing local leadership, capacity and accountability. Reality:(1) Staffing: YLLP main audience is USAID/Malawi senior leadership and management, all departments, all the partners it funds and engages on Youth Development. To meet the demands and changing priorities of USAID/Malawi there is need for 3 full time staff, that are accountable and take ownership of tasks. (2) Local Organizations: [a] Do not have the capacities and systems in place; leading to continuous overwhelm among IREX staff as they are overextended to cover the gap and delays in the timeline [b] YLLP task partners/local organizations – who serve as co-implementers have changes in team compositions as members are young and once capacities are enhanced through YLLP they transition out of the roles and organizations. [c] non-delivery led non-renewal/termination of two partners’ contracts, the activity lead took on these roles to fill the gap. (3) Youth Excel and IREX tools are not tailored to YLLP, require time for adaptation and development. What has been done: (1) Staffing and Management: [a] A Senior Program Manager to handle day to day tasks and partner management was recruited (positions not included in initial structure), Programme Coordinator roles embedded within one of the partners’ team, YLLP support staff increased by 2. [b] Developed a functional backstopping plan for each task. [c] Collaboration: Mapped areas where tasks overlapped for better team communication and task management - reduced decision-making time. (2) Worked together with two partners for four months to reset their systems (Human Resource, Finance and Administration, Project Team Process) and provided them tools for success to handle YLLP deliverables and demands. This resulted in partners: Comprehensive and quick recruitment process, understanding of their tasks/deliverables and budget, hiring of senior managers to support with operation and grant-making, improved financial reporting and greater buy-in into YLLP by the leadership and team members, revised renumeration and compensation packages.

Why is this project important and timely?

What is the target population of your project? 

Target population: Main: – 8 YLLP support team members (Youth Excel), 12-16 people: task partners, consultants. Secondary: USAID/Malawi program office 6 people.
Lessons learnt will feed into the Youth Excel Universe which includes: 15 countries, 90 Consortium members & Youth Advisory Council collaborators, including 10 USAID District of Columbia staff, USAID/Malawi Youth Community of Practice and a YLLP learning product on organizational development: “Collaborative work and management what works and doesn’t?”

In what way? (1) This will inform YLLP’s and Task partners work plan review sessions – pause and reflect on how we collaborate and work. Considerations for the 2025 work plan, collaboration and management approach. (2) The learning product will be part of a fail fest resources on collaborative work and adaptive management through the USAID/Malawi Community of Practice which I chair/lead.

How will you know that you have achieved that impact? What data will you use to assess your impact?

When at least 2 out of 4 set project goals are achieved; a functional staff and task support plan for YLLP, reduced incidences of burnout /overwhelm in a comparative period

Narrative Data to be used: We will use team quarterly check-ins to compare data at the beginning of the project against each quarter, deploy an anonymous survey, 360 performance appraisal – includes sections on professional development and workload

How do you anticipate this unique leadership education impacting you personally? What new skills are you hoping too develop & grow through this experience?

It will fast track my path towards a 3-year personal goal, by advancing my leadership and management skills – learning how to be a more effective leader who is better equipped to lead complex teams and leverage my positionally for greater impact. This provides an opportunity to conduct a guided self-assessment on my leadership and management skills and a professional development plan. Skills: personal branding, thought leadership, develop board member skills, new business development and investment, decision making and change management.

Where would you like to see yourself professionally in the next 3 years?

In three years, I will be leading a global portfolio of youth programs and high performing teams across countries, offering technical guidance in adolescent and youth development and health systems, gold standard in service delivery, and quality of care supported by expertise in measurement, evaluation, research and grant making. Additionally, I will be a global industry-leading woman executive that others come to for ideas, strategy, advice, convening power and brokering multi-million dollar and multi-year new business development. Streamlining processes, change management in how adolescent and youth programming is designed and implemented with a community of like-minded leaders within a culture that intentionally fosters employee wellbeing, professional growth, pay-equity alongside productivity.

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