Monday, December 13, 2010

What I Learned from Wikileaks - How to Write a "Cable"

Whatever you think of Mr. Assange and his leaky crew - and incidentally, thinking can get one into serious trouble in this business, as quite a few HRI former employees can attest - one thing that must have been noticed by anyone worth their salt is the tone of all those "cables" (in case you wonder "cable" is classified code for "email" - an ingenious first line of defense, a diversion: "cables are hardware, not here for hardware, damn they're good").

Anyway, as i was saying it's not WHAT the cables say (although like many of you i was stunned for example to hear that Pfizer, long-standing PPP parter of HRI, was playing dirty in Nigeria - you see like you, I always thought Big Business was dominated by honest, enlightened companies doing the right thing, pillars of decency such as Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs).

Nope, it's HOW those cables say what they say that we all notice, a style that comes as close as I have ever seen to shameless bragging, patronizing and not-exactly-refuting-any-possible-assumptions-that-would-give-the-author-more-credit-than-deserved. It is familiar to me because, like I, many successful HRI employees and representatives of important partners and donors master this style and I do not think I am wrong to assume that it is also favored by quite a few readers of this here humble newsletter as well.

Could that be a coincidence?

For the benefit of those who have no idea what i am talking about: imagine an embassy employee that is one day approached with information by a dissident in a country run by an evil, nasty government. He'll hear the story and then choose to send a "cable" - the style options at this employee's disposal can be boiled down to two main ones:

1. the "straight forward": "i have been approached by so and so who told me this or the other" and
2. the "I am fucking awesome, me": "because i am such a skilled diplomat, i have finally managed to obtain access to a very reliable source (i may have put my life in danger as well, but i am fine, thanks for asking) that has confirmed all the suspicions I had after comprehensive and very discreete investigations and complex inferences and deductions - that this or the other thing is happening. Besides i am such an amazing writer I bet you are reading this in awe, can I get a promotion out of this shithole please".

You get it, right?

You may be wondering what this has to do with the important work we are doing here at HRI. Well, don't wonder about it now - wonder about it next time you organize a life-saving workshop about building housing* in Haiti for example, and you notice that your own local Emma is not happy with the "branding" of this initiative. A good guess would be that she probably won't plan to go back to her desk and write "our partner HRI has just implemented a workshop, lives have been saved, good on them".

That's right your failure with the branding has just limited her style options, as good a reason as any other to get your shitty organization de-funded.

* don't you just love the gerund in this? Style options for euphemisms are, like, limitless.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Best Practices in Procurement for Hardship Postings

Don't know about you but I have chosen to spend this year's Day of the Turkey in Nairobi, sipping overpriced French wine at my temporary residence in Gigiri and passing time exchanging harmless anecdotes with other expats confirming local stereotypes about the people of Kenya, whom we know so well as we often change planes here and sometimes enjoy  lattes in the basement of Sarit center.

That, plus the combination of good weather and “affordable help”, which has kept Nairobi at the top of HRIs strategic locations for years.

In spite of what you may have speculated, my long silence of late has nothing to do with the fact that I was completely absorbed by cooking the books to demonstrate ever increased cost efficiency and accountability (that, frankly, is business as usual).

Nope, my silence has to do with the fact that HRIs V-sat connection in Moroni has failed and we had to procure a new one. Our back-up V-sat and the Thuraya data plan were both still functional, but, besides updating our Facebook profiles, we could not be seen making do with just that, as it would have compromised the urgency of the procurement process.

To procure the new V-sat, we first flew in Ian the consultant, a world-class IT expert based in Cape Town and a regional member of HRIs global network of experts maintaining our infrastructure. After three weeks in-depth assessment, his 63 pages report, reviewed and endorsed by HRIs IT department, put forward a surprising finding: the V-Sat is broken, we need a new one and while we are at it we should also “upgrade” our servers and firewall.

Given the urgency we immediately activated our global procurement department based in the New York admin center, a team of experts that have helped many a HRI office and affiliate to procure similar equipment in the past. Being 100% committed to procedure, they went ahead and collected quotes, a process that only took three weeks or so, at the end of which they could share three comprehensive quotes that were closest to the required specifications. 

Since neither I nor Nathan the Intern know anything about technology, we added a few extra days of pay to Ian in Cape-Town, who promptly suggested that the best company is actually not on the list, but a company he knows and trust in Cape-Town. He made some solid arguments so we went head with his recommendation and hired this company in Cape-Town, which may have been ever so slightly more expensive than the ones on the list, but Ian assured us they are small and nimble, which is always worth paying for on a market dominated by slow, monstrous, inefficient mega-companies.

Another argument in their favour was the fact that they actually import the equipment from a company based in Dubai (this one happened to be on the list of quotes), and ensure a “thorough quality check” before delivery – an important detail given my and Nathan’s technical hopelessness. Additional costs also include the transport and custom clearance for the equipment to Cape-Town, pre-assembly and transport to Moroni.

Of course there were additional “hidden” costs, but it’s all money well spent as these are the realities of procurement in Hardship Postings. And to be fair to them, the fact that they eventually shipped the V-sat with a wrongly sized dish was not their fault. As it could happen to anyone, Ian  forgot to compensate with dish size for difference in latitude when he “adapted” the assessment he has done for HRI in Sudan back in 2008. (“Adapted “ is an euphemism for “Ctrl+R” in MS Word (or “Find and Replace all ‘Sudan’ with ‘Comoros’).

At a reasonable additional cost, plus travel for “technicians”, the new dish arrived last week and,  as you see, we are back online. This sort of rapid reaction combined with cutting edge technology has kept us on the top for all these years.

And, in case you wonder how come, from the relative comforts of Gigiri, Nairobi, I am affected by these technical challenges in Moroni, well the answer is actually two answers:
  1. HRI takes security very seriously – we only connect through a VPN that runs behind the firewall in Moroni; and
  2. Don’t you just hate typing on your I-pad; 

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to land a HRI job and survive savage attacks on the industry

Despite spending more than half of my life in "geographically intriguing and historically fascinating" locations (euphemism for "shitholes"), I have retained a strong desire for recognition and acceptance in more conventional, home-based circles and for these reasons I maintain subscriptions to several high-brow publications that reach me regularly through complicated and expensive systems involving document delivery companies and forwarding rules at HRI's various "administrative centers"
Sure, these days I could easily have these publications delivered on my standard issue I-pad, but that would deprive me for one of the most important uses of high brow magazines: conspicious reading in planes, generating thoughts of "cultured, thoughtful individual, in spite of rough life in hardship postings" in nearby passengers. With an I-pad I would just be another aging hipster on a plane.

It is all about the image in this business.

Think about it: sooner or later in most jobs, there comes a point where the results of your work are more or less visible, for everyone to see. Not in this business, though, and not at HRI, where success is defined in "burn rates", "leadership of past complex projects involving cross-sectoral cooperation" and "commitment to capacity building" often defined by the statement that someone's "local assistant" was "exposed to learning opportunities". Short of an unlikely scandal, feud or fall-out with the wrong guy there are few tell-tale signs to give away the good candidate from the bad one.

But then it doesn't really matter, as the new job will be all about "strong leadership of dynamic team" and "delivering against indicators", which is another way of saying print t-shirts and organize workshops with people paid to attend and not likely inclined to rock any boats.

Which leaves an important question open: as an employer, how does HRI decide who gets what job, when going through thousands and thousands of applications?

First of course, there is the degree. You gotta have the right degree, otherwise any HRI employer will understandably feel nervous about allowing a young and unexperienced "westerner" to lead a team of "locals" many of which have 10-15 years hard-core experience (known in HRI interview jargon as a "diverse team"). This degree must also be from a "reputable institution", which not only ensures a comfortable intellectual inbreeding so necessary to a business that has been implementing the same strategies for decades with no significant results (except vast collections of "lessons learned" and many, many 300-words success stories), but it also keeps present and future decision-making among the ones for whom such degree at reputable institutions is within reach for solid reasons mostly involving the accident of birth. This fact has naturally generated further growth in expensive degrees offered by some of the worlds leading institutions, in "poverty alleviation" and "aid and development" and if you will take one single advice from me, here it is: fucking get one, whatever it costs.

Then there is the experience. You can't run a "complex project" without "significant experience" can you? Which creates an excellent opportunity for well-educated young people with some resources to their name and some time to spare, to bob about for a year or two, in "Africa", gaining the necessary experience to land them the dream HRI job in the future.[**] During this time they learn all the good habits from their supervisors, ensuring what we like to call "continuity of ideas".

These two criteria alone will ensure a vigorous initial selection and the reduction of applications from thousands to merely tenth, most of them solid-looking candidates of familiar socio-economic backgrounds. But then what? Now comes the point where the instincts of the interviewer and their extensive network of contacts kick in to ensure the ultimate success of the recruitment:

"You were in sudan, were you? have you met my friend Pat from OCHA?" or
"You're into livelihoods, what do you think of Margaret from FAO HQ?

Their responses to these hard questions should pretty much clarify what they're made of and how effective they were in their previous jobs in meeting the right people - another undisputed sign of success.

What you do next is you ask them about how they will "lead and inspire" their team. The successful candidate will speak with humility about how important it is to "listen and learn" - a theoretical concept learned during their "povery allleviation" degree - after which they will hopefully drop an anecdote or two about how they learned a few words in Lingala during their previous posting, an objective, telling achievement.

Finally, it really helps if their references are from people i know personally, so i can call them up and be like "really between you and me how is this guy" - the ultimate test.

And so, reader, have we built the cutting-edge organization that we are today, on the shoulders and commitment of our excellent employees that have taken us all the way to the top of the industry.

Which brings me back to the high-brow  literature i mentioned. Just recently in a plane, i happened to sit next to the representative of an HRI competitor partner in the Emirates business class headed for Nairobi. She started talking about some article, which i haven't personally read but according to her was a savage and entirely unjustified attack on our whole industry. I couldn't but agree of course and we continued our conversation over vodka tonics at the Northfolk (which will surely lead to closer partnership among our organizations).

In this business you must develop a hard skin and live with the fact that that's what you get for sacrificing yourself for the wellbeing of the poor and the vulnerable. Rabid critiques from high-brow magazines (how would they cope with all the hardship?) is just one small extra adversity we have to put up with in this hard but spiritually rewarding job.

[**] the ultimate trump in "past experience" if of course experience with that or the other donor, a detail that may just help propel you all the way to the final step of the recruitment process).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Patricia and The Horse

Somewhere not far from Bredjing, "Africa", a fleet of white HRI-branded landcruiser and escort vehicles slowly negotiate the preciously little space between the dusty huts that collectively form “the village”, coming at a halt in a spot of shadow next to a trip of goats munching on green plastic bags.

The occasion is a strategic meeting between HRI’s Livelihoods Team and Abdulshafi “the Horse” El Noor, a reformed rebel leader and local dignitary whose “community” needs to be included in a “livelihood mapping exercise” completed by HRI, on behalf of “the country team”.

The HRI delegation is led by Patricia, nutritionist, yoga enthusiast and HRI Regional Livelihoods Program Manager who, as always when “in the field” is wearing her shalwar kameez kit acquired from an “ethnic” shop in Columbius, Ohio, offset with a cotton head-scarf bought en route in Nairobi Airport. She’s carrying her trusty Nalgene flask and a recently acquired SLR camera and has managed to re-composed herself after an unpleasant argument in the car over the intensity of the air-conditioning.

She doesn’t know it yet but this meeting will define her from now on. It will influence her career and be forever re-lived in her memory in increasingly romanticized terms. For years to come, in conversations there will be a point when she will say something along the lines of “when I was dealing with the warlords in Africa…” either impressing people or making them cringe, depending who you ask.

It wasn’t hard to get The Horse to agree to have this meeting. Khaled, HRIs fixer Liaison Officer, arranged it by means of “technical expenses”, further sweetend with promises of “capacity building” involving Khaled’s men.

What Patricia doesn’t know is that Khaled is one of the Horse’s men. As a matter of fact, all HRI employees in Bredjing are, but that’s another matter.

The meeting takes place in the “community center” – a rundown structure built by Blurred Vision (HRI affiliate) that is used daily to shelter goats from the mid-day sun. The horse has a spacious house of course, fully air-conditioned (with electivity produced by a generator “capacitated” by HRI as part of another project), but Khaled advised him it would be better to “keep it real” for Patricia. A few kids playing in the dust with a few donkeys nearby completed the perfect picture.

And it was the perfect meeting as well as that most unlikely intersection of two very different worlds. To Patricia “the Horse” was the stereotype of the "african warlord" and to The Horse Patricia was the stereotype of the "clueless westerner", lost in an unfamiliar reality, too young and inexperienced to matter. The discussion never went past niceties plus one awkward joke each, both lost in translation (although Patricia thought the horse was ever so slightly hitting on her).

At the end it was an “amazing experience” and a photo opportunity. But it was also a significant HRI success (the "mapping" will be completed, reports will be written, backs will be patted, further funds will be raised) and ultimately a confirmation that the good order of things around Bredjing, Africa will be preserved: The Horse and his people will continue to pretend they are "cooperating", and HRI will continue to pretend money doesn't change hands.

And, just in case you are wondering, that stock constantly disappearing from the warehouse is nothing but normal “shrinkage”, really.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Protecting Children - All the Way to Easy Streets

Saving lives here, there, everywhere is what HRI does, but we really shine when it comes to protecting children and women. I mean, who would disagree that children need more protection and care than everybody else, even more so in emergencies. Not the donors, that’s for sure, and therefore not us.

First thing you want to do when you are in the business of protecting children is find a nice location and make sure you get it properly re-enforced – we’re talking high, blastproof walls, boom-gates, shatterproof film, the works. Once you enter the main gate, you are in the parking lot, secured with extra ram-proof structures and tire-cutters and packed with ballistic-blanketed, well branded vehicles (“HRI – our children are our future”). Then you walk through the second gate, past the admin office, the radio room, support service, through third gate into the programs compound, where, in a windowless office-container surrounded by green patches of flowers, sits the “Manager of the Protection Unit”, a highly qualified HRI old-hander, distinguished among other desirable qualities by an astounding ability to speak and write volumes without giving away any hint of practicality, all while appearing earnest and very articulate. Much of his speech is a random combination of “Effective protection”, “societal structures”, “social support systems”, along with “increased capacity” and “safety and wellbeing”, put together by an advanced algorithm hardwired in the head of any successful child protection expert.

The distance between this section of the compound and the main gate is not accidental, as the protection program team do very important creative, intellectual work the quality of which depends on a quiet, professional environment, impossible to achieve anywhere near the main entrance, where hundreds of women and children are crowding up by the gate day in day out, out of some bizarre instinct that remains unshaken in spite of the regular yelling sessions with the security officers who try to "create a secure corridor" for this or the other vehicle driving important people in or out of the compound, to and from life-saving meetings.

This quiet environment does get occasionally perturbed by some drivers’ insufferable habit to reverse through the alternative gate in the back, aiming for the water-pipe, where they proceed to washing the vehicles. The combined sound of the hose, idling engines and the driver’s banter has been known to break the manager’s calm and his habit of coming at the container door yelling when that happens earned him the nickname “The Wife” among the drivers. Two things drive him particularly mad:
  1. The fact that, during draught, they waste water that is otherwise intended for the precarious green sections between the containers (it’s the small things); and
  2. The fact that they allow unauthorized children into the compound, compromising important security protocols (some drivers “delegate” the washing to children);
The next thing to do once you have the compound set up is find a hipster photographer and fly them in regularly to take the sort of pictures that increase the quality of any report, website or calendar. Good pictures are matters of the soul, and the idea here is to offer the photographer an opportunity for “an amazing experience”, which means that trips will be taken to “the field”, as represented mostly by the “informal” squatting camps that spring in the vicinity of any HRI child protection compound, where women and children rest and cook when they are not being yelled at for queuing in front of the main gate.

Finally, and crucially, find some local partners. This serves at least three important purposes:

  1. You ensure you can channel efforts into “building local capacity”, the cornerstone of any successful child protection enterprise;
  2. You increase your chances for continuous future funding, by using the absorptive capacity strategy (in combination with those pictures); and
  3. You have someone to blame in the unlikely event that somebody will ever question what children were protected and how.

The rest is pretty straight forward – engage in “Technical Advice” and workshops on anything from school curricula to PTSD and before you know it you have a solid child protection portfolio that will keep this part of HRI on easy streets in years to come.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dennis The Malaria Expert

On the fourth floor of a building somewhere on the north upper teens in Washington DC, a man in a striped suit is lost in his thoughts, confortable in his orange ergonomic chair. His desk is cluttered with highlighted email print-outs, brochures, newsletters and info-sheets from all over the world and a sizeable number of rubber balls, plasticine and overpriced toys, distributed at one of the recent management courses he attended, along with advice on using them to boost creativity.

His office walls are covered with malaria campaign posters and his shelves are stacked with campaign mugs, key-chains, bumper stickers, lanyards and other time-proven anti-malaria weapons, perfected by this business over decades of successful life-saving work.

His name is Dennis and he is the man in charge of HRIs “Administrative Center” in Washington, DC, an important outpost in the HRI universe and a center of excellence for “global technical assistance and advocacy”. Dennis landed this HRI job after a successful career working as an “advisor” for USAID, a time in which he developed significant knowledge of internal dynamics in USAID, as well as a global informal network of contacts in the US government, all crucially relevant to anyone who wants to make it above a certain level in this business.

It’s called “expertise” and it is at the heart of HRIs meritocratic DNA.

Dennis just got off the phone “with Geneva”, as represented this time by a fellow member and co-chair of the Global Malaria Task Force (GMTF), a forum of experts from the US and several Northern European countries, very active force in the development of cutting edge malaria strategies and of course, very influential in donor circles. The GMTF has been pioneered by HRI and a few like-minded affiliates and donors and it has grown into a force to be reckoned with, addressing crucial issues that range from “lack of leadership” and “absorptive capacity”, to global procurement of treated nets, distribution of ACTs and of course identification and assessment of implementation partners “in the field”.

The call “with Geneva” was disappointing, as two main fractions in the GMTF seem to fail finding an agreement on a crucial point in the current work plan: should the upcoming task force meeting be held in Maputo or Mombasa? There are of course solid arguments for both ("The Maputo Consensus" sounds just as good as "the Mombasa Consensus") and a compromise needs to be found. With the recent re-opening of the Polana, Dennis feels that the arguments are slightly stronger for Maputo, but he is loath to be perceived as pushing on this sensitive issue too hard, as that will diminish his ability to weigh in on other, admittedly more trivial, matters during the meeting itself. Years of experience have taught him that sometimes the sum of many small victories can balance one big loss and he is therefore ready to compromise if it is suggested that they meet in Mombasa.

Indeed, fighting malaria at this level is all about psychology. And of course, the ability to navigate the politics of all the partners involved and leverage strong informal networks to mitigate worthy goals: bashing HRI competitors  pointing out HRI’s comparative advantages and ensuring “strategic partnerships” with donors.

Dennis is able to communicate in French as well (after a stint with the USAID mission in Gabon back in the late 90s, where he also met his wife at a peace corps volunteer function), but his language of choice is obviously “Metaphor”, the lingo for any expert with a full plate and a tough job:

Thanks Dennis, for keeping our backs out there and doing your part in the global fight against Malaria.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Workshop Season

I don’t know what season you’ve got going in your part of the world at the moment, but if you are in our business sector you are probably well aware that we are in the middle of Workshop Season – a cyclical occurrence completely unaffected by the complexity of hemispheres, climate zones or climate change.

Once Summer gently turns to “Fall” in the Northern Hemisphere (a mythical place where seasons are made), armies of Emmas and their vast entourage of consultants, experts, assessors and interns descend on every “field” location there is, animated by traditional post-labour-day energy, conditioned in inhabitants of that mythical land by hundreds of years of well organized, protestant ethics.

As a cutting-edge humanitarian organization fully committed to saving lives everywhere the donor penny is available, HRI is of course highly tuned to this natural rhythm and is innovating as usual in forever finding new ways to organize workshops and meetings, the meat and potatoes of any respectable life-saving enterprise.

There is no escaping the natural rhythm of things, and life-saving workshops are keeping us all busy this time of year, from the tastefully decorated Tejarat Hotel in Heart, for example, where conference facilities have been booked ahead all the way to end November, to the slightly splashier junkets and summits where organic-free-trade-mohair-tailor-made suits rub hand-made stitches with organic-free-trade-virgin-wool-tailor-made suits and where the grinning musician of yesteryear shares pats on backs with yesteryear’s grinning politician over designer finger-food and superior beverages, united by the strong bond of blah-derhood.

Besides the human need to overcompensate for the well deserved inactivity during “home leave” (“I was burnt out and tried to disconnect, me, didn’t read my emails, etc”) with a burst of demonstrative energy and desire to show action, the Workshop Season is also factor of another cyclical reality – the Reporting Period.

Somewhere, in a mythical country South of Canada, financial years are “tuned in” with this natural rhythm of holiday/ work which means that current Reporting Periods are ending – a matter that absolutely must be marked by “a series of workshops”, also because remaining money must be spent out of this year’s budget (returning money to donors is poor form) – while new ones are beginning – a matter that mast be marked by a series of workshops, to “show activity” but also to create the illusion of “coordination”, a detail that will prove handy in so many future life-saving reports, not to mention applications for funding.

This shift in Reporting Periods is also particularly good to the reasonably paid Report-Writing Consultant (RWC), a species endemic in any airport lounges near you, this time of year.

Also time of year, in hundreds of “field locations” hundreds of project managers realize that hundreds of project periods are coming close to an end and thousands of “line items” remain unspent. Hundreds of workshops are immediately organized to come up with “accelerated plans” and set up “ambitious targets” for those partners that, as always, suffer from “absorptive capacity”.

Meanwhile, as a clear sign of development there for all to see, sumptuous conference locations are been built everywhere from Hargeisa to Port Moresby, catering to the lucrative workshop and weddings markets, ("plastic chair condoms" and bottled water stock anyone?) leaving just one question open: How come they don't have a MDG for that?

Before I finish and return to my ongoing life-saving workshop, I really cannot let this one go. The other day, HRI has organized a life-saving workshop about “communication” – a matter at the heart of any HRI project (premise: “we do all this good work and no-one gives us credit, we must become better at communication”). As always, this ground-breaking workshop has provided a unique opportunities for people across agencies to pocket allowances while winging, and one of the most important “findings” of the workshop was:

“Newspapers don’t care about our successes, they only want to publish negative, sensationalist stories, to sell papers”

While I was taking this cruel fact in, I allowed my thoughts to wander only for a moment, along with my fingers on the standard-issue Ipad, and came across this fascinating post, written by former HRI employee and skepticism enthusiast, Prof. William Easterly. In it, the good professor (who to his credit does not receive sitting allowance and favours winging for free) reports on a finding he had (professors don’t need workshops to obtain findings, they just pull them out of their superior thinking processes), which more or less was:

“Newspapers don’t care about skeptical questioning that implies more work, they only want to publish inspirational stories with a happy ending, to sell papers”.

And then I realized – what we all need is a global workshop with members of the academia and the press (and maybe business, why not, and "decision-makers" as well) to sort out this apparent “overlap”, once and for all.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Virtues of Micro-Management: Dr K’s Reverse Pyramid of Aid Project Management

Don’t know about you, but I love micro-management, me. It is one of those things, halfway between art and science that, if applied correctly, can yield amazing results in line with the objectives of our work and become the source of endless personal and professional satisfaction to the humble aid worker.

Done properly, it requires the correct bureaucrat to implementer ratio (B:I), best achieved by a reverse pyramid approach to “coordination”, in which the upper part (the reversed base) all the way down to the bottom-tip are packed to the rafters with countless coordination and advisory mechanisms, staffed by reasonably paid HRI consultants, advisors, government representatives and, of course, Emma, all united by a blatant lack of understanding of matters of implementation and an affinity for knee-jerk overblown reactions to any “feedback from the field”, in particularly if the feedback has to do with life-and-death matters such as the “inappropriate use of communication channels” and the use of the wrong word in the acknowledgement section of reports.

We call this "Dr. K's Reverse Pyramid of Aid Project Management (tm)/ RPAPM":

Besides the fact that it allows for a fairly consistent and predictable “burn” on the budget and an equitable allocation of resources among “partners”, the reverse pyramid approach creates an ideal environment for implementing aid projects for reasons that include but are not limited to:
  1. It allows plenty opportunity for unsolicited advice in the planning phase. Additionally, given the impossible-to-define dynamic between various coordination mechanisms, it is relatively easy to pretend one was not aware of a discussion happened in one committee, for example, and demand changes well beyond the time when implementing such changes would be possible or reasoonable, with the added benefit of plenty opportunity for subsequent passive-aggression;
  2. It allows the same people to “wear different hats” as members of different committees and, as a consequence, disagree with their different-hat-wearing-persona ("this matter must be brought in front of us as members of the other committee; Oh, the other committee only meets two months from now, on Tuesday morning").
  3. It allows for repeated invitations for “implementers” to attend meetings that never achieve a quorum and then get forever rescheduled; if they once don't show up, the quorum is met and crucial implementation decisions are taken;
  4. It allows for free interpretation of “conclusions” reached by various committees that no-one knew were meeting, in order to play highly satisfying power games with competitors other partners and stakeholders;
  5. It allows all of us an opportunity to share our wisdom and advice in areas we nothing about, providing, as it were, an opportunity for “fresh perspectives” and “thinking outside the box”; We like to call that innovation;
  6. It allows creative decisions of the lowest-common-denominator variety - the only golden standard in our sector;
  7. It allows for an ideal and equitable flow of credit and blame: blame is always flowing down the reverse pyramid, towards the tip (in particular for decisions taken by committees in which implementers were not present), and credit for success is always flowing up towards the base:

 (The correct flow of blame and credit in Aid)

UPDATE: seeing that it is in fashion to update and review iconic pyramids i thought i should use the opportunity that I had to correct some typos made by Nathan the intern in the illustrations above to also make some content changes to dr.K's RPAPM. I have noticed that in my academic fervor yesterday I seem to  have forgotten about the 6 or so "Poor and Vulnerable" people, who of course have a well-deserved place on the reverse pyramid (tm):

Saturday, August 28, 2010

In which We Learn About the Healing Effects of the Arts

As we go about our cynicysm-inducing business in this brutal post-conflict world, there are moments when even the most hardened of us must ask:

But what about the arts? What of the culture?

Funny you are mentioning it. As it happens, HRI actually is very much "into" arts and culture, as long as it serves our interest. For example, many of our innovative "awareness raising" campaigns all over the world involve some sort of "edutainment" based on the time-honored belief that the muses must be slaves to the political agenda, useful tools in getting the message across to people who - between you and me - do not have the sophistication to understand art anyway. Besides, these sort of activities keep youth in the communities away from trouble, provide an opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers with self-perceived artistic inclination to have a go at "directing" and all for a good cause: a 300 words "innovative" textbox in a report plus pictures, apt to put a tear on Emma's keyboard, when she receives the pdf.

What keeps me going though is the satisfaction one gets from imposing one's own artistic mediocrity on others.

We also encourage children off the dump or off the street to paint and, like, be creative? And, as long as their painting talks about peace or lionizes HRI, they often get exposed at the local expat-cafe-that-sells-latte-and-mojito where they even get auctioned. Sometimes, in places such as Mozambique or Cambodia, where the superficially-perceived recent history to number of hipsters ratio is pretty good we thrive in creating sculptures out of weapons under the strict guidance of a HRI endorsed artist/ guru who then sometimes gets "profiles" in glossy magazines where he can speak with humility about "these people's ability to get over their miserable past". Every now and then, we take a liking to one local artist and we do send her to this or the other workshop in New York or Bruxelles, where people get to patronize her and feel good about it at the same time.

Sure one could whine endlessly about this whole thing being a bit dogmatic, what with only encouraging artistic expression of the sort that is endorsed by donors' agenda, but hey, these people are so poor they wouldn't have time to develop their own art anyway. Besides, isn't a painting of a sunset with coconut-palms and fishermen returning in harbor something exotic? Wouldn't you want it in on your wall, next to that lizard made out of recycled rice-bags looking at the Congolese tapestry, an arrangement that is after all a more acceptable modern alternative to the "been there done that" T-shirt?

And how about those beautiful paintings honouring a complex and dignified culture from centuries ago: temples, gods, ancestors? In my tastefully decorated office, i actually have some paintings that combine more of these themes in one: an idyllic, simple peasant landscape (buffaloes and rice-farmers against the rising sun) juxtaposed over a sky where benevolent divinities help erasing the memories of cruelty that country has experienced recently. And how about that charming primitively carved crocodile from Timor, that gets to be the anthropological prop for any small talk in my office: "In Tetum", i say knowingly, "Grandfather and crocodile are homonyms, ain't that cute?".

Presently, one of HRI's for-profit affiliates has perfected a toolkit for the "development of a cultural policy", put together on account of extensive "best practices" acquired in many countries where we work. Often we even place a "Technical Advisor" at the Ministry of Culture (Or "Culture & Youth" or "Culture & Tourism"), who is usually someone with vague artistic ambitions that have never materialized and who has therefore pursued a "Masters in Art History" at a good school and, as a Technical Advisor can become a convenient agent in pursuing both her idealized perception of "exotic" art as well as the more eccentric tastes of the minister, or principal secretary (or their daughter, always a gifted local artist).

Subject like everyone else to Parkinson's Law, the technical advisor will further ensure that a committee will be swiftly formed (sometimes inter-ministerial), as part of HRI's "system strenthening" agenda, that gets to decide whether or not any artistic enterprise is culturally appropriate with direct consequences in that artist's baility to get supported in any way. This committee will be referred to as a "clearing house", a concept much to Emma's liking and consequently warmly embraced by HRI. We sometimnes even expand their portfolio, requiring them to approve any message developed by "the government" (where "the government" is an euphemism for any NGO that works "on behalf" of the government, as we all do). Given that the technical advisor is a HRI person, we happen to have an edge over any other competitor partner, giving us what can be safely described as "domination" of the message agenda - we make good use of that by churning out messages that Emma loves but no-one else understands.

Then, in the sort of restaurants that create a superficial projection of whatever it is perceived as "national symbol" by some British entrepreneur, aptly named and where only expats ever set foot, the technical advisor from the ministry of culture gets to bond with Emma and a junior HRI Program Officer (it's not customary in our world to allow a senior officer to deal with a cultural project; actually, it must be a young female) over "traditional" dishes (not very spicy of course) and the obligatory shared anecdote over the locals' lack of cultural sensitivity, justifiable of course by the brutal recent past.

But how about that French heritage, eh? Well, thank god for that!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Emma from the Funding Agency of a Country South of Canada

Emma has been with the donor agency of a country south of Canada for a bit over one year now, and although she really hates her life here in Moroni, she is determined to see her contract through, as she sees this dump as a career maker. She can put up with hardship also because she has gained her experience and field credentials with a stint in the Peace Corps, a formative period in her life that she makes daily reference too, often when providing unsolicited advice to "implementing partners" about areas she doesn’t understand.

Her name is actually Emily, but she prefers to be called Emma as she thinks that sounds more mature. She has been known to give very negative “technical reviews” to organizations whose “chief of party” referred to her as Emily once. Her surname is vaguely French and that contributes to her being even more of a social bore as she always makes reference to her “European heritage”, at dinner parties implying that cooking souffl├ęs is somehow imbedded in her DNA and no souffl├ęs cooked by anybody else is ever good enough. She doesn’t speak any French, although “she used to be fluent when she was in the Peace Corps” – Emma has the distinction of completely having forgotten a language in two years “because of lack of practice”, being busy with her job and all, in spite of the three months spent in Paris “for language training” before taking up her job with the donor agency, in what is after all a francophone country. The two years between her peace corps stint and this job were spent in “grad school”, the destination of choice for any unemployable, skill-les overachiever who never had a proper job although they are well in their thirties.

On account of the combination of her masters’ degree from a very good school and her overwhelming practical experience in the peace corps, she fancies herself as both a strong technical expert and someone who knows the ins and outs of “community-based” implementation. She has also attended a training on communication once, which makes her a communications expert, having a specific expertise in the benign impact of logos on larger communication strategies. Given that in her world Moroni is not exactly a desirable destination she gets the big fish in the small pond benefit, which effectively puts more responsibilities in her hand that she can handle.

She never left the city (except on a PR visit when she escorted the ambassador to see a HRI "Launch") and spends all her time with the Embassy staff at the compound. She drives around in a white Rav4 (the car of choice for any discerning expat) and has no friends in town. Like many of us she has impeded her ability to operate machinery several times at the usual Thursday night parties-that-only-expats-attend, which made her even more bitter and secluded. She does not attend the parties anymore and when asked why she blames it on “too much work” and on the fact that, given her position, she needs to be always careful to separate her private life from her work.

In grad school she once sat through a case-study on HRI, which makes her a knowledgeable friend. That and the fact that during her peace corps days she was used as a community contact by a HRI affiliate partial to selling American college kids as community credentials to donors. She also really appreciates having a genuine friend in Nathan the intern whom she managed to bond with over similar peace corps experiences – she particularly likes calling him up and treating him like the minion he is. She genuinely appreciates the “comprehensive” approach HRI has to our work, and the consistency with which we give credit to her agency for their generous support. She understands that our NICRA rates and overheads can be a bit too high and that, in a difficult environment, one has to rely on outside consultants all too often, and she definitely understands "capacity challenges" we are encountering working in such a difficult environment and our reluctance to measure impact, neatly formulated as “not wasting money on research”, which is somebody else’s business. She keeps saying she is “an implementer at heart” and she is very pleased to hear me say that she would do a great job working for HRI.

Emma thinks in 300 words snippets. She can never mention Uganda without making reference to a “that successful campaign” and she could never mention Sierra Leone without mentioning the “amputee soccer club”. She has a good feel for fashionable ("trending?") topics and reacts positively when stimulated with empty talk of “innovation” and “using modern technology, such as cell phones”. This is why, in her head she equates HRI with innovation which goes to show that she really is the right person on the right job.

Her massive professional insecurity is actually a significant advantage as she takes easy offence from competitors other partners who, foolishly, are a bit more outspoken in their technical and programmatic disagreements with her, sometimes even implying that their job is to achieve some sort of “impact” that no-one ever asked from them. In their ignorance, these amateurs don’t realize that this business is about pleasing donors (in this case Emma), and that a neatly printed calendar with the right logos, plus an old fashioned t-shirts and caps project along with sustained sessions of lifesaving workshops and trainings go a long way to achieving that. You throw a “sms campaign” into the mix and Emma loves you like the fat kid loves cake. The "impact" thingy should be the concern of underfunded “subs”, and that’s the way things work. Protesting against that may be “innovative” but will lead to a decrease of funding and control, all smoothly transferred to HRI where they belong.

So here’s to Emma, you rock!

Monday, August 23, 2010

What Malaria?

Earlier today, as i was walking out of my favourite establishment in Moroni, toothpick in mouth and stomach full of lobster, I beheld a man with a laptop in the lobby, staring at an MS Outlook screen with no unread messages and regularly hitting F9 ("retrieve mail") with the face of someone used to work on life/death projects. I gathered by the sureness of his demeanor that this is a man who knows about lonely lunches in the best places a hardship location has to offer and sure enough, the collar of his polo shirt was showing the familiar purple lanyard of the initiated ("Just Saving Lives") so i approached him: "You work for an HRI affiliate don't you?" "I do indeed" he answered, "I work in malaria", "Have we met before?", "No we haven't but i heard much about you".

Turns out he was hired by one of our affiliates not yet established here to write an assessment about malaria programs in the Comoros - the affiliate is considering opening operations in Moroni, funded by a global mechanism they have set-up with the Aid agency of a large country south of Canada, known in the business for its flexible and very competent operatives and for its very streamlined processes. Of course every NGO (and quite a a few for-profit HRI affiliates) in Comoros work in malaria, most of them successfully "burning" through significant funds, and it is just sound logic to squeeze another player in: there's innovation in numbers my friends, and we do like to keep each other on our tasseled-shoed toes.

My ego tells me I should have been informed about this, but my reason argues that in the heat of things coordination sometimes may suffer and that's fair enough, also because i haven't really read my emails in six weeks (I have asked Nathan the intern to scan them every other day or so and call me if there is anything urgent, where "urgent" is another word for "donors wanting to give us money").

In true HRI fashion, this particular TLA (Three Letter Affiliate) is been funded for work that has been done by a competitor another organization, established here over the last 10 or so years, that i have recently enjoyed watching falling out of grace with the very competent representative of the respective donor, over the crucial matter of the size of the logos printed on their mosquito nets. As a consequence, the TLA was predictably  asked in to "help with coordination", inviting also another HRI affiliate from the private sector to help out with developing the coordination systems needed to ensure a "consistent use of Logos that will guarantee sufficient visibility" for the funding agency, and hence another striking victory in the fight against malaria.
Never the one to argue with sound, straight-forward strategies, I took a liking in this consultant and decided to invite him over for dinner, to alleviate his loneliness and provide an opportunity for further internal coordination. I am also considering offering him one of my 12 in-suite guestrooms for the rest of his time here - no-one understands better than me how important it can be when traveling to enjoy the unaltered comfort of a home.

We can then bond over this shared intimacy and spice our malaria small talk with anecdotes about how only in the field people are so generous as to offer you a place at their table and a fully serviced room. Then, next time i'm in Geneva he can pretend he would love to have me stay, would his only guestroom not be full with his collection of african art ("i really need to find some time to nest"). That will suit me just fine actually, as to be honest, when in Geneva i  am rather partial to staying at the dignified and conveniently located Mandarin Oriental du Rhone, and would never trade that for a mattress in some consultant's livingroom complete with creep access to the shared micro-sized family bathroom, always a very dingy affair, wall-to-wall carpeted and never with a shower curtain.

As you can probably imagine, malaria is big business in the Comoros and the well-afflicted people of these islands have more options than most to enjoy being the subjects of a diverse package of life-saving interventions. Not only do they have access to the whole traditional HRI-centered, cutting edge package (that would work better than it does, would the Comorians be just a bit more cooperative) but they have been also privileged enough to stir the interest of a Chinese research/ development outfit that has "sole sourced" WHOs support for an innovative project: given the remoteness of the island of Moheli, the whole population was put on compulsory arthemisinin prophylaxis and prevented from interaction with non-islanders for, like, three years. No-one knows exactly what the research showed (aside from the "success" declared by the implementers) but it was a too-rare example of old school public health of the isolate-put-on-drugs-and-see-what-happens variety.

Seeing an opportunity for innovation, the donor agency of the country south of Canada is trying to pull out a simple strategy: if it works get all credit, if it doesn't, blame the Chinese.

Motivated by such noble objectives, we are entering familiar HRI territory and in close cooperation with the TLA we are really looking forward to coordinating the efforts on the island using a mix of time-proven strategies for success while also diminishing our competitors's share of the donor market creating closer cooperation opportunities with partners in the sector.

Will keep you updated.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inside Innovation - Bring it On!

As expected, I landed in Moroni this morning to a dignified welcome organized by my loyal team who one by one expressed their gratitude for my safe return in verse (being an ex French colony, Comorians have learned to appreciate poetry along with quality bread), as part of a spontaneous ceremony organized  at the VIP lounge, complete with A0 photographs of yours truly and banners reading “HRI – 100% commitment to saving lives, one workshop at a time”.

The way from the airport to my humble residence was lined out with children experiencing genuine joy, neatly organized along the roads in their little uniforms, waving in the general direction of my convoy what looked like green branches taken off the few trees that still survive on the island. Although my landcruiser was going rather fast (HRI flag to HF aerial) and the windows were tightly shut - better to prevent the savage heat creeping inside my airconditioned space, my driver politely assures me they were singing, in one voice, a song about HRI and our donors, apparently learned spontaneously in school.

It is always reassuring to see that one’s work makes a difference in the life of a child (not sure about you, but this stuff keeps me going) and I do take pride in being a man of the people. I waved a dignified salute through the steaming windows, before returning to my data-enabled thuraya to update my facebook account (“status: back in moroni - hot”).

I found my residence in good shape and I asked my “help” to prepare me a double espresso, but without burning it like last time – I take pride in doing my share of capacity building even outside the office – and sipping it slowly I sat back in my study, thinking about how I really would like to pay the “help” a bit higher than 50$/ month, but as a member of the expat community I could not possibly do that as that would unbalance the market with unimaginable consequences. That’s me right there – a man of the people and a long-term thinker of the big picture.

Speaking about thinking – I have been thinking about “innovation” a lot lately, as I noticed the word is all the rage these days. The challenge in our sector is how to “integrate innovation” in our language without changing much about the way things work. First step is to create the inter-agency “innovation committee” and invite members of partner organizations to participate, ticking both “inclusiveness” and “innovation” off the list of words no donor can resist. Making this a senior level committee will insure the right combination of in-disposition to change and generous sitting allowances – ideal when concerned with “burn rates” and the importance of attendance lists to show to donors as a sign of success.

Passing innovation is a world dominated by career professionals with many years in the business and certain ways of doing things is a pretty tall order but then donor’s don’t really want to see much rocking of the boat happening either – that would force them to change their ways, which always makes them uncomfortable – they want to see the word used a lot, and they want to hear the occasional 300-words story about it, that can be put in a neat textbox in a report.  

And this is why they love HRI – we give them what they want, using bullet-proof, time-proven methods. 

As we speak, Nathan the intern is putting the finishing touches on HRIs latest publication – a newsletter dedicated to innovation in our sector called “Inside HRI Innovation” - printed on glossy, high density paper and (money well spent) also distributed in PDF format (as another nod to innovation, we are going digital). The best part about this publication is that it is not a formal donor commitment but rather an innovative, pro-active activity, bearing proof of our dedication to embracing modern means of communication that no-one ever reads, aimed at impressing donors. In another cutting-edge step, we are using SMS to inform our readers about the publication of this newsletter, which is another way of saying that Nathan will text the donors off his pre-paid phone.

It does take a lot of creativity to sell innovation while resisting change, but we are known in the business for getting the job done and do like a challenge. Bring it on! 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Of Tenants and Landlords

Should you find yourself on a plane next to a grumpy person in chinos, tasseled shoes and polo shirt looking busy over spreadsheets on a laptop supported by a large letter sized folder, it is safe to assume that you are sitting next to a HRI consultant, in his “field” uniform. Except of course if the plane goes to Juba, in which case the chinos are replaced by cargo pants and the tasseled shoes by hiking boots, all rounded up with a brown, thin belt conferring the wearer a dignified air while keeping him prepared for the rough landcruiser ride from the airport to logali house and back).

This time of the year, donors issue requests for proposals just before heading out for holidays, ensuring a certain equilibrium: flights out are populated by donor representatives on their way to vacation, while flights in are filled with proposal-writing experts headed for their African destinations where they hope their organizations will score the next big award with no small contribution from them.

Being the executive director of a well respected humanitarian organization, I am little affected by this movement, in spite of the sizeable collective of HRI proposal writers that are transiting as we speak towards or from respective development destinations, some of them transporting letter-sized 3-hole folders and corresponding paper packs (you don’t mess with donor requirements). While that happens, I am flying around making deals on the side and ensuring that development money keeps flying towards HRI, where it belongs, and it does not get grabbed by some unrealistic organization loyal to the falacy that sound ideas get funded. Sure, if they have sound ideas and whatever we are ready to listen, but once wew "prime" the award (which we always do), the budgets get smaller (what with all those fees and expatrate postion absolutely necessary for the "coordination" of activities) and such unrealistic organizations will simply have to prove that they are cost-efficient enough to be worth it of any funding. At the end of it all, we will ensure they get thanked in the footnotes for their "invaluable contribution" to the success of the project and everybody should be happy.

That would also explain why I have been silent all these weeks, busy as I was covering three continents, and, in case you are wondering whether my endeavors were successful, let’s just say that I am really enjoying the complimentary champagne in this Heathrow airport BA Lounge, in spite of the early hour.

And not only have I secured significant growth for this most humanitarian of organizations, but I have also managed to check on certain personal investments of mine which as it happens, are doing well, thank you very much. One of them is a charming art-deco house with significant garden in Panama City, which I have acquired at no cost to me years ago, not far from Casco Antigu, a very dignified part of town. The house was my residence back in the day when I was enjoying a particularly hardship posting in Panama and I procured it by applying the old strategy of using the generous HRI housing allowance to purchase the house rather than paying rent. There are several ways to do that, depending on the availability of mortgage at different locations and some strategies involve the use of a straw-man landlord, but what they all have in common is that one is always well-advised to use the highest allowable rate for rent in the official contract while being posted there and ensure that HRI takes over the contract for the residence at one’s departure, at highest allowable rate and on base of very positive reviews the landlord received from the departing party. After all, any departing expatriate is forever replaced by other incoming expatriates and there is nothing quite as pleasant as consistent access to dignified housing while on a hardship posting, pool, lush tropical garden, servants and all.

I must confess I have acquired quite a bit of real estate over the years using these strategies (highly diversified geographically in case you worry about volatile real estate markets) and I am currently enjoying a certain level of income, to supplement my generous paycheck from HRI.

And so, reader, my mood is high in spite of the grim state of this Lounge (here's another sign that the world as we know it is going to the dogs - BA could learn a thing or two from their colleagues in Dubai) and it is further elevated by the fact that I am on my way back to Moroni, after a long, long absence. Two days from now, I will be finally reunited with my trusty team in Moroni (i carry quality duty free chocolates) and receive an executive director's welcome before returning to my routine of lobster lunch and a humble existence in my house on the beach, which HRI is currently renting for me at the highest allowable rate from a very trusted landlord.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How i Pulled a "Harry Kellar" in Vienna on behalf of Poor and Vulnerable people in Central Asia

I am glad to say that the week in Vienna, at the mother of all junkets, was time well spent, mostly because I managed to facilitate a few “sole sources” with several high-profile donors and sorted out a few “strategic partnerships" (as reported recently), all over dignified fair at the Danube Hilton, the destination of choice for the discerning participant at AIDS2010.

Funding comfort in the world of HIV/ AIDS, reader, lives and dies on chance encounters, which is why I was on the list of invitees to all relevant “receptions” organized during the week, including those hosted by our competitors partners.

In one of the days I even took advantage of the fact that all “stakeholders” needed to approve our involvement in a complex project in Central Asia (where “complex” is an euphemism for “generously funded but in an area that HRI has no previous knowledge of or experience in and shouldn't really be involved with”) were around and I invited them all in for a strategic meeting, timed towards the end of a very hot day, in a non-air-conditioned venue, the ideal place to pull a “Harry Kellar”, also known as “The Ride”. 

The Harry Kellar (named in honor of the man who first brought us  misdirection) is a favorite of mine from the vast arsenal of HRI meeting techniques, so useful in the break-neck world of international aid and development that arguably HRI's enviable global reputation for deal-making and cooperation pretty much rests on our staff's ability to pull one at the right time.

Essentially, the "Harry Keller" is a technique designed to facilitate consensus on topics that would otherwise be controversial, by ensuring that the fundamentally finite energy of any meeting participant is wasted on irrelevant but time-consuming discussions, allowing little energy or time for the important topics, which are timed towards the end of the meeting, only better to be rushed in without a real discussion.

In the specific case I mentioned ("The Central Asia Coordination Project" - CACP), HRI has managed to obtain a “sole source” award from a very respectable donor (leveraging just the right mix of greed and insecurity on the side of the donor representative with a generous dose of unrealistic promises and reassurances of credit from our side), that secured HRI's place at the helm of coordinating regional HIV/AIDS activities in central asia over the coming 5 years, “on behalf of the respective governments”, to the envy of “implementation partners” on the ground who, short-sighted, started feeling threatened by our assertiveness in the region and expressed unfounded concerns that our high NICRA rates, overheads and commitment to working with armies of reasonably paid expatriats will further diminish the already shrinking amounts of donor funding available to fight the epidemic in that part of the world.

In short, a situation that risked back-firing as you must agree - it is not easy to coordinate stuff you don't really understand with people that don't really like you. A challenge to anybody else, but nothing unusual to us, an organizationm so well versed in the finer points of coordination.

Enter the non-air-conditioned venue, for a 2h meeting at the end of a hot day. The invitation went out and all “partners” showed up knowing well that not pitching would have given us an oportunity to complain to the donor that so-and-so organization is non-cooperative and not a team player, a fact that would surely affect their future funding from this particular donor in a negative fashion.

As they entered the room, all participants found a 48-pages document in front of them, aptly titled:

“5-year Action Plan for the Coordination of HIV/AIDS Interventions in Central Asia”

with the pixelized logos of all respective governments (downloaded off the net by Nathan the intern) as well as, more prominent, the logos of the donor and HRI. The meeting was called on behalf of the respective governments, all of them represented by HRI technical advisors, conveniently seconded to the respective ministries as part of other life-saving technical cooperation projects in implementation all around the region (that's what we here at HRI call "project integration").

Participants were told that we are pressed by time and this document has to be finalized and submitted for approval with all respective governments next week - failure to do so would geopaardize our funding, a situation that would have negative consequences to anybody. It was proposed that we all go through it paragraph by paragraph and suggest changes that will immediately be operated by Nathan the intern, set in front of a laptop connected to the over-head projector, all business.   

The first 42 pages of the document were of course elaborate studies in the use of wankwords, with the occasional  reference to details that may or may not be controversial to our esteemed participants (hint: they mostly are), always reliably quick to react to such nonsense. Pages 43-45 were the only ones HRI really cared about, as, in a nutshell, they pretty much allocated implementation responsibility to partners and “coordination” (and credit) to HR, along with the majority of resources.   

On cue, at around 8.30pm, as we just found agreement on Acknowledgments and the Executive Summary, Nathan interrupted discussions with a  quick “process check”, reminding participants that the document must be finalized today, and from there it all went by script – attention span decreased with the passing of time along with energy levels, and every  time someone would attempt to raise a question related to fundamentals, a HRI technical advisor would start a debate about the grammatical merits of this or the other formulation, triggering intense exchanges among the learned participants that would further wear everyone's attention.

By 10pm, after an apparent spontaneous invitation to dinner (“let's finish this and we'll all go for a Schnitzel to celebrate”), Nathan the intern recorded in the minutes that the participants unanimously agreed on the plan, as modified during the session, and hands were shaken, promises were made to share minutes for approval and we all walked together into the sunset, fixing to neck the proverbial Schnitzel of celebration.

The Ride was successful. Nathan has learned something. The donor was relieved that everyone agreed to play ball. I am writing this from Istanbul Airport, en route to Almaty.

Everybody wins.

I love my job.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Report from the Field: microbicide gel is circumcision 2.0

As i make my way from the dignified merc taxii to this or the other venue in the German city of Vienna, i am reminded again why i am paid so generously: it isn't easy being the most senior HRI representative at the mother of all junkets and I barely found some time today to sit down and share my thoughts with you, between shady deals brokered behind the scenes, smiley meetings in which I deny that the those deals exist and touching moments of joy at the sight of so many old friends i haven't seen it like at least two years (remember Mexico?). 

The though that people actually attend the various sessions, posters and presentation is very amusing and in my busy schedule I do find time to stop for a sip of coffee and marvel at the earnestness of it all. Even by the generous standards of our business, if these junkets were merely meant to provide a forum for thousands of “abstracts”, they would be money unwell spent, and believe me i know money unwell spent when i see it.

Speaking about money, I did attend a “plenary” yesterday, to watch technology enthusiast and hobby philanthropist Bill “Let Me Bing That” Gates giving the world a piece of his mind and being charmingly introduced to the stage by a group of Wilhelm Tell enthusiast, seeing that we are in Germany, the home of elevated culture:

Being a technology enthusiast, Mr. Gates then proceeded to show a few movies himself, including one of a young man being circumcised in a Hermite kingdom that I just so happen to have visited recently:

Now, circumcision for hiv prevention was the big news at the mother of all junkets a few years ago (was it Toronto? Nathan wasn't around then so can't help this aging aidworker remember), very much like the microbicide is the big news this time around, but in specific HRI fashion, while everyone will pay attention to the noise around the microbicide story we'll grab a hold of the global circumcision donor "resources", with just the right mixture of “strategic partnerships”, “sole sources” and backhanders, most of them sealed and sorted in the coffee shops of Vienna, over fairly average fair (what was that cabbage thing today, for bing's sake?)

So, in the close future expect tons of cutting edge glossy HRI reports and newsletters on circumcision, as well as plenty meetings across all levels of "stakeholders", lifesaving workshops, seminars and capacity building initiatives – enough to keep us busy, along with a reasonable group of affiliates, from the public and private sectors. Also expect armies of reasonably paid experts to descend on unsuspecting small and medium-sized African countries, all in the name of HRIs vision to acquire any available funding for the sake of the people we serve.

What will happen to the microbicides? I hear you ask. Well do not worry, we have our people on the job, and experience tells us that the big microbicide money will start flowing in a year or two, just in time for us to close up our circumcision work, with a final, tasteful launch of a last report (about the failure of local partners to circumcise the people, i would risk to say) and to unleash our “experts” on the unsuspecting world of microbicides.

And with that i'm off  to my next meeting in the coffee shop. Here's to many years of groundbreaking successes and really, Bill shouldn't worry about nothing, the whole thing is as always in best hands.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Mother of All Junkets

Barely have I had any time to recover from the grueling work done around trafficking at the world cup, and I am already preparing for the next epic trip, attending the mother of all life-saving activities – the biggest-ass bi-annual HIV/ AIDS mega-junket, organized this year around in the German city of Vienna, a cultural hot-spot for the dubious immigration policy enthusiast.

An ideal place in other words to organize this most comprehensive of life-saving meetings about a disease that mostly affects people with the wrong kind of passport, and I am thrilled by the prospect of catching up with my fellow Africa and development experts, some of whom I haven’t been in touch with snice “back in the day” in Mexico.

Unfortunately, La Negresse, who in her capacity of HRIs Director of Diversity (DoD) is among the most trusted of my executives (where “trusted” is another word for “eager to have around for corporate photo opportunities”) will not be part of my entourage for this European journey, although her name has been added in smaller script as co-author to several of HRIs submitted abstracts authored by me and put together by Nathan the intern out of recycled USAID “success stories” and some unverifiable stuff made up to fit the audience. Some of these abstracts were “accepted” which means that HRI staff will be busy delivering “presentations” and “posters” while the main author (me) will be busy “networking”.

I expect the week in Vienna to also allow me some time to reflect on my the weeks in which I have been using the little free time I had between games counter-trafficking activities in South Africa to visit HRI programs in neighboring countries, including the hermit kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland as well as "Zim", up there with the best of HRIs favorite locations due to its ideal comfort of living : hardship allowance ratio.

HRI’s work in the two hermit kingdoms alone would deserve their own “newsletter” (Nathan is already working on the “concept paper”) but suffice to say that due to their interesting combination of size, HIV prevalence, good infrastructure, as well as a relatively uniform devotion to the right sort of religion as far as some of our donors are concerned, these two countries are well on their way to becoming HRI favorites. The hype (which is another word for $$) around Male Circumcision also helps and, as a result of my recent visit, I can already tell you that HRI will play a very important role in “creating an enabling environment”, by implementing a package containing just the right mix of “Lima Bravo Sierras”, “Avalanches”, “Hulk Hogans” and “Diegos”, with a few “Trojans” and “Weasel Hold’ems” thrown in for good measure, all topped up with a glorified “High Five” few years down the drain line.

I expect the strategy for the hermit kingdoms will be sealed and sorted during “networking sessions” Vienna, but meanwhile let’s not forget that the battle against trafficking at the world cup is not yet completed. Apparently, HRI & affiliates vigilance has also paid off so far and countless cases of trafficking have been successfully avoided at this world cup as well. But we can’t drop our vigilance now, not before the last three games are over.

As I have been walking in and out of dignified hospitality suites, past strategically placed crowd-control vehicles (the sort designed after extensive R&D “in the old days”) at various world cup stadiums, I could not but be repeatedly impressed by the diligence of the organizers who have spared no effort in ensuring that every street peddler and hawker is dealt with swiftly, lest they compromise the purity of handing loads of money in exchange for sponsor-approved shit around the stadium, the ultimate experience of any global sporting event.

Ayoba to that, as they say, and see the ones of you with the right passport in Vienna!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Report From The Field - Dr. K's World Cup Diary

Regular readers of this “newsletter” (all three of them) are aware that I am in South Africa at the moment, commuting between Johannesburg, Cape-Town and Durban attending life-saving meetings about trafficking that also happen to coincide with some of the more interesting games in the World Cup. I am also attending the odd meeting in Rastenberg (the proximity to Sun City, a nearby monument of tastefulness, is reassuring) but I do try to stay away from Blumfontein and Nelspruit, where driving around in a white landcruiser among the millions BMWs gracing the roads of South Africa makes one liable to be mistaken for a farmer, an indignity no man in my position could risk.

The fortunate timing allows me to make use of my WorldCup VIP tickets - graciously offered by the organizers as a token of their commitment to oppose trafficking, extracted with well designed guilt trips - and watch some of the games from obligatory "Hospitality Suites" where I not only find shelter from the nasty elements, but also afford a good view of the game, along with complementary snacks and beverages.

A man of my status has little time for frivolous games involving uneducated people running after a ball but I wouldn’t want to offend the organizers. Besides, someone needs to keep an eye out for the traffickers, who will surely make use of this event to ply their unspeakable trade.

Speaking of trade – at one of the games last week I was positively impressed by the swiftness with which officials have apprehended and ever so slightly slapped around a lowly criminal attempting to sell coffee during the game. Sponsors and organizers cannot afford to lose potential business by allowing the competition of small-time entrepreneurs spoiling a perfect opportunity to rip people off shamelessly.

As an enthusiast myself, I cannot but marvel at the beautiful act of creating a solid fallacy for the masses to believe that it is all about the game, in order to lock-in an average of 30,000 wallets in a confined area the size of a small city, 3 times a day, for 3-4 hours at a time and shove expensive shit down their throats. And I can only sympathize with the strategic geniuses behind this scheme who see their plans threatened by some dude selling coffee out of 5 liter flasks, not to mention the terrorist-like criminals trying to flog wire-and-beads souvenirs to the masses, thinning out the demand for sponsored-approved vuvuzelas.

Once arrived at the hospitality suite, I fortified myself with a few shots of free beverage (the sponsor-approved vintage of course) after which I took to the galleries, trying to get some street cred – nothing like rubbing shoulders with the commoners. The fine people manning the divide between dignified people like me and scum warned me that once stepping on the other side I will be lost unless I keep my lanyarded pass visible. Then they stepped aside and I was by myself among the masses:
It was a viciously cold night (what? cold in "africa"?) and my hand-tailored silk shirt and beige Gucci 3-piece, specially tailored for Africa, was not doing me any justice. I looked around and I realized that the locals have developed truly innovative ways to protect themselves from the cold, such as applying a randomly colored substance to their skin, hugging stuffed animals and jumping around in crowded groups:

(The Local Solution: a right mix of face-paint, stuffed lions and traditional, elaborate "moves")

Like everything else in life, football thrives on competition and in this particular instance the competition was between people favouring yellow and green:

And some favouring blue, vastly outnumbered but not less loud:

Check out the odd-dude-out, supporting red, which can only be the color of the referee. My kind of guy:

(me, i support the referee)

With my street-cred reinforced by the short walk among the masses, I rushed back in the warmed hospitality suite, where, further fortified by the free beverage deal, I proceeded to watch the game. Here is the view from the suite:
(at least i didn't pay for the view)

Not being able to see much, plus the comparative quietness of the suite, the warmth and the right mix of full stomach, comfortable arm-chair and free-flowing beverages have induced a heavy sleep in this over-worked aid professional, causing me to awaken to the gentle poking of a hospitality hostess, pointing out an empty stadium and a pitch populated by people with rakes fixing the turf. I asked her what the score was, and it turns out the wrong team won, i just forgot which one that was.

Well, them and the referee of course - there is a lesson right there for everyone in our business sector.
One detail that needs mentioning is that unlike the masses outside, queing in the cold for the luxury of urination, I had readily access to a toilet facility right there in the suite. And that toilet, very much like similar facilities I have visited in other hospitality suites at this wold cup (as well as in some of the choicer hotels I have been accommodated in) had the extra touch of being fitted with speakers continuously playing that cheesy song with the flag, while silent LCD Screens incorporated in the walls continuously showed Shakira in her hybrid Mobutu-Tahiti-school-of-fashion outfit (everyone knows you cannot go wrong when combining zebra patterns with waguely Polynesian-looking dress when attempting to nail an "african" visual), doing her part in promoting the event.

Is that a coincidence? I think what happened is it was a competition between the two favourite songs and a wise peace-maker among the organizers proposed to show the more pleasing image on the screens (skin sells, stupid), while playing the other song as a soundtrack. everybody happy and my instincts immediately recognized the familiar Win-Win, and as we speak I am trying to track down the person who came up with this idea for a swift head-hunting.

HRI needs people like that to keep the edge.