Monday, January 25, 2010

Giving credit where it's due: tough choices in Cambodia and lessons learned about Karma

As a distraction from the Lancet critisizing HRI story which is frankly given too much attention by our fellow bloggers, I thought I make this one a "lessons learned" post, sharing with you a somewhat dated story, but still relevant as a textbook example of HRI overcoming challanges with the help of Karma.

You will agree that in our business work, as in life, sometimes we are faced with choices that separate the men from the boys and HRI has had its fair share of difficult choices taken rationally, with the right interests in mind. A relatively recent example involves a tragic country, a place where HRI and countless of our affiliates are plying our trade with probably the highest HRI staff/ capita in the world.

A while ago, a special rapporteur type came in to asses the situation of “human rights”  in the said country. Some of our affiliates were involved in bringing him in, thinking this will be the usual meetings here and there rounded eventually up in a nice report praising “efforts” and “commitments” and identifying “challenges” and “areas for improvement”. The usual HRI gig in other words, that would have given us an opportunity to bring the “stakeholders” closer and showing donors that their money is well spent while pointing out areas that need further funding.

I remember it like it was yesterday: when I took the call, I was enjoying a chilled Singha with my morning massage on the beach in Phuket (where I was with some urgent business).

"Yash Ghai has f**ed us all!"

It was HRIs “Chief of Party”, desperate and worried – we shot ourselves in the foot he said. I got on the first flight and when I landed in the capital I saw how bad it was: the rapporteur feller has pissed off the government by picking on some land grabbing, arbitrary arrests and other minor faults of the government, all of them negligible in light of the dignified life most of us were leading, engaging in sustainable workshops and training of trainers.

Almost twenty years of peace-keeping and development and aid and technical assistance and HRI & our numerous affiliates were finally in synch with the government, successfully collaborating  in ground-breaking workshops and seminars year-round, on pretty much every topic in the book. We also had a vast network of dignified hotels all over the country to accommodate such activities and the whole per-diem thing sorted out with the government. The money was flowing, the “structures were in place”, the officials were speaking the right language, donors were happy, reports were being printed and life was sweet.

And then this rapporteur guy wants end it all with his winging about land grabbing. A man from a country where they have human rights issues, no less.

“Stakeholder” emergency meetings were called, apologies were sent, contingency plans were drafted, calls were placed, work lunches were organized. There was no question about it: HRI and all our affiliates had to distance ourselves from the report. But damage has been done and our comfortable routine was threatened. (The only good news was that we managed to use that report in downgrading the country on the hardship scale, which has increased our hazard pay ever so slightly)

It took a year almost but karma worked our way: enter a little man to HRI liking, with the right dislike for job : love for paycheck ratio (DJ:LP). He has been chosen to replace the troublemaker who mercifully resigned over well deserved lack of support in his disagreements with the government and the visionary man who runs the place.

And then, sometimes in 2009, sweet retribution: Mr. Subedi’s report was out – a proper, beautifully crafted piece, a significant step towards reaffirming our peaceful life in the kingdom. For HRI literature buffs, the whole thing (in pdf) is here.

For the rest, here are a few highlights:

“people have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of freedom of assembly, expression and movement, although people need by law to seek permission to hold public demonstrations, which is sometimes refused on unspecified security grounds, and arbitrary restrictions on travel or holding meetings have sometimes been imposed.”

“The Government has also faced the complex issue of land ownership, including by making an effort to improve land tenure security for the population”.

And a HRI favourite, containing just the right mix of drama, “recent past”, weasel statements and that thing about economic social and cultural rights:

“Cambodia is a country which still is coming to terms with a tragic past, and the progress made thus far is encouraging. The legal, institutional and political systems had to be rebuilt effectively from scratch when the country began to pull itself together after 1979. In recent years, the country has experienced improved political stability which has allowed rapid economic development, thereby bringing more people out of poverty and into a position to better enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights”.

There are few more effective tools in the arsenal of HRI fundraising machinery than the reference to the “tragic past”. This particular country is a HRI favorite also because HRI staff can make straight-faced references to a “recent tragic past” that has happened before most of our staff were born. Such references are quickly balanced by a mention of “encouraging progress” and there you are, giggles all the way to the bank.

(Actually, I’ll take that back – there is at least one more effective fundraising tool in HRI's arsenal: curating art authored by anonymous children off the garbage dump in a dignified café).

Mr. Subedi’s report is splendidly concluded, pointing out that “the protection of human rights needs the rule of law” (“I believe”, he nuances this controversial statement), and an exquisite turn of the pen offering, in pure HRI style, to give a hand in "developing guidelines on land evictions”.

And so my dear readers, the whole affair turned into an awesome opportunity for HRI to offer a capacity building/ technical assistance package to the government – cutting edge workshops – generously funded by the donor community in Cambodia. as i am writing this, many of our affiliates in country and in the region are "burning" funding generated by this very report, while enjoying that ever so slightly increase in hazard pay.

In private conversations, some of my greener colleagues have expressed indignation that such fantastic work has not received enough publicity at the time and that the media, blindsided by the whole Khmer Rouge Tribunal thing, is not interested in covering such marvelous progress. But I keep telling them - we are not in this business for glory, I says; we must remain humble and trust in Karma.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks – OK. But what next?

    Some may get the “hazard pay” - others don't have any pay and only the hazard.

    Day-by-day, the Khmer media have new reports of land conflicts, people get injured but are scared to go for treatment to a hospital because they fear they might be arrested for having tried to assert their right to the land where they used to live for years.

    Sooner or later even those who believe in such nice language like “the protection of human rights needs the rule of law” - offering to give a hand in "developing guidelines on land evictions,” will see the irony of what was declared to be intended to “build mutual trust.”

    All the more: What next, now?