Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This just in: Excellent Experts sought for Parliamentary Reform & a look under the hood of HRI's win-win work in Turkmenistan

In our commitment to this or the other respectable value, HRI is naturally at the cutting edge of any well funded processes of “democratization” the world over. For instance, an affiliate of ours is currently recruiting “Excellent Experts in Parliamentary Reform”, for a gig in Turkmenistan.

HRI has been doing good work in Turkmenistan from the mid 90s (part of our "CIS Strategy" - in those days CIS was a donor euphemism for “former soviet countries that no-one can place on the map”) and I have personally spent many a delightful autumn day in the company of Father Andrew the local papa nuncio, (tasked with shepherding the 12 or so catholic souls in the country and, presumably, ensuring from a typically neutral position that all that gas is put at good use) playing ping-pong against the modern Ashgabat skyline and ruminating about the relative merits of the Turkmen melons superior we agreed, to the Afghan ones.

It was like M*A*S*H, on crack, in North Korea.

In those days, Turkmenistan was led to its glory by a visionary leader, a renaissance man with a taste in the arts and feel for history. The place was in many ways an ideal HRI location, and for a brief moment in the mid 90s we actually considered setting our headquarters there, in one of the then newly constructed skyscrapers where i was even offered and considered backhand shares by a friendly “government contact” (upon inspection we found it was a hollow structure, built just to enhance the quality of the skyline at sunset, so we made other plans).

Turkmenistan sits one of the biggest single natural gas reserves ever. It is also neighboring Afghanistan. Both these facts placed it pretty high on the priority list to receive generous aid from certain donors. For years and years HRI and affiliates have organized “training sessions” with “government officials” on democratic values and “right-based approaches”, in seminar rooms tastefully decorated with giant portraits of the late Mr. Niyazov, President for Life by the Will of His People and his Good Book, all the while wondering how to inform various local staff that their employment with HRI is retroactively terminated by virtue of their names being on a list of “relatives of subversive elements” submitted to us by our “government counterpart”, in a pink envelope with the notorious green seal (in the shape of Mr. President’s portrait, from profile, Cesar Style).

While members of the opposition were routinely denounced as terrorists before summarily disappearing (presumably hit by the president’s mystical powers), HRI Rights Based Approach to Development trainings naturally commenced and finished with quotes from the Ruhnama, the book that contains all that ever needed to be written, and, as practical exercises requested by the Ministry of Justice, the whole group was regularly taken in pilgrimage to the newly constructed Ruhnama Park, where we were all ritually bowing in front of the mechanically enhanced statue of the book, before stopping for a green tea at the end of the 45degree elevator up one mechanically enhanced golden statue of the great leader.

That great leader proved to be mortal after all and checked out sometime in 2007. After the shocked citizenry recovered from the tragedy, they voted his successor in as the second president for life, with a 99.9% majority in an "open" election. Another man of the people, a visionary and modernizer this one, a leader to be trusted to build solid, democratic institutions that can be further “capacity-built”. The head of another government to be supported in his efforts to “reform the parliament”, a complicated process in support of which HRI is bringing out the big guns.

And that’s how that vacancy is on reliefweb as I’m writing this.

To make things work smoothly, HRI has a number of private sector affiliates, consultancy partnerships as it were. These are essentially staffed by HRI old-timers plus a few slick striped-suited types in relevant capitals, to make sure the right amounts of lube are applied to the right wheels and joints of the bureaucratic machinery to ensure the necessary “resources” are being “mobilized”. These particular affiliates prefer to operate mostly in places that can be hard to point on a map and about which most people don't know the first thing.

Once the money is in, the affiliate sends in the “short term consultants”, for an assessment, which then identifies stakeholders and drafts an action plan. In the next phase, technical meetings are organized with the “stakeholders” and “lists of recommendations” are drafted. Sometimes, “third country experts” are being brought in to share best practices, after which the whole thing is wrapped up in a dignified “summit” at the President Hotel (government endorsed wiki page here), where I personally prefer to occupy the suite facing the Ministry of Natural Resources (the junior suite in the other wing offers an inferior view on some back street populated by depressing looking people moving around with donkeys). During the reception compliments are made to the government partners for the tastefulness of their golden President pins (all the rage in local fashion circles) while expats pat each other's backs over the success in managing to obtain visas for all the experts.

Finally, reports are printed, acknowledgements and appreciations are shared, group-pictures are taken, you know the gig. The rest of the money goes where it belongs, in obverheads, fees etc and the government of Turkmenistan is delighted to go around producing solid credentials about their "efforts" towards democratization. Meanwhile  the donor country enjoys improved talks about that gas and there you have it, another delighteful HRI win-win situation.

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