Friday, April 30, 2010

Making 1millionshirts a Success in Ten Easy Steps

The last few days were quite emotional as the “twitterverse” came alive with the voices of many offering an opinion on the serious matter of some dude from US of A wanting to send a million t-shirts to “Africa”. Some of the noise, produced in a wide spectrum spanning from “constructive smugness” to aggravated snark, reached even the sleepy metropolis of Moroni where I have recently returned after a culturally significant and high impact trip to “Zim”.

Regardeless, as I take in the many angles of this story, along with a humble breakfast prepared by my trusty “domestic help”, I thought I should also throw in some unsolicited advice for the nice people who came up with this idea, in the hope that the vast experience HRI has in matters of aid may perhaps benefit this or other such innovative ideas in the future.

  1. Before going live with the next big idea, you are well advised to get in touch with a HRI affiliate "on the ground" and arrange for a "needs assessment". All it takes is a reasonably paid consultant to go down to “Africa” and see what’s going on, take some pictures, write a report.
  2. After that you want to call together all “stakeholders” and discuss the report. The trick here is to pull the old “recommendations monte” and by the end of the event it should be obvious that the recommendations were made by a “committee” (helpful language: so and so working group, on the base of the obvious gaps resulting from the assessment reports recommends mobilizing resources for the identification of 1 million t-shirts to be distributed by HRI affiliate in the logistica cluster along with other NFIs). That simple detail is very helpful in managing eventual PR issues as you upgrade to the position of someone just implementing what the committee has decided.
  3. You have to ensure the government, as a main stakeholder, participates in this workshop (think lunch), after which you will visit the Director/ PS/ Minister and obtain an official letter in which the government requests so and so many t-shirts, urgently; if you are smart, you could even pull out a "t-shirt state of emergency" situation, which will qualify you for CERF funding.
  4. Once the recommendations have been “formulated” and “approved” by the stakeholders, you approach donors and source some funds, not forgetting to include crucial overheads and costs of marketing and distribution;
  5. It gets a bit tricky once you find the t-shirts, as every intern knows t-shirts can only be distributed if the logos of all “stakeholders” are appended very visibly. This minor inconvenience can be resolved by contracting (following due procurement procedures) a company that can either silkscreen or embroil the respective logos on the t-shirts, along with a well designed and creative slogan (my back used to be bare, now it is covered, thank you HRI).
  6. To increase "perception of value" you could also contract a company that can shrink wrap the t-shirts after they have been embroided. This phase, along with the business of the warehousing and distribution strategy will come in handy in your final report where you claim success under “supporting income generating activities”;
  7. Your next problem is targeting. You need to avoid that t-shirts get distributed randomly or that somebody will god forbid grab more than their share and sell them, falling in the sad trap of exploiting his brethren. This can be addressed by developing a number of activities, to include “edutainment”, “exercises in community inclusion and participation” and of course life-saving workshops. All participants will receive one t-shirt, with the better ones (polos) distributed as prizes during games.
  8. If there are too many t-shirts and you "face challanges" in distributing all in the given timeframe, what you do is you first put them in your central warehouse (upgraded to comply with WHO standards for storing t-shirts) in the capital, after which you take them out in batches that you then deposit in regional warehouses. You do your counts on the bin-cards in the main warehouse only and once that is empty, job done.
  9. All you need to do now is finalize your first draft of the report and present it to the same stakeholders for approval – ensure you take many pictures under HRI banners, which will then be pasted in the final version of the report that will subsequently be DHLed to all participants. 
  10. You will print more reports than necessary, and deposit them in the now empty central warehouse. You can then hand them out to any person you run into that wears one of your, easily recognizable, shirts.

And this is how, friends, wisdom and experience can make the difference between a PR disaster and a “best practice”.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Roughing it in Zim: cholera, cocktails and rock'n'roll

It’s been a while but here I am again, typing on the sleight while chairing a life-saving workshop in Harare, Zimbabwe. Or “Zim” as it is affectionately known among those of us who try hard to show nonchalant familiarity with the region.

A Zim old-timer, I have had the pleasure to be invited back here by a coalition of HRI affiliates, who understand that in principle donors appreciate like no other to hear that the work they have funded during the cholera outbreak in 2008 is slowly been wrapped up in lifesaving lessons learned workshops, known in local development circles as “post mortems”.

And so, here i am, sitting at the panel in front of a packed room decorated in by the strict standards of the Plastic-Chairs-Covered-In-Cotton-Condoms School of Interior Design. It is a bit too early in the year to enjoy the legendary jacarandas that have made Harare such a beloved destination among HRI consultants as well as intrepid backpackers, but the plastic flowers on the panel table, contrasting nicely with the hue chosen for the conference banner, make up for it, as do the tastefully arranged sets of water bottle,mints and purple napkins spread meaningfully among the participants.

As one of the presenters was getting into the second part of her presentation – appologizing to Mr. Chairman for running behind schedule before starting the section of challenges and lessons learned from the role played by the organization she represents in the unprecedented “scale-up of aid in the wake of the outbreak” - in my peripheral view I caught a glimpse of the garden, where a young unkempt looking girl was being removed from the premises by a dignifiedly clad servant. She couldn’t have possibly jumped over the electric fence so her presence here must be a case of human failure (which has become too common in ZIm, what with the brain-drain and all). I made a mental note to mention my concerns about security to the hotel manager before making a point to personally close the curtains, to avoid witnessing further scenes that would distract participants from the topic at hand.

With the room freshly darkened by my inspired gesture, the powerpoint slides become more vivid and meaningful and I have allowed myself a rare moment of reminiscence.

Zim really is an ideal HRI location and the past few years have been good to us. For the average HRI employee, Harare is a suitably comfortable location, featuring a vast choice of dignified accommodation as well as a solid infrastructure and a vibrant expat community, served by what may very well be the region's best "domestic support", conveniently accomodating due to the current unfortunate economic realities. To the outside world however, Zim is a very rough place where access to the most basic supplies is a rare and expensive luxury while oppression, poverty and despair consume a once-glorious country making the misery index soar to very respectable levels.

Both camps are right of course, which is not only good for HRI staff’s street-cred, but also for that small matter of hazard pay and the monthly shopping trips to Johannesburg and R&Rs to Cape Town.

Sure, inconveniences such as having bank accounts in Botswana or, at least over the last two years or so, the difficulty to source quality petrol with suitable octane content as recommended by the manufacturer of our brand new fleet of Ford Explorers (purchased during the cholera outbreak with emergency funds made available to HRI by one of our main donors) are real and they do diminish the quality of life ever so slightly. But somebody has got to do this job and we take pride in the readiness of our staff to rough it when there is no other way.

Anyhow, I’d better intervene and bring the proceedings to an end. The organizers of the currently ongoing Harare International Festival of the Arts have gracefully offered us a few VIP tickets and I really must have a nap before cocktail hour.

Friday, April 23, 2010

HRI Success Stories. Today: groundbreaking work from CelebrAID

We all agree: celebrities are awesome and they are crucial to the process of "development" as we know it. HRI is naturally aware of the ability of a good celebrity to simplify development realities and create a useful stereotype about big-eyed undernourished children “back in Africa“ that have not known affection.

through my work I have myself hosted my fair share of celebrities visiting HRI programs in this or the other camp, shelter or other miserable location and have experienced deep transformations within, from the privilege to stand modestly in the background and hand out the occasional disinfectant tissue so they can ostentatiously wipe a tear and/ or discretely rub a hand, an elbow, after the dreaded skin contact so necessary to any choice photo opportunity.

Like no other "tool", celebrities succeed in bringing important issues to the attention of the masses so that the issues become part of the “popular culture”, commented on facebook, lamented on twitter or reflected in sound advice given about role-modeling, as shown in this example taken out of a copy of a popular guide book for intrepid travelers:
You will agree that such impact is worth a lot to HRI and our donors so it goes without saying that money does change hands every time a celebrity “gets involved”. Money well spent of course, and it is also a pleasure for our more impressionable international staff to get to be patronized by a celebrity’s vast and demanding entourage, while HRIs "local staff” gets to be chased around by what looks like a group of stereotypical decadent caricatures of everything that is wrong with the "west".

But what of the celebrities themselves?

Well, today’s success story shows that HRI & affiliates care about them. As first movers in the area of “celebarketing”, HRI has an affiliate fully dedicated to “harnessing the power of celebrities to create an enabling environment for empowering the powerless” and today’s human interest story is just about them. Do read on and shed a tear if so inclined; and, should you want to share your own success story, remember that HRIs call for abstract remains open.

CelebrAID: The Humanitarian Appeal for Celebrities

Britney (not her real name) sits quietly in a dark corner of a Haitian village hut and studies her hands. It's a rare moment of quiet reflection for a girl otherwise cast into the shadow of the spotlight.

Britney is one of America's countless vulnerable and most-at-risk celebrities.

On a normal day, Britney will wake up early in the afternoon and begin her arduous daily routine. She climbs out of bed after everyone else in the house is still fast awake and she boils her own water to make a cup of coffee. This is a dangerous task for a girl with a crippling hangover. Almost immediately, she remembers she has children and checks in with her nannies to ensure they will be out of the house for a little while longer. Each day she walks 0.000003 miles to fetch water for her bubble bath. She has very little to eat.

Still, life has improved dramatically for Britney. When CelebrAID found Britney 3 years ago, she was in dire need. She was about to lose her mansion, her children, and her career. She had been exploited endlessly and her name had been tarnished in her Hollywoodian community. We found her in celebrity rags. We approached Britney and let her know that there are people out there who care about her and who want to see her image improve. At first, she was wary and confused, but soon enough, we gained her trust and sent her on her first field mission to a refugee camp in Colombia.

Today, the girl in Haiti is a very different one. Britney emerges from the Haitian hut and into the sunlight, to be photographed cradling a child. "America is a tough place for a young female celebrity" Britney says with wisdom beyond her years. "There is an entrenched culture of slut-shaming and if any female celebrity dares to drunkenly expose a glimpse of her vag or french-kiss another woman on stage...her chances of being treated with respect significantly decrease. Thankfully, CelebrAID is there without fail to provide PR-disaster relief" she announces in a calm manner as she manages to walk in a straight line on one of Port-au-Prince's few roads cleared of debris.

"For so long, I had no idea I could claim the right to aid. I thought the right to aid was reserved for elite celebrities that were well-educated and had a reasonable understanding of world affairs that was reflected in the dignified manner with which they carried themselves, despite their fame and fortune. But CelebrAID taught me the principle of non-discrimination - that ALL celebrities EVERYWHERE have the right to participate in 3-day overseas missions to pre-arranged, thoughtfully selected field sites that demonstrate "model" programmes that make a difference in the life of the poor. No celebrity should be deprived of their right to engage in awkward conversations with poor people they will never see again. Even the most vulnerable caste of celebrity should have the chance to put on a stern face with a furrowed brow and nod thoughtfully as they relay their story of visiting Pakistani earthquake victims at a NY-cocktail party" says a teary-eyed Britney.

In addition to CelebrAID's rights-based approach to celebrity disaster relief, another way CelebrAID has been able to reach out successfully to a whole new generation of stars, is through the power of role-modeling. This is especially important for female celebrities. Old-timer celebrity, but relative new-comer to the aid scene, Madonna, illustrates this point.

"Girls like us don't need a hand-out - we want a hand-up", Madonna thoughtfully explains. "Preferably when that hand is formed into a fist," she adds. Even for the infamous "brilliant business woman" it took decades to realize the massive power of celebrity aid. "I saw Bono doing it, I saw Geldof doing it, but it didn't really click until I saw the world see Angelina doing it" she says as she happily bounces her adopted son on her lap.

Indeed, CelebrAID harnesses the technique of "behavior role modeling" to inspire at-risk celebrities to gain confidence in themselves. "I mean, here I was in LA right, and I was thinking to know, if Cameron Diaz can take photographs with poor children in the vast slums of Nairobi, then so can I," beamed Nicole Richie, proudly displaying her new photos of herself with a small group of Kenyan schoolchildren.

While some international charities prefer to partner up with dignified celebrities like Cate Blanchette or respectable musicians like Angelique Kidjo, CelebrAID specializes in celebrity disaster relief - daring to go where the need is greatest for celebrity reconstruction. CelebrAID focuses on the LDCs (Least Developed Celebrities) even though it would be easier to work with more reliable artists that have spent years legitimately honing their craft, such as Kate Winslet.

"Working in disaster zones such as Lindsay Lohan is so much more rewarding than working in predictable and safe places like [Denzel] Washington" reflects Sarah Witman, a long-time employee and spokesperson for CelebrAID. "Yes, all celebrities have the right to aid, but it's much more satisfying touring with Paris Hilton and seeing the look on her face when she is finally able to distinguish the difference between the region of West Africa and the country of South Africa. I knew right then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to ensure each and every celebrity has the chance to gain a basic education."

Thanks to generous donors like yourself, CelebrAID boasts Nobel-Prize-worthy results. CelebrAID increased the celebrity participation rate (CPR) by 500% in just the last 5 years! With such a dramatic increase in the use of CPR, CelebrAID is seeing the celebrity mortality rate (CMR) plummet to levels approaching zero! "We are confident that within 2 years, we will be able to report near-universal enrollment of celebrities in aid projects in ever single country of the world!" exclaims Witman. "This would NOT have been possible without the very generous time the average hard-working American citizen volunteers every single week - often daily - tracking the every going-on and whereabout in the lives of celebrities. By showing you care, they care too."

CelebrAID is not without its critics, however. The Malthus Institute released a controversial report last month that questioned the long-term sustainability of celebrity spread. "Yes we are pleased to see CMR decrease so drastically, but no one is asking how indigenous cultures will cope with the influx of celebrities as the CPR far outstrips the CMR. We believe CMR is being artificially deflated by the activities of INGOs such as CelebrAID and issue strong caution that soon aid workers might be overburdened and without capacity to respond to so many celebrity needs" warned a Malthus spokesperson.

We are at the end of our tour with Britney in Haiti and she seems content and at peace. She is holding the little hand of Veronique, a 10 year old Haitian girl. Veronique is wearing a beautiful white dress that was distributed to her by Britney; she looks up at the star and smiles shyly. In a barely audible voice, Veronique whispers:

"I am very happy for Britney. When she first came to Haiti she seemed a little nervous but after us children told her not to worry about her problems and that everything would turn out ok, she really cheered up. Thank you CelebrAID for giving Britney the chance to come and take pictures with us."

Veronique walks away, still with many of her own problems, but happy knowing that she was able to make a difference in the life and publicity ratings of even just one celebrity.

How can YOU help? Here are three simple ways you can take action TODAY. Like our celebrities at an Oscars after-party, they are easy:

  1. Become our fan on facebook and follow us on Twitter. In the 21st century, facebook-friending and Twitter-following are the two single most important ways we will talk about changing the world.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about the need for celebrity aid. You can download the inspirational story of Amy Whinehouse at our website. The more you care, the more celebrities care too.
  3. SPONSOR A CELEBRITY TODAY! For as little as the price of a manicure a week, you can restore hope and a sense of purpose to the life of a depraved celebrity starting now! As a sponsor, you will receive a photo of your celebrity, a daily gossip email, and progress report. We also encourage you to send fan mail to your celebrity to thank them for their efforts and to let them know that you are watching and rely on them to guide your nearly non-existent political interests. Let them know that because of their cause-involvement, you have heard of a new country though you are not sure where it is exactly, and that because of their tweet, you spent one minute on CelebrAID's website before going back to Perez'.
Thank you CelebrAID for taking Celebarketing to another level!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Short HRI Q&A and Words of Wisdom on Emergency Response Funding

For whatever reason, this blaag seems to have received increased attention recently, which, while not unpleasing, has brought along the occasional unsolicited email from well-wishers, haters and inquisitive types. The latter are the most fascinating and I thought I take the opportunity for a very unusual step out of character and address here a few of the common questions raised by representatives of this group, to avoid any "duplication" involved in having Nathan the intern respond individually:

Q: Do you work in development?
A: No, I just learned stuff from repeatedly watching that movie where Angelina is the suitably dressed selfless HRI employee working in some refugee camp in "Africa".

Q: What is your opinion on the link between <put whatever you fancy here> and development?
A: I don’t have one. Except if you are a donor of course, in which case Nathan the intern will get a draft proposal going, pointing out the obvious interdependence between the two and HRIs readiness to make the link more meaningful by empowering stakeholders and building capacity to harness the power of the <put your pet subject here> to impact the poor and vulnerable and reverse the cycle of poverty by innovative strategies.

Q: Why do you choose to write a “spoof” blog instead of participating constructively in a debate about <put whatever you fancy here>?
A: Did you just call me a poof?

Right, with that out of the way, let’s get back to more important business - a very quick one today as i am planning a lobster-binge over lunch, to celebrate my return to Moroni after many a week of wanderings, complete with having being "stranded" in Paris due to that islanding vulcano thing.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed by recent earthquakes, plane crashes, landslides and famines that may have led to the proverbial “donor fatigue”, you should pity the professional emergency type who, having missed the opportunity to score a good-for-street-cred job in Haiti is forced to follow the thinning stream of cash to all sorts of lesser emergencies just to put bred on the table.

Luckily HRI, having seen our share of emergencies, has developed useful coping mechanisms to identify and secure sufficient resources to keep our “emergency” presence uniformly spread across the globe. A helpful factor of course is the Central Emergency Response Fund – CERF, a funding mechanism mentioned right here a while back, that has the helpful rule stating that in order to become eligible for funding, any emergency must be recognized and formally declared as such by the respective government.

Many whiners in our business have refered to this clause as dangerous because it allows dodgy governments to refuse assistance to groups in emergency that they don’t like. Whatever, I say. For those of us inclined to look at the full half of the glass, the beauty is that with HRI extensive network of partners and affiliates working closely with governments across the globe to “build their capacity”, it is a small matter to get this or the other government (dodgy or not, who are we to judge) to declare the small landslide here, minor cattle epidemic there as an emergency, after which HRI immediately liaises with the CERF people to get that "rapid response" cash in to put some plastic sheeting in place, buy a few goats.

Stuff like that keeps our world class emergency response team busy and HRI in the headlines - good for us, good for business the sector .

Thursday, April 15, 2010

HRI fundraising secrets: writing a succesful proposal

It is still award season and many of our affiliates remain busy working well into the night to finalize proposals to ensure our activities will continue uninterrupted for the next funding cycle.

Spare a thought for those who bet on the fallacy that a proposal will succeed or fail based on the soundness of the activities proposed, for their survival in the cutthroat realm of reality will be short and sweet and their minor careers devoid of much satisfaction.

For those who know better here is some useful advice from HRIs vast experience:

First you need some local partners. You will find some good advice in HRIs guide to successful partnerships, and in a nutshell, the secret is to ensure that all local organizations that do something useful and have visible results are committed to exclusive collaboration with HRI. Donors like to be seen as funding local networks - “ownership” and “sustainability” are the appropriate wank-words here, and we all have to adapt to a world increasingly inclined to ridicule the more obvious clich├ęs of the beltway bandit. You want them in your “partnership” also that you can report their results as your own during the next “reporting season”.

You don’t need to worry, the donor will never fund such local organizations directly as there is general agreement that they “lack capacity to absorb funds” – HRI will gladly do that for them.

Then, you need a slick team of lobbyist types in the capital of the donor who can reliably sleaze their way into the process walking that thin line between “seeking further guidelines” and “compromising procurement process”. Do not underestimate the relevance of this phase.

It helps a lot if, in country (“the field”), you have at least one or two staff who succeed in to combining a solid professional relationship based on respect with the “head of mission” – having children in the same school helps here as does frequenting the same cocktail circles. These situations provide useful opportunities for shared smugness about the lifesaving work we are doing together as well as bonding conversations about the heat, the craving for superior coffee and baby spinach salads and the unreliability of the local staff.

If in your country there is a local organization lead by someone with a dramatic story – an ex sex worker say, a former refugee or an HIV+ person - you are in luck. Throwing in a “bio” of this person in the proposal, written in a way that HRI does not necessarily deny any contribution to their “finding the way” will hit some important spots with the bureaucrats processing your application. Besides, after the award has been granted, you can burn significant amounts of money on having this person attend international meetings where they can “tell their story” in front of note-taking voyeurs before returning to the front of the room where they are expected to remain silent but smiling with dignity while HRI experts talk about her past suffering and what that means to her.

You will have to acknowledge that there are other organizations out there with whom HRI & affiliates compete for this funding. “Competition” is not a very popular word in our circles so the trick is to find a way to “partner” with them that keeps everyone happy. The best way to do that is to have a “coordination” meeting where, in front of a map, all the head of these organizations would decide who works where, dividing so to say spheres of influence. A good sign is when some participants will attend by phone and you know the meeting is productive if you hear phrases like “these are my MARPS (acronym for “most at risk population”)” or “so and so province is ours”. Expect a bit of horsetrading here, covered in the fair sounding argument of “avoiding double counting” and do become suspicious if many local organizations are invited to attend this particular coordination meeting (one or two are ok though, to cover "ownership", as long as they dont talk too much).

Making the budget is a pretty straight forward affair – you start with the bottom line (which you set as a few dollars under the maximum amount for that particular call for proposals, making sure that the overhead formulas are locked on the spreadsheet) and work your way up by adding random numbers until the totals come together nicely. Experience and access to the right information make or break the success of this process, as knowing the right favourable percentages for each section is crucial. With most donors it is safe to assume that staff costs have to be minimal (10% is a safe percentage) and the way you achieve that is by ensuring that these lines are covered by the right mixture of expatriate staff and drivers (“support staff”), while the rest of the people involved will be budgeted under “consultants”, in the operations section. The Consultants line benefits from much more “flexibility”, going up to 80% of the total with many donors.

For obvious reasons, it is a good idea to ensure that the person who finalizes the budget is not the same person as the one who fills in the “sustainability” section in the narrative – in HRI that is usually Nathan the interns’ section as he is pretty good at copying and pasting it from past successful proposals (why re-invent the wheel?).

Writing the actual “narrative” usually involves filling in complex forms that make no sense to anyone, developed by wannabe academics making a living as born-again bureaucrats in teh donor's headquarters. The secret here is to err on the side of optimism and promise loads of “downstream targets” and much "involvement of local partners" with significant "capacity building" components. Not to worry, after the award has been granted the whole thing will be diluted through endless “realignments” and “restrategizing processes", which are spun in such a way as to shed on HRI the favourable light of “flexibility” and “adjustment to local changes” while ensuring that all measurable commitments are conveniently replaced with vague concepts like "enabling environment" and "system strenthening". Indicators are helpfully chosen along the lines of “t-shirts distributed” and “people trained” which also helps with finalizing the “workplan”, in addition to further assuring you that all those t-shirts & baseball caps will benefit at least one local small or medium enterprise, fairly procured of course through a competitive bidding process.

Well, good luck y'all with proposals and do reach out to HRI affiliates for further guidelines – your chances of receiving some funding will significantly increase if you partner up nicely. Also, may I remind you that HRIs call for abstracts remains open and we are looking forward to more flattering, feel-good human interest stories from our hard working affiliates out there.

Monday, April 12, 2010

HRI Success Stories. Today: Stroke the Children on the groundbreaking "Stroke don't Spank" campaign

You may remember HRIs recent call for abstracts/ human interest stories. Thanks for all the awesome submissions – Nathan the intern (known to the outside world as "the panel”) is going through them and, among those that he bothers to read, he is short-listing the ones that he assumes would be more to the liking of the donor community, for ticking all the right boxes. I should add that Nathan is not paid at all, his only reward for doing all the unpleasant tasks in the office is appearing world-exploring to his facebook friends, in addition to the unrealistic hope that one day soon he’ll score a proper job with HRI. He remains motivated though and diligent in completing his tasks.

If you did not submit your abstract/ human interest story/ success story yet, you can still do it as submissions continue to be accepted (we really love to hear how our affiliates out there get the job done and, perhaps, touch a life or two).

Anyways, without further ado, let’s hear it from Mr. Jean Baptiste Clamence, Executive Director of Stroke the Children (STC), a HRI affiliate on the “south-asian subcontinent”

Dear Dr. Kurtz,

As a proud recipient and inefficient administrator of HRI's funds over the past 15 years, we at Stroke the Children are delighted to send you a summary of lessons learned from our successful "Stroke Don't Spank" Campaign. Hand Relief has supported Stroke the Children to make a positive impact on the lives of children and families, and the local economy throughout South Asia.

A brief summary of our key achievements in 2009, made possible through HRI funding:

  • Stroke's and HRI's joint Publication "Harnessing Women and Girls" provided key revenue for Mustafa Publishing House and allowed Mustafa enough income during this tough financial crisis to take on his fourth wife.
  • Through our series of 5 high-level regional workshops, we filled out a total of 200 sheets of flip paper that were then transcribed into a 40-page "Stroke Don't Spank" Workshop Results paper that included 20 tables of workshop results separated into 6 columns (Problems, Solutions, Stakeholders, Actions, Main Responsibility, Key Dates). The government authorities will now be responsible to follow up on these agreed-upon actions so that we at Stroke don't have to. In this way, we will also not need to be held accountable for results. We expect that the annual monsoons in 2010 will sufficiently divert attention away from the incomplete processes and serve as an appropriate challenge that disenabled the promised outcomes.
  • The Stroke Don't Spank Campaign has been extremely successful to date. Through this campaign, we set up a website that allows users to select whether they click on the "Stroke" icon or the "Spank" icon thus showing their support to end violence against children. In this way, visitors to the site were not mere passive observers, but were enabled to take real action (clicking on the icon) and express themselves. Visitors were invited to sign an online petition from which we will feed the "# of visitors signing petition" data into our M&E indicator matrix.
  • The Stroke Don't Spank Campaign has to date, photographed and video-taped three pilot sessions of rural men and women sitting under trees and listening to a facilitator. While we have typed "Ministry of Women and Children" into the matrix under the column "Main Responsibility" to replicate these pilot sessions across 5 regions, Stroke decided to conduct 3 initial "pilot" sessions so that we could have enough visual evidence of activity to populate our promotional materials (website, brochures, donor reports, and powerpoint presentations).
  • In these pilot sessions, participants were outnumbered 3-to-1 by NGO officials, the local Prefect, local media, and village dignitaries that were all standing around fanning themselves and congratulating each other on the success of the approach, before the facilitator even begun the 45-minute session. During this session the facilitator explained to the rural villagers who have an average of a grade 2 education, that there is a difference between gender and biological sex and that gender is something that is created. She spent the first 25 minutes asking the participants gathered under the tree to name tasks that are seen as "female only" and "male only". This segued into discussions of domestic violence as being something we can stop and then veered into child spanking. The participants, who work in back-breaking agriculture under the searing sun all day long, listened patiently as the Oregan-born facilitator spoke kindly and scanned the group to see the "aha" moment. The unmarried, childless facilitator then went on to explain that discipline is important but that it does not need to involve corporal punishment. The pilot session was a huge success because after only 10 minutes of discussing why we must Stroke and not Spank our children, the men and women gathered under the tree agreed unanimously that yes, they and their entire ancestry have been going about child discipline in the wrong manner and that from that point forward, instead of raising their hand, they would count to 10 and take 5 deep breaths, before reacting. In merely a 45 minute session, the entire socio-cultural fabric of a community was revealed as illegitimate and people that suffer from chronic worms and whose feet are constantly cracked from walking barefoot, accepted the error of their historical ways and agreed that they from now on would squeeze the branded Stroke Don't Spank Campaign yellow stress balls to release their frustration.
Finally, and most importantly, our key finding from this experience is that by focusing our advocacy efforts on the offensive behaviours of society's vulnerable (the poorest of the poor), we are able to detract attention from the fact that we are impotent to express outrage toward the most serious human rights violations. By focusing on impoverished rural parents' child discipline practices, we present ourselves as outraged against abuses and taking action to eliminate them...while all this while we don't once ever publicly decry the Government Leaders, local Mafia Networks, the corrupt Police, anti-Unionists, or Big Business for the myriad ways they oppress human rights, jail and torture activists, and block economic progress for the poor. By making next to no reference whatsoever to the gross land rights abuses inflicted on the landless poor - something which we are completely helpless to tackle and indeed personally terrified to do - we instead highlight sensational and horrifying child spanking stories to our constituents in donor countries. We thus gain the financial donations while never having to actually address the underlying politico-economic landscape that creates stressed-out parents. Through photographing workshops and taking note of 2 or 3 participant quotes - we are able to demonstrate that change is possible, without ever having to change anything.

You may have noticed that this format does not follow your request for an abstract but is rather a few bullet points. In the first sentence, I erased the word "abstract" and replaced it with the word "summary" so that I could avoid the necessary work it takes to fashion a proper abstract. I thought you would appreciate this as its very much in line with the spirit of our work.

Once again, without Hand Relief, we would not be able to truly....Stroke the Children.

Very truly yours,

Jean-Baptiste Clamence

Ex. Dir., Stroke the Children

Friday, April 9, 2010

En route to Bishkek and all you ever wanted to know about certain HRI refugee assistance programs

Been a while, but I am back at the Grand Hyatt Dubai, letting my hair down and indulging in impeccable room service while waiting for the connection to Manas International on Kyrgyzstan Airlines, departing tomorrow. For whatever it's worth, business class on Kyrgyzstan Airlines is nowhere close to business class on Turkmenistan Airlines by the way, HRIs favourite airline in Central Asia and the first choice of any discerning traveler in the region. For lovers of details, retro leather seats make all the difference.

Anyway, the decision to swing by Bishkek was taken very spontaneously, over by a few dirty martinis consumed in the Emirates Lounge where yesterday, on my way back from New Delhi, I was killing time in the pleasant company of a respectable Swiss entrepreneur in town with business he wouldn’t give too many details on. I couldn’t help noticing that he was carrying last week’s Economist and, for some reason, a book with nursery rhymes – he wouldn’t give too many details on that one either.

Anyway, we were exchanging expert opinions on pros and cons of skiing in Kyrgyzstan versus Chimbulak off Almaty and from one to the other we ended up talking about the recent unfortunate incidents in Bishkek which have brought fond memories of the days of the Tajik-color-revolution-that-never-happened and a certain not-so-subtly-handled-incident-in-Uzbekistan, both of which have provided useful opportunities for HRI to considerably expand its Central Asian portfolio under a newly found donor interest in a traditionally ignored region where pretty much everything goes.

And that’s why I am headed to Bishkek. Like elsewhere in the region, this is the sort of situation where a few donors will throw money around to compensate for continuing to do business as usual with nasty governments, geo-political strategy and all. I foresee life-saving workshops and capacity building in human rights and right based approaches, I foresee a need to develop gender tool kits and I foresee some lucrative work around refugees.

I may have said it before: HRI & affiliates really excel in our work with refugees and there are several reasons why I am particularly partial to HRIs refugee agenda. For one, this is one of the few solid arguments for HRI to maintain humble presences in the developed world, in particular say in Scandinavian countries or the UK. Here’s how we pay the rent:

Mentioned governments have to balance a natural dislike for immigrants with a number of inconvenient international obligations that include one exotically called non-refulement which essentially forbids them from deporting people to places like Iraq or Somalia. Another inconvenience is a rather active public opinion that would react unpleasantly to hearing that their trusted governments deports people to Haiti. Additionally, these governments also reckon they have too many refugees already so in principle they refuse most asylum applications for technical reasons that no one really understands, while crafting clinical euphemisms to refer to rejected asylum seekers in ways that would remove any element of vulnerability: “economic migrants” is HRIs term of choice, or "irregular migrants" is another one, embraced by governments who know very well it is easier to maintain one’s asylum credentials by funding Angelina & co to publicly hug miserable looking people on TV rather than actually fulfilling any inconvenient obligations. It may be a bit more expensive but damn, she is hot isn’t she?

What to do however with all those people that cannot be deported due to such technicalities? This is where HRI comes in with a typical helpful plan constructed on a sound argument which goes like this: all people have a "fundamental right to return” to their countries of origin, and HRI, as a humanitarian organization is ready to help the government support these poor people fulfilling their rights.

It so happens that most of them are conveniently detained indeterminately for being caught without a visa, which obviously limits their “universe of choices” significantly. They are briefly visited by an HRI official in the high security prison where their handcuffs are slightly loosened by the “law enforcement officer” (whose capacity is built in related HRI activities), just enough to allow them to sign an official application for Humanitarian Voluntary Return and the rest as they say is logistics – get a charter, put them on a plane, whatever.

The government loves the deal because the spin allows them to appear compassionate and helpful – which their enlightened citizenry find pretty cool and something worth opening one’s purse for. The additional association with HRI takes care of inconvenient legal technicalities and provides a nice opportunity to whitewash what are essentially illegal deportations and make them appear like the acts of a supportive, caring government. in press conference, the misfortunes of these people are deplored and straight government speaker faces make mention of countkess thank you notes received, for affording them the opportunity to return “home”. The idea that someone may leave a nasty place with many a financial and personal sacrifice on a journey that often takes several years and typically involves leaky boats, dodgy facilitators and plenty of significant loses before having the opportunity to claim asylum just to happily and voluntarily choose to return beck to square one does not strike anyone as unreal as long as HRI is there to vouch for the humanitarian nature of the whole affair. Since no courts are involved, HRI is helpfully covering all necessary legal advice, avoiding to burden what are essentially simple minds with difficult to comprehend (and impossible to pronounce) terms such as non-refoulement.

You may wonder what happens to these people once they voluntarily return to a place where they have nothing left and where unemployment is in the upper 90% ? Well I am glad you ask – sometime soon I will tell you all about HRIs cutting edge vocational training and “reintegration” programs, generously funded by a coalition of Scandinavian governments plus the UK.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Secrets of succesful "Partnerships"

You may remember that one of my recent posts was written en route to New Delhi where I was supposed to give a presentation about HRI best practices in income generating activities. The presentation was a success and I have managed to get through my 68 powerpoint slides in the allocated 15 minutes (more or less of course, in our circles it is considered good form to “run behind schedule”). The Q&A session was also pretty good with several participants asking pertinent questions about the upcoming tea-break. Participants also received color hand-outs of my presentation, along with an electronic copy on a CD containing our newsletter and a folder with a few hundreds relevant pictures of red-eyed people in HRI polo shirts giving presentations under HRI banners all over the world.

The presentation was part of a groundbreaking Training of Trainers (ToT) Training, that HRI is currently implementing as part of a regional initiative funded by one of our more significant donors. Although we do not really have a presence to speak if in India, the award was granted to us based on our impeccable lobbying and our ability to put both the local donor “mission” in India and their capital at ease with our demographic and linguistic familiarity.

Sure, there are hundreds of local organizations in India who do a pretty good job with “income generating activities” but it is only natural that HRI would come in from outside to “coordinate” all this well intentioned but sporadically implemented work. For a reasonable fee (negotiated globally with the respective donor to be ever so slightly above your average INGO fee) we are ready to bring our coordination expertise to the “income generating” sector in India while also saving money by not establishing a permanent presence there.

What we do is first we hire a reasonably paid consultant (I am thinking to "sole source" my yold buddy, Ed) to fly in and complete a "comprehensive assessment" of all the “stakeholders”. That is an HRI euphemism for playing some necessary power games with the “partners” to make sure they understand who calls the shots. The reasonably paid consultant will compile that information by outlining the best looking processes from some of these “local partners” before giving the report to another reasonably paid consultant (“the trainer”). The trainer, who for the sake of objectivity has only a vague theoretical understanding of Indian realities, aquired by thorough lecture of the on-flight magazine on the way in, looks at the assessment report and conveniently identifies those processes that are already in place with some of the “partners” and develops training materials (“the curricula”) focused on exactly the processes already in place.

In the next phase, we find a bling place to organize the training and invite the “local partners” who are already doing the work that involves the processes in question and pretend we train them in “innovative processes” during an "intensive" 18 day residential training. We’ll then send them home with a well stamped certificate and take credit for all their work onwards, while we expect them to change all their accounting and reporting structures in order to qualify for the money that we give them as part of our “prime-sub partnership”. Given the different reporting/ financial cycles between us, the donor and the “partner” we will remit the money to them with an average of eight month delay and, just to keep them on their feet, we will sometimes ask them to apply random budget cuts which we justify with vague arguments involving donor requirements and the fluctuation of currency exchange rates.

Unfortunately, not all of these partners see the brilliance of our work all the time or the important addition that we bring to the sector. Just recently one of them regreted our invitation for the ToT training motivating their refusal to participate with a spurious argument that they already have said processes in place and none of their staff can afford to be away from their work for 18 days to attend our training. In our formal response, conveniently copied to the local donor mission, we expressed regrets that the said partner chooses to prioritize dubious “political arguments” over a commitment to cooperation so clearly supported and facilitated by both the government and the donor agency. We also expressed regrets to hearing that the said partner refuses to use this TOT training as an opportunity to share their experience as part of the planed working group sessions and to reminding them that, as hard as it may be, we as sector leaders expect our “partners” not to allow their “egos” to be in the way of important activities in support of the poor and vulnerable people of India.

The letter prompted a direct call on my cellphone from the donor “mission director” who congratulated me personally for the hard work we are doing and our commitment to cooperation. He appologized for the unnecessary trouble and we finished the call on a friendly tone, with some chit-chat about the hopelessness of the “local culture” that encourages such unacceptable behavior as the one displayed by the un-cooperative partner. We agreed that we have to stick together as “strategic partners” as we brave the hostile attitudes of the local populace before promising each other to catch up during happy hour at the Taj later in the week.

During the same call, he also mentioned to me off the record that there is an upcoming “RFP” for SriLanka. For those who are not familiar with the lingo, "RFP" is donor shorthand for “loads of money to be awarded to an HRI affiliate”, so it was pretty useful information and I thought perhaps I should take advantage of being on the subcontinent already to pop across to Colombo and do some footwork. (No need to tell you that SriLanka is HRI territory what with all the post-war reconstruction not to mention the all the great “tsunami work” we’ve been doing there for a while now).

As I am writing this my trip to Colombo is already organized – will leave tomorrow early in the morning and use the opportunity to spend some quality time on the beaches in the south (where package tour fortresses have been successfully reconstructed, conveniently keeping the local citizenry away from the sea), discreetly but satisfyingly attended to by respectful hospitality personnel, many of them former fishermen trained in the high arts of waiting tables by an HRI affiliate as part of our flagship “income generating” work in post-tsunami SriLanka (project “info-sheet” heading: “Destitute SriLankans Given Second Chance to Dignified Life Through HRI Groundbreaking work in Ceylon”).

Then, next week I will have a series of meetings with HRI affiliate directors to get a better idea of who does what, who has what "core competency" and also identify “local partners” that could do good work without having the “capacity to absorb” large amounts of money. We'll then approach some of these “partners” and get them to sign exclusive letter of intent about their willingness to partner up with HRI for activities that could be covered by the mentioned RFP. Finally, when the RFP will be out, we’ll apply as “primes” without bothering to consult with these “partners” and then, once awarded, we’ll approach them and ask them to deliver whatever activities we want them to deliver. Not having too many other funding options (it so happens that donors like to avoid duplication) they will naturally agree and that's how, reader, you create the beginning of a wonderful “partnership”.