Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How to stay on top by speaking the right language in the 21st century: "Multilateral Aid" & "Budget Support"

Progress in our sector, as in life, comes from “creating an enabling environment” for ideas to interract and cross-fertilize, a thing also known as “collective intelligence”, which, according to Nathan, means that good stuff always comes out of interaction and collaboration between great minds.

This is a good thing for sure, that also explains why it is so crucially important for us experts to spend much of our precious time in meetings and workshops. We do it for the sake of progress and evolution – the future of our sector depends on it.

But the best thing about our business must be the high number of experts ready to roll their sleeves and get the theoretical game sorted for all of us. Always at the cutting edge, HRI remains fully commitment to “shifting paradigms” in order to increase the eloquence of proposals we submit to donors. We’re privileged that way, and I’ve noticed since we adopted the latest “development discourse” it has become even easier to mobilize resources by closing deals behind the scenes with donors or bullying less well connected partners into HRI partnerships: it feels good to know that for example when major donors "sole-source" a massive grant to us over impeccable lobbying, they actually compliment us on adopting the latest ideas flogged by development punters.

It’s also pretty much why HRI bothers to have a twitter account, by the way, or a blog – Nathan the intern sometimes complains about having to write regular posts and 140 character long messages to complete strangers formulated in line with HRIs strict corporate style guidelines, but how else can we take the pulse off the punters from all the way here in Comoros, a place on another planet?

It has also been suggested to us that we create a facebook profile – to better market ourselves to the young and hip, to tomorrow’s donor bureaucrats. I’d be up for that, just worry that we couldn’t handle seeing that we’d have less friends than certain competitors partners – the pressure, the pressure.

Every so often, Nathan the intern is preparing a little brief for me, containing a list of subjects that are currently discussed and found to be in favour with the most influential minds in the sector and we immediately incorporate them in our “discourse” to better please both donors and potential critics. That fact alone will certainly convince even the most bitter of our critics that we are the flexible, agile organization that this century of ours needs.

For example, we have already put "Multilateral Aid" under our belt. Several of our affiliates are international governmental organization and as a “best practice” i could mention HRI’s own Women and Tradition Forum (WTF), based on a protocol 42 important countries have signed after a high level “technical meeting” we organized at the Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel in Entebbe, timed shortly after the place was graced by the Clintons, back in the day.

The meeting has produced what has been since known as "The Entebbe Declaration" – strong commitments on empowering women, as long as that does not interfere with cultural and traditional norms in the respective countries.

At the meeting, government representatives agreed to pay an annual fee as a membership to HRIs network. The money would formally come out of the respective ministry’s budget, but given that the all countries in question “lack resources” in the meantime we simply use HRI donor funds in the respective countries to contribute for this fee, just to “bridge the gap” of course. We file the whole thing under “system strengthening” and it is indeed another HRI win-win: dodgy governments get to beef up their international credentials without actually committing to anything, and HRI gets to position itself as a facilitator of international collaboration – a position very much in favour with donors. As a bonus, we sell the whole thing as “multilateral aid” and please the academics as well.

Also, we have already adopted “Budget support”, a thing punters started promoting as the aid of the 21 century. In plain English, "budget support" means that donor money goes straight to the government budget – a perfect position for HRI in most countries we are working in and here is how it works:
  • We start with an informal meeting with donor’s representative where we bond over anecdotes about the unreliability and ineffectiveness of the respective government;
  • We then address the reality that money put into the government budget cannot be traced and, given the fact that it is distributed by percentage by an paranoid authoritative executive branch, we wonder what can be done to avoid taxpayer dollars to go into say the defense budget of given country;
  • Helpfully, at this point HRI makes the inspired recommendation to give the money directly to the Ministry of Agriculture budget, point at which a HRI local staff (former government employee, still a ghost employee at the ministry, due to a human concern for his pension) brought along for this single purpose volunteers the insight that the Ministry of Agriculture does not have a bank account and its centrally allocated budget gets distributed in random batches with an average of six years delay;
  • Then, the signature HRI win-win move: why doesn’t HRI as a strategic government partner not handle these funds on behalf of the government (paying salaries, procuring stuff etc), while also placing a few advisors in this and the other commission to ensure the right decisions are taken?
  • Before long, MoUs get signed, partnership meetings get called, ministry offices get refurbished, capacity gets built, systems get strengthened.

 Yes, reader - like you HRI & affiliates are looking forward to another century of effective, life-saving, empowering, high impact aid. 
You're welcome.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Brand Building: HRI Logo and Location x 3

Today's customary Friday Bacon and Booze combo has blown fresh courage into Nathan the intern, who, slightly inebriated, has just pointed out to me that HRI has not done a good job of “building a brand” and that our logo is virtually unknown outside the vast circles of life-saving workshopaholics.

All those leadership and management trainings have really changed me to the better and I appreciate an intern attempting to give unsolicited advice, just because they took Marketing in College. Theoretically at least, it could be that years and years of working for HRI has biased me just a bit and perhaps there is something one can learn from a humble intern's "fresh" perspective (fresh perspective of course being an euphemism for "green", and by that i don't mean the environmental type).

After all, working together in the hardships of "Africa" has led to a certain bond between the two of us and perhaps Nathan will have a chance to get a 1-year “special contract” in six-seven years or so and become one of us.

Faking passive-aggressiveness I first tnaked him and immediately told him he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut as well, while he proves himself by writing reports, taking minutes, making newsletters and in general engages in other character-building activities that will help him cut his teeth and learn the ropes. Nothing kills a promising career in this business than speaking to your supervisors un-asked and/ or attempting to be smarter than them.

Meanwhile, in the unlikely event that there may be some truth to Nathan’s opinion, I thought I use the opportunity and share with all of you the well-known, iconic HRI logo again, just in case you need to put it in document-headers, billboards, t-shirts, landcruiser doors and what have you and somehow have misplaced the correct file:

Also, while we speak of brand-building. Some new-comers into the sector have recently emailed me with questions about why someone like me, the executive director of a large international organization no less, chooses to set up in a backwaterish place like the Comoros.

I will provide the simple explanation, apologizing to the more clued-up of our readers for having to state the obvious: please bear with me, for the sake of “brand-building”.

The answer, of course is: Location, Location, Location.

The world has changed you see, and HRI being the cutting-edge organization that it has always been, has immediately acted on these changes under my visionary leadership. Back in the day the executive director used to be based in Geneva or in Washington DC or in some other such place. But in those days it was all about saving the world and life was much simpler. Concepts like "Local Ownership" and "Local Knowledge" were virtually unknown and the donors were happily funding the same sort of stuff again and again.

These days, some people tend to frown upon US/ EU based organizations and besides, having to choose between being based in Europe or in the US also forces one to choose between donors, as US donors tend to fund US-type organizations and EC tends to fund EU-type organizations. And we’re not even talking AUSAid, NZAid or private fundations.

Enter HRI. Having our executive director based in Moroni makes us eligible to funding from a comprehensive list of donors to include everyone that matters, really. They go crazy over being able to fund “locally based organizations” these days and it is our pleasure to indulge them.

Naturally we maintain well-staffed “Administrative Centers” in Washington, DC, Geneva, Brussels, Melbourne and Beijing, to name a few, in addition to having a direct, affiliated or francised presences in virtually every country out there. Sure, these arrangements tend to keep admin, travel and communications costs pretty high, but that also conveniently explains our higher-than-average overhead fees.

Besides, having a well organized “domestic support” team who know how to treat a man of my status has sadly become unfashionable in large parts of the world, just like being driven around up and down the street in a bulletproof Landcruiser, all while acquiring the “field cred” so very useful in our business sector.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Glimpse Into the Awesome World of Meetings

It may have occurred to some of you that much of what we do in this business sector has to do with meetings. We are all fully committed to coordination, cooperation, sharing of information, learning lessons, creating enabling environments and that the only way all these noble ideas can be achieved is through the marvelous realm of life-saving meetings.

With the passing of time, HRI & affiliates have developed a repository and specialized jargon to differentiate among various types of meetings, but also to build the necessary skills and core competencies in our staff to handle this awesome diversity (you want to send the right skills to the right meeting).

The endless diversity and richness in the world of meetings can hardly be captured in a simple list and any attempt will remain nothing but a humble “work in progress”, continuously evolving with the development of our business sector (there’s a pun there waiting to happen).

Regardless, I am happy to share with you the most updated version in the hope that it will give at least a glimpse in the marvelous world of meetings.

The “LBS”, or the “Lima Bravo Sierra” (short for Look Busy And Stall) - a favourite here, organized for the purpose of avoiding doing something while looking busy doing it. Self explanatory, no?

The “Skopje Sling” – HRI convinces the government to call a meeting so agenda items look like government proposals. Took its name from the golden days of new autonomous states.

The “Dry Cleaner” – useful when a HRI reasonably paid consultant needs to legitimize a copy/paste job from another country (policy, strategy, action plan, roadmap). Example of use: "We just got a grant to develop public health policies in Sri Lanka, call Ed and have him pull a Dry Cleaner on that job he’s done for us in the Solomons".

The “Hulk Hogan” (the name is a complicated derivate from Steering Committee, as in Steering as in Handlebar as in Hulk being like Mr. Handlebar Mustache). When you pull a "Hulk Hogan" you share very complicated matrixes and work plans written by reasonably paid consultants in impenetrable wank-lish to a steering committee, on the assumption that no-one will ever be able to read them and then, as you improvise during implementation you repeatedly make reference to the workplan/ matrix/ strategy. No-one will actually check.

The “SHRUE” (as in Shift Responsibility to Uncertain Entity) – organized when decisions need to be taken that should not be traced back to HRI, or any other specific player for that matter. Difficult one to pull without preliminary “groundwork” and a way to spend donor money discretely. Should be timed to coincide with mealtimes. Use: “This is a pretty shitty plan but money needs to be spent; Nathan, pull a SHRUE on it please”)

The “Maradona”, also know affectionately as "The Diego" – a meeting is called after a miserable and obvious failure, with the objective to “identify challenges” and “lessons learned”, as a way to avoid admitting responsibility. Official documentation in a “Maradona” is always formulated in passive voice (“challenges have been faced”, “there was a gap in communication”, “capacity to absorb has been low” etc.) and conclusions involve recommendations that need further funding to address. Named in honor of the legendary Diego who managed to win the mother of all games by braking the most important rule and not only did he get away with it, but he made more money after that.  

The “Trojan” – attending a meeting/ becoming members in a task force for the sole purpose of sabotaging a competitor providing constructive criticism to a partner, that may result in changes in strategy. A good way to pull a Trojan is to exploit the instincts of any collective body to favour unanimity and avoid conflict. For example, a competitor partner presents a distribution strategy for NFIs (non-food items, for the uninitiated) to an emergency planning committee. HRI would pick on a detail and “express concerns”, for example by saying that members of so and so obscure group in so and so community receiving those NFI have a cultural suspicion of the color blue (which they believe brings bad luck). Unfortunately that tarpaulin provided by the competitor partner is blue therefore we cannot support that distribution strategy. The rest will be done by the ensuing dynamic and the whole thing may evolve in either a "Lima Bravo Sierra" (above) or and “Avalanche” (below).

The “Avalanche” – possibly a sub-genre of the “Lima Bravo Sierra”, using as main stalling technique the “follow up meeting” which will require an action group that needs to be divided in topical working groups that report back to a task force and so on ad nauseam.

The “High Five” – a meeting organized for the sole purpose of patting each other’s backs. Very wide spread, requires no further explanation.

The “Weasel Hold’em” – call a meeting to “collect feedback” on an item that has already been decided as a way to create the illusion of ownership.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why one Single HRI Project is Worth 1million Bad Ideas

While experts are busy dragging the corpse of 1millionshirts behind their technicals on the streets of twitterdishu under the watchful eyes of punters including this or the other glossy magazine, HRI has silently closed a few behind-the stage deals with donors and is comfortably on the way to “burn” upwards of 68 millions world-wide without having to put up with any significant scrutiny, except the occasional passive aggressiveness from competitors partners when we sit together in life-saving coordination meetings.

Many of these funds have been “sole-sourced” to us by donors who trust us to get the job done, while others were deservedly won in open competitions where the procurement criteria are designed to fit HRI like a glove, in ways that regular readers of this blaag, as well as veterans of the sector understand very well.

The lynching of impressionable teenagers with bad ideas about aid is to the world of aid criticism what the jailing and public shaming of a village headmaster who accepted a chicken from the parents of a pupil would be to the world of anti-corruption, in a country where the province governor drives around in a S600 merc, regularly flown to the big town for service in the belly of an Antonov AN-12 operated by a Logistics Cluster contractor.

Speaking about logistics clusters, yesterday I drove to a nearby compound in Moroni, to attend the regular Heads of Agency Country Team Meeting, scheduled every Thursday at 9am. Unfortunately I arrived just a bit late and the whole compound yard was already full with white landcruisers and hiluxes, some of them with imposing agency flags appended to their HF aerials, and my driver had to drop me quite a distance away from the entrance – a maneuvre I usually disapprove of as the short walk threatens to affect my dignified standing with the local populace.

It was my own fault for being late however, so I proceeded walking and entered my man-of-the-people-mode, giving dignified nods and grimacing grins to the group of drivers congregated around the tea-lady's improvised stall. Right here, I thought, is the hard evidence of our important impact – without us, the tea lady could not make the good business that she makes, probably feeding numerous children with the profits. A success story right there, as well as a charming little anecdote I can tell as cocktail chit-chat during the next life-saving function.

Inside, the senior aid/development community, were getting ready for the meeting with instant coffee and biscuits, chatting leisurely about malaria, famine, environment and condoms while they were waiting for the chairman of the meeting, always fashionably late (she has a reserved parking space outside so there is no incentive to be there in time). As i entered, I immediately sensed the usual mix of passive aggressiveness and need to flatter that comes with my respectable position and I made a mental note to try and sugarcoat my mentioning of the 9 million that HRI has been recently awarded for “peace consolidation” in the Comoros.

That will happen only during the AOB section however, so i have plenty time to "feel" the crowd. Meanwhile main items on the agenda include: coordination of office opening hours, a proposal to increase the security phase for Moroni, based on a worrying incident of pick-pocketing in the local market (it is not about the increased danger pay, it is only that as head of agencies we worry for the safety of our staff) and, finally, the piloting of a new matrix expected to increase coordination between agencies by combining logical frameworks with available budgets. On behalf of HRI, Nathan the intern has been committed to take the lead with this process and he will “follow up” with each agency focal point to finalize the matrix – the deadline is end of 2nd quarter 2011, a time when all respective info will be of great value to development history buffs.

And so, reader, another busy week has passed, in which we have done all we could to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Today, being a day off i will spend smoking Hookah with the minister of planning and coordination, who has kindly offered to send his driver to pick me up in his private Lexus. He’s an important partner for HRI and, indeed the development community in Comoros and I will make sure we bond over exchanging anecdotes and having some laughs about bad aid ideas, a subject sure to keep a conversation going for hours, even here in the Comoros.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Converting Credit into Development - What's it all about?

Those in the business sector who have recently joined the ranks of the cynics can be forgiven for thinking that it is all about the money. In fact they would be very wrong and that’s why the saying goes about this profession being filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfu*ers.

While money makes the world go round - and don’t get me wrong, proud HRI affiliates do like to dance to the tune of sizeable chunks of them ka-chinging in our bank accounts - fact is money does not come directly out of anybody’s pocket, which brings us closer than you’d think to the proverbial insurance salesman.

what is it all about then?

Well, it’s about credit. I mentioned elsewhere how important credit is in “M&E”, but that’s just a small part of it and this credit i'm talking about is different. Think about HRIs many partnerships - the trouble to administer all that money on behalf of various inferiorly capacitated local partners, the hassle we are putting up with when we play middlemen between the donor and so many unreasonable local organizations, and what do we get for it? Sure the 40% overhead fee is welcome, but the thing that keeps me going, in spite of all the adversity, is clicking on HRIs webpage and seeing how many lives we touch, what a difference we make, all over the world.

A good example is a recent project in Laos where a local organization (LO) has been providing sub-standard orthopedic surgery to children since 1999. They were struggling with resources, coordination and “demand” until HRI, using our cutting edge fundraising techniques, have “mobilized resources” to support this and other similar LOs in and around Ventianne. We have organized a few workshops to ensure that all relevant LOs get to meet each other and coordinate their work. We have identified medical students in the US who came for several 3 weeks cycles, just enough to change all procedures, point out the unsuitability of available instruments and, with sustainability in mind, training surgeons in modern orthopedic techniques, still fresh in their minds after recent anatomy classes. Thinking out of the box, they offered a road-map that would require “upgrading” supply-chains and “increasing demand”. Each of them required a driver during their time there, which also justified purchasing a few vehicles and make some strategic hires to ensure sound administration of assets etc.

Shortly, assessments were completed, new instruments were procured, new techniques were “piloted”, trainings were developed, programmes were managed, consultants were consulting, capacities were built, enabling environments were created.

The number of people receiving surgery didn’t really increase, but as one consultant pointed out that is a matter of “demand” so a communication campaign was hastily put together – it is ongoing as I am writing and based on focus-groups and pre-tests we are optimistic that demand of services wil soar. The donors particularly liked the campaign because due credit was given in the creative execution, the right logos were there and the messaging also included a reference to the importance of sexual abstinence, a relevant issue in what are traditionally promiscuous, karaoke-loving communities.

To make the story short I am personally filled with pride to go to the HRI website and read about how “HRI is saving limbs and improving lives in Laos” and i am actually looking forward to a few trips to Vientianne to see the program myself - as someone who was based there "back in the day" i maintain a soft spot for Laos, in spite of recent developments in which the place has lost much of its sleepy charm. But really, for me knowing that I can have a small contribution to improving people’s live, making sure that people know we are making a difference, that's what really matters. It's good to see that good work like this is always acknowledged by current and other donors and I find that with every new program our track record improves, which means our eligibility for further funding improves as well.

That's what it's all about - converting credit into development. Make sure you are seen doing a good deed and money will flow, lives will keep improving.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

It's The Small Things, Arizona

In this business, like in life, it’s the small things that matter. Busy day-in day-out with meetings, workshops and other life-saving activities we tend to forget about the smaller things in life, the ones that give its texture, its poetry. Things like bacon, red wine and superior cheese, all of them smuggled regularly into Moroni by myself and other respectable HRI collaborator.

As some of you may know, the Comoros are what you would call a “dry country” and things like bacon are referred to by the local populace as “haram”, which is a French word (Comoros were French colonies you see) and as far as I can tell means something like “bad for your cholesterol”. For unclear reasons, Friday is the day off here and on this day Comorians like to congregate around a tall building with speakers where they play some sort of French talk-music that presumably gives them trances, so important to any form of "ethnic" worship. Nathan the intern is also a hobby anthropologist and he is explaining these things to me. he is also in the process of finalizing a short documentary about the mystical habits of Africans, which he plans to "premiere" together with his photo exhibition upon his return home. 

Last Friday the weather was spectacular and I had a few people over for lunch – Nathan, forever home-sick, has made us pancakes with bacon and eggs, with Malagasy honey instead of syrup, all washed down with two choices of wine: white or red. We’re not talking any decent terroir here of course, just the boxed fare one can procure in “Joburg” airport, my personal choice to transit planes on the way here. To fit more, I just remove the carton and stuff the bladder in my “Vesachi” carry-on and there you have it.  

As we are enjoying the bacon and wine lunch at my humble residence on the beach, with mysterious French talk-music sneaking in from the over the electrified fence mingling with the sounds of the waves, all was fine indeed on this "island of contrasts”.

An observing pastafarianist, I find it hard to comprehend strict dietary restrictions beyond the obvious ones (no parmesan on sea-food pasta) - which is another small but significant sign that my religion is the superiour one. However, I would say that smuggling in bacon and wine and consuming it in ear-distance of a place of worship in a country that forbids both, must be a minor and understandable transgression (after saving all those lives in particular, with our work). 

Not unlike say a group of immodestly clad gay Mexicans consuming a generous choice of recreational substances around the corner from the whatsitcalled megachurch in Tampa, Arizona on an early summer Sunday morning. As a matter of fact, today is probably a fine Sunday morning in Tampa, Arizona, early summer, and I have no doubt that such an innocent scene is not uncommon back there.

Here's to that - and, for those with no map at hand, Tampa, Arizona is somewhere south of Canada (not quite, but in the ballpark).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Shifting the Aid/ Development Paradigm - HRI Life saving Congress in Monrovia

With the corpse of 1millionshirts still cooling off on the battlefield, where the strategy to “bring it on like a man” apparently did not work out to well for them, the ashes are slowly settling over another epic battle in the world of online “aid & development”, until the next sucker touches another nerve and we can all awaken again and lynch some teenager trying to impress chicks with a cheesy sounding idea on his facebook, the sort that Angelina would approve of (fact: chicks dig givers).

Speaking of which, am i the only one who, during the hottest moments of this “debate” was wondering: What would Angelina have done? Which side would they have Bono taken?

Regardless, it’s all over now and it is time for all of us to get back to our life-saving work. For me that means preparing my keynote speech at the upcoming African Aid Workers Congress, to take place in Monrovia later this month, where I have been invited on the panel along with other reputable African aid experts from Atlanta, Georgia, Washington, DC and one bloke from Geneva, name to be confirmed.

Liberia is an excellent place for aid meetings, rivaled in west Africa only by neighboring Sierra Leone as a "country of contrasts" that has gone a long way from civil war and destruction to being a stable democracy where one can have a well organized extracurricular topic on any development event agenda that would include friendly matches between amputee football teams - the sort of stuff that replaces the usual “cultural show” with a mix of actually going to the beach, a bit of feel-good factor, an opportunity for grave reminiscing and a feeling that one witnesses something better, in a very "african" landscape that conveniently confirms one's expectation of palm trees and chaotic driving. A very good (photo) opportunity as well for future smugness, constructive or not, and many a tale about suffering told in the future, always with the same changes in tone of one’s voice.

During the congress itself, I am looking forward to fascinating discussions about what differentiates “aid” from “development” – solving this thorny issue once and for all, by means of a list of action points developed by subcommittees, will greatly help the HRI coalition of affiliates on the ground make another significant step towards becoming a regional leader in achieving MDG no. 8 – “develop a global partnership for development”.

Further life-saving topics of discussions will doubtlessly include construing relevant standards on the difference between very vulnerable people and the merely vulnerable (a crucial debate in which, as some of you may remember, I have previously been involved during another life-saving activity). Perhaps discussions in the subcommittees will even address the complex issue of how to interpret the definition of “extreme poverty” as reflected by the baseline 2004 Millennium Development Goals Report (MDGR) for Liberia and apply it to today’s realities (also a good opportunity for mentioning blood diamonds and their “disempowering effects in the vicious circle of poverty”).

Nathan the intern will come along as the organizers can use some help with logistics – he will even get to practice his public speaking as he will address the plenary regularly with updates on tea breaks and “process checks”. In expectation of this trip he has just used our regular diplomatic pouch in Moroni to ship in three or four new lenses for his DSLR from back home. Indeed, Nathan the intern is a photography enthusiast, already planning a exposition on “Africa” upon his return in his local coffee shop. Meanwhile he also gets to practice his photo & layout skills with finalizing the congress report – another small favour that we’ll do on behalf of the coalition, for a very modest fee.

You may think it is unusual that HRI would invest in letting an intern attend such a conference, but who knows I say, perhaps with more exposure like this Nathan the intern will become the African Aid expert of the future.