Sunday, July 25, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody wins.

I love my job.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Report from the Field: microbicide gel is circumcision 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Mother of All Junkets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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