Saturday, August 28, 2010

In which We Learn About the Healing Effects of the Arts

As we go about our cynicysm-inducing business in this brutal post-conflict world, there are moments when even the most hardened of us must ask:

But what about the arts? What of the culture?

Funny you are mentioning it. As it happens, HRI actually is very much "into" arts and culture, as long as it serves our interest. For example, many of our innovative "awareness raising" campaigns all over the world involve some sort of "edutainment" based on the time-honored belief that the muses must be slaves to the political agenda, useful tools in getting the message across to people who - between you and me - do not have the sophistication to understand art anyway. Besides, these sort of activities keep youth in the communities away from trouble, provide an opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers with self-perceived artistic inclination to have a go at "directing" and all for a good cause: a 300 words "innovative" textbox in a report plus pictures, apt to put a tear on Emma's keyboard, when she receives the pdf.

What keeps me going though is the satisfaction one gets from imposing one's own artistic mediocrity on others.

We also encourage children off the dump or off the street to paint and, like, be creative? And, as long as their painting talks about peace or lionizes HRI, they often get exposed at the local expat-cafe-that-sells-latte-and-mojito where they even get auctioned. Sometimes, in places such as Mozambique or Cambodia, where the superficially-perceived recent history to number of hipsters ratio is pretty good we thrive in creating sculptures out of weapons under the strict guidance of a HRI endorsed artist/ guru who then sometimes gets "profiles" in glossy magazines where he can speak with humility about "these people's ability to get over their miserable past". Every now and then, we take a liking to one local artist and we do send her to this or the other workshop in New York or Bruxelles, where people get to patronize her and feel good about it at the same time.

Sure one could whine endlessly about this whole thing being a bit dogmatic, what with only encouraging artistic expression of the sort that is endorsed by donors' agenda, but hey, these people are so poor they wouldn't have time to develop their own art anyway. Besides, isn't a painting of a sunset with coconut-palms and fishermen returning in harbor something exotic? Wouldn't you want it in on your wall, next to that lizard made out of recycled rice-bags looking at the Congolese tapestry, an arrangement that is after all a more acceptable modern alternative to the "been there done that" T-shirt?

And how about those beautiful paintings honouring a complex and dignified culture from centuries ago: temples, gods, ancestors? In my tastefully decorated office, i actually have some paintings that combine more of these themes in one: an idyllic, simple peasant landscape (buffaloes and rice-farmers against the rising sun) juxtaposed over a sky where benevolent divinities help erasing the memories of cruelty that country has experienced recently. And how about that charming primitively carved crocodile from Timor, that gets to be the anthropological prop for any small talk in my office: "In Tetum", i say knowingly, "Grandfather and crocodile are homonyms, ain't that cute?".

Presently, one of HRI's for-profit affiliates has perfected a toolkit for the "development of a cultural policy", put together on account of extensive "best practices" acquired in many countries where we work. Often we even place a "Technical Advisor" at the Ministry of Culture (Or "Culture & Youth" or "Culture & Tourism"), who is usually someone with vague artistic ambitions that have never materialized and who has therefore pursued a "Masters in Art History" at a good school and, as a Technical Advisor can become a convenient agent in pursuing both her idealized perception of "exotic" art as well as the more eccentric tastes of the minister, or principal secretary (or their daughter, always a gifted local artist).

Subject like everyone else to Parkinson's Law, the technical advisor will further ensure that a committee will be swiftly formed (sometimes inter-ministerial), as part of HRI's "system strenthening" agenda, that gets to decide whether or not any artistic enterprise is culturally appropriate with direct consequences in that artist's baility to get supported in any way. This committee will be referred to as a "clearing house", a concept much to Emma's liking and consequently warmly embraced by HRI. We sometimnes even expand their portfolio, requiring them to approve any message developed by "the government" (where "the government" is an euphemism for any NGO that works "on behalf" of the government, as we all do). Given that the technical advisor is a HRI person, we happen to have an edge over any other competitor partner, giving us what can be safely described as "domination" of the message agenda - we make good use of that by churning out messages that Emma loves but no-one else understands.

Then, in the sort of restaurants that create a superficial projection of whatever it is perceived as "national symbol" by some British entrepreneur, aptly named and where only expats ever set foot, the technical advisor from the ministry of culture gets to bond with Emma and a junior HRI Program Officer (it's not customary in our world to allow a senior officer to deal with a cultural project; actually, it must be a young female) over "traditional" dishes (not very spicy of course) and the obligatory shared anecdote over the locals' lack of cultural sensitivity, justifiable of course by the brutal recent past.

But how about that French heritage, eh? Well, thank god for that!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Emma from the Funding Agency of a Country South of Canada

Emma has been with the donor agency of a country south of Canada for a bit over one year now, and although she really hates her life here in Moroni, she is determined to see her contract through, as she sees this dump as a career maker. She can put up with hardship also because she has gained her experience and field credentials with a stint in the Peace Corps, a formative period in her life that she makes daily reference too, often when providing unsolicited advice to "implementing partners" about areas she doesn’t understand.

Her name is actually Emily, but she prefers to be called Emma as she thinks that sounds more mature. She has been known to give very negative “technical reviews” to organizations whose “chief of party” referred to her as Emily once. Her surname is vaguely French and that contributes to her being even more of a social bore as she always makes reference to her “European heritage”, at dinner parties implying that cooking souffl├ęs is somehow imbedded in her DNA and no souffl├ęs cooked by anybody else is ever good enough. She doesn’t speak any French, although “she used to be fluent when she was in the Peace Corps” – Emma has the distinction of completely having forgotten a language in two years “because of lack of practice”, being busy with her job and all, in spite of the three months spent in Paris “for language training” before taking up her job with the donor agency, in what is after all a francophone country. The two years between her peace corps stint and this job were spent in “grad school”, the destination of choice for any unemployable, skill-les overachiever who never had a proper job although they are well in their thirties.

On account of the combination of her masters’ degree from a very good school and her overwhelming practical experience in the peace corps, she fancies herself as both a strong technical expert and someone who knows the ins and outs of “community-based” implementation. She has also attended a training on communication once, which makes her a communications expert, having a specific expertise in the benign impact of logos on larger communication strategies. Given that in her world Moroni is not exactly a desirable destination she gets the big fish in the small pond benefit, which effectively puts more responsibilities in her hand that she can handle.

She never left the city (except on a PR visit when she escorted the ambassador to see a HRI "Launch") and spends all her time with the Embassy staff at the compound. She drives around in a white Rav4 (the car of choice for any discerning expat) and has no friends in town. Like many of us she has impeded her ability to operate machinery several times at the usual Thursday night parties-that-only-expats-attend, which made her even more bitter and secluded. She does not attend the parties anymore and when asked why she blames it on “too much work” and on the fact that, given her position, she needs to be always careful to separate her private life from her work.

In grad school she once sat through a case-study on HRI, which makes her a knowledgeable friend. That and the fact that during her peace corps days she was used as a community contact by a HRI affiliate partial to selling American college kids as community credentials to donors. She also really appreciates having a genuine friend in Nathan the intern whom she managed to bond with over similar peace corps experiences – she particularly likes calling him up and treating him like the minion he is. She genuinely appreciates the “comprehensive” approach HRI has to our work, and the consistency with which we give credit to her agency for their generous support. She understands that our NICRA rates and overheads can be a bit too high and that, in a difficult environment, one has to rely on outside consultants all too often, and she definitely understands "capacity challenges" we are encountering working in such a difficult environment and our reluctance to measure impact, neatly formulated as “not wasting money on research”, which is somebody else’s business. She keeps saying she is “an implementer at heart” and she is very pleased to hear me say that she would do a great job working for HRI.

Emma thinks in 300 words snippets. She can never mention Uganda without making reference to a “that successful campaign” and she could never mention Sierra Leone without mentioning the “amputee soccer club”. She has a good feel for fashionable ("trending?") topics and reacts positively when stimulated with empty talk of “innovation” and “using modern technology, such as cell phones”. This is why, in her head she equates HRI with innovation which goes to show that she really is the right person on the right job.

Her massive professional insecurity is actually a significant advantage as she takes easy offence from competitors other partners who, foolishly, are a bit more outspoken in their technical and programmatic disagreements with her, sometimes even implying that their job is to achieve some sort of “impact” that no-one ever asked from them. In their ignorance, these amateurs don’t realize that this business is about pleasing donors (in this case Emma), and that a neatly printed calendar with the right logos, plus an old fashioned t-shirts and caps project along with sustained sessions of lifesaving workshops and trainings go a long way to achieving that. You throw a “sms campaign” into the mix and Emma loves you like the fat kid loves cake. The "impact" thingy should be the concern of underfunded “subs”, and that’s the way things work. Protesting against that may be “innovative” but will lead to a decrease of funding and control, all smoothly transferred to HRI where they belong.

So here’s to Emma, you rock!

Monday, August 23, 2010

What Malaria?

Earlier today, as i was walking out of my favourite establishment in Moroni, toothpick in mouth and stomach full of lobster, I beheld a man with a laptop in the lobby, staring at an MS Outlook screen with no unread messages and regularly hitting F9 ("retrieve mail") with the face of someone used to work on life/death projects. I gathered by the sureness of his demeanor that this is a man who knows about lonely lunches in the best places a hardship location has to offer and sure enough, the collar of his polo shirt was showing the familiar purple lanyard of the initiated ("Just Saving Lives") so i approached him: "You work for an HRI affiliate don't you?" "I do indeed" he answered, "I work in malaria", "Have we met before?", "No we haven't but i heard much about you".

Turns out he was hired by one of our affiliates not yet established here to write an assessment about malaria programs in the Comoros - the affiliate is considering opening operations in Moroni, funded by a global mechanism they have set-up with the Aid agency of a large country south of Canada, known in the business for its flexible and very competent operatives and for its very streamlined processes. Of course every NGO (and quite a a few for-profit HRI affiliates) in Comoros work in malaria, most of them successfully "burning" through significant funds, and it is just sound logic to squeeze another player in: there's innovation in numbers my friends, and we do like to keep each other on our tasseled-shoed toes.

My ego tells me I should have been informed about this, but my reason argues that in the heat of things coordination sometimes may suffer and that's fair enough, also because i haven't really read my emails in six weeks (I have asked Nathan the intern to scan them every other day or so and call me if there is anything urgent, where "urgent" is another word for "donors wanting to give us money").

In true HRI fashion, this particular TLA (Three Letter Affiliate) is been funded for work that has been done by a competitor another organization, established here over the last 10 or so years, that i have recently enjoyed watching falling out of grace with the very competent representative of the respective donor, over the crucial matter of the size of the logos printed on their mosquito nets. As a consequence, the TLA was predictably  asked in to "help with coordination", inviting also another HRI affiliate from the private sector to help out with developing the coordination systems needed to ensure a "consistent use of Logos that will guarantee sufficient visibility" for the funding agency, and hence another striking victory in the fight against malaria.
Never the one to argue with sound, straight-forward strategies, I took a liking in this consultant and decided to invite him over for dinner, to alleviate his loneliness and provide an opportunity for further internal coordination. I am also considering offering him one of my 12 in-suite guestrooms for the rest of his time here - no-one understands better than me how important it can be when traveling to enjoy the unaltered comfort of a home.

We can then bond over this shared intimacy and spice our malaria small talk with anecdotes about how only in the field people are so generous as to offer you a place at their table and a fully serviced room. Then, next time i'm in Geneva he can pretend he would love to have me stay, would his only guestroom not be full with his collection of african art ("i really need to find some time to nest"). That will suit me just fine actually, as to be honest, when in Geneva i  am rather partial to staying at the dignified and conveniently located Mandarin Oriental du Rhone, and would never trade that for a mattress in some consultant's livingroom complete with creep access to the shared micro-sized family bathroom, always a very dingy affair, wall-to-wall carpeted and never with a shower curtain.

As you can probably imagine, malaria is big business in the Comoros and the well-afflicted people of these islands have more options than most to enjoy being the subjects of a diverse package of life-saving interventions. Not only do they have access to the whole traditional HRI-centered, cutting edge package (that would work better than it does, would the Comorians be just a bit more cooperative) but they have been also privileged enough to stir the interest of a Chinese research/ development outfit that has "sole sourced" WHOs support for an innovative project: given the remoteness of the island of Moheli, the whole population was put on compulsory arthemisinin prophylaxis and prevented from interaction with non-islanders for, like, three years. No-one knows exactly what the research showed (aside from the "success" declared by the implementers) but it was a too-rare example of old school public health of the isolate-put-on-drugs-and-see-what-happens variety.

Seeing an opportunity for innovation, the donor agency of the country south of Canada is trying to pull out a simple strategy: if it works get all credit, if it doesn't, blame the Chinese.

Motivated by such noble objectives, we are entering familiar HRI territory and in close cooperation with the TLA we are really looking forward to coordinating the efforts on the island using a mix of time-proven strategies for success while also diminishing our competitors's share of the donor market creating closer cooperation opportunities with partners in the sector.

Will keep you updated.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inside Innovation - Bring it On!

As expected, I landed in Moroni this morning to a dignified welcome organized by my loyal team who one by one expressed their gratitude for my safe return in verse (being an ex French colony, Comorians have learned to appreciate poetry along with quality bread), as part of a spontaneous ceremony organized  at the VIP lounge, complete with A0 photographs of yours truly and banners reading “HRI – 100% commitment to saving lives, one workshop at a time”.

The way from the airport to my humble residence was lined out with children experiencing genuine joy, neatly organized along the roads in their little uniforms, waving in the general direction of my convoy what looked like green branches taken off the few trees that still survive on the island. Although my landcruiser was going rather fast (HRI flag to HF aerial) and the windows were tightly shut - better to prevent the savage heat creeping inside my airconditioned space, my driver politely assures me they were singing, in one voice, a song about HRI and our donors, apparently learned spontaneously in school.

It is always reassuring to see that one’s work makes a difference in the life of a child (not sure about you, but this stuff keeps me going) and I do take pride in being a man of the people. I waved a dignified salute through the steaming windows, before returning to my data-enabled thuraya to update my facebook account (“status: back in moroni - hot”).

I found my residence in good shape and I asked my “help” to prepare me a double espresso, but without burning it like last time – I take pride in doing my share of capacity building even outside the office – and sipping it slowly I sat back in my study, thinking about how I really would like to pay the “help” a bit higher than 50$/ month, but as a member of the expat community I could not possibly do that as that would unbalance the market with unimaginable consequences. That’s me right there – a man of the people and a long-term thinker of the big picture.

Speaking about thinking – I have been thinking about “innovation” a lot lately, as I noticed the word is all the rage these days. The challenge in our sector is how to “integrate innovation” in our language without changing much about the way things work. First step is to create the inter-agency “innovation committee” and invite members of partner organizations to participate, ticking both “inclusiveness” and “innovation” off the list of words no donor can resist. Making this a senior level committee will insure the right combination of in-disposition to change and generous sitting allowances – ideal when concerned with “burn rates” and the importance of attendance lists to show to donors as a sign of success.

Passing innovation is a world dominated by career professionals with many years in the business and certain ways of doing things is a pretty tall order but then donor’s don’t really want to see much rocking of the boat happening either – that would force them to change their ways, which always makes them uncomfortable – they want to see the word used a lot, and they want to hear the occasional 300-words story about it, that can be put in a neat textbox in a report.  

And this is why they love HRI – we give them what they want, using bullet-proof, time-proven methods. 

As we speak, Nathan the intern is putting the finishing touches on HRIs latest publication – a newsletter dedicated to innovation in our sector called “Inside HRI Innovation” - printed on glossy, high density paper and (money well spent) also distributed in PDF format (as another nod to innovation, we are going digital). The best part about this publication is that it is not a formal donor commitment but rather an innovative, pro-active activity, bearing proof of our dedication to embracing modern means of communication that no-one ever reads, aimed at impressing donors. In another cutting-edge step, we are using SMS to inform our readers about the publication of this newsletter, which is another way of saying that Nathan will text the donors off his pre-paid phone.

It does take a lot of creativity to sell innovation while resisting change, but we are known in the business for getting the job done and do like a challenge. Bring it on! 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Of Tenants and Landlords

Should you find yourself on a plane next to a grumpy person in chinos, tasseled shoes and polo shirt looking busy over spreadsheets on a laptop supported by a large letter sized folder, it is safe to assume that you are sitting next to a HRI consultant, in his “field” uniform. Except of course if the plane goes to Juba, in which case the chinos are replaced by cargo pants and the tasseled shoes by hiking boots, all rounded up with a brown, thin belt conferring the wearer a dignified air while keeping him prepared for the rough landcruiser ride from the airport to logali house and back).

This time of the year, donors issue requests for proposals just before heading out for holidays, ensuring a certain equilibrium: flights out are populated by donor representatives on their way to vacation, while flights in are filled with proposal-writing experts headed for their African destinations where they hope their organizations will score the next big award with no small contribution from them.

Being the executive director of a well respected humanitarian organization, I am little affected by this movement, in spite of the sizeable collective of HRI proposal writers that are transiting as we speak towards or from respective development destinations, some of them transporting letter-sized 3-hole folders and corresponding paper packs (you don’t mess with donor requirements). While that happens, I am flying around making deals on the side and ensuring that development money keeps flying towards HRI, where it belongs, and it does not get grabbed by some unrealistic organization loyal to the falacy that sound ideas get funded. Sure, if they have sound ideas and whatever we are ready to listen, but once wew "prime" the award (which we always do), the budgets get smaller (what with all those fees and expatrate postion absolutely necessary for the "coordination" of activities) and such unrealistic organizations will simply have to prove that they are cost-efficient enough to be worth it of any funding. At the end of it all, we will ensure they get thanked in the footnotes for their "invaluable contribution" to the success of the project and everybody should be happy.

That would also explain why I have been silent all these weeks, busy as I was covering three continents, and, in case you are wondering whether my endeavors were successful, let’s just say that I am really enjoying the complimentary champagne in this Heathrow airport BA Lounge, in spite of the early hour.

And not only have I secured significant growth for this most humanitarian of organizations, but I have also managed to check on certain personal investments of mine which as it happens, are doing well, thank you very much. One of them is a charming art-deco house with significant garden in Panama City, which I have acquired at no cost to me years ago, not far from Casco Antigu, a very dignified part of town. The house was my residence back in the day when I was enjoying a particularly hardship posting in Panama and I procured it by applying the old strategy of using the generous HRI housing allowance to purchase the house rather than paying rent. There are several ways to do that, depending on the availability of mortgage at different locations and some strategies involve the use of a straw-man landlord, but what they all have in common is that one is always well-advised to use the highest allowable rate for rent in the official contract while being posted there and ensure that HRI takes over the contract for the residence at one’s departure, at highest allowable rate and on base of very positive reviews the landlord received from the departing party. After all, any departing expatriate is forever replaced by other incoming expatriates and there is nothing quite as pleasant as consistent access to dignified housing while on a hardship posting, pool, lush tropical garden, servants and all.

I must confess I have acquired quite a bit of real estate over the years using these strategies (highly diversified geographically in case you worry about volatile real estate markets) and I am currently enjoying a certain level of income, to supplement my generous paycheck from HRI.

And so, reader, my mood is high in spite of the grim state of this Lounge (here's another sign that the world as we know it is going to the dogs - BA could learn a thing or two from their colleagues in Dubai) and it is further elevated by the fact that I am on my way back to Moroni, after a long, long absence. Two days from now, I will be finally reunited with my trusty team in Moroni (i carry quality duty free chocolates) and receive an executive director's welcome before returning to my routine of lobster lunch and a humble existence in my house on the beach, which HRI is currently renting for me at the highest allowable rate from a very trusted landlord.