Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Apple Ipad and Memories of Humvee Bumper Sticker Wisdom in Haiti

As I am digesting the lobster consumed in the pleasant company of Ed, a reasonably paid consultant in town for a rapid assessment (in preparation for the "development of a joined strategy aimed at identifying sustainable ways to create an enabling environment for a better distribution of aid to the people of the Comoros") I am having an epiphany triggered by an agreement reached with Ed about the increased efficiency HRI could achieve in our work if we were to adopt Apple’s new gadget as a working tool (his assessment report about the "enabling environment" will naturally include a recommendation along those lines).

Apple and HRI are not as different as you may think. As a matter of fact, we share the same DNA: we are both committed to making a living out of flogging must-have stuff to people who don’t really need it. To make the model sustainable, every so often we come up with upgraded stuff or better looking ways to package the same stuff and define the next must-have concept.

Let's take the iphone as an example: you can kind-of make calls on it (provided you know how to hack it off the network that gets pushed down your throat with the package) but it costs much more than a regular phone. It does look really, really good though, and you want to be seen with one. If this doesn’t sound familiar, you know nothing about HRI.

Ed the reasonably priced consultant is also using the opportunity to collect some practical first-hand intel on Haiti, as he is supposed to fly in next week to lead a consortium of stakeholders in the development of a more coordinated strategy for a better penetration of aid in the aftermath of the earthquake. He will naturally use the opportunity to identify the need for several of our affiliates - who unfortunately did not have a presence in Haiti before the earthquake – to establish much needed presences there, to give a hand in the coordination effort.

Ed and I know a thing or two about emergency coordination as we go back to the days in Aceh, where I’ve hired him to develop HRIs fishing-boat distribution strategy, a program that is currently being monitored and evaluated by HRIs M&E wing: initial findings indicate that this program will become yet another world’s best practice. The 800,000 or so USD that have remained unspent in that program will come in handy as HRI is preparing a dignified launch of the findings report in Bali, with a mass distribution component aimed at making one M&E report available to each family in Aceh and beyond.

As one of the first global NGO directors to set foot in Haiti after the Earthquake, I have very good intel for Ed (i still owe you an update on my trip there, but as time passes i am not sure if impressions collected on my recent and very short visit remain relevant to my news-consuming reader, almost two weeks later). Things have changed in these almost two weeks since I left, but I know for instance where to find the coldest beer (I have personally ensured HRI’s generator has enough fuel to run 24/7).

Anyways, as I am going through practicalities with Ed over espresso chasers to take the edge off that lobster (slightly fortified with quality contraband Malagasy moonshine), I suddenly remembered my last memory from Haiti. It was Monday, late in the evening and I was leaving Port au Prince. I was walking towards the helicopter in the still disorganized airport when I was nearly run over by a Humvee driven with the i-mean-business confidence so characteristic to technical drivers. First I actually thought it was a technical and that the cold beer, the jet-lag, the madness are getting to me and I start mixing up countries. But then I turned my head to have a better look and, just before the humvee dissapeared behind those piled bags of rice i beheld the bumper sticker:

“I save Lives, What do You do?”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Giving credit where it's due: tough choices in Cambodia and lessons learned about Karma

As a distraction from the Lancet critisizing HRI story which is frankly given too much attention by our fellow bloggers, I thought I make this one a "lessons learned" post, sharing with you a somewhat dated story, but still relevant as a textbook example of HRI overcoming challanges with the help of Karma.

You will agree that in our business work, as in life, sometimes we are faced with choices that separate the men from the boys and HRI has had its fair share of difficult choices taken rationally, with the right interests in mind. A relatively recent example involves a tragic country, a place where HRI and countless of our affiliates are plying our trade with probably the highest HRI staff/ capita in the world.

A while ago, a special rapporteur type came in to asses the situation of “human rights”  in the said country. Some of our affiliates were involved in bringing him in, thinking this will be the usual meetings here and there rounded eventually up in a nice report praising “efforts” and “commitments” and identifying “challenges” and “areas for improvement”. The usual HRI gig in other words, that would have given us an opportunity to bring the “stakeholders” closer and showing donors that their money is well spent while pointing out areas that need further funding.

I remember it like it was yesterday: when I took the call, I was enjoying a chilled Singha with my morning massage on the beach in Phuket (where I was with some urgent business).

"Yash Ghai has f**ed us all!"

It was HRIs “Chief of Party”, desperate and worried – we shot ourselves in the foot he said. I got on the first flight and when I landed in the capital I saw how bad it was: the rapporteur feller has pissed off the government by picking on some land grabbing, arbitrary arrests and other minor faults of the government, all of them negligible in light of the dignified life most of us were leading, engaging in sustainable workshops and training of trainers.

Almost twenty years of peace-keeping and development and aid and technical assistance and HRI & our numerous affiliates were finally in synch with the government, successfully collaborating  in ground-breaking workshops and seminars year-round, on pretty much every topic in the book. We also had a vast network of dignified hotels all over the country to accommodate such activities and the whole per-diem thing sorted out with the government. The money was flowing, the “structures were in place”, the officials were speaking the right language, donors were happy, reports were being printed and life was sweet.

And then this rapporteur guy wants end it all with his winging about land grabbing. A man from a country where they have human rights issues, no less.

“Stakeholder” emergency meetings were called, apologies were sent, contingency plans were drafted, calls were placed, work lunches were organized. There was no question about it: HRI and all our affiliates had to distance ourselves from the report. But damage has been done and our comfortable routine was threatened. (The only good news was that we managed to use that report in downgrading the country on the hardship scale, which has increased our hazard pay ever so slightly)

It took a year almost but karma worked our way: enter a little man to HRI liking, with the right dislike for job : love for paycheck ratio (DJ:LP). He has been chosen to replace the troublemaker who mercifully resigned over well deserved lack of support in his disagreements with the government and the visionary man who runs the place.

And then, sometimes in 2009, sweet retribution: Mr. Subedi’s report was out – a proper, beautifully crafted piece, a significant step towards reaffirming our peaceful life in the kingdom. For HRI literature buffs, the whole thing (in pdf) is here.

For the rest, here are a few highlights:

“people have enjoyed an unprecedented degree of freedom of assembly, expression and movement, although people need by law to seek permission to hold public demonstrations, which is sometimes refused on unspecified security grounds, and arbitrary restrictions on travel or holding meetings have sometimes been imposed.”

“The Government has also faced the complex issue of land ownership, including by making an effort to improve land tenure security for the population”.

And a HRI favourite, containing just the right mix of drama, “recent past”, weasel statements and that thing about economic social and cultural rights:

“Cambodia is a country which still is coming to terms with a tragic past, and the progress made thus far is encouraging. The legal, institutional and political systems had to be rebuilt effectively from scratch when the country began to pull itself together after 1979. In recent years, the country has experienced improved political stability which has allowed rapid economic development, thereby bringing more people out of poverty and into a position to better enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights”.

There are few more effective tools in the arsenal of HRI fundraising machinery than the reference to the “tragic past”. This particular country is a HRI favorite also because HRI staff can make straight-faced references to a “recent tragic past” that has happened before most of our staff were born. Such references are quickly balanced by a mention of “encouraging progress” and there you are, giggles all the way to the bank.

(Actually, I’ll take that back – there is at least one more effective fundraising tool in HRI's arsenal: curating art authored by anonymous children off the garbage dump in a dignified cafĂ©).

Mr. Subedi’s report is splendidly concluded, pointing out that “the protection of human rights needs the rule of law” (“I believe”, he nuances this controversial statement), and an exquisite turn of the pen offering, in pure HRI style, to give a hand in "developing guidelines on land evictions”.

And so my dear readers, the whole affair turned into an awesome opportunity for HRI to offer a capacity building/ technical assistance package to the government – cutting edge workshops – generously funded by the donor community in Cambodia. as i am writing this, many of our affiliates in country and in the region are "burning" funding generated by this very report, while enjoying that ever so slightly increase in hazard pay.

In private conversations, some of my greener colleagues have expressed indignation that such fantastic work has not received enough publicity at the time and that the media, blindsided by the whole Khmer Rouge Tribunal thing, is not interested in covering such marvelous progress. But I keep telling them - we are not in this business for glory, I says; we must remain humble and trust in Karma.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Jezuss! Branded Guns?

Back in moroni, I am starting the day with my usual latte (made by one of the children that are given a chance to get out of poverty by doing dignified work around my humble residence) and, to take the edge off my recent trip to Haiti, I thought I get an update with some of the news doing the rounds via the HRI V-sat connection with a dedicated line to my villa. I thought the jesus-freak gun story was quite exquisite and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the wide spectrum of outrage that punters expressed around this. I wonder what they expected gun manufacturers to write on their guns? Quotes from naom chomsky perhaps?

Naturally, being a strong believer myself, and knowing clearly that mine is the only true religion I naturally feel offended by such shameless proselytizing. On the other hand, should I find myself on the wrong side of that barrel-mounted sight, would I care about the religious branding of the gun that fired the bullet? For all I know the dude who handles that gun may very well be sporting a tasteful crucifix around his neck, for protection (against the evil eye), not unlike this one:

You’d wonder though, the feller who owns that company must be a pretty cunning businessman, or he wouldn't be running such a succesful shop (I think it’s safe to assume we’re talking about a bloke here, not a woman). He surely would have expected the outrage should the meaning of those letters become known. Which means that only three explanations are possible:

1. His religious belief is more important to him than his business; or
2. Spreading the word is his business, and the gun thing is just a means to an end; or
3. The sights are a special issue, designed to be used in tactical interventions against vampires and werewolves, vulnerable, as we all know, to silver and stuff out of the good book.

The first theory is highly unlikely and the third one, while very likely, must be discarded as the weapons were not shipped to Transylvania but to Afghanistan. Which makes me think that the second theory must be the real one and since that is the case, the whole story actually reminds me of some of HRIs favourite donors.

HRI connoisseurs may be forgiven for thinking I refer to the legitimate use of the good book as a source of evidence in some of HRIs most acclaimed interventions. In fact I am talking about the very strong terms in which HRIs most strategic donor demands that all activities funded by them be branded to the point where the impact of said activities is irrelevant whereas messing with the branding is a deal breaker. That is one of the reasons why this particular donor is so dear to us. As development veterans HRI understands these things and there is no competitor development partner out there who delivers on that particular indicator better than us. Branded T-shirts, well branded vehicles (including my humble V12 as well as the vest of the guy whose name i forgot and who drives me around every day) and, cutting edge stuff, that safe and hygienic tattoo parlor HRI manages in Laos where orphans receiving a helping of rice out of donor branded sacks are politely but firmly given a “quarter-sleeve” of a tasteful pair of shaking hands.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Back from Haiti; and: "Do I work for HRI" toolkit?

It’s been a while and there are no prices for guessing why I did not have any updates recently - you’ve watched the news and would have assumed that the internet connection in Haiti isn’t what it used to be. Indeed HRI had a massive presence in Haiti, not to mention all our affiliates there and I had to immediately leave the relative comfort of Moroni and head for Port au Prince (via santo domingo and a reasonably priced helicopter operated by one of our affiliates), to assess the damage and, of course, see how HRI can put a foot in the door and receive some of the massive funding that will, again, reach that very, very unfortunate place. The bad news is I’d love to tell you that HRI staff are safe but I can’t do that – lives were lost, much was destroyed. The good news is HRI and our affiliates are well in control of the relief efforts an, more importantly, the development plans for the near future.

With my job done I’m on my way back to my humble residence in Moroni and, between flights, I thought I force myself to think about something else for the moment. So I went back to a question many people are asking me of late and, taking advantage of an unusually philosophical disposition, I thought I have a go at answering it. The question, of course is:

“Do I work for a HRI affiliate?”

Indeed, many of you, who do not have the privilege to be directly employed by HRI (in which case you would know it by the mildly sarcastic slogan “another day another dollar” printed in the left hand corner of your payslip) could in fact be employed by one of our many affiliates, the long list of which could never be recovered after it was lost in a tragic excel accident (we don’t like talking about it as the memory is still too much to bear but it involves an intern and the wrong answer to the question “Do You Want To Save Changes You Made To Book1”).

To cope with this monumental loss of information, we had to devise a simple cheat-sheet to help anyone determine if they work for one of our affiliates or not. You probably know it deep down, so a “toolkit” to determine affiliate status is not absolutely necessary, but since the conversation among my fellow discerning travelers in the business lounge was hijacked by a loud party of Heineken-necking Malagasy government contractors on their way back to Antananarivo from a groundbreaking “democratization” workshop organized by one of our close affiliates in Zanzibar (yes, post-coup Madagascar aid/ development money is still making a difference in zanzibar and elsewhere), I thought I give you a pretty straight forward "toolkit": as a rule of the thumb, if your answer to more than one of the questions below is yes, chances are you are employed by one of our affiliates. Of course there are millions of other ways to tell, some of them more sector-specific than others (and I’d love to hear from some of my esteemed colleagues who, like me, have tried to mitigate the loss of that list in their own ways - llok at it as avoiding re-inventing the wheel or as a lessons learned or as an exchange of good practice) but before I get dragged back in the lounge to that conversation about democratization, here are the questions:

1. Do you need more than 3 minutes to explain to a complete stranger what your job is?
2. Does above explanation require the use of any acronyms or terms that require further explanation?
3. Do you use a “toolkit” in your job that is not a physical box containing tools?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Faith Based Development: consolidated appeals to the spaghetti monster

After the last post on Thursday, in which I may or may not have referred to the a medieval spiritual community in passing, somebody wrote to me saying they took offence in the way I dismissed the orthodox christmas with the smug superiority of a catholic islamic presbitarian puritan of some sort. This would be then the opportunity, I thought, to shed some light on HRIs and my personal religious affiliation.

Indeed, HRI is a faith based organization, a detail that I failed to mention, but which has made us popular in the past with value buff type donors who have generously funded us for ridiculous campaigns and activities that we have managed to produce at the sweet spot where the surreal meets the bizarre. Given our flexible corporate ethics and our organizational commitment to never turn down funding I always preferred to speak only selectively of our values and have naturally developed significant skills in navigating awkward faith uncertainties as well as the odd communal prayer.

As a keen believer myself (I am a very observant pastafarian ), I am trying to instill more Flying Spaghetti Monster Values in the organization I executively direct as well as in our numerous staff world-wide, who could hence add salvation by meatballs as one of their many job benefits. I dream of a time when all our offices, missions and affiliates will be reunited in daily prayer over the spaghetti bowl and show a new found zeal to even more value-based life-saving activities.

For instance, I learned today that one of our closest affiliate is leaving some areas of Somalia, while promising they won’t “abandon” the country, in spite of the insecurity. Well that’s a bummer – as a member of the “Logistics Cluster”, HRI has generated significant revenue operating humanitarian flights all over Somalia, which is HRI speak for hiring some rusty old soviet planes and charging all other agencies massive fees to use them while agreeing that these flights are the only ones approved by our other affiliate, in charge of security). Speaking about the Logistics Cluster (LC) – is it only me, or is this a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) waiting to happen? Surely LCF sounds much better than LC, if you know what I mean.

But here’s the silver lining: everybody knows that spaghetti are Somali staple food, so that is a natural entry point for HRIs first faith based intervention inspired by the Spaghetti Monster Values. We are therefore uniquely positioned to request a few tens of millions bucks for a charitable intervention in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and have already inputted our requests in the most recent “Consolidated Appeal” CAP 2010.

Studying this very important document (put together by a comprehensive team of HRI affiliated reasonably paid and fairly procured consultants, based in Nairobi, Washington DC and New York with information provided by our affiliates on the ground), I was well impressed to see the very thorough graphics and analysis used to communicate following extremely complex phrase:

“HRI and affiliates need a shitload of arbitrary but precise-sounding amounts of cash to do loads of capacity building, coordonation and workshops”

Knowing that all donors prefer their information excel-coated, the comprehensive team of consultants offered a helpful table with pretty much the same amounts copied/ pasted in three different columns and a conspicuous 5% funding available for the country of choice for HRIs Spaghetti Monster agenda:

To help the donors further understand the comprehensive team of consultants further offer some explanatory notes in vulgar pseudo-legalese, HRIs lingua franca:

Finally, to drive the point home, they offer an extra page with a bar chart:

I can fill you in on the fact that, under the clear instructions and supervision of the comprehensive team of experts, this chart was put together by that HRI volunteer who also does all the HRI reporting when she is not busy running two of our more shitty sub-offices and pointlessly applying for a paid position with the lame argument that she has been a volunteer for like 6 years or so.

Pray to the Spaghetti Monster Almighty, my daughter, I say to her, and let your life be driven by the happiness of helping others, not greed.

Just like Angelina, really.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

This just in: It’s Christmas, again!

If feels like Christmas again, and I don’t mean the orthodox Christmas which is happening as I’m writing this, rites conducted by potbellied bearded people with a somewhat medieval edge, under the watchful but generous eyes of dignified visonary leaders:

It feels like Christmas because shortly after I expressed the wish that Global Warming (the up and coming gravy train in our business) be somehow linked to one of the areas where HRI has significant expertise, and a reader already sent me a link to the document that may very well be the base of our future strategy. It’s official – there is a clear and UN-endorsed link between HIV/ AIDS and Global Warming, which will make HRIs attempts to bag Global Warming money look less like spin and more like following the "modern paradigm". I can easily visualize our future applications to the Global Fund for Global Warming and HIV money. No wonder that USAID & UNFPA have been some of HRIs closest affiliates over the years.

Sure, you may say – this report has been issued a few months ago which means it is yesterday’s news (in fact it's so last decade, really). But I only found out about it today so let me enjoy another HRI Christmas right now. We are not that up to date here in Moroni you see, which is yet another argument in support of my proposal that HRI implement a proper dedicated VSAT system to improve the island’s bandwidth which would also allow all of us to spend more quality time in front of our computers reading and  then sharing groundbreaking UN reports on facebook, one of my and most Comoreans' favourite pastimes.

And while we speak about money, I think it’s about time we start building a feeling for China the Donor. The Chinese continue showing the money around Africa and I don’t know about you but it doesn't feel quite right that HRI & affiliates wouldn’t adjust their overhead around this reality if you know what I mean. I for one retain significant karaoke skills, acquired during my hardship HRI days in south east asia, and I could easily imagine myself making ground-breaking deals with this or the other Chinese delegation, on health, human rights - you name it, over beer-on-the-rocks and lobster. Plus, it was about time that we build the capacity of the chefs in Comores who will greatly benefit from learning chinese cooking skills - sustainable, poverty reducing stuff, i assure you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Yemen? Yeah, man!

Like many of you, I find myself thinking a lot about Yemen these days. Sure, sure the place is complicated yadda yadda, but I was personally quite interested to see Mr. Lieberman reckoning it will be tomorrow’s war and all.

Not sure what the guy means, I sure hope we won’t have another one of those “invasion” things again (invasion 2.0 they’ll call it), but the good news is that the aid money in yemen and region will increase over the next few years and that is where HRI will come in.

If we play our cards well, HRI & affiliates will manage to pull another one of them proverbial best-of-two-worlds trick on them. What I have in mind is a brilliant practice that will hopefully become standard procedure among all respectable agencies working in Yemen. Here is how it works:

Due to high danger of kidnapping, terrorist attacks and what not, we’ll insist to our donors that no expat should be actually based in Yemen. Which means that all of our expats who are de facto based in Yemen will be formally “based” in Djibouti, Ethiopia or Nairobi where they would pocket a significantly higher post adjustment to their pay – we’ll decide on the final “hub” after we analyzed all combinations of actual comfort, post adjustment index, level of airport connectivity etc. (I personally favor Ethiopia what with that good food, good climate and direct flight to Rome; Dubai and Doha have also been mentioned).

Anyways, once formally based in the “hub”, all expats working in Yemen would be effectively “on mission” while there, which means that they would be entitled to per diem and accommodation in Yemen, in addition to the danger and hazard pay. Meanwhile they can rent out their accommodation provided in the “hub” at a reasonable price to partner agencies who will be surely interested in quality standard accommodation for their expat staff and like so we even manage to achieve some more of that proverbial inter-agency cooperation.

Which reminds me – I need to leave now to attend the Comoro Heads of Agency Country Team Meeting (CHACTM), a crucial coordination mechanism among the “stakeholders” on the island, an opportunity to share ideas and lessons learned, to fill in matrixes and to make sure we avoid duplication. I am talking very important issues that are too serious to be discussed over lobster or the dignified evenings at the Itsandra Sun or one of the other local hang-outs where we all run into each other a bit too often.

Among these crucial items, the agenda for today includes an urgent discussion on the office opening times (we can't seriously claim we are well coordinated if our offices open and close at different times can we?) – this is a contentious issue that has been on the agenda for every CHACTM over the last year and half or so and the stakeholder community are considering hiring a consultant to help us break the stalemate created by two different schools of thought. The one favours all offices to work six days a week 7am-2pm and the other prefers that we all work five days a week 7am-5pm, with a 2 day weekend. This is pretty much an ideological rift between the afternoon nappers and the weekend warriors and, like all grand ideological questions it cannot be resolved by rational arguments, hence the need for a reasonably priced consultant.

You may wonder of course which school of thought i belong to. Well, i am a bipartisan type of person, a peacemaker really, and i can see both ideas having some merit - i am apparently an afternoon napping weekend warrior, and i really hope that the reasonably priced consultant who was hired to help us solve this impasse will also see the win-win potential of this argument and help us reach another memorable best of two worlds moment.