Friday, March 26, 2010

Of Dubai Layovers, Church Sex Scandals and "Saddlebacking"

So here I am, in Dubai, enjoying a leisurely layover en route to New Delhi. I am at the Grand Hyatt downtown, where Emirates put their stranded discerning travelers and where I was taken by the shuttle when it became apparent that I won’t make it on my connection flight.

As it sometimes happens, the business class was full – they did have some places on coach and for a moment the airline liaison person attempted to suggest I board in coach but one look over the Irish coffee in the lounge where we were having this conversation and she immediately organized the Hyatt voucher. Here I am, the international man of development, at home in DXB lounges, I am to fly coach to New Delhi and ruin my hard earned reputation? Sure I would if I was in a hurry or anything, but I’m not – I am on my way there at the invitation of one of our affiliates to give a presentation about income generating activities (believe me, I know a lot about that sort of stuff) and the conference won’t start til next Wednesday. Why would I rough if with the commoners in coach when I could put up with a night at the Grand Hyatt?

Never the one to argue with sound logic, here I am in my dignified room overseeing the infinity pools, pillow arranged by service beautifully enhancing my confort in the king size bed, a tray with half-eaten Beijing duck next to me, telly on. Perfect time to reminisce about my recent trip and a few current events.

Dubai airport, for starters, is my kind of place. They know how to treat their first or business travelers and the experience is even more delightful as you observe through the well-coated lounge windows the over-crowded jet-lagged masses, trying desperately to get some sleep on the floor while hugging their laptop bags. Whole families on holiday, refugees, migrant workers, cheap-flight connoisseurs en route to that postcard destination and bargain hunters are all rubbing shoulders with cell-phone shop owners from all over the world on stock-up trips and the occasional junior investor looking out of place, trying to sleep in a stiff Marks & Spencer suit on a bench specifically designed to make laying down impossible. The kiddie corner, with its enviable soft floor has been taken over by a group of Philippino hospitality workers while the Starbucks table are all occupied by what looks like a massive group of student-union rejects, but which are actually separate small groups of back-packers, NGO interns & volunteers crowding the wireless with long updates to their blogs. The “duty free” downstairs is haunted by zombies in elaborated funny packs on the look for cashew nuts and sugary drinks to keep them going during that golden watch bargain hunt.

Meanwhile, in the first class lounge, HRI executives on their to or from Afghanistan are catching up with the international press over sushi while dignified business people in full thobe & guthras chat about the latest consequences of the “crisis” with well perfumed investment brokers and their silent, dolled up girlfriends.

As I’m watching the telly and catching up with the lates news, my favourite story must be the mud hitting the fan with the most recent series of catholic sex scandals. I don’t want to be misunderstood – just because I am an observant pastafarian doesn’t mean I enjoy seeing our fellow institution having their skeletons finally taken out of the closet (for the gazzilionth time). But as a veteran of quite a few peace-keeping missions, not to mention plenty of other postings in the sort of places where the proverbial red line is thinner than we would care to admit, I have always been amazed by the apparent contradiction between the surprise that people profess when some scandal hits the press and the passivity-inducing consistency and spread of the knowledge of that particular scandal going on.

Raise a hand if you ever been in Kinshasa and saw a HRI vehicle parked in front of Savananna, complete with HF aerial and donor branding!

Raise a hand if you ever had a beer with the HRI affiliated Nepali army contingent in Dili at the Obrigado Barracks overhearing war stories from Bali!

Raise a hand if you were in Cambodia during the days of the HRI-sponsored UNTAC – no need to say more;

Raise a hand if you ever spent a night on the town in Djibuti and run into drunken army boys taking the edge off that tedious military routine!

Raise a hand if you had few drinks with the US troops in Haiti recently!

Are these hands perhaps the limbs of people who are outraged to read reports of abuse from refugee camps to karaoke parlors patronized by people linked to HRI directly or indirectly?

Are the people outraged to hear the stories of children abused by clerics the same who have sent their children to religious schools to keep them away from the “dangers” of the world? Parents who would rather have a dignified institution run by sexually oppressed men in frocks taking care of educating their progeny?

Finally, Saddlebacking anyone?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This just in: Excellent Experts sought for Parliamentary Reform & a look under the hood of HRI's win-win work in Turkmenistan

In our commitment to this or the other respectable value, HRI is naturally at the cutting edge of any well funded processes of “democratization” the world over. For instance, an affiliate of ours is currently recruiting “Excellent Experts in Parliamentary Reform”, for a gig in Turkmenistan.

HRI has been doing good work in Turkmenistan from the mid 90s (part of our "CIS Strategy" - in those days CIS was a donor euphemism for “former soviet countries that no-one can place on the map”) and I have personally spent many a delightful autumn day in the company of Father Andrew the local papa nuncio, (tasked with shepherding the 12 or so catholic souls in the country and, presumably, ensuring from a typically neutral position that all that gas is put at good use) playing ping-pong against the modern Ashgabat skyline and ruminating about the relative merits of the Turkmen melons superior we agreed, to the Afghan ones.

It was like M*A*S*H, on crack, in North Korea.

In those days, Turkmenistan was led to its glory by a visionary leader, a renaissance man with a taste in the arts and feel for history. The place was in many ways an ideal HRI location, and for a brief moment in the mid 90s we actually considered setting our headquarters there, in one of the then newly constructed skyscrapers where i was even offered and considered backhand shares by a friendly “government contact” (upon inspection we found it was a hollow structure, built just to enhance the quality of the skyline at sunset, so we made other plans).

Turkmenistan sits one of the biggest single natural gas reserves ever. It is also neighboring Afghanistan. Both these facts placed it pretty high on the priority list to receive generous aid from certain donors. For years and years HRI and affiliates have organized “training sessions” with “government officials” on democratic values and “right-based approaches”, in seminar rooms tastefully decorated with giant portraits of the late Mr. Niyazov, President for Life by the Will of His People and his Good Book, all the while wondering how to inform various local staff that their employment with HRI is retroactively terminated by virtue of their names being on a list of “relatives of subversive elements” submitted to us by our “government counterpart”, in a pink envelope with the notorious green seal (in the shape of Mr. President’s portrait, from profile, Cesar Style).

While members of the opposition were routinely denounced as terrorists before summarily disappearing (presumably hit by the president’s mystical powers), HRI Rights Based Approach to Development trainings naturally commenced and finished with quotes from the Ruhnama, the book that contains all that ever needed to be written, and, as practical exercises requested by the Ministry of Justice, the whole group was regularly taken in pilgrimage to the newly constructed Ruhnama Park, where we were all ritually bowing in front of the mechanically enhanced statue of the book, before stopping for a green tea at the end of the 45degree elevator up one mechanically enhanced golden statue of the great leader.

That great leader proved to be mortal after all and checked out sometime in 2007. After the shocked citizenry recovered from the tragedy, they voted his successor in as the second president for life, with a 99.9% majority in an "open" election. Another man of the people, a visionary and modernizer this one, a leader to be trusted to build solid, democratic institutions that can be further “capacity-built”. The head of another government to be supported in his efforts to “reform the parliament”, a complicated process in support of which HRI is bringing out the big guns.

And that’s how that vacancy is on reliefweb as I’m writing this.

To make things work smoothly, HRI has a number of private sector affiliates, consultancy partnerships as it were. These are essentially staffed by HRI old-timers plus a few slick striped-suited types in relevant capitals, to make sure the right amounts of lube are applied to the right wheels and joints of the bureaucratic machinery to ensure the necessary “resources” are being “mobilized”. These particular affiliates prefer to operate mostly in places that can be hard to point on a map and about which most people don't know the first thing.

Once the money is in, the affiliate sends in the “short term consultants”, for an assessment, which then identifies stakeholders and drafts an action plan. In the next phase, technical meetings are organized with the “stakeholders” and “lists of recommendations” are drafted. Sometimes, “third country experts” are being brought in to share best practices, after which the whole thing is wrapped up in a dignified “summit” at the President Hotel (government endorsed wiki page here), where I personally prefer to occupy the suite facing the Ministry of Natural Resources (the junior suite in the other wing offers an inferior view on some back street populated by depressing looking people moving around with donkeys). During the reception compliments are made to the government partners for the tastefulness of their golden President pins (all the rage in local fashion circles) while expats pat each other's backs over the success in managing to obtain visas for all the experts.

Finally, reports are printed, acknowledgements and appreciations are shared, group-pictures are taken, you know the gig. The rest of the money goes where it belongs, in obverheads, fees etc and the government of Turkmenistan is delighted to go around producing solid credentials about their "efforts" towards democratization. Meanwhile  the donor country enjoys improved talks about that gas and there you have it, another delighteful HRI win-win situation.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Research & Rescue Action Plan

As I leisurely walked into my humble but tastefully decorated office this morning, slowly digesting a dignified breakfast professionally prepared and served at my residence by two of my six “domestic helpers”, I beheld the HRI calendar on my desk (“if you have any questions about the content of this calendar please contact HRI” it says, under the touching picture with the big-eyed child, making one imagine a stakeholder calling: “I have a question about the content, how come August has 31 days, just like July?).

I beheld the calendar and realized that by the end of the month we need to provide one of our donors with the results of a research about the reasons behind gender-based violence in the Comoros. Except we don’t call the thing "research", we call it “M&E” because we know that our donors have a software that they run all funding proposals through and if they contain the word “research” they get automatically rejected, or at least, as was the case in point, the funding gets “restricted”. It’s actually an open-source spam guard software that was adapted for a reasonable price by a mixed team of IT and “programmatic” experts and is now “implemented” on all computers used by all members of the Grants commission at the headquarters of the respective donor.

This particular proposal was submitted in the financial year 2004 and it was compiled by Nikki, one of our interns at the time, hired since as a “project officer” based on her combination of Brandeis University degree and “experience in the field”, a box she ticked as a peace corps volunteer in Cameroon where, in addition to a ganja habit, she also acquired three words of French (one of them is “espece” and the other two cannot be printed in a family blog, in the words of one of our former employees), which consolidated her position as an HRI francophone country expert.

While the donor agency won’t fund “research” as a matter of principle, the feller who works for the donor at the local “mission” is particularly interested in “M&E” results because he hopes to put his name next to them so when former high-school colleagues in Ohio google him they find out he has published stuff which will obviously make that girl regret she did not go bowling with him back in 1983. He also doesn’t particularly like Moroni so he hopes a few publications under his belt will increase his chances of obtaining a posting closer to Pattaya, where he once spent memorable moments in the company of several talented karaoke artists. Meanwhile, the restrictions imposed on this research by the mentioned software need to be lifted but most of the budget has been “realigned” since, which means HRI is currently having a team of six permanent staff, three interns and a reasonably-paid consultant addressing some restrictions on money committed in 2004 and already spent years ago for different activities than the ones flagged by the software.

Naturally all people involved at the time on both sides have moved on and cannot be contacted anymore which makes the whole process even more interesting, while allowing all of us to just point the fingers ar vague “predecessors” while we try to figure out hhow we burry the whole thing under piles of papers. The fact that this particular donor is very much interested in “M&E” is not the same thing with their intense interest in “numbers of t-shirts distributed” or “numbers of stakeholeders trained” commonly reffered to as “impact indicators”.

Whatever the background, fact is there remain less than 2 weeks to complete this “M&E” process about gender based violence and, because we are go-getters, here is what we will do:
1. Nathan the intern will google gender based violence and Comoros;
2. He will then copy-paste whatever he finds into one document with a special focus on footnotes (“primary sources”)– we’ll refer to this step as “literature review”;
3. Make up a generic sounding story about a woman “whose name has been changed to protect her privacy”, as a believable “human interest story” and we’ll add some pictures Nathan took when he backpacked through east Africa on his way to Comoros.
4. Put together some vague references to cultural norms with references to islam;
5. Take the section “Expected Results” from the original proposal drafted by Nikki in 2004 and do a ctrl+F/ Replace All "2004" with "2010" and “will” with “have” along with some subsequent fine tuning;
6. Take a list of recommendations from a similar “M&E” process completed in nearby Madagascar and copy/ paste/ adjust them to Comoros;
7. Nathan the intern will then put all of it together in a “publication”, complete with the usual overexposed pictures of HRI staff under the logo and submit it to the duly procured printer.

Once all above steps are completed we will book the large conference room at the Itsandra Sun (which is to Comoros what the Sheraton is to Ethiopia) for sometimes in April and send out invitations for all stake-holders to attend the dissemination event. We’ll pick the date to be ever so slightly late, for credibility’s sake (as everyone knows when you get down to practice sometimes things get a bit more complicated etc etc) and we’ll ensure that he budget gets ever so slightly overspent – we’ll naturally offer to cover the diference ourselves, to show commitment (easily done by charging some staff time dedicated to this project to another donor) – that stuff goes a long way in increasing our funding next time around. We’ll print ca 20,000 copies of the report in high quality color and send many of them by DHL to regional and global “stakeholders”. We’ll then wrap it all up with a regional seminar at the Ellerman in Cape Town (a dignified long term partner of HRI), and call it a ground breaking success and a regional best practice. The whole thing being “M&E” of course will inform our programmatic decisions which means that we are well placed to apply for further funding and there you go, sorted.

Anyways, may I remind you all that we are still collecting “abstracts” and we are looking forward to host some quality submissions from colleagues out there.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Call for abstracts: HRI success stories/ be a HRI guest writer

For years and years HRI and our many affiliates have been working hard in all corners of the world doing workshops, seminars and engaging in various other activities that had massive impact on the lives of the poor and vulnerable and have, in the process, created and sustained vital industries of fake-ethnic eateries in dignified hotels and expat-only watering holes, to name just two of million other sectors essential to a decent life in the bubble.

HRI is naturally committed to exchanges of experiences and I personally believe that by sharing lessons learned and success stories we will become an even stronger and more “comprehensive” organization.

If you work for HRI or one of our affiliates (not sure? apply the “toolkit”) you must have some experiences you want to share, a lesson or two you have learned, a story you’d like to tell.

To facilitate the exchange of such materials I have decided to put out this call for abstracts – please email your story and over the coming days I will post the better ones right here, with the level of credit/ acknowledgement you request.

In order to select the best ones, I will ask Nathan, one of our interns (currently working on a team of eight tasked with compiling a global newsletter containing unreadable articles and underexposed, blurred pictures of HRI seminars, distributed straight to the spam folders of many of our affiliates) to skim over some of the submissions and pick the ones dealing with topics that are currently in favour with our donors. We’ll then select a few that refer to strategic countries for HRI and tell everyone the selection was done by a panel of “peers” based on objective criteria.

We’ll then put all of them in a “repository", which is another word for an obscure folder on our website, available for later (and unlikely) consultation to all, and call the whole affair a success in inter-agency exchange of experiences.

Please submit your “abstract” at alden dot kurtz at gmail dot com.

And please spread the word – for credibility with our stakeholders, it's important we can tell everyone that we had a very diverse pool of “abstracts” to choose from.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ground-Breaking Work in Somalia - A Report

Somalia is again in the news and, as the executive director of an organization with significant “stakes” in "the horn", I feel I need to provide an overview of the great work HRI and affiliates are doing there, with the hope that the timing is good for donors to make the sort of commitments they always do when Somalia gets some news coverage. (Meanwhile we remain hopeful that the consolidated appeals will facilitated more much-needed funding for HRI)

As a measure of our organizational standards, in spite of all the hardship, HRI staff remain committed to our work in Somalia and continue to put up with the hassle of living in Nairobi on Somali hazard pay while their bravery stories of flying rusty An-24s throughout Somalia remain popular as ever with the crowd at “Crazy House” as well as with trophy spouse circles sipping lattes at Java House.

In Somaliland for example (a place that we officially prefer to refer to as “the north” fearing that any acknowledgement of an almost two decade reality will turn us into the odd-organisation-out and have negative consequences on our funding) we run a very “broad portfolio” of workshops and capacity building activities, striving to build the appalling capacity of our local partners. As elsewhere in Somalia, any very obvious failure that cannot be window-dressed in our reports is swiftly and naturally addressed by the “Clan Complexity Defense”, which is HRIs Somalia-adapted version of the reputable and irefutable Chewbacca Defense.

Our most successful program (part of our income generation package) is building the capacity of camel herders in “the north” to transition from herding camels to herding “shoats”. “Shoats” is HRI shorthand for “Sheep and Goats” and it is a term that we had to coin because no-one on our staff knew the difference between the two (they really taste the same with spaghetti and rice). One of our livelihood consultants gave us a PowerPoint presentation pointing out the differences but she presented it in the afternoon over our state-of-the-art video-conferencing facilities and everyone fell asleep due to a post-lunch combination of heat and lack of interest in the topic. An intern in Nairobi was then tasked with “following up” with the consultant and making a brief of the presentation and share it with all of us but then the email server crashed and, due to clan complexities, could not be restored for three or so weeks and all some of us remembered was that one of them had a black head but we couldn’t agree which (voting, in the democratic traditions of HRI led to a draw).

Then there are the “capacity building” activities aimed at dealing with market imbalances caused by an expected increased demand in “shoats” and decreased demand in camels that may have “complex trigger effects”. People affected negatively by these effects will have to be exposed to various “vocational trainings” and are taught how to start a business that does not involve buying an old Hilux and transporting khat. (Although irrelevant in context, we are making reference to khat because that will increase our chances of obtaining funding from donors interested in showing a commitment to fighting drug trafficking).

Then, in Puntland (referred to in HRI official documents as “the North-East”) we are working mainly out of Nairobi with short and expensive trips to Bossaaso meant to keep the spending going while we combine the Clan Complexity Defense with the application for more funding. We have three staff who exclusively deal with making and cancelling bookings at the only HRI approved guesthouse in town, run by one of our close affiliates. “Piracy” remains the magic word here, which is also why all our funding has to do with capacity building and mitigating effects of piracy in Bossaaso, while the rest of the country remains only relevant to us in as much as regular trips to Garowe are required by our concern with keeping appearances about collaborating with the local authorities. We have also hired a retired prosecutor from Wisconsin who is leading our “Law Enforcement Capacity Building to Combat Piracy” program out of Nairobi. Naturally, most of our work here happens in Nairobi, where we implement additional workshops of significant complexity, attended by “Somali officials from Puntland”.

Which brings me to our ground-breaking work in “South-Central Somalia”, a vast area that is mostly off-limits to everyone at HRI. For reasons of Clan Complexity we do not trust any of our local staff with any decisions, which means that most of our work in “South-Central” is about spending money in Nairobi “building the capacity” of whoever is referred to as “the government” at the respective moment. This is a sustainable activity because, due to high turnover in the government teams, we manage to run the same trainings again and again, giving us an opportunity to develop templates, manuals and other tools and become even more cost-effective.

The occasional international staff flying into Baidoa for a day or so give us the necessary street cred, while our affiliate doing overpriced exclusive Humanitarian Flight management gets us kudos in the Logistics Cluster (LCF).

Which reminds me: our decision to have water for sale in these flights a few years back has gone down as one of the most innovative decisions in recent memory, and has been quoted extensively as a positive example of “lessons learned” from the private sector.
I’d love to tell you more about the fantastic results of all this work (well acknowledged in the sector) but I need to attend a video-conference about some funding in the Seychelles and anyway, you wouldn’t understand the clan complexities.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Musings on Tastefulness and News from Mozambique

It’s been an emotional couple of days.

For starters a certain academic type feller who used to work for one of our affiliates back in the day has dismissed HRI as a mere “satire”, and a tasteless one at that. I’ve said it before: HRI is not a satire. We are a dead-serious organization whose committed staff work day and night in some of the roughest parts of the world to address poor and vulnerable people’s fundamental needs for talking-shops and other life-saving activities. We are, an economist could say, the necessary response to a massive demand for our services. And we are NOT tasteless: from the life-saving cross-sectoral activities we organize in dignified establishments world-wide, to the plug-in 3d paintings on the walls of our headquarters in Moroni (my favourite one shows a placid lake with a waterfall – when you switch it on the water twinkles and the waterfall starts flowing), everywhere we work we are renowned for our tastefulness. Our offices in Cambodia, for instance, decorated by strict rules imposed by the Hok Lundy School of Interior Design are all the rage in local cock-fighting circles; and our Southern Africa regional headquarters, set amongst the hills in Somerset West, at a safe distance from the offending landscape of Khayelitsha, offer a dignified view of the bay and delight the eye with lines well set in Dutch and French architectural heritage. Our cutting-edge offices in Panama located in Clayton, next door to the new and greener-than-though US embassy are the envy of the NGO and IGO world, and not only because the proximity to the embassy allows our staff to minimize the time needed to go to a meeting to only 3 hours, as little as it takes to get through the routine security checks with our privileged, fast-track status.

And don’t even get me started on our vehicles.

Speaking of tastefulness, I spent the weekend in Mozambique and was quite disappointed to see that the Polana is still under renovations. Mozambique is a country where HRI is implementing crucial programs and I have traditionally favoured Polana as a home away from home while in town as well as a place to engage in life-saving workshops and conferences. Not unlike the Sheraton in Addis but with a superiour view, the Polana has deservedly earned its place in HRIs world as a dependable private sector partner where meetings about the regular floodings in the north can be facilitated with overpriced conference packages in a comforting surrounding, complete with servants in tasteful colonial-era uniform (another interesting feature shared with the Addis Sheraton or, since we mentioned Cambodia, the Le Royal, a dependable HRI partner in Phnom Penh additionally loaded with good memories as that was the place where HRI staff were accommodated during the UNTAC days, a period that has provided us in the “development community” the opportunity to learn many a lesson about how to do things in peace-keeping, how to calculate hazard pay and how to support small enterprises post-conflict, one cold thai beer at a time).

Anyways, since the Polana remains in an unfortunate state of renovation, I had to settle with a sub-standard establishment up the street, with an inferior view of the river and an appalling patisserie choice. But then hardship is part of the job and I am happy to report that my trip was very successful – making use of HRIs old boys network in the country I managed to put together an unbeatable consortium of affiliates ideally positioned to win both a massive upcoming HIV/ AIDS RFA and significant CERF funding to build overpriced pre-packaged houses in the flood affected areas (based on our world-class experience with similar activities in Aceh). Ed, the reasonable paid consultant is telling me he is slowly getting sick and tired of Haiti so will shortly fly him into Maputo to get the whole thing started.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Award Season, Avatar and HRI on Twitter

It’s been a while but I’m back online ready to continue reporting from the frontlines of HRI state of the art development. It’s RFA season of course, which for those in the know is a time when loads of efforts are invested in creating the appearances of competition while making deals on the side and getting the money where it belongs – in HRIs and our affiliates’ account. Basically RFA is USAID procurement short-hand for a process in which political interests are combined with “priorities” that are irrelevant in a given country but sound pretty good in Washington DC and then a meeting with partners is called to give the whole thing an appearance of participation and ownership (to be fair we also love participation & ownership at HRI). Eventually, the official request for applications is issued and HRI or one of our affiliates will prove to be the best placed to bag the money. Spending it is pretty easy as we usually just hand it out to all the other organizations ("sub-recipients”) who have unsuccessfully applied for it with USAID, to do the same thing that they are doing anyway, plus of course we keep a certain amount for overhead, admin costs and so on.

It’s also global fund season of course and the situation here is a bit different. As Principal Recipients in quite a few countries, HRI and our affiliates find it pretty hard in principle to spend all the global fund money (round this, round the other, confusing stuff). What we do however, is we blame the slow spending on the country team & coordination and continue to apply for every new round prioritizing capacity building of course and “creating an enabling environment”. 

You may remember last time I checked in I was in cape town doing important work around ownership and stuff. Well I had an epiphany in the flight back where I was taking refuge from the “it-used-to-be-better-back-in-the-day” chit-chat with my fellow passenger in first class by checking out the on-flight entertainment system, the only viable alternative in my experience to not having to have that conversation while flying in or out of South Africa. Anyways, this is how I got to watch Avatar, that movie that was all the rage a few months ago and that’s when I had the epiphany. The irony of a loud anti-colonial movie in which some American dude becomes the savior of noble savages somewhere on another planet has not gotten lost on me, but the most beautiful thing is how often the movie hit home for me in its similarities with HRI. The plot will sound familiar to any technical advisor with the right arrogance to ignorance ratio who, although doesn't know anything about the country or the people where he gets posted and has only a marginal knowledge of what he is supposed to be doing, becomes active in all sorts of meetings in which his proud local counter-parts translate for him. In his reports all stakeholders seem to be on the same page, working together towards a grand goal while the “big tree” is burning. You may  think otherwise but to my knowledge HRI has not been consulted on the script.

Oh, and one more thing – HRI is on twitter as well. I thought since we’re cutting edge and all why not go 2.0 like everyone else? Still figuring the whole follow this follow that part but do expect regular twat twitter wisdom from yours truly.