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
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.
I love my job.