Friday, October 29, 2010

Patricia and The Horse

Somewhere not far from Bredjing, "Africa", a fleet of white HRI-branded landcruiser and escort vehicles slowly negotiate the preciously little space between the dusty huts that collectively form “the village”, coming at a halt in a spot of shadow next to a trip of goats munching on green plastic bags.

The occasion is a strategic meeting between HRI’s Livelihoods Team and Abdulshafi “the Horse” El Noor, a reformed rebel leader and local dignitary whose “community” needs to be included in a “livelihood mapping exercise” completed by HRI, on behalf of “the country team”.

The HRI delegation is led by Patricia, nutritionist, yoga enthusiast and HRI Regional Livelihoods Program Manager who, as always when “in the field” is wearing her shalwar kameez kit acquired from an “ethnic” shop in Columbius, Ohio, offset with a cotton head-scarf bought en route in Nairobi Airport. She’s carrying her trusty Nalgene flask and a recently acquired SLR camera and has managed to re-composed herself after an unpleasant argument in the car over the intensity of the air-conditioning.

She doesn’t know it yet but this meeting will define her from now on. It will influence her career and be forever re-lived in her memory in increasingly romanticized terms. For years to come, in conversations there will be a point when she will say something along the lines of “when I was dealing with the warlords in Africa…” either impressing people or making them cringe, depending who you ask.

It wasn’t hard to get The Horse to agree to have this meeting. Khaled, HRIs fixer Liaison Officer, arranged it by means of “technical expenses”, further sweetend with promises of “capacity building” involving Khaled’s men.

What Patricia doesn’t know is that Khaled is one of the Horse’s men. As a matter of fact, all HRI employees in Bredjing are, but that’s another matter.

The meeting takes place in the “community center” – a rundown structure built by Blurred Vision (HRI affiliate) that is used daily to shelter goats from the mid-day sun. The horse has a spacious house of course, fully air-conditioned (with electivity produced by a generator “capacitated” by HRI as part of another project), but Khaled advised him it would be better to “keep it real” for Patricia. A few kids playing in the dust with a few donkeys nearby completed the perfect picture.

And it was the perfect meeting as well as that most unlikely intersection of two very different worlds. To Patricia “the Horse” was the stereotype of the "african warlord" and to The Horse Patricia was the stereotype of the "clueless westerner", lost in an unfamiliar reality, too young and inexperienced to matter. The discussion never went past niceties plus one awkward joke each, both lost in translation (although Patricia thought the horse was ever so slightly hitting on her).

At the end it was an “amazing experience” and a photo opportunity. But it was also a significant HRI success (the "mapping" will be completed, reports will be written, backs will be patted, further funds will be raised) and ultimately a confirmation that the good order of things around Bredjing, Africa will be preserved: The Horse and his people will continue to pretend they are "cooperating", and HRI will continue to pretend money doesn't change hands.

And, just in case you are wondering, that stock constantly disappearing from the warehouse is nothing but normal “shrinkage”, really.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Protecting Children - All the Way to Easy Streets

Saving lives here, there, everywhere is what HRI does, but we really shine when it comes to protecting children and women. I mean, who would disagree that children need more protection and care than everybody else, even more so in emergencies. Not the donors, that’s for sure, and therefore not us.

First thing you want to do when you are in the business of protecting children is find a nice location and make sure you get it properly re-enforced – we’re talking high, blastproof walls, boom-gates, shatterproof film, the works. Once you enter the main gate, you are in the parking lot, secured with extra ram-proof structures and tire-cutters and packed with ballistic-blanketed, well branded vehicles (“HRI – our children are our future”). Then you walk through the second gate, past the admin office, the radio room, support service, through third gate into the programs compound, where, in a windowless office-container surrounded by green patches of flowers, sits the “Manager of the Protection Unit”, a highly qualified HRI old-hander, distinguished among other desirable qualities by an astounding ability to speak and write volumes without giving away any hint of practicality, all while appearing earnest and very articulate. Much of his speech is a random combination of “Effective protection”, “societal structures”, “social support systems”, along with “increased capacity” and “safety and wellbeing”, put together by an advanced algorithm hardwired in the head of any successful child protection expert.

The distance between this section of the compound and the main gate is not accidental, as the protection program team do very important creative, intellectual work the quality of which depends on a quiet, professional environment, impossible to achieve anywhere near the main entrance, where hundreds of women and children are crowding up by the gate day in day out, out of some bizarre instinct that remains unshaken in spite of the regular yelling sessions with the security officers who try to "create a secure corridor" for this or the other vehicle driving important people in or out of the compound, to and from life-saving meetings.

This quiet environment does get occasionally perturbed by some drivers’ insufferable habit to reverse through the alternative gate in the back, aiming for the water-pipe, where they proceed to washing the vehicles. The combined sound of the hose, idling engines and the driver’s banter has been known to break the manager’s calm and his habit of coming at the container door yelling when that happens earned him the nickname “The Wife” among the drivers. Two things drive him particularly mad:
  1. The fact that, during draught, they waste water that is otherwise intended for the precarious green sections between the containers (it’s the small things); and
  2. The fact that they allow unauthorized children into the compound, compromising important security protocols (some drivers “delegate” the washing to children);
The next thing to do once you have the compound set up is find a hipster photographer and fly them in regularly to take the sort of pictures that increase the quality of any report, website or calendar. Good pictures are matters of the soul, and the idea here is to offer the photographer an opportunity for “an amazing experience”, which means that trips will be taken to “the field”, as represented mostly by the “informal” squatting camps that spring in the vicinity of any HRI child protection compound, where women and children rest and cook when they are not being yelled at for queuing in front of the main gate.

Finally, and crucially, find some local partners. This serves at least three important purposes:

  1. You ensure you can channel efforts into “building local capacity”, the cornerstone of any successful child protection enterprise;
  2. You increase your chances for continuous future funding, by using the absorptive capacity strategy (in combination with those pictures); and
  3. You have someone to blame in the unlikely event that somebody will ever question what children were protected and how.

The rest is pretty straight forward – engage in “Technical Advice” and workshops on anything from school curricula to PTSD and before you know it you have a solid child protection portfolio that will keep this part of HRI on easy streets in years to come.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dennis The Malaria Expert

On the fourth floor of a building somewhere on the north upper teens in Washington DC, a man in a striped suit is lost in his thoughts, confortable in his orange ergonomic chair. His desk is cluttered with highlighted email print-outs, brochures, newsletters and info-sheets from all over the world and a sizeable number of rubber balls, plasticine and overpriced toys, distributed at one of the recent management courses he attended, along with advice on using them to boost creativity.

His office walls are covered with malaria campaign posters and his shelves are stacked with campaign mugs, key-chains, bumper stickers, lanyards and other time-proven anti-malaria weapons, perfected by this business over decades of successful life-saving work.

His name is Dennis and he is the man in charge of HRIs “Administrative Center” in Washington, DC, an important outpost in the HRI universe and a center of excellence for “global technical assistance and advocacy”. Dennis landed this HRI job after a successful career working as an “advisor” for USAID, a time in which he developed significant knowledge of internal dynamics in USAID, as well as a global informal network of contacts in the US government, all crucially relevant to anyone who wants to make it above a certain level in this business.

It’s called “expertise” and it is at the heart of HRIs meritocratic DNA.

Dennis just got off the phone “with Geneva”, as represented this time by a fellow member and co-chair of the Global Malaria Task Force (GMTF), a forum of experts from the US and several Northern European countries, very active force in the development of cutting edge malaria strategies and of course, very influential in donor circles. The GMTF has been pioneered by HRI and a few like-minded affiliates and donors and it has grown into a force to be reckoned with, addressing crucial issues that range from “lack of leadership” and “absorptive capacity”, to global procurement of treated nets, distribution of ACTs and of course identification and assessment of implementation partners “in the field”.

The call “with Geneva” was disappointing, as two main fractions in the GMTF seem to fail finding an agreement on a crucial point in the current work plan: should the upcoming task force meeting be held in Maputo or Mombasa? There are of course solid arguments for both ("The Maputo Consensus" sounds just as good as "the Mombasa Consensus") and a compromise needs to be found. With the recent re-opening of the Polana, Dennis feels that the arguments are slightly stronger for Maputo, but he is loath to be perceived as pushing on this sensitive issue too hard, as that will diminish his ability to weigh in on other, admittedly more trivial, matters during the meeting itself. Years of experience have taught him that sometimes the sum of many small victories can balance one big loss and he is therefore ready to compromise if it is suggested that they meet in Mombasa.

Indeed, fighting malaria at this level is all about psychology. And of course, the ability to navigate the politics of all the partners involved and leverage strong informal networks to mitigate worthy goals: bashing HRI competitors  pointing out HRI’s comparative advantages and ensuring “strategic partnerships” with donors.

Dennis is able to communicate in French as well (after a stint with the USAID mission in Gabon back in the late 90s, where he also met his wife at a peace corps volunteer function), but his language of choice is obviously “Metaphor”, the lingo for any expert with a full plate and a tough job:

Thanks Dennis, for keeping our backs out there and doing your part in the global fight against Malaria.