Saturday, November 27, 2010

Best Practices in Procurement for Hardship Postings

Don't know about you but I have chosen to spend this year's Day of the Turkey in Nairobi, sipping overpriced French wine at my temporary residence in Gigiri and passing time exchanging harmless anecdotes with other expats confirming local stereotypes about the people of Kenya, whom we know so well as we often change planes here and sometimes enjoy  lattes in the basement of Sarit center.

That, plus the combination of good weather and “affordable help”, which has kept Nairobi at the top of HRIs strategic locations for years.

In spite of what you may have speculated, my long silence of late has nothing to do with the fact that I was completely absorbed by cooking the books to demonstrate ever increased cost efficiency and accountability (that, frankly, is business as usual).

Nope, my silence has to do with the fact that HRIs V-sat connection in Moroni has failed and we had to procure a new one. Our back-up V-sat and the Thuraya data plan were both still functional, but, besides updating our Facebook profiles, we could not be seen making do with just that, as it would have compromised the urgency of the procurement process.

To procure the new V-sat, we first flew in Ian the consultant, a world-class IT expert based in Cape Town and a regional member of HRIs global network of experts maintaining our infrastructure. After three weeks in-depth assessment, his 63 pages report, reviewed and endorsed by HRIs IT department, put forward a surprising finding: the V-Sat is broken, we need a new one and while we are at it we should also “upgrade” our servers and firewall.

Given the urgency we immediately activated our global procurement department based in the New York admin center, a team of experts that have helped many a HRI office and affiliate to procure similar equipment in the past. Being 100% committed to procedure, they went ahead and collected quotes, a process that only took three weeks or so, at the end of which they could share three comprehensive quotes that were closest to the required specifications. 

Since neither I nor Nathan the Intern know anything about technology, we added a few extra days of pay to Ian in Cape-Town, who promptly suggested that the best company is actually not on the list, but a company he knows and trust in Cape-Town. He made some solid arguments so we went head with his recommendation and hired this company in Cape-Town, which may have been ever so slightly more expensive than the ones on the list, but Ian assured us they are small and nimble, which is always worth paying for on a market dominated by slow, monstrous, inefficient mega-companies.

Another argument in their favour was the fact that they actually import the equipment from a company based in Dubai (this one happened to be on the list of quotes), and ensure a “thorough quality check” before delivery – an important detail given my and Nathan’s technical hopelessness. Additional costs also include the transport and custom clearance for the equipment to Cape-Town, pre-assembly and transport to Moroni.

Of course there were additional “hidden” costs, but it’s all money well spent as these are the realities of procurement in Hardship Postings. And to be fair to them, the fact that they eventually shipped the V-sat with a wrongly sized dish was not their fault. As it could happen to anyone, Ian  forgot to compensate with dish size for difference in latitude when he “adapted” the assessment he has done for HRI in Sudan back in 2008. (“Adapted “ is an euphemism for “Ctrl+R” in MS Word (or “Find and Replace all ‘Sudan’ with ‘Comoros’).

At a reasonable additional cost, plus travel for “technicians”, the new dish arrived last week and,  as you see, we are back online. This sort of rapid reaction combined with cutting edge technology has kept us on the top for all these years.

And, in case you wonder how come, from the relative comforts of Gigiri, Nairobi, I am affected by these technical challenges in Moroni, well the answer is actually two answers:
  1. HRI takes security very seriously – we only connect through a VPN that runs behind the firewall in Moroni; and
  2. Don’t you just hate typing on your I-pad; 

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to land a HRI job and survive savage attacks on the industry

Despite spending more than half of my life in "geographically intriguing and historically fascinating" locations (euphemism for "shitholes"), I have retained a strong desire for recognition and acceptance in more conventional, home-based circles and for these reasons I maintain subscriptions to several high-brow publications that reach me regularly through complicated and expensive systems involving document delivery companies and forwarding rules at HRI's various "administrative centers"
Sure, these days I could easily have these publications delivered on my standard issue I-pad, but that would deprive me for one of the most important uses of high brow magazines: conspicious reading in planes, generating thoughts of "cultured, thoughtful individual, in spite of rough life in hardship postings" in nearby passengers. With an I-pad I would just be another aging hipster on a plane.

It is all about the image in this business.

Think about it: sooner or later in most jobs, there comes a point where the results of your work are more or less visible, for everyone to see. Not in this business, though, and not at HRI, where success is defined in "burn rates", "leadership of past complex projects involving cross-sectoral cooperation" and "commitment to capacity building" often defined by the statement that someone's "local assistant" was "exposed to learning opportunities". Short of an unlikely scandal, feud or fall-out with the wrong guy there are few tell-tale signs to give away the good candidate from the bad one.

But then it doesn't really matter, as the new job will be all about "strong leadership of dynamic team" and "delivering against indicators", which is another way of saying print t-shirts and organize workshops with people paid to attend and not likely inclined to rock any boats.

Which leaves an important question open: as an employer, how does HRI decide who gets what job, when going through thousands and thousands of applications?

First of course, there is the degree. You gotta have the right degree, otherwise any HRI employer will understandably feel nervous about allowing a young and unexperienced "westerner" to lead a team of "locals" many of which have 10-15 years hard-core experience (known in HRI interview jargon as a "diverse team"). This degree must also be from a "reputable institution", which not only ensures a comfortable intellectual inbreeding so necessary to a business that has been implementing the same strategies for decades with no significant results (except vast collections of "lessons learned" and many, many 300-words success stories), but it also keeps present and future decision-making among the ones for whom such degree at reputable institutions is within reach for solid reasons mostly involving the accident of birth. This fact has naturally generated further growth in expensive degrees offered by some of the worlds leading institutions, in "poverty alleviation" and "aid and development" and if you will take one single advice from me, here it is: fucking get one, whatever it costs.

Then there is the experience. You can't run a "complex project" without "significant experience" can you? Which creates an excellent opportunity for well-educated young people with some resources to their name and some time to spare, to bob about for a year or two, in "Africa", gaining the necessary experience to land them the dream HRI job in the future.[**] During this time they learn all the good habits from their supervisors, ensuring what we like to call "continuity of ideas".

These two criteria alone will ensure a vigorous initial selection and the reduction of applications from thousands to merely tenth, most of them solid-looking candidates of familiar socio-economic backgrounds. But then what? Now comes the point where the instincts of the interviewer and their extensive network of contacts kick in to ensure the ultimate success of the recruitment:

"You were in sudan, were you? have you met my friend Pat from OCHA?" or
"You're into livelihoods, what do you think of Margaret from FAO HQ?

Their responses to these hard questions should pretty much clarify what they're made of and how effective they were in their previous jobs in meeting the right people - another undisputed sign of success.

What you do next is you ask them about how they will "lead and inspire" their team. The successful candidate will speak with humility about how important it is to "listen and learn" - a theoretical concept learned during their "povery allleviation" degree - after which they will hopefully drop an anecdote or two about how they learned a few words in Lingala during their previous posting, an objective, telling achievement.

Finally, it really helps if their references are from people i know personally, so i can call them up and be like "really between you and me how is this guy" - the ultimate test.

And so, reader, have we built the cutting-edge organization that we are today, on the shoulders and commitment of our excellent employees that have taken us all the way to the top of the industry.

Which brings me back to the high-brow  literature i mentioned. Just recently in a plane, i happened to sit next to the representative of an HRI competitor partner in the Emirates business class headed for Nairobi. She started talking about some article, which i haven't personally read but according to her was a savage and entirely unjustified attack on our whole industry. I couldn't but agree of course and we continued our conversation over vodka tonics at the Northfolk (which will surely lead to closer partnership among our organizations).

In this business you must develop a hard skin and live with the fact that that's what you get for sacrificing yourself for the wellbeing of the poor and the vulnerable. Rabid critiques from high-brow magazines (how would they cope with all the hardship?) is just one small extra adversity we have to put up with in this hard but spiritually rewarding job.

[**] the ultimate trump in "past experience" if of course experience with that or the other donor, a detail that may just help propel you all the way to the final step of the recruitment process).