Thursday, July 28, 2011

Interngate and the efficiency of Class Warfare

Don't know about you, but I quite enjoyed the intensity of the most recent episode of interngate, fought like all good battles by the forces of good an evil, neatly grouped in easily identifiable formations.

It made me realize that in the tactical arsenal of the discerning theoretician there has rarely been an option more powerful than the Class Warfare. As asymmetric than asymmetric warfare itself but much more reliable, class warfare has a history that is surprisingly similar with the history of this business of hours, in the sense that it has always involved a lot of obfuscation and "coordination" but rarely has it helped the "beneficiaries" on behalf of whom the war is always waged.

Have a good look around - it will be hard to find a place where class warfare is not fought this very moment, be it by a politician temporary adopting the accent of a mortal while campaigning in some shithole full of potential voters or by some visionary leader sacrificing his health to lead his dim-witted people out of the darkness, from the back seat of a Merc S600 doing 100miles an hour past the galaxy's second filthiest slum.

And I'm not making this shit up. I know it because I am often following the Class Warrior's S600's in my HRI branded Land Cruiser and I spend much of my time patting their backs or the lesser backs of their numerous minions.

And why the trouble? Well, I do it for the poor and the vulnerable, me. I am a class warrior.

The truth is I do feel guilt for my privileged upbringing, my liberal art education and my six post-graduate degrees which I earned at six different "respectable" education establishments. And it is indeed this class guilt that has been the foundation of my brilliant career and of my willingness to trade a mediocre job in the private sector complete with small suburban house somewhere in Ohio for a series of dignified residences and the opportunity to slap backs with dignitaries, the world over, on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

It's hard, but someone's gotta do it.

And I can't be alone in my suffering, because as far as I can tell most HRI employees have a similar background, with the visible exception of the occasional token colleague, usually holding only three degrees themselves rather than six, a convenient detail that will also ensure that we are intellectually aligned and that we have "continuity of ideas".

Of course I never held a real job until I was 36, after which my expectations were quite high, what with my six degrees, so I finally accepted a management position with a HRI affiliate quickly impressed by my pile of degrees, and I learned fast that competence, or the absence thereof, must never be regarded as a limiter in one's own professional growth.

I also learned to make good use of the intern, a skill that continues to served me well in an industry that loves as much free labour as it can get. Of course, some HRI interns get higher stipends than the salaries of their senior "local" colleagues, which is a class warfare in a class of its own, often fought drunkenly over $10 beer at the local night-club, the parking-lot of which comes alive at night with hundreds of drivers waiting in hundreds of vehicles for hundreds of interns to return them safely to their respective accommodation.

The truth is, it's all very complicated. But who am I to miss an opportunity to simplify a complicated reality in order to prove my class warrior credentials on the internet? So, in less than 140 characters, here is my position on interngate:
Now, if you are still concerned with interngate and wonder what you can do, here is a solution: You should start up a charity that fund-raises and puts together pay packages for less privileged people who want to do internships with HRI but can't afford to do unpaid work. Just remember, please, we only accept people with at least two degrees from "respectable" institutions.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On the Significance of Facial Hair

In our donor-fueled pursuit of grand ideas and grander gestures, it is often too easy to lose sight of the smaller details which, as so often in life, turn out to be more significant than with hidsight.

Take facial hair for example.

More than an individual choice based on personal hygiene and esthetics standards, facial hair is to the keen eye also a pretty reliable sign of character and competence that must not be ignored if one pursues the highest echelons in this business.

Here is some advice:

The humble mustache is a pretty good tell-tale sign of a certain touch for leadership:

You've got the timeless "Hitler"
Or the more tasteful "groomed sheriff"

Then there is "The Cleric", known to give the wearer an air of trustworthyness and maturity

You've got of course the "Wilford Brimley", an excellent compliment to a comb-over
"Did you say something about my mustache?"
And of course, the "Charmeur" a.k.a. the"Paint-job"
Perhaps you never thought about it, but it is a matter of fact that it is rare to see a dictator this days without a mustache and only a fool will ignore the causality in this correlation. Of course, in certain schools of leadership, partiality to 60’s porno shades trumps a mustache any day:
Shades > Mustache
In our business, of course, mustaches are the thing of donor agencies ("The Bart Reynolds” is the second-favourite mustache style there, after the “Ned Flanders”). However, mustaches are also favored by various accountant species and certain “Asia” old-hands who sport them in combination with side-parted hair and self-darkening eyeglasses, a particularly potent combination that helps with the charm factor in seedy karaoke parlors around Manila.

The three-day stubble of course will forever remain the domain of logisticians and certain HQ people who want to flaunt their field cred and/ or “operational” past. It is often sported in combination with "The Skubble”, a combination of bald patch and stubble (you know the one, right?).

The goatee is a more complicated matter. Volunteers favour them (in combination with various hats specially-made for the tropics), but so do M&E types and consultants. It is fair assumption to make that there is a reverse proportionality between the presence of a goatee and decision-making authority, and Mr. Meles Zenawi of course is the exception that confirms this rule (and there are experts who dispute the goatee characteristics of Zenawi's facial hair and prefer to put this to this style in a separate category, known as "The D'artagnan":

The D'artagnan: Is it a goatee or a mustache? Hard to say.
The side-burn, or the mutton-chop is pretty much a non-French-working-for-French-medical-NGO exclusive, very rarely also seen among veterinarians working for small Italian NGOs. A niche.

Finally, "The Sage" is an interesting one as well – it has only been seen among junior aid enthusiasts around their third year internship and, or course, economists:
"The Sage". Or is it a goatee? Hard to say
Finally, from the fine people at, here is a more complete and not industry-specific taxonomy of beards, arranged by trustworthiness:


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mistakes? I haven't made a few!

Reader, I need to go on record once and for all with a clarifying statement:

Unlikely as this may sound, no-one in HRI has ever made a single mistake


Sure there was that fateful excel incident but that was the cock-up of an intern and mistakes made by interns don't count. 


This is not to say that shit doesn't happen. Shit actually happens all the time, but look closer and you will find it is always a problem of:
  • coordination; or
  • clan complexity; or
  • "absorptive capacity"; or
  • government incompetence; or
  • lack of local capacity; or
  • lack of commitment expressed in unwillingness of some stakeholders to attend the right meetings; or
  • lack of resources (of course);
Indeed, never has there been any known instance where shit happened because HRI made a mistake. 

Can't happen. 

I dare you, reader to point out to me a single mistake we ever made. Millions of children, women, refugees, poor and vulnerable people will disagree with you. People who know better because their very survival depends on our perfect execution of life-saving workshops. They have a voice too, as one of them sometimes represents them all in the occasional high-profile workshop. The rest are just content to inhabit a world of children happy to receive a "NFI" here, a better education facilitated by an education advisor there. A world of individuals displaced by unspeakable catastrophes who take solaces in an embrace of a rock star. In Emma's understanding smile. In the opportunity to be photographed by a world class artist. A few square meters of tarpaulin. 
The stuff of dreams, delivered daily by the fearless individuals who populate life-saving meetings and never rest or take a break. 
Or make mistakes. 

A world accurately reflected in so many high quality newsletters that our interns tirelessly put together with your money. 

Go out an read them if you don't believe me.
And, hey, do me a favour: spread the word, will you? We need all the back-slapping we can get.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bad News, Good News

When flying in a Cessna I always insist to sit next to the pilot: aside from making a point of being in the front even where there is no business class, I take pleasure in bantering over the two-way about syncing the torques and tales of Cessnas flying on moonshine and Antonov 24s belly-landing in deserts and mythical Russian pilots walking away from wrecks in their wife-beaters.

That is the least I can do to mitigate the indignity of awkwardly getting my red-faced chino-and-pink-shirt-clad body in and out over the wing of the aircraft.

As we approach, the landscape looks familiar: arid lands scattered with "informal settlements" built out of corrugated iron, cardboard and HRI-branded tarpaulin, surrounded by fences made out of thorn bush and rusty rear axle links cannibalized off who knows what unfortunate trucks. Children forever frolicking nearby along goats and donkeys (a scene also known in the business as a "photo opportunity"). As we approach the camp, we beheld more solid structures and the signs of a lucrative business: people selling building materials, a bizarre and counter-intuitive reality of every respectable refugee camp.

This one here is not just any camp of course, we are about to land nearby Dadaab, the mother of all camps and beloved destination of Hollywood stars and every HRI official worth their salt.

Rule of the thumb is when the construction-materials business is picking up, the seasoned HRI employee knows that fresh refugees are coming in and is moving towards unlocking the necessary sources of "emergency funding" to ensure the HRI presence in the camp grows accordingly. HRI "people on the ground" have done an awesome job out of hijacking every meeting around, cluster or no cluster, and ensuring that HRI is well present in every committee and action group, the better to "leverage" whatever funds are bound to be unlocked by the most recent, highly unfortunate, drought across the border in Somalia, a country few of us actually have visited, but many of us know very well from coordination meetings in Nairobi, field trips right here, in Dadaab and the regular security trainings organized nearby Nairobi to make sure everyone is prepared to talk tough over moccachinos at Doorman's or Java House.

Indeed, bad news are piling up this summer and that is good for business.

Just yesterday I landed in Nairobi all the way from Juba where I was celebrating along other international HRI staff the official independence of Africa's most recent country. Take it from me: these moments must be savored and one must enjoy both the enthusiasm of the masses and the business opportunities while they last.

Sure, the business opportunities always lasts longer than the enthusiasm (shit, sometimes when enthusiasm leads to disappointment which leads to "social unrest", the business gets even better, along with the "hardship pay"), but good news, bad news, we enjoy them all while they last.

Besides there will come a point when someone will ask: "Where were you when so and so happened". Being able to say "I was there" is crucial to both your field cred and the ability to pass as a better "key personnel" in various applications for funding.

That is all good for business.

Of course, like you, I am looking forward to more opportunities to absorb the enthusiasm that comes with a new country, speculate on the new Government's inexperience and monetize on donors' optimism in such situations. In many ways, you will agree, a newly independent country is a perfect storm for HRI.

As of Dadaab and the drought in Somalia? Well, the global tarpaulin experts are here to help! Ka-Ching!