Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dr. K's Annals of Unsolicited Advice: How to Handle the Hunger in the Horn

This is probably obvious to those familiar with the business: the nature of our life-saving work in Somalia has subtly changed since last time we spoke about it, on account of several fortunate complex events, the most significant of which being a massive famine in “The Horn” and, of course, the fact that it is easier these days to pop by Mogadishu for a photo opportunity than has ever been since the fateful events of '93. (just a few weeks ago a simple stopover at K50 would be a badge of honor for the field-conscious HRI employee).

Among those in the know, another fact has not remained unnoticed: there is more money flowing in than used to and that, reader, is excellent news.

The shit continues to be real in Nairobi, the dignified hub of any meaningful Somalia project, with necessary field trips to Dadaab, where HRI has quickly  set up cutting-edge infrastructure to ferry high-flyers through, complete with up-to-the minute roster of the photogenic fresh arrivals that can be summoned in an instant with their families for that perfect picture, should the visitor require one for the cover of their all-important trip report or their obligatory article in newspaper of choice back home.

A few months ago it was all about “clan complexity”  and supporting the right “government” with capacity building and in general organizing logistically complicated but symbolically vital series of life-saving meetings, many of which requiring state-of-the art teleconferencing facilities to accommodate participation on the New York-Geneva-Nairobi-Shithole axis. These days the increased level of emergency and the “comprehensive” nature of the required “response” made it necessary for HRI to “scale up” the extent and nature of the staple life-saving meeting portfolio that defines our “proven approach”: In addition to bi-weekly inter-agency meetings in all relevant locations, we have daily standing briefings in Nairobi, bi-weekly “country team meetings”, task-forces, cluster meetings, NGO coordination groups, technical meetings, action groups and of course emergency coordination initiatives and ad-hoc meetings called to coordinate this or the other situation, incident or VIP visit, all of which require all hands on deck and then some, not to mention a newly energized army of interns, volunteers, consultants and support staff tasked with the all-important job of compiling minutes and reports and having them approved by participants and other “stakeholders”.

Of course we have increased “boots on the ground” by a factor of 100 to the pre-emergency levels and we have rapidly deployed an efficient newsletter creation and dissemination task force, complete with a “new media” wing - efficient in distributing links to pdf versions of the respective newsletters to millions of defenseless twitter and facebook users – and a special calendar creation team, tasked with the development in real-time of calendars containing the best photographs of big-eyed starving children, the staple of any “complex” emergency.

Like best things in life, a good emergency always boils down to money. Raising it (a matter of principle) and spending it fast.


Emergencies are never about subtleties and if you are new to one, here's an advice: spend the shit out of those budgets and ignore your natural tendencies to cringe. Visibility is everything: get your flag in every picture and make sure your logo is on TV, ideally behind the Kevlar-suited anchor.

This, reader, is the time when it's all about triggering emotions in punters – HRI's form of “brand awareness”: no-one on the street cares or understands what can be done “out there”, but everyone wants to “give well” and that's perfectly fine because of a simple fact, proven again and again by HRI:

If you throw money at a catastrophe, it will go away.

And as a bonus, you get to sleep better at night, bless your generous soul.

And soon enough, with all the additional “experience” we are currently acquiring, we will be best placed to handle the next catastrophe, perhaps in Libya?

And in case you wonder how will we approach that I am here to tell you that we are well prepared: don't you worry about the details – we'll just throw some money at it, and this one, too, will go away.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Letter to our Donors

Dearest Donor,

For a long time now, I have wanted to write you a letter, as yet another opportunity to flatter you and reassure you that you are doing a tremendous job of alleviating the poverty of the miserable lot we are are mandated to help, one prudent coordination initiative at a time, and to thank you one more time for a strong, mutually beneficial partnership.

I said it before: we have also always been delighted about the high complexity of your award procedures. Our reasonably paid consultants do a way better job than those small-timers who try to compete partner with us of putting together  a decent application and our roster of "Key Staff" has always been better populated by the sort of degree-flaunting over-achievers that have implemented the shit out of so many other paradigm-shifting projects you have so generously funded in the past, both here and elsewhere.

I should also mention how thankful we have always been to be able to exploit your high interest in stories in the local media reflecting your generosity and support; an interest far superior to your interest in developing an independent media in respective country, if you know what I mean. Sure, as your partner we have always been keen to create an enabling environment for an independent media, where "creating an enabling environment" is an euphemism for inviting the media to residential "trainings" at the Dusit Thani about the universal and inalienable right of any journalist to write positive stories about the programs you are supporting and the partnership between relevant governments.

May I also take the opportunity to commend your commitment to transparency. We love the fact that you choose sometimes to publicize your partners budget on the internet, as that allows us to compete against them with a symbolically lower overhead rate, as a way to ensure we always remain competitive. The fact that your performance indicators are both mind-boggling complicated to define and impossible to measure in any reliable fashion conveniently ensures that evaluating performance remains in the realm of politics where it belongs, a world we naturally navigate much better than any of our competitors partners.

We also need to mention here your brilliant approach to staffing your own presence on the ground. We have always been excited to work with a large team of inexperienced micro-managing bureaucrats, fond of back-stabbing each other while faking cooperation and incapable to take any decision that would threaten our own unwillingness to move away from life-saving meetings as expressions of smart aid. We love to exploit their inability to interpret data, the reassuring comfort they take in a well crafted progress report and their general fondness for the right kind of visibility not to mention their commitment to coordination meetings.

Speaking of progress reports. We love your reports time-lines, always. And the fact that there are the same with all other affiliates, which ensures your overworked staff love a well-edited copy-paste affair, with flash photos featuring the right characters and heart-lifting success stories.

We love also your predictability. The detailed negotiations years before implementation. The difficult procedures involved in revising budgets and strategies. There is nothing HRI loves more than spending millions on irrelevant activities and promoting dated development theories around the world.

In short, you are the best, Donor. Please don't change anytime soon.

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Alden M. Kurtz