Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words…

I was walking to work, and the sky was spectacular. Even that is too weak a word. Across a pale azure ceiling, someone had thickly spread a swathe of glowing lava, with a palette knife half the width of the sky. It was sharp edged, entirely artificial and gloriously natural.

Blessed are the early risers. We have already inherited the earth.

I think the air is alive.

I work in an office with 10 women. Two are currently pregnant, one gave birth 6 weeks ago (and has now been back at work for a fortnight) and I suspect one more is starting to show. Two are grandmothers and may be largely past childbearing age, although I wouldn’t be laying any money down.

Four are unaccountably not pregnant.

At least visibly.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When success is failure, and failure success.

We were talking the other day about the quandary that faces most serious developers of capacity in any culture which has had long term aid programs. Decades of well meaning (I shan’t enter that debate) intervention often leads, not to a nation developing a robust system of responsibility, accountability and bedrock bureaucratic competence, but instead a disempowering of national staff in the face of international expertise.

Very often, the better the technician, the worse the capacity builder.

Of course, there are real traps here, because perverse incentives get built in. For national staff, while there is an advisor to take work off your hands if it is not up to standard, it is easier and safer not to do it well and push both the effort and the risk of failure onto the advisor. With a never-ending stream of advisors and a philosophy that seems common amongst agencies to ‘churn’ advisors, no one is there long enough to catch on. Or they are incapable of allowing failure. Or maybe they even play along too.

So what happens when the rules change? The advisor, hired nominally to build capacity, actually attempts to do so. She folds her arms and says “Not good enough, do it again. Or don’t. I am not going to do it for you, so I advise you to do better, for your own sake.” If she is alert enough, she won’t be fooled by a quite alarming number of strategies coming forward to shake her position, including stealthy resubmission of basically unchanged work, attempts to have other advisors take over the work, appeals to deadlines, appeals to urgency, appeals to friendship etc.

That is when failure can happen. If she has judged matters well, the failure will be painful but not fatal, and the errors will not relate to mission-critical work. She will not be popular, and the blamestorming will be intense. The failure may work well enough to shake up some entrenched dependent behaviours. Of course it needs to be supplemented by support mechanisms (for the very people vituperating her) and development strategies.

If she misjudges either the people or the situation, she may be sacked. Despite forcing a capacity build, she will almost certainly be endangering any extension of her capacity building contract.

No wonder some take the easy path of doing all the work and bemoaning the inability/incapacity of national staff. The system reinforces dependencies, institutes a round-robin of reports proving those dependencies and shores up the position of aid agencies abroad.

The rewards to nationals of taking responsibility are unclear and often uncertain. We are not looking to incentivise the system, and the perverse results remain.

This post is more asking the questions than proffering answers. I’m not trying to offend aid agencies – I work to one that is serious about trying to develop capacity, not just pay lip service to the concept. I just wish there was more consciousness of this and less reliance on systems and methods that seem to have such a poor track record.

In the meantime, my arms are crossed. My national friends can – and will – do better and will be better off for it.

I hope they eventually forgive me.

Limpeja, round 3.

Dili’s emu parade is still on, with the President exhorting the UN and diplomatic agencies and non-government organisations to join in. About the only group not included in his call is the unemployed who would probably leap at the chance if offered a couple of bucks and a brush every week.

He wants the place to be clean and tidy, “like Singapore”. Some malae fairly acidly observe that the problem is not in the cleanup, the problem is the littering that immediately follows.

If Ramos-Horta seriously wants the place to be as clean as Singapore, maybe he needs to take a leaf out of Lee Kuan Yew’s book – make littering illegal, make the penalties both severe (stiff fines) and humiliating (caning) and enforce them.

Medical doctors often prefer to attack the disease rather than treat the symptoms.

Just sayin’.

In the meantime, Friday morning should be a relaxing stroll with a broom or a bag.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Apparently, my dad enjoyed buying cars...

...and I like cars, but have been able to scrape by without one for a while in Dili.  Taxis are cheap, usually, and walking is really cheap,  but both are problematic after 8:30 pm.  Also, we own enough cars back in Canbera as it is.  However, we have finally bought a[nother] car, a Honda CR-V.  It's basically a 5 door hatch back automatic all wheel drive [AWD], relatively compact but not tiny.

Our previous experience has made us familiar with AWDs.  For Defence wonks, these AWDs are not to be confused with Air Warfare Destroyers.    For a start, instead of several billion dollars,  they cost USD 8,500.  Or this one did anyway.

$8,500 is a reasonable amount of money.  Until you go to the bank and attempt to take it out, whereupon it suddenly became unreasonable.  I've already taken out a bank cheque once and won't do that again if I can possibly avoid it.  But I did get a shock when they handed it to me in $10 notes.  All of it.  

Talk about feeling vulnerable!  I would have felt less visible with one of those huge and stupid publicity cheques, rather than with this fat bundled envelope which 50 people in the bank had seen me stuff to overflowing with banknotes and take out.

Fortunately, I was able to flick it to the seller quick smart.  In her car, soon to be my car, she pulled out a computer case and slipped the cash inside.  Then she refused a lift to the bank, hopped out and was on her way.  She was very cool about the whole thing.

It probably looked like I was dealing drugs.

Sights of Dili, here and there.

Motorcycle gangs, some on heavy duty 125cc machines, most on smaller bikes.  Some with sports exhausts.  Umm, yeah.


Girl asleep on the beach in the afternoon.  Looks like it’s her usual spot.


A deer (no kidding!) grazing on the park near the beach road.  I think it belongs to the US or Norwegian embassy.  It seems content, rather than overheated.


Honey sold in bottles hanging off the end of shoulder poles.  Atypically, the sellers are usually female.  Instead of corks, a dried corn cob is used as the stopper (plus sometimes a layer of bees).  The honey itself is strong and aromatic.


Guards outside the President’s house to protect it.  In the shadows of the walls, 10 feet from the guards, people smoking and selling petrol.  Security, anyone?


Although the Dili emu parade (the “limpeza”) appears to have ended, some bits of rubbish didn’t get moved.  Like a derelict car on the foreshore that has now been there for over four years.  Maybe no-one noticed it.


Kids picking aluminium cans out of the garbage and off the beach.  There must be a market for them, although since only the kids do it, it probably doesn’t really pay.


The normal PR victory of a huge 4WD, emblazoned with “UN” on all sides, driving well over the speed limit and horn blaring at any daring to get in its way.  I think the driver was in a hurry to get to breakfast.


People washing cars by repeatedly throwing buckets of water and/or hosing them down, and (separately) scattering water on the ground in front of houses and stores to settle the dust.  My comment that some of these activities would be illegal in my home town was met with blank incredulity.