Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Confederacy of Dunces

Much like Fox News, the Ramble likes to think it provides you with a fair and balanced view of the world. So, having given you the sad stories of competent, able, young(ish) civil servants who are working for a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere, and the massively underpaid (very) young men and women who struggle to find motivation to complete work, I now present the flip side.

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A recent late night discussion with one of my friends turned, inevitably, to work (we’re an exciting bunch), and in particular to some of our more frustrating colleagues. The labour market in Malawi is a peculiar animal. Many of the very best professionals from the country have emigrated in search of a better life, something particularly problematic in the health sector, and not just in Malawi, as anyone who has been treated in an NHS hospital can attest

Alongside this exodus of the medically trained, there has been a smaller outflow of men and women particularly suited to the multi-tasking, semi-specialised life that is a civil servant’s lot. Correspondingly, there is a smaller pool of highly qualified, competent individuals in the civil service than would otherwise be the case, leaving key posts unfilled at most Ministries. At the same time, Malawi has a surfeit of donor agencies with large budgets, who sometimes struggle to spend all the money they’ve been allocated in a financial year.

Among the remaining potential civil servants, there is a class of individuals who have taken advantage of the combination of their scarcity value and the existence of cash-rich donor agencies by excluding themselves from Government labour searches and instead declaring themselves ‘consultants’. They win lucrative contracts, paid for by donors, and work on basic development projects: reports, strategies, think pieces, commissioned either by the donor themselves or by a Government ministry. The real problem, however, isn’t that this segment of the labour market exists. If the consultants are of a high enough quality and produce useful outputs, then they are well worth it. In fact, I’ve worked very closely with one such consultant, and I can say with all honesty that this individual has completely transformed one major part of our Ministry, and all for the better.

No, the problem is that so many of these consultants are actually rather mediocre – and donors continue to pay exorbitant sums for mediocre outputs from them. Even worse, many of our crucial development strategies and plans are being produced by these consultants, to the extent that the Ministries themselves never build the capacity to write and implement such documents, even though the best people within each Ministry are more than capable of doing so. Since donors are funding consultants to produce them, Government tends not to use its scarce personnel to do the work in-house. As a result, a kind of consultancy-dependence develops in Government. If we don’t have the consultants, we’re unable to write our strategies or carry out our major projects with efficiency; but if we continue to use them, we won’t be developing the ability to do any of this work internally.

The friend with whom I was discussing this had a rather nifty analogy for this, involving Angkor Wat, trees and a Catch-22 to end all Catch-22s. I was planning on plagiarising and mangling this analogy for my readers, but fortunately I can’t quite remember the details that made it so apt.

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A quick rant: the budget is looking like it won’t be passed in a timely manner after all. Parliament is blocking it until MPs are granted an enormous pay rise, to go with the increased allowances they have already been given. Rightly, the Government is refusing to cave in. It’s incredibly frustrating that in a country with such deep poverty, so many of the elected representatives treat their positions as a private source of income rather than a means to develop their country. These budget problems have caused the Ministry to slow to a crawling pace – also frustrating when we’re trying to finalise our strategy for interacting with donors.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

“So cunning it’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University…”

This Week’s Ramble has a cunning plan.

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Actually, I don’t, but our division does. At least, we hope so: we’re taking two days this week to plot out what we need to do over the next year and beyond to achieve the targets we’ve set during our recent frenzy of strategizing, negotiation and brinkmanship with donors.

It’s something we’ve needed to do for a while, so we’re looking forward to it. Making plans and sticking to plans is one of the things Government has found most difficult in recent times, so just having this meeting is a good first step. We’re going to try and clarify the role of each officer, what needs to be achieved on a corporate level, and by extension, on the individual level.

Seasoned Ramble-readers will know what comes next: the catch. I’ve previously written of my respect for those capable and committed senior Government officials who work for substantially less than they would be earning in the private or NGO sector. What I’ve rarely touched upon is my sympathy for my more junior colleagues, who often earn far, far less than they can reasonably live on, and get asked to perform rather labour intensive and difficult tasks, to boot. It’s not uncommon to field a phone call from one of our more junior officers, telling us that they can’t come to work for want of the K 50 (approximately 30 pence for my British readers) that it costs to take a minibus into town. On salaries like that, what are the incentives for the long hours of boring data-entry that power Government analysis and therefore policy making?

In such circumstances, planning is tempting fate; how to make the Gods laugh. Basic things like asking for questionnaires to be filled in become problematic for the simple reason that when they’re done, they may be left on desks rather than entered into the relevant database or filed in the relevant folder. Every workplace in the world has people who are working at less than full capacity, but where the conditions of employment are so poor as to essentially inform an entire grade of staff that their work is not important, you’ll find organisational paralysis.

There are no easy solutions to this. Increasing salaries across the board is simply not an option for a country as resource-constrained as Malawi, so you’re left trying to play a zero sum game. Someone recently suggested to me that the key to an efficient civil service was to sack half the staff and then double the salaries of the rest. That would make an enormous difference to the motivation levels of each member of staff, making their jobs that much more valuable, but it’s easy to see the downsides of it, too. You’d be sweeping away the livelihoods of many families, and the attendant labour unrest hardly bears thinking about.

No one is going to grasp the nettle of this particular problem any time soon, and until someone does, the only partial solution is for those officials who have the time, motivation and inclination to work their socks off, to do so, and hope that conditions improve in time.

So, planning will set our direction, but getting to the destination won’t be all that much easier.

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This week’s Ramble is a bit late, partly because a few of my best friends here have had the temerity to leave Malawi. Leaving do’s, farewells and the like have taken up many of my evenings recently. Moving to a new country for a finite period of time does that: most of your friends will either have left before you or will be left behind when you leave.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Thirteen Conversations about One Thing

It’s the little things that drive home the difference. Thursday was to be a holiday, as scheduled. Then the decree came down that Independence was important enough for Wednesday and Friday to be holidays, too. There was much rejoicing, only for word to filter through on Wednesday evening that Friday was being called off as a holiday (still with us?). Most of us had already made plans for the day off (such as loafing around and wasting time), and some, including the rather foolish Ramble, made the mistake of working on Wednesday and Thursday; as a result, about three people turned up to work on Friday.

I wasn’t one of them, having already left for a forest reserve called Dzalanyama, where we trekked (Rambled?) up a mountain. Beautiful, but not enough birds.

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Not much to talk about insofar as work goes. Even if the five-day weekend existed only in theory for me, the absence of colleagues made for a slow week. The major event of interest was the first signs of a concrete result from the Strategy we’ve been working on. We’re holding a meeting soon, bringing together senior representatives from all the major players in the aid relationship to air grievances, discuss solutions and generally be open about what they want and what they’re willing to do.

Doesn’t sound too complicated, does it? But my experiences here have opened my eyes to the importance of getting the ‘simple’ things right, because they’re often far more difficult than they seem, and when they fail everything else becomes even more difficult. In theory, open dialogue, honest discussion and constructive criticism shouldn’t be too hard to achieve. All you need to do is put people with different opinions in a room and get them talking. Unfortunately, where theory is neat and tidy, practice is rather more convoluted.

We all know that our donors have a number of issues with the way Government does certain things, and we all know that donors disagree with each other as to what the Government should be doing and what the donors should be doing. The difficulty is that while many of the individuals we work with are open, clear and straightforward when expressing their opinions, their organisations are usually less so; for essentially political reasons, both Government and donors feel the need to keep their cards close to their chest, at least officially. As a result, working with some donor organisations can be a little like the early rounds of a boxing match – the signals from each side give you an idea of their intentions, but neither one is really ready to commit just yet.

The main problems from the Government point of view are that until all donors are completely explicit as to what they want to see, we can’t really begin to address what we feel we need to address, and present explanations as to why the rest isn’t a priority for us. Further, until donors work more effectively together and present a more unified view, we will always be forced to discuss the same issues time and time again, explaining our position to each donor or group of donors individually. We’re never going to get uniformity of opinion, but a greater degree of consolidation would certainly help.

I should point out, however, that these are institutional problems, rather than problems concerning individuals. Many of my colleagues on both sides of the aid divide are painfully honest. Naturally, some are less straight talking than others, but the basic problem here is in the way in which organisations relate to each other, rather than people. It’s much easier to tell an individual to stop obfuscating and to get to the point; much harder to get the same message across to multi-million dollar organisation.

I’m not really sure of the extent of this problem, and whether its equally severe or even present in all countries. What I do believe, though, is that the lack clear and unambiguous discussion represents a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma – both Government and donors would benefit from it, but there’s a collective action problem preventing them from actually working together and achieving it. I could go on for days about collective action theory, but I’ll spare you: all I’ll say that there is a need to develop social norms of openness, no matter how long it takes.

* * *

And of course, the World Cup Final. Well, Malouda dived, and whatever Matrix said to Zizou, he shouldn’t have gone all Rhino on him. All in all, an engrossing ending to an engrossing tournament. Can’t wait to go through it all again in four years time.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Things put back together?

What can I say?

Quarter-final. Scolari. Penalties.


* * *

Things are picking up at work, right in time. A lull was welcome after the budget, but two slow weeks were enough for me. The next few weeks should be busier, with the finalisation of the strategy that we’ve been working on, and a planning meeting to map out what we need to do over the next year or so. Before that, though, we’ve got a public holiday on Thursday: Independence Day.

Independence Day, shockingly, is the day that Malawians became independent from colonial rule. Colonialism has always been a very tricky topic to analyse dispassionately, being so fraught with emotional significance. Working in development it’s impossible to avoid the issue, though; so much of the political, geographic and economic landscape of the countries we work in were moulded by colonial rule and the equally damaging process of decolonisation. Take a look at a map of Africa – how many straight lines are there? It was literally divided up with a ruler, especially in the north-west. That’s one of the physical results. There were and remain deep emotional scars, too. Anyone who doubts the intense psychological effect of colonial rule should read The Wretched of the Earth.

My grandfather was an anti-colonial activist, well known enough for our house to be decorated by a number of fading photographs of him with some rather famous politicians and poets, fellow campaigners. He changed his name from the Anglicised one he was given at birth, and devoted most of his youth to working towards securing independence for his homeland. By the time he died, though, he hadn’t voted in the free country he’d campaigned so strongly for in years. He used to say he would only leave the office long enough to vote if there was a party who promised to bring back the British, so disillusioned had he become with the misrule of his country.

The point of this story is not to say that colonial rule was a good thing (though undoubtedly, for their own, usually selfish, reasons, some colonial administrations did do things that benefited the countries they were in). The point is that the winning of independence was only the start of the process of nation-building, not the end point. Of course, no-one was ever really naïve enough to think that it would be. But, for most countries, the legacy of independence has been a struggle to construct and assert a national identity that was denied by foreign rule. The upshot, in many cases, has been violence and war. More subtly, a great deal of damage has been done by the desire of so many Governments to assert their national identity through major economic projects, usually designed more as a display of strength than as something that will enable the poor to climb out of poverty. Even the best and most successful Governments in the developing world have been guilty of this, and it has not been restricted to Africa. Governments of countries everywhere, developing or affluent, undertake major prestige projects every couple of years to ensure the votes keep coming in, and to assert their differences from their political opponents. The problem is, in poor countries, everything a Government does has to be considered in the context of scarce resources and a population for whom food security is precarious and poverty rife – prestige projects come a distant second to addressing these issues.

It would be great if amid the celebration, all of this was raised and discussed, but something tells me that none of the political parties here will be keen to grasp this particular nettle.

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As for me, I’ll be spending the weekend in a forest reserve not too far from here. Brace yourselves for another post about birdwatching.