Monday, November 8, 2010

I’d rather not sit on implementer roundtables, either…

Well in the grand tradition of biting the hand that feeds…

Scott wrote that outstanding piece a few months back, all about CIDA's choice to de-fund the CCIC, an aid industry lobby. Right—Canadian taxpayers had been paying for Canadian aid groups to ask the government for more Canadian taxpayer money. It's easy to cheer for reform of a blatantly rigged system, and easy to see solutions when you're not beholden to the status quo.

Now, PDT has some great ideas for the future. This little G20 thing, expanded services in Afghanistan, offices in new countries in Africa, and more. It's a wet dream to work with such a vibrant, growing team. In trying to make those dreams come true, we find ourselves in the same position that the CCIC was in a few months back. We need money! It's all really worthwhile stuff, stuff that will get all sorts of international organizations to be more effective, and stuff that will pay my salary.

So in order to implement all these great ideas, PDT is deep in the throes of puberty: growing pains, and not really sure what to do with this weird new hair*. How do we grow? Where are we going to get our nutrients, our funding? Does she (that RAdm) like us or not? It's the same process that any small business goes through when they want to join the big time, be one of the cool kids.

*Under our nose. What were you thinking, exactly?

Times of transition are fun, they're when the best rise to the top. But transitions are also when it's easy to get locked into the comfort of doing things the way they have always been done. So in my own mellifluous tones, here is a blatantly obvious, overly facile parallel to Scott's own advice to donors. I'm offering this up both as an outsider new to the industry, and as a concerned insider that wants to see PDT lead the way into the future, not fall into lockstep with so many others:

  1. Untie funding first of all, which means we separate ourselves from the status quo of public money, creating a more sustainable and agile stance for delivering services.
  2. Insist on clear targets, such as "PDT in Afghanistan will transition to a 100% local NGO by the end of 2012," as opposed to saying "PDT intends to transition to an Afghan partner."
  3. Insist on donors and investors that will measure impact not disbursement or process. The more that we ennable intrusive and bureaucratic oversight from publicly funded agencies, the more we allow intrusiveness and bureaucracy to define our little NGO. We should be focused on working with partners that will spur on our creativity, entrepreneurialism, and effectiveness, instead of saddling us with entire departments dedicated to compliance!
  4. Make our case with data—which we do very well! The hundreds of millions of dollars we've funneled into the economies where we work is justly impressive. Thing is, we're playing Guitar Wolf for a Bono audience. We all know that large donors aren't going to respect us for our results; it's going to be far too easy to fall into the repetitive cycle of funding for compliance for funding. No one in their right mind asks Guitar Wolf to play Beautiful Day (click that link if you don't believe me), but here we are out looking for the songbook.
  5. Manage resources and make decisions from the field, not from HQ. International and local staff in the field offices will know better and faster if a project makes sense and if it's working.
  6. Don't take money from donors that worry about the overhead because otherwise we'll end up making Ericssons, looking wistfully over at Apple and wondering what the hell just happened.

That's more than a screed against taking money from the large donors. It's a philisophical question that might not have an answer. Is our mission to spend donor money more efficiently? Or is our mission to deliver the greatest possible benefits to Afghan, Haitian, and Timorese people, by linking their businesses to new opportunities with international buyers?

If we're serious about an aid and development structure that spends money efficiently, we should hold ourselves to the same standards that we want to see from donors.


Friday, July 30, 2010

"Mad Men" in Kandahar

I love Mad Men as much as the next guy, but I’m nearly as fascinated by the commentary that surrounds it.  In particular, the idea that the show exists as a medium for us to look back and smugly say “now we know better.”  We’re enlightened now: not so racist, so sexist, so conformist.  It’s an idea that is completely opposite everything I see in the show.

What is the price we’ve paid to be ‘better’ than our forbears?  We look at the set design, the costumes, the lifestyle, and we clearly recognize (h/t to my buddy Nate, who wrote the booze bits) that today’s world is missing out.  Our habits are slovenly and style is a thing of the past.  Take a look around 90% of professional offices nowadays and the design language hasn’t moved an inch in fifty years.  Not only is mid century design still the dominant genre, but we haven’t even moved beyond the pieces themselves.  Who are today’s Jacobsen, Eames, and Miller?

Outside the bounds of the show, we know that America of the ‘60s was driven by scientific achievement capped by putting a man on the moon.  America of the 21st century meanwhile is driven by the debate of pushing science out of the biology classroom.  We put any wag with an opinion on a level with real climate scientists.  Even our greatest advances, in communications technology, have led us to hide and to prevaricate and to bicker. 

Artistically, scientifically, politically, we’ve replaced glory with fear. We no longer tolerate risks, too scared to fall flat, too likely to be excoriated publicly.  Is that truth intricately tied to how much ‘better’ we think we are now?  Are those very real advances we’ve made towards sexism and racism only held together by fear of punishment?  Have we fallen too far towards punishing transgression, instead of supporting right actions?

Part of the American mythos is, “things were better back then.”  Arguably that was the truly defining characteristic that separated us from the evils of (utopian) Communism.  Mad Men captures that dynamic and so moves us at a primal level.  Things were better back then, and we should be doing our damndest to claim back what we’ve lost.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Is professional blogging an oxymoron?

Hey y'all, work related posts going up at the PDM-A blog on the building markets website.  I have a couple of long ones that are percolating for here as well.  More to come...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Week in Mazar, part I

It's been a long week here in Mazar i Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan about an hour's drive from the Uzbek border.  Mike, Jo and I came up for various reasons, but for me it was a chance to see how a field office runs, get out to meet some businesses, get out to meet some international buyers and hear out their questions and concerns.  Mazar is a more permissive environment than Kabul, without all the high-value and high-profile governmental targets.  As a result, you can see the industry growing fast as soon as you leave the airport.  The road is choked with congestion notable for its difference from the gridlock in Kabul--here, the traffic is more heavy trucks, more people moving about, and exponentially fewer armored Land Cruisers blasting through town on their merry old way.  Construction is everywhere, in the center of city and on the edges.  Fueling stations are in keen competition, with one industrious owner covering his in gold foil in a cutthroat business maneuver.

Yes, the kitsch in Afghanistan puts Hungary's to shame.  Commanders, or warlords if you prefer, put statues of roaring lions on top of their poppy palaces while the holiest site in the city, the blue mosque, final resting place of Imam Ali, has a bright red billboard announcing its name defiantly positioned on top of the already notable bright aquamarine dome--already the highest point in the city.  At nighttime the mosque gets lit like Vegas with flashing lights competing with flocks of white pigeons.

The white pigeons--known as "doves" when they don't come by the ten thousand, are a famous story to themselves.  Any pigeon that makes its way to the shrine will turn white within three days.  There's not a single dark colored pigeon on the grounds--the very few that have occasionally dark feathers simply haven't been here for three days yet.  The magic doesn't extend to the ducks though, which are dark gray.


It's been a long week now because Mazar sits at the shoulder of the Hindu Kush, with the flat Uzbek plain stretching from here to the north pole.  Winter weather sweeps in unabated and runs headlong into the mountains, sitting and dumping rain for days on end while it decides what to do.  At least there's no snow, which would be stunningly beautiful, but which would also render the rutted mud 'roads' useless to wheeled travel.  And I don't have a donkey.

The real lockdown has come from snow in Kabul--no flights have landed in the last several days, and it's supposed to snow at least through tomorrow.  Leaves more time to enjoy the relative freedom of movement, the ability to actually walk to dinner once in a while.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yesterday was a fascinating cultural day. After a lavish breakfast with seemingly-incongruous delicious bacon, Liz, Jo and I went with Karim to the National Gallery. The most striking thing about the museum is that it exists at all--the Taliban stricture against images

led to the case that I'm leaning on here--"210 images destroyed by the Taliban." These paintings were to be destroyed permanently, along with any other artwork depicting faces. The museum staff, ever resourceful, managed to save hundreds of pieces by painting watercolors over top.  In 2001, they washed off the watercolors, and the seed for the museum remained.  Other works were brought in by collectors or were repaired, and the museum, supposedly once a German embassy, makes for a short but deep insight into the artists' view of Afghan history.  Karim, who is Hazara, had a strong reaction to a painting of an old man wretched in a prison cell underlined by a poem translated roughly as "one day my love/ you will hear news of me."  It was distraught...  I personally enjoyed this painting of the traditional Pashtun attan dance, calling up the pre-Islamic rites that still have not been entirely eradicated from Afghanistan.  The rest of the museum revealed a more liberal but still recent history, with buxom jazz musicians, the King in full morning dress, and traditionally dressed women gazing arrestingly directly at the viewer.

After speaking for a while with the museum's curator and viewing some of his work--arresting in its own way, full of political pain--we moved over to the Sultani museum on the other side of the same building.  The Sultani museum is full of treasures that had been smuggled out of Afghanistan but but were then reassembled and returned by a concerned benefactor.

Bah, have to get ready for work...more to come on this post this evening!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thoughts on Arrival

I've arrived safely in Kabul after nearly thirty hours of travel time. The city has an 'alert face' on right now after the attacks yesterday, so it was slow traveling from the airport. The police and army are both being thorough and conscientious in the security of main thoroughfares and we passed through six or seven checkpoints before finally reaching the compound. As a compound, it is quite comfortable, but those six or seven levels of security between here and the average Kabuli create a feeling of psychological and even physical distance, even though they cover less than the distance of a kilometer.

Stepping off the plane at Kabul airport crystalized the mix of feelings attendant on this adventure in Afghanistan. The mountains, snow-capped and gorgeous and imposing were also barely visible through the smog and dust. The air was acrid and the smells brought back a rush of memories from Baghdad and Saigon. Kabul is its own place though, a dry mountain city living uneasily half at war.

I am very much in listening and learning mode right now. Fortunately PDT has established an outstanding team and everyone has been a wealth of technical, personal, economic, and security information. As my task in Kandahar becomes more real and less theoretical, it still looks huge but thankfully it also looks like a challenge that can be tackled and that can become a major success.