Monday, February 25, 2013

Latest Project...

Here's the latest from the Hoppe Studios... Chasing Misery

Monday, June 27, 2011

Careening...

"Careening," I thought putting the New Yorker down on my lap. That is the word for what we are doing right now - in this taxi - through the hills above Nairobi. Careening. Under the heavy grey sky, over these pot-holed roads, between the jungle threatening to come over the garden walls.

It struck me as funny - or funny enough to stop reading a magazine - that the word just came to me like that. After so many months of having no words pop into my head to describe anything. After years of not having really anything to write. Having no words compose themselves in my head. One just pops up. Just like that.

Careening.

I guess we are all careening in life - which is a great metaphor for life if, in the words of someone famous, you're stupid enough to want more metaphors for life - careening along roads on high mountain cliffs, over hills, being shifted in our seats from side to side by bumps and turbulence. We rarely, if ever, just stay perfectly still. Not even when we're asleep. We're never still.

Which is what I am doing at the moment as I write this. I am lying perfectly still and writing in my head which is kept immobile by a cage so that a thunderous machine can take pictures of my brain.

I wonder what they will look like, these pictures. I wonder if they will find worms in my brain, as a doctor friend of mine suggested they might. "Good to rule out tape worm in brains and things," she said sounding as effervescent as a doctor can be who works in Sudan. Or, maybe they'll find that it's just ticking along perfectly normally quite pleased to have its picture taken - finally - after all those years with the face getting all the attention. I'd like to say that I carried on wondering about these things but, in fact, I did not. My mind melted into a stream on consciousness that went a little something like this:

- How is it possible that they cannot create dentist drill and MRI machines that are silent?...
- Seriously, they have created a machine that sounds like someone is working on the machine while it is in use...
- It's like listening to a car alarm that the owner can't shut off...
- There's actually kind of a rhythm to it...
- That sounds like the first three chords in Beatles, Revolution...
- Now that one sounds like the beginning of Art of Noise's, Peter Gunn Theme...
- Now that one sounds like one of the songs from Fantasia...but which one? The one where the mushrooms are dancing...
- Oh, it's gone all quiet. And here's a little man injecting me with something to 'contrast' my brain or something. It could be poison for all I know. What if it is poison? ...
- Why is he talking to me about South Sudan politics? I can't hear right and I'm being poisoned..

And that was just the first half an hour. There was another half an hour to which I will not subject you but suffice it to say that when one has to remain perfectly still one can find an awful lot of things to write about. But luckily for you, and for me, the hour ended. And I got out of the care and up off the table and had nothing in my head to put down on paper. I went out and got in a taxi and careened back home.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

About 100 people died an hour up the road…

It’s a strange thought, isn’t it. I’ve thought about it for the past few mornings when I took the road the opposite direction into town. It’s a flat and dusty road – fairly good by South Sudan standards and, if you take it in the opposite direction, it passes through some oil outposts, dry flat bush occupied by a mud tukul here and there, and the army’s checkpoints. You make a left at one junction and then you’re headed straight into Mayom County. I went there a few weeks ago because I had destroyed my computer (another tedious story involving my falling through the floor and spilling tea on it) and some friends were on an official visit and it seemed like something interesting to do with an otherwise wasted day.

Apart from a couple of buildings, a bunch of tukul compounds surrounded by dried reeds, a broken tractor - there’s not much to Mayom town. There’s just a bunch of people living out there with their kids running around playing with tire rims and trucks made out of tin. Our visit was brief – a few government officials, a quick tour around and then back home.

The weeks passed, there’s talk of a militia that’s moved into Mayom recruiting, setting up camp on the north end of the town. My life goes on; life in Mayom goes on; a war starts in Libya; north Africa is all over the headlines.

Then the announcement comes. Like a public service announcement over the local radio: ‘if you live in Mayom you should run.’ I asked a friend if that’s all it said, ‘run?’ ‘Run where?’ I asked. ‘The bush,’ he said. ‘Anywhere except Mayom.’

That’s when the fighting came. I don’t like to think about the fighting because it must have been nasty. There’s no nice violence, I suppose, but here there’s no fighting from afar. No drones, no air support, no cluster bombs dropping. Just poor men on both sides with AK47’s who shoot each other, and anyone else around, at close range. They might even be related. They might not even know what they are fighting about or why. They are being paid to fight and most of them are poor enough to need no other reason. It’s not like there are many jobs in Mayom.

All of this happened a few days ago but the texts and emails started coming today, ‘what’s happening?’, ‘how are things there?’, etc. The international news had caught up with the fighting, with the numbers of dead, with Mayom and once it hits the press it 'really' happened. Of course that takes awhile as there aren't any 'imbedded' journalists here. There isn’t anyone who goes further or closer than where I am living and I don’t even know what has happened really. Only reports and rumours filter back. There is no retreat beaten by the defeated party along the road to where we are. There are no wounded. There’s no health care out here so I suspect that all of the wounded are dead.

I tried to think today, as I watched another sunset over the road if it makes me mad that the press – and therefore ‘we’ - care more about Misrata, or Japan, or Syria, or the hundred other headlines shouting, ‘look at me! I’m a new disaster! I’m a new war!’ Or if it makes me frustrated with the shortness of our attention spans and our desire for something new and different. Not really. The human capacity to care is limited and the fact that any of us cares about a city, or people, or person outside our own proximity is frankly amazing. I guess, it mostly makes me sad that as long as there are money and guns there will be open hands found to put them into. And that Mayom will happen again and again for reasons no one understands, least of all those who are doing the fighting, and just outside the range of our cameras, and just outside our line of vision. There will always be a Mayom.

About 100 people died an hour up the road…

It’s a strange thought, isn’t it. I’ve thought about it for the past few mornings when I took the road the opposite direction into town. It’s a flat and dusty road – fairly good by South Sudan standards and, if you take it in the opposite direction, it passes through some oil outposts, dry flat bush occupied by a mud tukul here and there, and the army’s checkpoints. You make a left at one junction and then you’re headed straight into Mayom County. I went there a few weeks ago because I had destroyed my computer (another tedious story involving my falling through the floor and spilling tea on it) and some friends were on an official visit and it seemed like something interesting to do with an otherwise wasted day.

Apart from a couple of buildings, a bunch of tukul compounds surrounded by dried reeds, a broken tractor - there’s not much to Mayom town. There’s just a bunch of people living out there with their kids running around playing with tire rims and trucks made out of tin. Our visit was brief – a few government officials, a quick tour around and then back home.

The weeks passed, there’s talk of a militia that’s moved into Mayom recruiting, setting up camp on the north end of the town. My life goes on; life in Mayom goes on; a war starts in Libya; north Africa is all over the headlines.

Then the announcement comes. Like a public service announcement over the local radio: ‘if you live in Mayom you should run.’ I asked a friend if that’s all it said, ‘run?’ ‘Run where?’ I asked. ‘The bush,’ he said. ‘Anywhere except Mayom.’

That’s when the fighting came. I don’t like to think about the fighting because it must have been nasty. There’s no nice violence, I suppose, but here there’s no fighting from afar. No drones, no air support, no cluster bombs dropping. Just poor men on both sides with AK47’s who shoot each other, and anyone else around, at close range. They might even be related. They might not even know what they are fighting about or why. They are being paid to fight and most of them are poor enough to need no other reason. It’s not like there are many jobs in Mayom.

All of this happened a few days ago but the texts and emails started coming today, ‘what’s happening?’, ‘how are things there?’, etc. The international news had caught up with the fighting, with the numbers of dead, with Mayom and once it hits the press it 'really' happened. Of course that takes awhile as there aren't any 'imbedded' journalists here. There isn’t anyone who goes further or closer than where I am living and I don’t even know what has happened really. Only reports and rumours filter back. There is no retreat beaten by the defeated party along the road to where we are. There are no wounded. There’s no health care out here so I suspect that all of the wounded are dead.

I tried to think today, as I watched another sunset over the road if it makes me mad that the press – and therefore ‘we’ - care more about Misrata, or Japan, or Syria, or the hundred other headlines shouting, ‘look at me! I’m a new disaster! I’m a new war!’ Or if it makes me frustrated with the shortness of our attention spans and our desire for something new and different. Not really. The human capacity to care is limited and the fact that any of us cares about a city, or people, or person outside our own proximity is frankly amazing. I guess, it mostly makes me sad that as long as there are money and guns there will be open hands found to put them into. And that Mayom will happen again and again for reasons no one understands, least of all those who are doing the fighting, and just outside the range of our cameras, and just outside our line of vision. There will always be a Mayom.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Critters with ulteriowr motives...

I like to think of myself as a fairly 'tough' person. I'm not afraid of snakes, scorpions, spiders, or other animals in general. I like to think that if you leave nature alone it tends to leave you alone. But then I came to Unity state and am living at the UNMIS team site. Within the chain link and barbed wire fence there is a strange ecosystem of animals and insects that seems to have gone crazy. I'm afraid that nature is considering not keeping up its part of our little bargain.

What makes me think this? Well, nothing in particular but let me give you some examples:
  1. There are packs of mongoose (mongeese? mongi?) roaming the grounds. I like mongoose (singular). I've never seen them (plural) travelling in packs but the team site is ridden with them - they travel in packs of 40-50 and have been seeing taking on the packs of feral dogs (will get to that in a moment). Now, in general, they stay out of my way and I stay out of theirs but when I go out for a run they sometimes sit along the path watching me. Sizing me up, I think...and that makes me a little nervous...considering they eat snakes and all.
  2. Packs of Feral Dogs - yes there are packs of 'street dogs' that roam about scavenging from the garbage dump and duking it out from time to time with the maribou storks (will get to that in a moment). The mongooses are not fans of the dogs and so they have these street fights where the mongooses won't back down and neither will the dogs. It's a sobering sight to behold, I tell you.
  3. Maribou Storks - I know that these are supposed to be the majestic birds of east Africa but I'll tell you what they are: lethargic and large. We're talking as tall as me with a hard beak as long as my arm. These also like to hang about the running path sizing things up. I don't like birds as tall as I am that aren't afraid of me.
  4. Killer bees - Well, I don't know if they're actually killer bees but they're really, really aggressive and a friend of mine who went for a run got attacked and had to run into the burning trash pile to get them off her.
  5. Mice/Rats that won't die - Despite my best efforts to poison all that enter my container they don't seem to want to die. I'm not sure how many of them there are but there are too many cause I'm running out of poison and they keep coming.
Now, taken individually none of these things might seem scary but altogether it makes me suspect a conspiracy - and one with sinister implications for me at that.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Acts of generosity…

I think that if I pretend that I haven’t ignored this blog for an exceptionally long time and just start writing again that no one will notice…

Today I was struck by several acts of generosity that were conveyed to me for no apparent reason by people who stood nothing to gain by giving them. Let me back up…

I am in Bentiu, Unity State – a state that was ravaged by war, dominated by oil, and is, still, as close to the wild west as you can get in the world today. Different political factions swagger around town with their bodyguards (read: private militias) in shiny suits and land cruises with guns pointing every which way out the window. It is hot, and dusty. At just about any moment you expect a show down to in the open street complete with tumbleweeds and that classic western music. It’s not a place where you expect extreme civility but one is always surprised.

I am helping the Ministry of Labour and Public Service to implement an HR system. That might seem like a mundane task and I suppose it is but it is fascinating to be on the inside of a government as it builds itself. You never really stop to wonder how bureacracies became the way they are but here…in 100 years time when people look back and take it for granted the answer is…me. Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement. It’s me and a bunch of unbelievably civil and dedicated bureaucrats who want systems in place so that people can be paid and services can be delivered. So, today for example when I was delivering letters of introduction I expected a bit of the wild west swagger – bureaucrat style – to be served up to me on a platter and instead there was nothing but extreme civility. Ministers and Directors General who welcomed me to Bentiu, wanted to know about my family, what my name meant, where I’d been in Southern Sudan before, where I was now staying and whether I found it comfortable. In the seventeen ministries I visited – with the sole exception of one – I found nothing but people who were delighted that I was there and who were incredibly excited and supportive of…wait for it…HR administration. I was dumbfounded.

So, I came back to the UNMIS team site, where I currently reside to our ants, and mice, and camp showers, rotted out floors and containers that smell like whatever we last cooked on the hot plate ready to have a quick run and make something else to smell for the next 24 hours. But, that plan got nixed because the Americans were back. Two State Department people who weren’t supposed to be back for several days had returned early. Returned with wine. For Valentine’s day. So, the elections monitors, my colleague and I sat around having wine and talking about nothing in particular. It was nice. The water all goes off at 10 so I excused myself early and went back to my container when there’s a knock at the door. It is Doo-doo (yes, that is actually his name) a wonderful, exuberant man from Namibia who is a devout Muslim and lives in Minnesota but was here to monitor the Referendum. He is holding a towel and then takes out a bottle of wine.

‘Doo-doo,’ I say. ‘Where did you get this?’ Wine, being somewhat easier to come by than, say, uranium in these parts.

‘I bought it,’ he says.

‘But why?’ I ask.

‘For you to drink,’ he says. ‘For Heida.’ (it’s my colleagues birthday in a week).

Again, I was struck by the gesture of civility and kindness extended for no apparent reason. He doesn’t drink, he gains nothing by buying wine for us and yet he bought it for us anyway. There’s something about that which I struggle to explain but it makes me happy anyway.

Sometimes, I wonder on days like these if everything is doomed to go wrong after all. Or if, maybe, there are – even in Bentiu - enough small acts of generosity and civility in the darkest places of the world to save us all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Disbursement vs. Expenditure

There’s a fund in Southern Sudan which is something everyone calls a ‘pooled fund’ and that means that instead of donors giving their money to whatever they want they put it into a big fund that is run by the government and the UN. The problem with this particular pooled fund is that it’s been badly managed and manipulated by the powers that be and so has actually delivered practically nothing. This is nothing surprising here where funds frequently don’t actually disburse money that has been committed to the people that need it. It sits in bank accounts in New York, DC, and Nairobi and accumulates interest (to the tune of $1 million dollars in the case of this fund) and no one is really the wiser nor upset by the matter.

Which makes me ask: why? And that niggling question led me to think about the economics of aid about which already volumes have been written so I won’t bore you with too many details however, if we think of aid as an economic transaction where someone is giving money in expectation of a good or service to be delivered aid might be one of the only transactions where the person giving the money (eg. paying for the service) is not the one who receives the benefit of the service. So, unlike in a standard transaction where you want a mobile phone, you save your money and go buy a mobile phone, and then you utilize that mobile phone – where you are both paying for the service and receiving the benefit - aid works in a completely different way. Donors (and you the taxpayers behind them, or the churches, etc.) pay for a good/service that they will not receive benefit from and so seem less inclined to ensure/care that the benefit is actually received.

Think of it this way. If you had $60 million and you wanted to spend that on a road, a couple of radio stations, and some police stations in your neighbourhood because you have crappy roads, no communications, and no police and you gave the money to someone to do that for you and three years later you still had no road, no radio stations and no police stations that might upset you a little bit. You might even sue the contractors/companies/whatever that you gave the money to to build those things.

But aid doesn’t work that way. The people who should receive the benefit of the $60 million in roads, radio stations, and police stations haven’t a clue that this service has been bought for them. And their government leaders who do have to negotiate payments from donors and the political machinations of donor governments and bureaucratic hoops are incredibly patient while doing so because they act as if the money isn’t theirs. Donors rarely really let go of their money once it’s given and governments/communities treat it as a gift when it’s received. And so you have hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in bank accounts all over the world waiting for enough momentum to get it out.

But once it does get out it’s seldom better because donors get caught in the disbursement vs. expenditure trap. What they really care about is disbursement (did the money get moved off our books on to someone elses so that we can say that the money has been spent without actually lying?) and what they should care about is expenditure (did the money that was moved off our books actually do what it was intended to? Have people received benefit and services from that money?). I cannot number the amount of meetings I have sat through where the discussions of disbursements go on endlessly – disbursement rates, disbursement speed, etc. But expenditure is rarely ever mentioned which means that monitoring and evaluation is rarely ever mentioned because in order to have something to monitor or evaluate you have to have provided a good or service in the first place.

And all of this goes on, under-the-radar, unnoticed and unreported in probably every country that receives anything substantially in the way of aid. 'Oh, it's complicated,' they say. 'Oh, it's not that simple,' they say. But I kinda think I actually do understand and it makes me wish that the people who were supposed to receive the benefit of aid would behave more like you would if you paid for a mobile phone but never received it.

P.S. I realize that I am an incredibly boring person these days. But you fill your days with meetings on disbursements and then we'll talk about how exciting your blog is. ;)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Once upon a time...

I was reminded this week that I used to be an interesting person, to whom interesting things happened, and I used to write about those things in this very blog. This week, however, when I received an email from a former avid blog reader reminding me that I have an interesting and 'adventurous' life I decided to look back over the past week and figure out why I don't blog as regularly anymore. One look at my schedule told me why:

Monday:
10am: Meeting with ODI
11am: UN Country Team Meeting
12.30pm: Meeting with NGO
2pm: Meeting with Budget Sector Working Group Co-Chairs
3.30pm: Meeting with DevInt
6.30pm: Handover meeting between Steering Committee Chair and Deputy

Tuesday:
11am: Security Management Team Meeting
1:00pm: Meeting with UN Agency
3:00pm: Meeting with Swedish Donor
5:00pm: Meeting with an NGO
7:00pm: Dinner with National NGO

Bored yet? Wait for it...the week only gets better!

Wednesday
1:00pm: Meeting with Pooled Fund Managing Agent
2:00pm: DFID / FCO Briefing
4:00pm: Budget Sector Working Group Meeting
6:00pm: Meeting w/my housemates
7:00pm: Dinner with Colleagues

Keep your shirt on. I know you're on the edge of your seat...there's still more...

Thursday:
9:00am: Common Humanitarian Fund Advisory Group Meeting
1:00pm: Meeting with Danish Rep from Permanent Mission to UN
3:00pm: Budget Sector Working Group

And the big finale...

Friday:
9.30am: UN Country Team
11:00am: Meeting with EC Consultant
12:00pm: Meeting with NGO
2:00pm: Meeting with another NGO
6:00pm: Watch World Cup
7.30pm: Dinner with EC Humanitarian Commissioner.

And between these meetings I (calm down, breathe....the thrill of it all might be getting to you!) read and write emails, read and write briefings and reports and make sarcastic comments on facebook. Now, don't get me wrong - I love my job it's just that I'm very aware that it doesn't make for even remotely entertaining reading.