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:

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

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!

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...

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...

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.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Funny story...unless you were part of it...

I would like to apologise to all those who might be reading this and are aware of this purely fictional incident and may not find it as amusing as I do. Any resemblance to characters living or dead is coincidental...although all of them lived, for the record.

Once upon a time I got a phone call from an NGO who had people involved in a security incident in which there were reports of heavy gunfire. Their field compound was smack in the middle of the action and their HQ located in a town - let's call it Luba - called me to see what can be done. Now, everyone knows that you shouldn't call me unless you want me to do something and, after more unsuccessful attempts on their part to get someone mobilised in the field area to go check on their compound, they gave me permission to do this.

Well, low and behold, we (note: change of pronouns not related to disseminating blame) managed to get the 'army' mobilised to go and check the area. Unfortunately, they found themselves without a vehicle. And any army without a vehicle is going to do what all self-respecting army would do which is go to another NGO, point a gun at them and demand their vehicle. Which is what they did. The other NGO did what any self-respecting NGO would do and refused to let guys with guns abscond with their vehicles. This meant that these staff were arrested.

All spiralling quickly out of control. Now two NGOs are in trouble.

But, at that very moment the comms from NGO 1 went back up and they could contact their HQ to say that they're fine although there was still fighting. About that time the SPLA rooked up in vehicle absconded with from NGO2. Recap: NGO1 safe; NGO2 now reporting stolen vehicle and staff detained in police station.

More intervention led to their release without actually endangering any other NGOs. A fact of which I'm very proud. But, the moral of the story is that sometimes you can't solve one security incident without creating another and that's just a fact of life...and not my fault.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Things I will never remember...

My brain is too small to chock it full of the miscellany that flies at me everyday. Hence, I would like to make a list of all the things that I refuse to remember:

1. When the rainy season begins and ends in Sudan.
2. People's names if I've met them only once or twice. Or, anyone who has a contract shorter than six months. Or anyone I find immemorable.
3. Anyone's birthday.
4. Any phone number.
5. Most meeting times.
6. Sphere standards humanitarian indicators.
7. Anything told to me before I've had enough coffee in the morning.
8. In what state Kwajok is located.
9. Where Nigeria is located.
10. On which border Pakistan neighbours Afghanistan.
11. The type of printer cartridge my printer takes.
12. How much wine costs at Logali.
13. The fiscal year of the U.S., Canada, UK, or any other donor country.
14. How to make excel spreadsheets do just about anything nifty.
15. Flight times.

One can simply not save the world and remember all the details. So, if i ask about any of these things and you say, 'don't you remember?' I will point you to this public blog entry and remind you that I don't.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Over the course of my life I have seen any number of looks of terror. The incidences usually begin the same way, as they did this morning. People just standing around some place - including bystanders such as myself - an unmarked vehicle with no license plates pulls up and men jump out. They are usually, I take that back...they are always armed. Menacing, threatening men. They always act with an air of importance, impertinence and swagger. Sometimes they have uniforms, sometimes they don't, depending on the state sanction of their activities. They wave the guns and point them at nearly everyone in the vicinity. They begin beating someone - also usually either a bystander or someone unimportant until they get the information they want. Others who try to intervene also get beaten or a gun pointed at them. There is always yelling. Eventually, the people they want are dragged out to the car. Sometimes they are fighting; sometimes they go quietly. But they all, and always, have the same look of terror. Abject and total pleading fear and desperate hope that someone will stop it all and they won't have to get in the car, or the bus, or the van. But no one does anything. The men waving the guns make sure of that. Then, the armed men jump in, the doors close and the vehicle speeds away. It always speeds away.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A quote for your Monday morning...

“There’s a truth that’s deeper than experience. It’s beyond what we can see, or even what we feel. It’s an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We’re helpless, usually, in the fact of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know that truth is to share it, from heart to heart.” - Gregory David Roberts

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Travel Zen

I like to think that there is a special state of mind into which frequent travelers often descend. You will know these people by their irksome calm when they, in the same awful travel predicament as you, watch calmly as you lose your temper. Their bags might be missing, their flight delayed, or cancelled, the airline clerk being a heinous twat and yet they stand next to you with that placid look of acceptance and love for the airline clerk, and the airline industry - and universe at large.

Sometimes, I enter this state of travel zen. No, I don’t enter it…it usually descends upon me for no apparent reason and in those moments I feel calm – and somewhat superior. I’d like to think that most of my travels over the holidays I was in that state. Flight from Amsterdam cancelled…no problem. Flight to Boston cancelled…no problem. Flight to DC cancelled…no problem. I was the poster child for travel zen.

But now the universe is tempting my resolve. I am set to fly DC, to Amsterdam, to Nairobi, overnight and then take early flight to Juba. Everything goes badly from the get-go but my resolve cannot be shaken. Bags overweight…no problem just shift stuff around. Flight delayed an hour and half out of DC making it impossible to make the connection…no problem just overnight in Amsterdam. Zen, remember?

But then it happened…the small and seemingly innocuous travel blip that shatters the calm. Eight hour flight; in-flight entertainment system broken. It unravels from there. The Nairobi flight is delayed and so I make the connection in Amsterdam and get on the 9.5 hour flight only to find out that the entire planes in-flight entertainment system is working but my seat is broken. (For the record you can read two books in 18 hours). Arrive in Nairobi but no bags. The Nairobi airport is awash in bags – some looking as though they’ve been there since 1910 but no bags from Amsterdam.

Believe it or not, I have yet to despair. I wait in the hour long line and fill out my paperwork and know there is no way that these bags are ever going to find their way from Nairobi to Juba without me but that’s ok cause I’m going to get to sleep soon. Where? An interesting question because I haven’t made any reservations but assume that the guest house where I normally stay will have a bed for the now-six hours I get to sleep.

[A brief aside about Nairobi for those of you who haven’t been here. It’s filled with sheisters and isn’t exactly the safest place to roam around at midnight. People are routinely in horrible traffic accidents, robbed, mugged, and hijacked. I don’t know why there are so many sheisters here but when God was handing out conniving Nairobi folk got a double-portion. I don’t say this to denegrade the Kenyans – many of whom are wonderful friends of mine - but Nairobi, as a whole, is out to rip you off. Just bear that in mind.]

I approach the taxi stand and negotiate my ride. I should have been more wary when the smiley girl calls her ‘friend’ who isn’t actually a taxi driver but pulls up in the most ginormous land cruisers you have ever seen. Only if I had been wearing a pith helmet and knee socks would that safari car have been appropriate. It’s also a piece of junk. I drive land cruisers and know that this one is about to fall apart. But what can you do? We get in and go. Needless to say, the vehicle doesn’t even make it half way to town. No, not because it’s a piece of junk (which it is) but it runs out of gas. The driver is assuring me that he will walk to the nearby gas station to get some gas. I, in no uncertain terms, tell him I’m out of there. Except…it’s 11pm. In Nairobi, on the highway from the airport. Do I stay in the car or do I get out and hike? [It’s like a choose your own adventure book.]

I get out and hike. Cars are laying on their horns cause they can’t see the broken down heap of junk and the driver is jogging along beside me as I stomp down the dark highway promising to be back in 5 minutes. I do (mother? Danielle? Are you listening?) realise that this all was a very bad decision. In fact, the further I walk into the darkness (but luckily without my bags!) the more I realise what a bad decision it is.

I finally get to a dark street corner where there is a tree and by the tree is a guy with a car.

‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Are you a taxi?’

‘Yeah,’ he says. Cause he’s not an idiot.

‘Are you crazy? Or going to kill me? Or is your car going to break down?’ I ask – having learned my lesson and wanting to do due diligence.

‘Uh, no?’ he says.

I can’t be that easily convinced though. ‘Really?’ I ask. ‘So if you’ll take me to such-and-such I’m not going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere?”

‘Uh, no?’ he says. ‘But it’s 1000 shillings.’

I would have paid anything at that point. So I get in and we go. Slowly, cause his car is also a piece of junk but it gets us there. And there’s a room available…so despite not having clothes, or shampoo, or mossy repellent, having to get up at 5.30 in the morning and having bad travel documents that probably will get me expelled from Sudan tomorrow I’m thinking that travel zen is just about to return.


Any minute now.