08 February 2007


Let’s first get the sentimental part out of the way: on the CNN website I found this picture of a 5-6000 year old young couple buried together just found in Italy, and thought it was beautiful.

Not that I lack sentimentality these days. Jacques’ children are going to be taken care of by a joint action at the office. Money will be kept out of the eager hands of Jacques' various brothers and 'friends' who are suddenly turning up. The question of his widow remains open, we’ll have to cajole her gently into undergoing an HIV-test and will take it from there. Being away from the family has made me slightly more obsessive about his children becoming orphans. The boss told me today that 'there are no orphans in Africa', referring to the supposed habit of family taking care of the children, but I beg to differ - I have so far seen remarkably little of the oft-praised African solidary. Homo homini lupus ('Man is a wolf unto man - Hobbes, if I am not mistaken) is more like it.

A colleague of ours (whom I didn’t know personally) was shot dead yesterday in his home in Ivory Coast. This comes just a few months after another colleague and his wife had their throats cut by an intruder in front of their 4 children in Morocco, a particularly gruesome case. I remember another colleague being beaten to death in Georgia several years ago. It would be exaggerated to say that these are regular occurrences, we are in general very well protected, but clearly there are risks.

My cotton arrears project seems to run smoothly - touch wood. I have put the people of a government agency to work on an implementation plan, and have so far been pleasantly surprised by their energetic way of taking things in hand. It's a massive undertaking, luckily they have the habit of distributing cotton payments and intrants (fertilizer, seeds) in these areas. I am enjoying leafing through the nitty-gritty of accountancy of the whole operation, and just think of the quantities of beer that will flow in the poorest parts of the country before long.
All joking about beer apart, this will really provide a lot of temporary relief to close to a million people, a quarter of the population. 4 millions euros will go to no less than 114.000 planter (each feeding between 8-10 people), the poorest of the poorest. Part of them live in an area that is presently being terrorized by rebels and Presidential Guard soldiers alike. I spoke to a humanitarian aid worker today, like I have been talking to several over the past couple of weeks, and they all tell stories about the national army burning food stock and killing livestock in the villages, as a supposed punishment for support for rebels.
In the meantime it is quite cynical that the President has made his peace in Libya with one of the leaders of the recent rebellion in the North of the country, who has now come home to the capital with him last week. This so-called rebel leader has so much blood on his hands that he is soon expected to be indicted by the ICC in The Hague. But instead of extradition he may soon face …. a lucrative ministerial post.

It remains difficult to really understand this country. Recently we have been very discouraged by the levels of mismanagement, corruption and other sorts of predatory behaviour at all levels of government. But today I attended the end of a workshop by the Ministry of Finance, some sort of an internal reflexion, not organised by donors or anything, as is usually the case, but their own initiative. Whatever the shortcomings of the Ministry, I was pleasantly surprised by the harsh self-criticism and the more or less decent level of the technical discussions. Even though the place is teeming with ‘pourris’, there are still people who seem to have a genuine will to speak out and try to move the country forward. Our public finance reform project starts next week. I am not very optimistic about it yet, mainly because of my doubts about the quality and motivation of the expert team we have recruited, and who are quite unresponsive at the moment as regards my requests for information, for instance on their late arrival without prior notice. This is the kind of country that attracts all kinds of oddballs… or no, wait, wait! It attracted me!

You will have noticed that I have been remarkably quiet about my MSc studies with CeFiMS ever since I came back. It’s been really difficult to motivate myself to pick them up again. Whereas I managed last year to merrily hit the books after a 9-10 hours working day last year, I have trouble doing the same right now. I have managed to muster a few hours after work over the past two weeks, but I am supposed to to 15-20 per week. Part of it is my feeling low about being separated from the family, even though things have cleared up a bit (I'll be seeing them againin 10 days). I prefer to spend my evenings talking to A. and the kids through MSN or Skype, or to read the ever splendid Dalai Lama. I am also investing a lot again in work, working late, and in building up my informal network in the evenings. It is also going to be hard to combine studies with the regular trips I plan to take to Europe between now and September: I will not study while I am with the family. What it boils down to is that I will probably, nay almost certainly, drop the ongoing module on Public Finance Management, which completely fails to excite me at the moment (as it did last year, when I dropped it for the first time). I will reconsider during the second half of the year, as there are some interesting modules on Project Impact analysis, IMF and economic policy, etc. But I might as well do nothing of the kind and decide to simply get a life again!

03 February 2007

Jacques N.

A week ago I spent a weekend on a half private, half professional mission into the provinces. Our microrealisations project was to send a car to a town called B. near the Cameroonian border where a so-called ‘antenna’ run by a a local NGO accompanies local community based organisations in realising their ‘micro-projects’. My colleague PYL, the doctor who took such good care of me when I was sick in November 2005 and whom I have come to like ever more as the committed and selfless colleague he is, came along with me. I have come to believe that this microproject approach is key to whatever else we try to do in this country: get grassroots organisations involved, make sure that local initiatives are rewarded. The microprojects program finances both economic and social projets. So on our way to and in and around B. we visited: a school in the process being built, a pork farm, a carpenter’s workshop, a joint storage space for traders. Inevitable I had to meet the mayor and the prefet, both remarkably unimpressive.
One should not idealize the programme: it is not always easy to get the counterparts into mobilizing their share of the cost (in the form of construction materials, local labour, etcetera). In some cases it turns out that they have turned to other locally active donors to get that part financed by them, which to me undermines the whole concept of ownership. Furthermore, decades of development aid have had their effect on mentalities: I was quite irritated to hear the leader of the carpenter’s workshop under construction complain about a poorly manufactured door that had been purchased centrally for him by the programme’s management unit. A carpenter saying a wooden door (a gift one at that!) poses a problem for his project! I bluntly told thim that this should be the least of his worries.

We spent a few very pleasant hours in a local woman’s backyard being served homemade rhum. For a moment I had visions of myself getting killed by illegal alcohol in literally the middle of nowhere, but we were fine. Thinking back though, we must have taken a risk: the difference in destilling temperatures between methanol (poisonous, can kill/blind you) abnd ethanol is only 20C or so, and I am not sure the women, with her ramshackle destilling installation, was even aware of the difference.

Upon our return to the capital on Sunday , I heard that Jacques N., one of the drivers at the office had died of ‘fever’ after a long walk while on leave. I don’t think he was even 45, leaving behind no less than 10 children (among which 4(!) pairs of twins) with his wife, and an unclear number (between 1 and 4) of illegitimate children. Sure enough, I learnt soon afterwards that he was suffering of AIDS and had resisted treatment…. So his premature death could have been avoided had he taken his antiretroviral drugs. I also suspect that his wife must be infected, putting their children at risk of becoming orphans within the next couple of years.
I can’t say I was particularly close with Jacques but the story of his wife and children is affecting me, and I am trying to see what can be done to help them. Jacques being one of the rare locals with a relatively wellpaid job, all sorts of people are already hovering over the family in the expectation of money (his widow will receive a few months of salary). Raising money to give to the widow (hich e have already done) will not help much, she would be under tremendous pressures to ‘redistribute’. I have already decided that I will probably pay for one or two years of primary school inscription costs for the children, and I will try to mobilize colleagues to see if we cannot pay for his wife to undergo HIV testing and then establish some sort of trust fund to pay for ARV drugs for a couple of years to come so her children will have a mother for a few more years. We’ll see.

21 January 2007

Rachel B.

Yesterday we buried Rachel B., a local woman who was until July 2006 part of a support unit to the Ministry of Economy to manage European aid. She then left for Libreville in Gabon for a job with the Economic Community of central African States. She died lonely and far away from her friends and family from a burst bloodvessel in her brain at only 48 years old. After George Ng., whom I wrote about on 16 october 2005, she’s the second of the three local members of that unit to die prematurely, and her death presents another blow to the few competent national cadres of integrity this country has. She was much respected, as the massive turn-out for her funeral shows.

Last week was very difficult. The first week after coming back had been fine, it was fun to get into the routine. But tension built quickly after a few run-ins with the boss (one on me recruiting a local agent whom he did not want to manage european experts – not the first time he displays doubtful prejudices; one on the upcoming assessment and promotion exercise: I told him I saw room for improvement for its conduct, which had been far from perfect last year.) These would normally have been fairly trivial incidents of everyday office life, but the absence of A. and the children was getting the better of me for four or five days and didn’t do much good to my tolerance to other, work-related irritations, and I felt terrible. Part of the hardship of this post, I'll just have to live with it. I am feeling better again.

Good things happened as well though. I’ve started walking Sammy more regularly. Today I lost its leash somewhere high up on the hill, it must have fallen from my pocket. This meant that I had to allow the dog to walk free for the rest of the hike. I was initially nervous about him and harshly corrected him whenever he so much as looked at passers-by. Two office colleagues who had come along told me to take it easy and just let the dog do its thing, and they were right. Sammy actually listens quite well. It was a nice walk. Furthermore, yesterday was a nice and lazy day: spent all day reading Jan Siebelink’s ‘Engelen van het duister’, the sequel to ‘Knielen op een bed violen’, and equally a masterpiece on moral decay and the vagaries of human nature. Dutch literature really has a lot to offer. In the evening a colleague had arranged for dinner in the capital’s only Chinese restaurant, and we had a lovely, light-hearted evening with nice food and some good laughs among colleagues who get along well. A group of French soldiers accompanied by guitar were singing melancholic Breton and other songs, and did so quite beautifully.

Amour, the nanny who was with us for over two years, went to work with a colleague of mine after A. and the children left in June. She was fired for theft, caught red-handed, within two months. She was accused of theft very early on during our stay here, when A.'s necklace was stolen. All fingers pointed at her, but as we could not be sure it had been her (outside people had been in our house as well), we didn’t want to fire her. Maybe we should have: her reaction after having been caught by my colleague’s wife eerily resembled her behaviour two years ago with us.

I’ve started working with people of the Ministry of Rural development on a plan to pay two years of arrears (2001-2003; the cotton firms owing the money went bust) to small coton producers out of our budgetary aid. It’s a problem that I first learnt about two years ago. I immediately suggested we include it in our budgetary aid, and suffered some ridicule over it, as it had never been done before. Usually we just pay the money into the Treasury after certain conditionalities have been met (or waived…), and the government is then free to spend it, which is usually on salary arrears for its improductive state officials. These cotton producers have actually worked hard for their money and truly produced something. Moreoever the money (4 million euros) will go to the provinces for once instead of to the capital. It will not save the country, but will give some encouragement to almost 100.000 rural families in extremely poor conditions. I am happy and, silently, a little proud that I managed to push the operation through in spite of initial scepticism. It'll be a hell of a job though to actually get the money to those families, in a country riddled with corruption and highway banditry.

14 January 2007

Sammy is getting an education

Before I left for Lith in November I was getting desperate about Sammy our dog. It seemed it was uncontrollably enthusiastic, jumping up against people (thus ruining three pairs of pants of mine), and territorial in the extreme, barking and gnarling at anybody passing our entrance. Taking the dog for a walk was impossible, as it would resist going any further than 50 meters from home.
But things have changed. Sammy is coming of age, and I managed to take him on a beautiful two-hour walk. He can't be trusted yet with passers-by, so i had to keep him on the leash much of the time. Once we were on the hill behind our home I let him off the leash for an hour or so. Here's a few pictures:

Furthermore, a view fro; the hillside over the river. On the other side is the Democratic republic of Congo.
Then one of the major achievements of Chinese development cooperation in this country is ....... a soccer stadium (the eyesore in the middle of the picture). Brand new, cost about 15 million USD, no money to pay for maintenance, no soccer league to speak of. An example of supply-driven assistance if ever there was one. Very few Africans were involved in its building, plus the project made cement prices rise sky-high in the country. But hey, no strings attached, which president would look such a gift horse in the mouth?

13 January 2007


First things first: here's a long overdue photo of our youngest, G. It was taken with my new toy gadget, a Nokia N73.

I add another with the three eldest taken in November. The weather was amazingly, frighteningly warm for the time of year.

My first week back on the job was not bad. I had feared that having been away for 9 weeks I would be completely out of the loop, but I feel mentally refreshed and managed to get a grip back on the major files quickly. Wrote several sour letters for the boss to our pain-in-the-butt Minister, which i enjoyed as always. Managed also to do some fairly clear thinking on a few other files. Put a few dots on i's as regards my being better informed of things, which included some friendly but straight talking to the boss, which he accepted.

Obviously, the family being split up we are now counting the months towards the end of our posting here (Summer 2008), even though A. and the children will normally come back in Summer to do our last year together. Soon we will hear more about available posts for 2008-2012. Given A.'s Hindu background, our determination to get out of the french school system and back into the Anglo-Saxon tradition, India tops our list, but we will see.

It's actually good to be back, without wanting to be euphoric about it. This is a very good time of the year: nice dry heat (up to 40 degrees Celsius) with cool nights. Apart from setting up a new study scheme for my next CeFiMS module I haven't really started studying yet; took this first week to concentrate on work and getting in touch with developments in the country again - more on those and on how the family is faring in my next postings. I have also started reading again, Peter Hoeg's 'Smilla's Sense of Snow', which is particularly good reading in the central African heat!

11 January 2007

On second thoughts..

Forget about the roots stuff I wrote. I tried in Dutch for some time, and strangely enough it was not nearly as much fun as I thought. Of course this led to procrastination, preventing me from writing neither in Dutch nor in English.

Then I left in the beginning of November to spend 9 precious weeks with A. and the children (now four!), during which time I was not able to do anything even mildly intellectual, while quickly regaining my skills in changing diapers, cooking and cleaning and trying to give my three eldest something of an education.... And here we are, back in the bush, after a four month gap.

I feel quite flattered by the fact that several friends have inquired as to why I had stopped writing and suggested I should take it up again. I feel that after four months I have lots of things to tell, and I'll try to be writing more or less regularly again.

10 September 2006

Back to my roots

Just to inform you that I have decided to continue my blog on a different site and in my native language. It is now called:

and has the exciting URL: http://www.volkskrantblog.nl/blog/5339

Why? For one reason or the other (the family's temporary move to Lith has probably everything to do with it) I feel ever more inclined to comment on or refer to things pertaining to the Netherlands. The second, and more important, reason is that after years of working and drafting in French and English my written Dutch hasn't been getting any better, or that is at least what it feels like. I may occasionally post the odd entry on this site as well, though for the time being I enjoy writing Dutch again.

Thanks for having followed this blog, and see you on the new one!

27 August 2006

Stepping on the brakes

After yesterday's post I had an extremely unpleasant night, feeling ice cold and very hot, fever, aching joints, headache, nausea, diarrhoea, and then, miraculaously, this morning the worst seemed behind me. The Coartem had worked. I had some real sleep during the day, and even ventured for a light meal in the evening with some colleagues, also to get out of the house. Take it easy tomorrow, and I should be fine by Monday, as far as I can tell. What a difference with the previous malaria episode.
Meanwhile my uncomfortable night gave me some time to think as well: after the delayed delivery of study materials, further delays because of work load at the office and now this bout of malaria I don't feel like making the extra effort of catching up in the weeks to come. Next weekend I'll leave for another four days with A. and the children, and, unlike in August, I don't want to cut back on the little time I have with the children and A.
One notion I've learned in my studies is useful: sunk cost (costs that are not retrievable whatever the decision; in this case: course fee, hours already invested) should not influence future decisions. And what's the hurry anyway: I study for pleasure. I'll prepare the 'Perspectives and Issues' exam on 29 September at leasure, and suspend this Public Financial Management course, to resume studies in February.
I decided all this after I realised that my 3rd malaria seems, again, to have been triggered by intense stress, in this case caused by the hubbub at the office last week combined with considerable work load, all on top of a certain fatigue that had set in after months of work and study. Malaria makes one aware of the importance of stepping on the brakes on time when needed. So that's what I'll do for now.

26 August 2006


Feeling miserable, aching joints, banging headache. I presume it's malaria, though a mild one (I take prophylactics every day now since my experience in November last year). Absolutely nothing interesting to tell you, I'm idly surfing the time away, too miserable to do anything useful. Thought I should let you know.

22 August 2006

Keileuk ruften

Another news clipping: CNN carries a story of people claiming that cows moo with a regional accent- cow dialects so to say. I had heard about birds, dolphins and I believe whales developing group languages, but cows actually imitating the human local dialect when mooing?

As for absorbing local language, M. and T. are also getting more streetwise at their Dutch school. Among the new words they have picked up
  • 'kut' (one of the rudest words in Dutch meaning female sex organ; T., 5 years old, used it at home. Milan in his innocence told me he thought it meant 'middle finger', so I suspect she made the 'up yours' gesture as well - isn't that girl getting some fine education...)
  • 'ruften' (slang for 'to fart') ;
  • and that most typical of Brabant words: 'keileuk' ('very nice', 'great fun') . M. used the latter two words spontaneously while talking about school with me on the phone today.
The IMF and the World Bank are in town again to check on the country's economic and financial state (improving from catastrophic to merely disastrous). In the meantime the President buys a military transport airplane and it is not quite clear where the funds have come from. We can understand however that he feels he has to do something to get his troops in the North to control the rebellion. We are also hearing about enormous signing bonuses for government members on diamond and gold exploration contracts. Now that the country has been stable for some time all sorts of investors are coming in, and many play by their own rule-book.

A most unpleasant incident on Monday: my Italian colleague, as always difficult to handle in his last week before leave, completely blew his top and chose me as his target. I had organised the drafting of our next programming document, something to which all sections have to contribute, but mine (Social-Economic section) most of all. He complained by e-mail, cc. to all, that it was late (it wasn't, but he leaves soon and finds it impossible to delegate anything to his section members), and that his section would not be able to contribute etc (his section would have to draw about 3-4 pages out of a total of appr. 70), and that he should have gotten it sooner. He got a rather sharp public rebuttal by the boss and a one-on-one by me, saying that I didn't need my professional conscience to be chaperoned by him (his remarks had been preceded by numerous similar incidents in the past). At that point he went nuts, wrote back that I didn't have any conscience at all nor respect for others etc. I was seething with anger because of the completely unjustified personal insult. After that he received a message from the boss that was as close to an official warning as one can get, telling him to behave and to go home to calm down (which he didn't). The boss, very angry himself, showed it to me later.
I did what any aspiring Buddhist should do in such a case and tried to put myself in his place. He's tired, becomes completely impossible when tired and under stress, and has a fairly lonely life as far as I can tell so no way to take some distance from work. I actually think he has a bit of a mental problem, the way he went completely out of control, screaming and apparently close to tears in his office, over something utterly trivial; I've always found him rather on the paranoid side, seeing complots, frauds and hidden agendas everywhere. These thoughts were enough to calm me down, even though the incident continues to be on my mind. It was not enough for me to get over the insult, for which I want an apology which I know I will never get. Unnerving, but on the other hand something beyond my control, so I'd better forget about it.

It is now official: I am not very happy with my CeFiMS course on Public Financial Management, which is way too hung-up on public (financial) management methods (or fads?) (accrual budgeting and accounting, budgeting by objectives etc.) which are fine for New Zealand and UK city councils but completely impossible to realise in countries at the every bottom of the development ladder. Getting the basics of public financial management right is hard enough as it is, and the basics are given short thrift in this course. I'll just try to put up with it, it's only one of the seven courses needed for my degree. Pity though, I had expected more of it. I'd better check the remaining courses for their applicability.
Having said this, I'd better hit the books again. All this blogging is mere procrastination, an art I thought I had forgotten about, but on which I am rediscovering my considerable talents.

19 August 2006

M-a-a-a-rital bliss

On BBC online: A man in Sudan was caught abusing his neighbour's goat in the middle of the night. The village elders decided that as he had used the goat as his wife, he should marry it and pay the neighbour a 50 dollar dowry. Who said there's no humor in sharia? Some way to eternal fame too.

Here's another attempt at eternal fame, also on BBC: Rule of law takes on a curious turns in the Philippines where a judge lost his case in the country's supreme court: he is not supposed to concult three mystic dwarfs in his office. 'In a letter to the court he said: "From obscurity, my name and the three mystic dwarves became immortal."'

14 August 2006

Hail the Libyans!

Somewhat less than two weeks in Lith haven’t been enough to make me return completely refreshed. Obviously it was great to be with A. and the children again, we had all missed each other a lot. R. is going very fast now, talking, mischievous. T. was difficult to handle, sweet but won’t listen and has to be put right quite harshly at times. M. doing OK. He may not be changing physically right now, but last night when we went out together for a walk I was amazed how he is maturing at the age of 7. M. and T. are looking forward to going to school on Monday, but start missing Africa too, or at least that is what they say.

We decided I would come back for one week in three weeks in September, and not wait until October. I am a bit worried about the amount of domestic work A. has to handle on her own, even though she is the last to complain and, as I said earlier, seems to be happy to be on her own. But leaving her on her own with four children as of January for M. and T. to finish the school year in Holland doesn’t seem to be such a good idea to me anymore. We’ll see.

The roots issue, or the question where we will settle down eventually, remains. We like our two-bedroom holiday cabin in Lith, but a real place for the next decades and possibly to retire with A. eventually (there, I said it: the R-word!) remains on our minds. Last Thursday A. and the children had gone to Amsterdam to the circus and I went with Peter, my friend in Oss, for a meal and a chat to Megen, a lovely old village not far from Lith. Got very excited when I saw a beautiful 3-bedroom house for sale, new but built in old style, located at pittoresque square, with a lovely view over the polders. A. talked sense into me in the evening. Moving house during a pregnancy is not her idea of a good time. Plus she wants a place big enough to host several generations in the future. Fair enough.

I did study in Holland (in libraries in Amsterdam and Oss), but not nearly as much as I should have. I remained tired throughout my time in Lith, and didn’t feel much like studying anyway. Slightly disappointed this time with the course, Public Finance Management, which is much less applicable in a development situation,or at least on my host country, than the previous one.
Tripoli on the way up to Europe wasn’t a big deal, as I only got to see the airport. The way back has been quite different though. The major disruptions which I expected due to the foiled UK plot did not affect the Libyan air company I was flying with (perhaps the fact that they used to be in the plane bombing business themselves made them less nervous? Sorry, couldn’t let this one go…) I enjoyed my 24-hours stop-over in Tripoli, even though struck by some kind of flu. I went for a walk Saturday night in the old part of town, and then to the beach front the next morning. Some impressions: big brother Khaddafi everywhere on walls and TV; almost no commercial advertisement; Hezbollah lader Nasrallah on television; clean streets; people more or less friendly, with none of the ‘hello my friend’ harassment of other Arab countries; well stocked shops, or at least where I went; lovely sweet tea with fresh mint; the sweet smell of hookahs (waterpipes) everywhere. The most impressive thing came at the end, Sunday afternoon. My hotel accepted only cash payment, and ATMs refused my credit cards. I needed another 50 euros or so to cover hotel bill and taxi ride to the airport. At just 2,5 hours before departure, and with the airport still 35 kilometers away, I was in a very difficult situation. The taxi driver, Abdurrauf, then spontaneously offered me to advance me the missing money for the hotel bill, and take me to the airport, all without even being sure my credit cards would be accepted at the airport. Of course they didn’t, and I, deeply embarassed, offered him the choice between taking some newly bought clothes or other items from my luggage, or to double the amount I owed him which I would then send to him. Without knowing me, he chose the latter. It got even more incredible when a bank manager turned up, offered to pay the driver from his own pocket and I could then send the money to him through Western Union. Apart from immensely grateful, I felt quite ashamed as well: on Saturday I had viewed the taxi driver, who had approached me at the airport, with suspicion, and now he and the bank manager were bailing me out from an impossible situation.

Even though I came back with fairly low morale, it was nice to resume work at the office this Monday morning. In spite of the inevitable frictions, we do have a pleasant team at the office. No friendships for life as far as I am concerned, but lots of good laughs, and all with a willingness to work. This being said, the boss remains his old dominant self, and I can see my role will remain under pressure. I will inevitably have to put my foot down once again before long. But that seems to become part of the routine. As long as frictions continue to be handled in a relatively good humoured way by all, I guess it remains manageable.

30 July 2006


A few hours before take-off . I will fly to Bruxelles with a stop-over in Tripoli, see A. and the children tomorrow afternoon. (even though I have just been informed that the flight is two hours late and that I will probably miss the connecting flight. O Africa!)

All in all A. and I agree that the time we were separated was easier than we expected. We talked extensively over the phone every day, and she and the children were happy in Holland. A. seems to keep up well, happy to run things on her own it seems. As for myself, I struck me recently that now I have the kind of ‘sabbatical’ I have always wanted: studying full days would have been tedious, but the combination with work is good, and I have truly enjoyed the past two months and my quiet evenings and weekends.

A productive week, and an improductive weekend. Tired as a dog, I have mostly slept since I came home Friday afternoon. The workload of the past couple of weeks together with studies are weighing heavily on me, and I don’t feel (nor do I look) particularly healthy. But I am leaving gratified and with peace of mind, which isn’t always the case when I’m going on leave.

The few remaining illusions I cherished about the diplomatic luxury life I was going to lead in Africa are now chattered: over the past seven days, I have been washing myself with a bucket of water and a plastic cup. We’ve had no running water in the morning, and only sporadically during the day. Power cuts are becoming ever more frequent, and it’s clear that the hydroelectric plant providing the capital with electricy is soon going to break down. All donor’s have known about it for years, there have been studies and more studies, but no one will move until it breaks down, causing massive humanitarian (sanitation breaking down!) problems.

I finished reading General Romeo Dallaire’s account of the Rwanda genocide. Apart from the horrific events, what struck me also was that all working for big multilateral institutions face the same problems and frustrations. The ‘we’ against ‘them’ feeling he describes when talking about HQ (as opposed to him and his team on the ground), administrative procedures, and politicians far away not taking into account the views from the field, has clear parallels with what we experience, though not with the same devastating consequences of course.

Last Friday saw another important political event in the country: Thursday late afternoon I received a phone call from State Protocol: the Head of State was to have a ‘dialogue’ with the country’s opposition, and it was imperative that all diplomats attend. In fact this ‘dialogue’was something that a committee of opposition people (= the previous regime) working all diplomatic reprsentations last week, had insisted on. They came to see us as well, and I didn’t like what I heard: they seemed to regard the armed rebellion in the North as a legitimate alternative to democratic opposition, and insisted that the President had to talk to the armed rebels. Very worrying. I told them quite sharply that a democratically elected government can only be expected to talk to those who play according to the same rules. They said that the fact that the President had been democratically elected ‘ne veut rien dire’. Imagine then that these people, when they were given the chance last Friday to speak their mind to the President in the National Assembly, in front of the nation as everything was broadcast live on radio, didn’t even show up! They had the chutzpah to declare that ‘proper protocol’ had not been followed in inviting them. They are, like the President, not in it for the sake of democracy, but for power, and they are hell-bent on getting it back, one way or the other.

To the President’s credit, it must be said that the session had real value: he spoke his mind (and confirmed that he is out of touch with some of the real problems, such as the behaviour of his army). On the other hand, he let everybody in the hall speak their minds too, and there were some very vocal critics from all walks of life who jumped at the occasion. But much of the criticism was also constructive. Again I admired the amazing eloquence of people here, in French or in the national language, no paper, straight from the heart. Following up with substance may be another matter, but they sure know how to put their thoughts to music.

I had gone to the meeting with the young French lady colleague I talked about in one of my first postings, who has become quite a presence and a much appreciated colleague at the office. We found ourselves trapped. We though we would go for at most two hours, but instead the President invited those present to intervene. The proceedings were only interrupted for ‘refreshments’ (soda and peanuts) during two massive power cuts when the lights and microphones went out. There was no programme or agenda, and we weren’t sure whether the event would go on until deep into the night, as people kept talking and talking. After 6,5 hours we simply got up left, after I saw the President yawning as well… I nodded to him in an apologetic manner, and he nodded back undertstandingly.

The two refreshment breaks in the VIP lounge of the National Assembly gave me a good opportunity to observe the President from very close up. He does not seem a very sophisticated man to me, no great talker, not much charisma. At some point I could seem him standing all alone in the middle of the room with nobody paying much attention to him. Weird for a head of State, who should really be the center of attention. He turned to me for lack of anybody better and as I was closest to him, and little of substance was exchanged. Since I had last met him he had grown a bit older and somewhat fatter, and looked tired, with bloodshot eyes (now that I come to think of it, he must have thought the same of me…). He asked who the lady was whom I had come with, and when the boss would be back from leave, that’s all.

A week ago, a new colleague arrived, a Belgian, to take over from our dysfunctional Head of Administration. Seems a nice guy. His wife has come along, and as they are Dutch speaking, she was a bit disappointed to find out that A. had left for a long time.

With more time for reflection and in-depth reading, the continent is getting under my skin little by little. That is to say, I am ever more fascinated by its problems, but also more skeptical as to solutions. Scaling down ambitions as regards the state, and stimulating things at grassroots level seems to be part of the answer. In the assignment I did for CeFiMS last Tuesday I actually wrote about the specific constraints of institution building in the context of our host country. After some hesitation (it's only a student paper, homework, after all) I have decided to share it with those interested among my readers, as it sums up quite well my own thinking on the country so far. Happy reading if you choose to, and talk to you again in a couple of weeks time.

(References to our host country have been replaced by XYZ.)

Advice on Institution Building for the XYG

1. Introduction

In March 2003, the regime of President PXX, the leader of the XYZ for over 10 years, was overthrown by a rebel army led by former army general BZZ. The ensuing transitional phase, accompanied and financed by the international community, in particular the European Union, France and the United Nations, saw the drafting of a new constitution which was subsequently submitted to and approved in a popular referendum in December 2004. Legislative and Presidential elections followed, and in May 2005 Mr. BZZ was elected president in elections recognized by the international community as being free and fair. The EU resumed its aid, suspended in March 2003, in July 2005.

With some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the world, the XYZ ranks 171th among the 177 nations in the world for which data is available[1]. Most of the country's institutional infrastructure is in tatters, following years of mismanagement, corruption, under-investment, and, as the final coup de grâce, the mass pillaging of Ministries and other state institutions following army mutinies and a coup d’état between 1996 and March 2003. Public finance management is in almost complete disarray, with no expenditure controls worthy of the name, and state revenue levels from taxes and customs insufficient to even cover state officials salaries, let alone basic capital expenditure. Salary arrears since March 2003 are now at 9 months, but 40 months when arrears of previous governments are included. Graft is pervasive at all government levels, and the rule of law is poor and for many simply non-existent. With an unpaid, demotivated and increasingly undisplined army, the present government also has to face growing security problems in the north of the country due to rebel movements and fall-out from the crises in Darfur and Chad.

As things stand, few countries in the world provide as vivid an illustration as the XYZ does of Thomas Hobbes' dictum[2] that life without an effective state to preserve order (and, it should be added, the enabling framework for the provision of the basic amenities of life) is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. However, whereas the previous regime received ever less international assistance, the successful transition to a new constitutional and democratic order has won the present government much international credit. It is determined to use this momentum to address the many challenges the country is facing.
Subject and set-up of this paper

The near-total delapidation of state institutions in the XYZ provides at the same time a unique, albeit sad, opportunity for an in-depth reflection on the types and designs suitable for rebuilding the institutions of the country. The local context is to be emphatically taken into account. The present reflection is to be a necessary input for any government efforts in the domain of public sector reform, and for donors seeking to target their assistance, not least the European Commission itself.

After a reflection on the role of the state (ch. 2), the paper discusses available options for change while considering local constraints on capacity building and public sector reform (ch. 3). A set of recommendations will conclude this paper (ch. 4).

2. What (not) to expect of the state
With the present disarray of the state in the XYZ in mind, it is important to go back to the basic question of statehood and what to expect of the state and its institutions

The World Bank's 1997 World Development Report (henceforth: WDR) provides a useful starting point for the present reflections. After decades of emphasis on a more pronounced role for the market in roles and functions traditionally assumed by the state, the publication marked an important shift in the international donor community's thinking about the role of the state by giving the state a renewed importance. It quotes market failure and equity concerns as the major reasons for state intervention. The two-pronged strategy it proposes for rethinking the state is to
a. match what the state tries to do by what it can do, and
b. increase the number of things it can do capably by reinvigorating public institutions.

Among the things the state can do, the WDR distinguishes between minimal, intermediate, and activist functions. It advises that countries with low state capability focus first on minimal or basic functions, that is, the provision of pure public goods such as defense, law and order, property rights, public health, macroeconomic management, and protection of the destitute. Among the intermediate functions of the state the WDR counts basic education and the provision of pensions and family allowances, functions which the present author would also recommend for inclusion in the short term reform objectives of the XYZ.[4]

Thus, it is recommended to limit the functions of the state to what it can do, which means in the case of the XYZ the basic functions mentioned above. Scarcity of qualified human resources and financial resources in the XYZ put major constraints on efforts and viability of ambitions. Donor aid, in the form of targeted budgetary aid and technical assistance, may to some extent alleviate these constraints and enable a minimum functioning of state institutions in the above key areas, but this will not be enough. At the same time, donors and government should focus a significant part of their efforts on the second of the World Bank's recommendations: the reinvigoration of public institutions, through reforms to make them work better. To see to what extent a reformulation of the types and designs of state institutions is viable is part of that effort, and the subject of the next chapter.

3. Options for change

Local context and constraints
When considering options for reform, it is essential to analyse, however succinctly, the specific context in which the intended reforms are to take place. There is a wide consensus on the importance of taking (national, cultural) context into account when introducing reforms.
[5] Donors’ experiences with the XYZ appear to confirm the different set of rules to which African politics seem to play compared to many other countries in the world, especially in the West. It is useful to look at some scholarly work done in this area.

David K. Leonard[6] distinguishes two premises underlying western policy analysis and management techniques: purposive rationality (the commitment to collective, formal, organizational goals) and economic rationality (the assumption that economics is the fundamental social process and that all other human transactions can be understood in terms of it). He claims that their applicability is more limited in Africa than in the West for several reasons. One of them is the fragility of most African states, which means that for a leader, government or manager to survive, political reasoning rather than purely purposive or economic rationality may take the upper hand far more easily than in other parts of the world. This observation is closely linked to his argument that, due to the egalitarianism of pre-colonial African societies and the relatively meritocratic upward mobility in the late colonial and independence periods, African elites are more likely than other elites elsewhere in the world to have extensive patronage obligations to poorer peoples and to undergo stronger moral pressures to fulfill them.[7]

Chabal (2000: 453-4) develops the point further and blames 'neo-patrimonialism’ - clientilism in which politicians assume an as it were fatherly role to the population - for the persevering absence of development on the African continent: resources are not distributed on the basis of economic effectiveness or efficiency, but between patron and client according to non-economic norms serving only to strengthen the patron's political legitimacy.[8]

Taken together, the above elements provide an adequate description of the situation in the XYZ - one could add the further complication of different ethnic constituencies which XYZ leaders have to satisfy. They explain a number of issues such as the problem of parallel structures (the Presidency, the Prime Minister's office, individual Ministers' cabinets) all interfering with work of technical sections of Ministries; the often astoundingly 'soft' approach in proven cases of corruption and embezzlement; the tolerance of conflicts of interests of high level state officials in the sectors they work in; et cetera.

Other constraints are of a geographical nature. The XYZ shares its borders with some of the continent's most instable countries, such as Chad, Sudan/Darfur, and the RDC. Furthermore, the size of its territory (the size of France, for barely 4 million inhabitants) is almost impossible to control for its underfunded and poorly equipped army. A landlocked country, the XYZ has only one, barely viable, passage to the sea, which is a major hindrance to its economic development and adds to the isolation of the country.

Decades of salary arrears and underinvestment (see ch. 1) have undermined to a catastrophic degree morale and capacities of the various state institutions, where absenteeism, laxism, rent-seeking and corruption have become the norm. Not unlike their French counterparts, state officials are also extremely aware of their acquired rights ('acquis social') and very much prone to collective action such as strikes, which can be - as it is in France – an obstacle to reform efforts.

The above caveats limit the number of viable options for in depth reform of the XYZ's state institutions.
Leaving aside options dating back to the Chinese Mandarin Empire
[9], there is an academic consensus on a number of modern times 'ideal types', which include the following: rule by bureaucracy (Weber); rule by ‘scientific management’ (Public Administration - Progressivists); rule by special institutions and regulation (New Deal); rule through entrepreneurial spirit (Reinventing Government); and rule by a combination of markets and managerialism (New Public Management).[10]

Except for the already existing, though dysfunctional, system of rule by bureaucracy (on which more below), these ideal types, if applied in their entirety, do not seem viable because:
either the method requires high quality human resources (e.g. monitoring, evaluation, contracting skills) that go far beyond the human and institutional capacities situation in the XYZ’s state institutions; or
-->the method as a whole presupposes a market environment infinitely more functional than is the case in the XYZ, which counts at the moment no more than about 30 registered (and tax paying) commercial enterprises on the whole of its territory.

Instead it seems more useful to take the present situation as a starting point. As a former French colony, the XYZ has a state apparatus very much based on that of its former colonizer. Its organisation is, on the surface, strictly Weberian[11]. However, procedures serve more often than not as mere opportunities for rent-seeking. Senior officials are replaced on a continuous basis, which makes hierachy a fluid concept in most state institutions: many ex-Ministers take up lower ranking posts after a regime change or government shake-up while often informally retaining their previous authority among colleagues and even with the new Ministers they are supposed to serve. Officials close to the President and his circle are most unlikely to be subject to the same disciplinary pressures as their peers.

These elements concur with Peterson, who finds, as did Leonard (1987), that hierarchy is ‘simply not effective’ in African bureaucracies, organizational management being limited to the span of personal rather than procedural control[12]. Instead he proposes, as did Leonard, to turn a weakness into a strength by using the imperfection of Africa’s vertical structures for the promotion of horizontal networks or ‘microhierarchies’. Evidence from Kenya suggests that such horizontal networks, ideally reinforced with appropriate information technology, can help create ‘pockets of productivity’ by uniting motivated and competent individuals from different services.[13]

Whereas purely market-oriented solutions are not easily imaginable in view of the poorly developed commercial sector of the XYZ, some elements of the above-mentioned redesigning options (as opposed to their wholesale application), in particular especially the contracting out of activities such as envisaged under New Public Management, may hold some promise[14]:
--> For the social sectors it would be conceivable to outsource activities (from the provision to the oversight of certain public goods such as health care and education) to non-profit non-state actors. In practice these will often include international non-governmental organisations, but the inclusion of local NGOs in partnerships should be encouraged to build local capacity.
--> Other activities could be contracted out if they are labour-intensive (labour is cheap in the XYZ) and do not require high levels of skill. For these the market situation in the XYZ may actually be sufficiently developed or it will be able to adapt to it relatively quickly. Examples of appropriate activities for contracting out which are now undertaken (or not…) by the state, include rural road maintenance and urban sanitation.
--> Finally, if proper tendering procedures could be guaranteed, one could envisage contracting out certain state activities particularly prone to rent-seeking and corruption, the correction of which would have immediate significant effects on the State's coffers and hence its capacity to honour its internal (salaries and pensions) and external (debt servicing) financial commitments. Examples customs operations in the XYZ, or inspections in the diamond producing and trading sectors.

The most logical approach would seem to be to set out by addressing those sectors and area's where positive results will have an immediate result for the population at large, thus strengthening the government's credibility and hence improving political stability[15], while at the same time strengthening the state's financial health and thus operational capacities, as well as its international credibility – not least with international financial institutions - in terms of governance. Proper care should however be taken right from the start by government and donors alike to reinforce institutional capacity for the contracting and monitoring of the different activities.

Incremental change
In view of such characteristics as the country's political instability and the perceived need for consensus, it does not seem feasible to introduce radical changes across the board at once. Experiences from countries as different as New Zealand and China suggest that ‘big bang produces change, but, beyond change, results appear unpredictable’
[16], and that far reaching reforms have a better chance of acceptance and hence success even in authoritarian states when introduced incrementally[17].

4. Conclusions and recommendations
It seems evident that the XYZ, in the delapidated post-crisis state it is in, does not easily fit any of the historical ideal types of governance and their respective recommendations. Realism, perhaps modesty, as to the possible extent and speed of reforms, and at the same time a firm determination first and foremost to get the basics right, seem of paramount importance. In line with one of the recommendations of the WDR, ambitions as to what the state ought to do, should be adapted to what the state can do.

Given the the country's tumultuous recent past and it present fragility as a nation, the leadership is as yet in no position to jeopardize political stability and social peace. Experience in other countries suggests that one should have no illusions about breaking up neo-patrimonialism and informal networks that go across institutions and hold back the development of the Central African Republic as they do in so many other developing nations.

Nevertheless measures can be taken to contain some of its most detrimental consequences, by applying, in an incremental way, some of the market-oriented solutions propounded by the New Public Management philosophy. These could be applied to certain government services where reforms can be expected to have an immediate impact on the population's wellbeing and the State's financial health (we mentioned the example of customs services and the public health sector).

In the meantime, government and donors should strenuously work on the second of the WDR recommendations: increase the number of things the state can do by reinvigorating public institutions through investment in human resources and institutional infrastructure. In this context, it is suggested to seek the creation of productive horizontal networks involving known competent and motivated individuals within the existing bureaucratic structures.



Chabal, Patrick (2002) ‘The quest for good government and development in Africa: is NEPAD the answer?’ in: International Affairs, Vol.78, No.3, pp. 447-454
Cohen, Theodore (1987) ‘‘Defeudalizing’ the Civil Service’, chapter 20 in Remaking Japan: The American Occupation as New Deal, New York, The Free Press, pp. 378-397
Flynn, Norman (2002) Explaining New Public Management: the Importance of context, Chapter 4 from New Public Management: current trends and future prospects, edited by Kate McLaughlin, Stephen Osborne and Ewan Ferlie, London, Routledge, pp. 57-76
Flynn, Norman (2004) ‘Public Policy & Management - Perspectives and Issues’, course reader for the MSc programme Public Policy and Management, London: The Centre for Financial and Management Studies (CeFiMS), University of London
Gauld, Robin (2000) ‘Big Bang and the Policy Prescription: Health Care Meets the Market in New Zealand’, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, Vol. 25, No. 5, 2000, pp. 815-844
Larbi, George A. (1999) ‘The New Public Management Approach and Crisis States’, UNRISD Discussion Paper No. 112, September 1999
Leonard, David K. (1987) ‘The Political Realities of African Management’, in: World Development, Vol. 15, No. 15, pp. 899-910
Peterson, Stephen (1997) ‘Hierarchy Versus Networks: Alternative Strategies for Building Organizational Capacity in Public Bureaucracies in Africa’, chapter 6 from Mirilee Grindle (ed.), Getting Good Government: Capacity Building in the Public Sectors of Developing Countries, Harvard Institute for International Development, Harvard University, pp. 157-176
Schick, Alan (1998) “Why Most Developing Countries Should Not Try New Zealand’s Reforms.” World Bank Research Observer 13(1):123-131
N.N. ‘The Evolving Role of the State’, Chapter 1 of the World Development Report 1997, Washington D.C: World Bank (referred to as ‘WDR (1997)’)
Weber, Max (1922, translated 1968) Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, part III, chap. 6, pp. 650-78
Wei, Shang-Jin (1995) ‘From Marx to Markets: China’s Economic Reforms as a Megapolicy’, Chapter 9 of Great Policies: Strategic Innovations in Asia and the Pacific Basin, edited by John M Montgomery and Dennis Rondinelli, Westport, Praeger, 1995, pp. 151-159

Human Development Index for the [XYZ] (2003 figures): http://hdr.undp.org/statistics/data/cty/cty_f_CAF.html

[1] See UNDP Human Development Index figures (Sources).
[2] in his treatise Leviathan (1651), quoted in WDR 1997, p.19.
[3] WDR (1997) pp. 25-28
[4] The other state functions formulated in the WDR (1997) pp. 26-27 such as environmental protection, regulating monopolies, financial regulation and consumer protection (all classed as 'intermediate functions’) as well as coordinating private activity (an 'activist state function') seem for the moment less relevant, or at any rate unfeasible in the context of the XYZ (apart from some isolated cases such as a recent successful initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture to revive parts of the cotton sector). They should however be retained as objectives in middle and long term planning and programming by government and donors.
[5] To name but a few: Flynn (2002); Leonard (1987), Peterson (1997) and Chabal (2002) for Africa; Larbi (1999) for NPM in crisis states in general; Schick (1998) for NPM (in particular in a health sector reform context) for development countries,; and Cohen (1987) for the transposition of Progressivist Public Administration to the post-WW-II Japanese context.
[6] Leonard (1987), pp. 900-1.
[7] The same point, ‘social pressures’, is made by Peterson (1997) p. 159, who quotes Robert Price’s work on Ghana. But in fact, the phenomenon can be testified to by almost anybody working on African public sector reform, including the present author.
[8] Chabal (2000) pp. 453-4.
[9] Confucius’ virtue and trust based rule as opposed to Han Fei Tzu's rule by incentives and punishments according to measurable criteria, cf. source texts in Flynn (2004), Unit 3, pp. 4-8. The reason why these ancient types are left aside is the lack of documentary evidence as to their precise application and effectiveness, rather than for a supposed lack of usefulness. In fact, several elements in Han Fei Tzu’s philosphy, in particular the measurability of performance, can also be found in more modern practices, in particular the Progressivist Public Administration of the 1920s, and more recently, in the managerialist elements of the New Public Management philosophy.
[10] As summarized by Flynn (2004) Unit 8, p. 10.
[11] As expounded in Weber (1922) pp. 650-78.
[12] Peterson (1997) pp. 165-169.
[13] In fact, this practice can also be witnessed in the XYZ, where such informal networks are at the basis of the few ministerial initiatives that do produce results. Examples include the Ministry of Agriculture’s recent successful efforts to breathe new life into the XYZ’s ailing cotton sector; and the informal working group preparing monitoring missions of the WB and the IMF. The examples are not many, though.
[14] But see Larbi (1999) pp. 27-31 for a clear view of the risks involved in contracting out in developing and transitional economies.
[15] This coincides with Leonard's advice (1987, p. 904) to donors not to ignore African leaders' need to honour commitments to their constituencies but to put it to good use instead.
[16] Gauld (2000) p.836 on the New Zealand health sector reform experience.
[17] Wei (1995)

25 July 2006


I've just submitted my second assignment for my Public Policy and Management course, 46.5 minutes before the 25 July midnight deadline (yes, I've been cutting it a bit thin this time). It's an 8-page (2688 words, excl. bibliography) piece on institutional reform in my host country, taking local conditions and most of all local constraints (corruption, weak institutional capacity, hopeless public finances) into account. Whereas I considered the previous assignment as a bit of a joke (turning my home town into some sort of a criminal area), I felt quite serious about this one, even though learning objectives formed a sort of straight jacket when writing: I had to use 'ideal types' for institutional reform, but as the 7th poorest country in the world, our host country doesn't really fit any of them. But it was an excellent day, pure concentration and intellectual flow.

I am now tapering off with a well-deserved glass of whisky, still feeling the adrenalin of getting the piece ready before the deadline. Pure bliss, deep satisfaction. I actually think I did allright. The good mark for my first assignment has whetted my appetite for more.

The next course has already started: Public Financial Management - Planning and Performance., which will be less philosophical and more 'hands on' I guess than the course for which I have just submitted my second assignment, Public Policy and Management- Perspectives and Issues.* It is based on the work of that great teacher whose course on PFM I did in Johannesburg, and whom I am still in e-mail contact with (hi Perran!).

Puppy Dog, the young colleague working in my section, is also taking the Public Financial Management course. He has become something of a social problem among colleague since his arrival. No social capacities whatsoever, an oaf. Whereas he irritates the hell out of me as soon as he comes into my office, I actually find myself sometimes defending him in front of my Italian colleague, who is really pretending to be the professional and moral conscience of the Delegation, it seems. F... him.

I talk to A. and the children every day. Yesterday was the first time that both M. and A. were crying over the phone because they miss me. It's been six weeks since we last saw each other, and that's too long. I'll see them next Monday, two weeks off (apart from studies), lovely. Little by little A. is making progress in her battle with Dutch telecom company KPN. She finally managed to get a fixed telephone line to our holiday home, next week ADSL I hope. And then we should be able to talk to each other face to face trhough Skype, even though nothing beats cuddling the kids and A. Just a few more days.

* I honestly think CeFiMS should do something about the titles of its courses. Who would ever take a course with the utterly nondescript title 'Perspectives and Issues' on a MSc transscript seriously?!

22 July 2006

A Pyrrhic victory

The combination of being in charge of the office and having my normal operational duties produced some insanely busy days, which culminated in high tension yesterday and utter exhaustion afterwards. Never a dull moment indeed. Just to give you an idea of the daily nitty-gritty of my work here, I’ll give you a description of the past few days:
On Thursday, apart from signing off at 50-centimeter pile of payment orders and assigning another half meter of incoming correspondence, I
- received our two ‘field customs officers’ who are at the end of their mission and who in four months have been able to identify a veritable Augias' stable of mismanagement, incompetence and blatant corruption in the country’s customs services. It will take more than one Hercules to clean it up….
- negotiated in a long intense phone call support from HQ in our standoff with the Minister who was still blocking the cooperation management unit, and who had tried to bypass us by directly calling our political desk in Brussels. I was to have a meeting with him the next day on the issue, following the tough letter I wrote to him earlier this week. A good thing that our desk has finally woken up, but how sad that it took the Minister’s call, rather than our own earlier urgent messages on the matter, which basically met with a ‘sort it out yourselves’on his part;
- finished slogging through the 57 CVs sent by HQ to choose from for the recruitment of an extra staff member for my section. The first 50 candidates had been ‘shortlisted’ through panel interviews by Brussels colleagues, which had produced some curious results – one of the examples being a Czech candidate with 6 years experience as a tourist guide for foreigners in Prague, who had qualified this activity as experience as ‘external aid management’, and who had gotten away with it at his panel interview! Only 4 had actually indicated to be willing to work in our host country, and only 16 out of 50 had any sub-Saharan countries at all on their list. Using these examples in an e-mail to HQ helped secure us another seven CVs, among which the one we had hoped for, the perfect candidate, in fact the person who had worked on the job before. But I’ve lost a lot of time on this. I think my employer has a recruitment issue (oops, it recruited me as well…. Somehow Groucho Marx comes to mind, or was it Woody Allen: ‘I would never join a club that would have me as a member’).
- had to call to order a local staff member who had thought it was OK to declare through internal e-mail his comprehension for Hitler’s crimes against the Jews after having seen photos on the Internet of what Israeli bombardments have done these days to the Lebanese population on the ground. (I watched the pictures myself on the website in question and they are indeed horrifying. On the other hand I am sure Israelis will be able to show you similar pictures of the effects of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets or Hamas suicide bombers on their citizens.) The man, whom I value quite highly, had clearly not quite understood the extent of the Holocaust taboo in the Western world. I guess it figures a lot less prominently in African school curriculums, the continent having its own fair share of genocides large and small. After a very harsh going-over he apologized profusely to all by e-mail and I believe he was sincerely sorry for what he had written.
- tried, rather unsuccessfully, to calm my Italian colleague, who said he was personally aggrieved by the incident claiming he was half Jewish (there was a bit of auto-victimisation in that, I you ask me), and went to throw a wobbly in the local colleague’s office, said he would denounce him to HQs if it happened again, etc.
- discovered with the contracts and finance section that a project’s bank account requiring the double signatures of the government and the head of our office, had been emptied into the National Treasury account and closed, without us knowing , let alone approving it! Technically an act of embezzlement pur et dur. We formulated a letter that would serve as ‘small change’ for my talks with the Minister the next day.
- organised an informal welcome lunch – Dutch treat - in a restaurant for a newly arriving colleague on Saturday; had to fend off attempts by our local trade unionist, who confirmed his well-deserved reputation of a ‘bouffeur’, a free-loader, to get this financed on the office’s ‘representation costs’ rather than make people pay themselves (even though I had told them drinks would be on me, and I had chosen the cheapest sanitarily viable restaurant in town so that local personnel could afford it too). I then had to intervene in the internal e-mail row that ensued when the fiery French lady from my section seized the chance to lash out at the trade unionist, whom she despises and is ever happy to pick a fight with, which caused the trade unionist to come to me to complain about her. I laughed it all off, telling them how I loved the broadness of my job description, which ranges from doing high politics and tracking down suspected fraud, to managing a kindergarten all on the same day!
- Managed to get home before 1900, called A. and the children, procrastinated, procrastinated some more, managed to do an hour and a half of half-hearted studying. Read some more in Romeo Dallaire’s book on the Rwanda genocide, went to sleep at midnight, very tense about the upcoming meeting.
On Friday
- got up utterly spent. Couldn’t get out of the driveway as a rickety old removal truck had chosen to break down and block the road right there. The people repairing it seemed in no hurry whatsoever. A driver came to pick me up to go to work,
- the usual signing off and assigning correspondence. Prepared my meeting with the Minister,
- talked with our Head of Administration who, in his one-but-last week before his departure and clearly inebriated (with a happy smile on his face) at 0830 in the morning, came to inform me that his army friends had seen not hundreds but thousand of rebels in the North,
- went to the Minister at ten o’clock with my Italian colleague, to find the Minister with the new French Embassador: my secretary hadn’t passed the message…
- went back at 11 alone (Italian had another meeting, and didn’t feel like going to battle anyway, I suspect). And lo and behold, two hours later I came out of the meeting and basically had made him swallow almost everything we wanted! It took a lot of cajoling, to-and-froing, complaints from the Minister, but the atmosphere remained mostly friendly and polite, though tense. The cooperation management unit can go ahead along the lines we insisted on. A Pyrrhic victory, as it took us 11 months to make him give in, thus delaying the project by almost a year and cause serious trouble for our cooperation during the next year. Also, I am sure the Minister will try to come back on his word in the subsequent formulation phases of the project. But so far I am rather pleased to have pulled it off, and about the fact that it was my hardline advice to draw the line here that had paid off.
By the way, the suspected fraud turned out to be more innocent than it looked, or so we hope. Upon the orders of the IMF to unify all government funds into a single Treasury account, the Minister had made some phone calls to the local banks and told them to make a blanket transfer of all accounts. Lots of double signature accounts had thus been emptied and closed. WE've given them until next Friday to clean up the mess.
The rest of the day I paid the price for all the tension of the last couple of days. I barely managed to write a short report on the meeting and debrief the boss by phone. I was told that I looked like a living corpse, and I certainly felt like one. Perhaps that explains the successful meeting: I must have looked to him like somebody with nothing left to lose ... :-) Went home at 1530 and crashed, like the Friday before. Slept until 2000 got up to go and have a bite with Jean (my bush buddy) in a restaurant together with other friends, went back home at 2230, read some more Dallaire, fell asleep around midnight and woke up at 1140 this morning, still feeling very tired. The new colleague, whom I had organised the lunch for, missed his plane, so I’ve got the day to myself.
My second CeFiMS assignment, due Tuesday, is staring me in the face. Right now I do not feel quite capable of producing an intelligently argumented and well-referenced 8-page piece on ‘policy transfer on building organisation capacity to the leadership of a country just having gone through a relatively bloodless coup’. I hope last-minute adrenalin will help me through it this time.
Tired, but gratified. One more week and I’ll be with the family again.

18 July 2006

Why I will go to heaven

My studies are progressing. It’s a tough call, studying evenings and weekends, and easily 20 hours a week outside working hours, but so far I have only skipped study due to a few days of illness. Most of the time it is interesting, and often just fascinating. A lot less blabla than I feared, although some articles inspired me to set up a P.O.T.O (Ponting Out The Obvious) and even a BS (male bovine excrement) ranking. Furthermore there are limits to the volumes of reading on New Zealand’s health sector reforms (not such a great success if you ask me) one can stomach, but on the whole the material is very rich. It acquaints me with some absolutely fascinating issues, such as the cultural issues behind African governance issues (a polite way of saying: ‘why is Africa so corrupted’- oops sorry!). I used to think (let’s say 10-20 years ago, when I was still high up in the arcane fields of Classics and Ancient Philosophy (which I still long for, don’t get me wrong) that public administration (in Dutch: bestuurskunde, I guess) couldn’t possibly be interesting. I was wrong, as I was about economics. I now find that understanding the world one lives in through economics, political sciences, public management, etc., is just fascinating. It is ephemerous though: an article written 20 years ago must be very good indeed if it is not to be regarded as obsolete. When I was working on the PhD-thesis-that-I-never-finished-thank-you-for-reminding-me, one of my main sources was a book (Doxographi Graeci by Diels) published in 1870! At some point I will go back to it or something like it (Sanskrit, or Buddhist studies), but right now I enjoy studying and getting a bird's eye view on what I see and experience every day.
Africa figures a lot in this course. Small wonder: the continent seems to be one big ‘how not to’ guide to public management, although this means that there is a lot of scope for improvement too (not such a bad attempt at optimism, is it?). Perversely, it makes me kind of sceptical as to what we are doing in public finance reform here. If there’s one thing we haven’t taken into account it is the cultural factor, apart from more pressure and more tough talk on the ‘fight against corruption’. One fascinating insight I have learnt is that actually, whereas Westerners tend to see corruption (the abuse of one’s official position for personal gain) and nepotism as something immoral, for Africans it is absolutely immoral not to help your friends and family when you’re in a position to do so. It all depends on context. It is very dangerous not to look after your friends especially in fragile states, where one’s only basis to fall back on are the people you help and have helped. It is easy for us to be principled when there are massive safety nets to catch us when we fall. Right here you can simply die. When the President of this country declares his desire to fight corruption, while his relatives and friends are helping themselves lavishly to the country’s resources (diamonds mainly), he may not be completely faking it. He might actually have an idea of the bigger picture while having to keep an eye on his personal survival as well. As I have said before, we should perhaps not look at the issue of corruption from a strictly moral viewpoint (although most people here also agree that developing too big an ‘appetite’ is wrong) but mainly from the economic point of view: corruption and nepotism are economically inefficient, and are therefore to be fought against as ruthlessly as possible (excluding perhaps, at least for the time being, the Chinese option: public execution). Unless you don’t even buy into the maxim of economic equity, or the right of all not to live in poverty.

The above should have sufficed to bore you witless. However, should you still be reading this, I can inform you that Bernard, my diamond cutting and trading friend, was given back his diamonds and his diamond cutting factory was unsealed again. He didn’t have to pay his 1500 euro fine. Instead, they raised it to 6000 euros....

I listened to Bush’ glitch to Blair during the G8 meeting (remember I have ADSL now). They’re all taking about Bush’ comments, using the s- word. We knew that Bush was and is a straight talking hick of limited academic capacities (though no fool, far from that), and his blind support for Israel comes as no surprise whatsoever. His comments on Syria being able to stop Hezbollah in their tracks actually made sense, I think. However, I thought Blair’s grovelling and submissiveness were so much more embarassing, and the real revelation of this open mike incident.

The French have sent jet fighters to this country to help out with the fight against the rebellion in the North. Or so I thought, and so the Ministry of Defence declared. But apparently all they did was make a 20-minute detour from their flight from N’Djamena in Chad, where they are stationed. Last Friday they flew low over the capital making a lot of noise and messing up our electrical equiment, then flew back to N’Djamena. But hopefully the message hit home with some that the French will support the government.

I am in charge of the office for three weeks, the boss is on leave though he checks his e-mail twice a day. I decided last Friday not to go to the Quatorze juillet reception at the French Embassy to represent my employer, as I didn’t feel particularly well. Instead I went home, completely exhausted, and crashed for 6 hours straight, in a deep sleep full of unpleasant dreams. Work and studies taking their toll, plus being away from A. and the children. I hope there won’t be any fall-out from my absence at that reception, us being the biggest donor in town. But I just couldn’t bring myself to wait hours and hours in the sun doing small talk. The President had been invited, and that’s usually a guarantee for hours and hours of waiting. This time it wasn’t so bad apparently, he arrived only 40 minutes late, and the ceremony took only 1,5 hours longer than expected… I think I did the right thing, but I may not be the stuff true diplomats are made of.

The weekend wasn’t great. I continued to be tired, studied nevertheless, went for dinner Saturday night at a colleague’s place, had a very good time & too much of his Albanian’s father in law's homemade plum brandy & a hangover the next day. More study, pouring rain all day, missed A. and the children. Two more weeks to go. Then there were constant power cuts, and no running water – I went unshowered all day today, and I wasn’t the only one at work, as far as I could tell (and smell..).

As regards my self professed talent for writing nasty letters, there’s a big one coming up: our main interlocutor, Minister of Planning etc., keeps resisting a simple project management unit to help him, and us, in managing the major aid flows we’re trying to direct to this country. I have written a letter that, if approved by the boss, will lead us into a new fight. It was coming anyway, so better have it now. Raz-le-bol, plein le cul. Amazing how the bloated ego of one man can do so much damage to a country.
Now, as to why I will go to heaven:
  • I seem to have managed, indirectly, but by hammering on the issue internally, to force our security firm’s director to sort out his employers’ pension rights, on which he was cheating. One of our guards came to thank me personally for that.
  • Ever since I arrived I have always had a hunch that the belief in sorcery and witchcraft in this country is an enormous problem in terms of human rights, gender (mainly women are affected) and the rule of law (almost no proof required to get somebody in prison, hearsay suffices). I told a recent mission of judicial reform experts about my concerns (not shared by the boss, ‘qui a trente ans d’Afrique’, and doesn’t think this is something worth pursuing, Africa being what it is). But upon their return from the provinces they confirmed that in fact the witchcraft issue is one of the major problems in the country’s judicial system. They brough back some shocking stories, and pictures, of clearly mentally retarded people in prison having ‘confessed’ to having eaten their victims’ hearts etc. The experts said they were going to make a big deal of it in their final report, which will serve as a basis for judicial reforms in the near future in this country (or so we hope). I should have no illusions though: many of these women are better off even in the infernal conditions of the local prisons here: there are numerous and recent cases of villages where they buried such women alive…. But perhaps, just perhaps, it sets in motion an awareness, a doubt. If only we could get witchcraft out of the Penal Code, that would be a start. And I do believe that I have had a role of sorts in getting the issue on the agenda.

04 July 2006

Morale's up again

Morale’s up again. Still the occasional cramp, but it helps when you’re no longer spending significant parts of the days on a toilet or in bed feeling miserable and feverish. I’ll have some considerable catching up to do as regards studies, but it may make me a little more efficient as to digesting the materials: I’m trying to do it all perfectly, perhaps I should aim for just OK. By the way, I got my first assignment back, with an excellent mark ('Distinction'). Feels good.

Don’t worry about me. In spite of all the ranting recently I am fine. In my own way, I do enjoy the experience of working here. The things that happen are sometimes larger than life, and require considerable amounts of cynicism and black humour to cope with, but there’s never a dull moment, and that in itself is enough to keep me feeling privileged to do what I do.
This being said, it looks like the financial reform programme which I consider essential for anything else in this country, went up in smoke today, at least for the time being, due to incompetence in the Ministry.

I am still involved in a heavy debate through e-mail with perfidious Albion trying to wriggle its way out of the penalty clause (2 months rent) in the rental contract for our house. They are clearly uncomfortable with the fight I am putting up. Little by little things are moving, moving my way that is. Once we have a decision, I may publish some extracts from the correspondance. Either they pay up, or we go to court. Or, well, perhaps, nothing happens, they don’t pay penalties, I don’t sue. If push comes to shove, I actually don’t think I would really press the matter as far as going to court. I merely enjoy the verbal fight and the subtle psychological and diplomatic game.

02 July 2006

Pity me!

Here's a picture I took in 2004. I like it. It's optimistic somehow.
Personally I am in a slightly less optimistic mood. I have been struck by a stomach flu since Thursday afternoon, so for four days I haven't ventured any further than a 10-second dash from the nearest toilet. It's quite a nasty one, including massive headaches and aching joints. A test on Friday for malaria, my biggest fear, was negative, fortunately. For four days I haven't been able to do much, let alone anything of use. Not very good for studies, and I can hardly afford 4-day gaps in my study rythm.

At first I though the stomach cramps were stress related. I feel we're trying to do too much with too few human resources at the office. For months I have had the feeling of running after things instead of being fully in control. Things have been so busy that last week I didn't even have time to sift through some 50 CVs for candidates for a vacancy in my section, which would help us cope more easily with the workload.... I try to be firm and not to give in to the pseudo-solution of making longer days, but that isn't exactly helpful for one's peace of mind either. Add to that my continuing unease with the way some things are run at the office and a sense of frustration with the blockages we experience with our government interlocutors, and you have a pretty complete picture. The boss told me last Friday to be more cynical in these things: if things don't work, too bad. He is probably right, but I haven't reached that stage yet. Here you see a country going down the drain, and yet a Minister with an ego that doesn't quite match his capacities, is holding up for almost nine months a project crucial for the implementation of a host of others, for some ego-related reasons.

So far, being away from the A. and the children has been bearable, as they are doing fine. But being home alone sick is not great for morale. I talked to my friend Peter today through Skype (works perfect) and he told me to write a bit on my blog to make me feel better. So here I am, wallowing in self-pity.

Just finished a book by Ahmadou Kourouma on a child-soldier in West-Africa. Harrowing. I wonder if things could get as bad as that here. Started reading I am Charlotte Simmons, by one of my favourite writers Tom Wolfe. I haven't read much on Buddhism recently, apart from something by a Western author a little too self-important to my taste. I have found it difficult to concentrate on spiritual things lately, too much stuff going on. It'll come when the time is right again. The Dalai Lama was in Brussels recently, gave lectures and all. I regretted not being there.