Posts Tagged ‘bureaucratic obstruction’

Trust (part 3)

Over the past two days I have blogged about the contrasting trust relationships we NGOs have with communities and donors, how important they are, and yet how frequently they fall short. Both, however, are wonders of mutual respect and cooperation compared to the relationship we have with government.

I think it is hard for anyone in my position to be openly and completely honest about their relationship with government. To be sure there are positive elements; there are genuinely good people in government – well-meaning and able – and we do reach out to each other. Some government policies, moreover, can be truly enlightened to the benefit of ordinary citizens, although regrettably implementation often falls somewhat short of ideal.

Sometimes government objections are reasonably founded, or based upon miscomprehensions which are readily appreciated and not unreasonably derived. However, it can be hard to spot those amongst the general tide of basic intransigence; the default attitude that they should impede your proposals unless given a reason not to, rather than the other way around. New ideas and new approaches are greeted with suspicion: this is not the way things are done around here!

Deciphering exactly what is meant when bureaucratic obstructions are raised can be difficult, and there is no doubt that subtle cultural and linguistic barriers can play a significant part; we need to remain watchful of when we may be the ones erring. However, if you are experienced (not just generally, but with the specific culture in which you are working) and working closely with local partners, then these problems should be minimised. Thereafter you are in a world of political shadow-boxing and doublespeak, in which few things are exactly what they mean, and your real task is to decipher the real issues, and what perverse incentives may lie behind the words chosen. Then you need to respond in kind, with a tip of the hat to the justification originally supplied by the official(s), but also addressing what you hope is the underlying cause. Liberal application of per diems can often work wonders!

But finally, many obstructions are raised because your project threatens a little off-the-books sinecure or maybe bigger vested interests. A few per diems will not solve this problem. So instead we have to resort to the same nonsense; allies are sought, reassurances are given, half promises made, attention is distracted with a big workshop which conveniently glosses over the proposed transfer of power from bureaucrats to ordinary people.

Little of this will be news to anyone who has spent much time in the aid industry, and it regrettably fits all kinds of derogatory stereotypes of life in the “third world”. But where is the trust in this relationship? Donors expect us to work in partnership with government, though, contradictorily, they also fund civil society groups to add dissenting voices to otherwise untrammelled government propaganda dressed up as participatory consultation exercises. I hate it when we find ourselves having to resort to sleight of hand and political trickery. Mostly we only use it on the littlest of things, for it is no way to handle strategically important issues; these need to be properly thrashed out.

The aid industry is founded upon noble ideals, but its practice can be anything but. Is the local MP the people’s popular representative or a venal kleptocrat? What do you do when the answer is both? We want the government to coordinate but may deliberately fail to give them all the information they need. We want the government to enforce its laws but get frustrated when they do so in perverse ways. Self-righteously proclaiming oneself the saviour of poor people and riding roughshod over officious objections in their name is no solution, but then neither is following the path of negligible impact which many government officials would prefer you take.

Having the trust of local government is a vital badge for most NGOs engaged in development work, and we wear it proudly. But sometimes I wonder if it stands for anything more than a few inane platitudes from the guest of honour at our last workshop. I cling to the belief that it does, and the good, comparatively trusting relationships we have with the genuinely concerned and committed government officials is the basis for something nobler. I just wish that belief were not swamped in a thicket of dissimulation, from which the precious virtue of trust seems to have been all but extinguished.

Dilbert does Development

A larger than expected number of Dilbert comic strips seem to have a surprising connection to international development, and I note my fellow bloggers using them as illustrations from time to time. Did Scott Adams once work in the voluntary sector or is there just a lot of cross over with business thinking? The truth must be known!

This latest strip is a perfect analogy of how too many donors and aid institutions interface with government, and how civil servants engage in decision making.

Dilbert.com

Dilbert ©2010, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

(If you cannot see the right hand panes – my blog theme is  quite restrictive in that way – then just click on the cartoon to see it in its full glory on the  Dilbert site.)

Language Barriers: Real and Imagined

We are quite excited here about expanding our work into a new province. There are a couple of donors involved, and one, having wiggled their toe in the water for quite some time without achieving much, was in something of a hurry to show some results, so the preparations, at least for the initial bit of work, were quite rushed. After an initial recce visit – which went very positively with good early relationship building – we developed a plan of action almost entirely by email; the provincial officials were copied in all the relevant exchanges except for our contract negotiations with the donor. However, when our team recently showed up in the provincial town to begin work they were met by an entirely different attitude; the officials claimed they were expecting some kind of special rate for collaborating in the work (on top of standard per diems), and complained they were not fully informed.

The demands for special rates were downright greedy, unjustified (folks – this is your job!), and completely at odds with established norms (we pay the government standard rates for a reason); as such they were relatively easily rebuffed. Such obstructionist behaviour, however, is not exactly uncommon hereabouts; the real challenge is to work out why such unnecessary obstacles are being raised, and then to treat the cause, not just the symptoms. The clue was in the second – on the face of it, ridiculous – complaint of being uninformed. At first they said email doesn’t work very well in their office, but they had previously admitted to receiving all the emails, although they never replied. Then they explained that they had expected formal letters addressed directly to them rather than just being copied on a general correspondence over email.*

This is a bit pathetic. However, we can make a few more educated guesses. The emails were all written in English (otherwise the donor wouldn’t have understood). Both the provincial officials involved speak reasonable English, and it is clear they understood the emails well enough. But I had written the emails rather than my local counterpart. My use of language is very different to most local people and infused with Western norms. We can never know for sure – if they had wanted to be straight with us, they wouldn’t have invented their various complaints – but if I had to guess I would say that the officials were intimidated by my linguistic style (and choice of communications medium). They felt unable to reply in kind, and, as a result, felt as if they were not in control, and responded with a couple of rounds from the bureaucrat’s arsenal of prevarification and obstructionism.

Development workers are nearly always outsiders. Our differences are myriad; some obvious, others subtle. My local colleagues and I like to think of ourselves as experienced in what we do; my language was appropriately diplomatic and our (local) general manager did not notice anything in the emails which might have given alarm. Nonetheless we stumbled. The complaints raised were pathetic and deserve scorn, but no-one likes to feel intimidated, and we can understand when someone thus affected might lash out in some way.

Officialdom here needs to grow up, and stop requiring every little issue to be the subject of a special purpose workshop requiring people to travel from all over just to discuss fairly simple matters. Officials uncomfortable moving any faster will throw up any number of obstacles including apparently imaginary communications failures. Underneath, however, there is a very subtle but very real language barrier which takes real courage to cross.

*  It is one of those oddities of life out here that one receives 1MB emails just to invite one to attend a meeting of some sort when a two line plain text job would suffice. Instead, you get a formal letter that has been signed by the big boss and then scanned in full colour, before (to save on the stamp?) being emailed out to one.

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