Sunday, March 29, 2015

Per Diem is a Big Hairy* Deal

All About the Banda's
Per diem is meant to defray the daily cost of breakfast, lunch, dinner and “incidentals” (defined mostly as tips by the US Federal Travel Regulations) incurred when traveling for work. It is typically a flat rate, prorated by percent for each meal. The US government international amount seems to be set by assuming the traveler would eat all meals at the most expensive hotel restaurant in town.

Because it’s usually so ridiculously high, it ends up being closer to a salary supplement. When I was traveling abroad from the US, I considered it a small consolation prize for sitting 18 hours cramped in aisle 48H next to the bathrooms. It was a nice bonus, but it wasn’t why I worked.

Thing is, when people live closer to the margin, the collection of per diem gets elevated into an art form. It moves beyond supplement to an incentive, and for some, a second salary. For a few more, it becomes a right. Thus, its provision in your project becomes more urgent, more pressing…

…and more of a barrier to actual work.

For example: Because drivers travel frequently, they need this benefit the most often. We spend a lot of time carefully managing their schedules to avoid complaints that one may be getting more than others. As such, between all the last minute changes, time off schedules  and jockeying amongst seniority, setting the monthly schedule can sometimes feel like giving birth to a pound of razor wire. 

When I first arrived, a group of sub-partners actually threatened to walk away from an all-inclusive training in Nigeria, because they’d only take home a nominal incidental fee. Forget learning, they wanted the money.

Local governments also seem to be in on the take. To get community buy in, development organizations work hard to meet with and work through existing channels (such as local district executive committees).  Unfortunately, some committees refuse to convene unless they receive per diem! I recently discovered that one such committee charged three different organizations for the same meeting. Coordination and communication being what it is (fairly informal) this was only discovered after the fact.)

Imagine if you were just an average constituent; how would you afford democracy this way?

If I let it, the Per Diem Issue feels like being hijacked by the people we want to help, off the backs of people we want to help. Aside from wasting resources, it expends a ton of organizational and emotional energy. Policies upon policies are created. Schedules are scrutinized. Meetings turn tense. At the end of it all, precious, valuable work undone. Even now, as I write, I feel the bile rise. If donors really wanted to see where their time and money were going, my bet is on this.

The solution here isn’t easy. How do you move someone from considering per diem as a right to a nice supplement? From beating the system to doing your job? The answer lies in the rat’s nest of macroeconomics, global inequality, choices and personality.

There’s nothing wrong for having the costs of your job be covered. However, how does this translate when everything has a cost? 

I contextually understand, but it’s a culture shock every time I run into it. This is consistently where my Midwestern no-nonsense work ethic rams like a sledgehammer into my carefully constructed attempts at cultural sensitivity. Why are you even here?! I want to scream. Do you care so little about helping others that you’d kidnap the entire program over a measly $8?  We more than likely end up paying, because we have indicators to hit, targets to achieve. But I hate every conversation about it.

I try to have compassion. I try to remember being squished in 48H, dreaming of what I would do with that extra money. But mostly, every day I’m reminded: Per Diem is a Big Hairy* Deal.

*Not the original adjective.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Five Things that Have Surprised Me About Life In “The Field”

Bean field, feeling misunderstood
1) Every work place has “a field” – whether a country office, district office, or literally, a field of beans. Headquarters is, likewise, relative. They all equally feel misunderstood by the others. 

2) The importance of having a back-up for the back-up. To get a simple phone call through to headquarters, I keep two internet connections, one dongle, a cell phone and a landline on hand. For a local call, most folks use two phone numbers on two different networks, text, or even WhatsApp to get through. Constant problem-solving, creative thinking, bobbing-and-weaving is a must.

3) Streamlining does not always equal most efficient/effective (see #2). Why don't we just....? All that diversifying makes it tempting to cut through the red tape with simple solutions. Sure, it might make sense in one context to buy goats from all one vendor. One set of paperwork, one contract. But spreading the risk amongst three or four vendors ensures that if one overstates their capability there’s enough of a back up to keep the distribution on track. I call it the Not All in One Basket approach. It's exhausting, but not as exhausting as explaining why there are no goats.

Proudly displaying mango #11
4) I wouldn’t have interpreted it that way, but…it works. In an attempt to keep track of our office inventory, our gardener numbered each one of the ripening mangoes in the yard with a magic marker. I once also worked with an office manager who knew the project was underspending, so she stock piled over 100 bottles of toilet bowl cleaner, toilet paper and other cleaning supplies in an effort to increase the burn rate. I am constantly reminded that procedures need context, people need guidance, and it's ok to not take ourselves too seriously.

5) Waiting is the New Doing. When our car ran out of gas (because we didn't follow #2 and get gas when we were still at half tank and trying to streamline our stops) and the only station within 100 km hadn’t had electricity to pump in 14 hours, there was literally nothing we could do. So, we sat in the station with a coke and a samosa. Several solutions eventually revealed themselves (ending with the electricity magically turning on.) When in doubt, wait it out.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Development Myth

Here come the goats! Here come the goats!
When I first moved here, the realities of what I thought my job would be and what it actually turned out to be was a bit jarring. I imagined I’d be delivering of goats to women-farmers while they sang, danced and ululated around me in the sunshine of a bucolic farmyard. Instead, I’ve developed a hunchback and squint-eye compiling bid matrices and no-conflict-of-interest forms in triplicate that justify why Fatso Investments (name of real firm) has the best goats for the best price.

Complaining one night over beers, a good friend of mine (who works in the UN system) laughed and then advised. “Remember, your job is not to do your job. It’s to cut through all the bureaucracy to enable someone else to do their job.” I laughed, ruefully.

This perspective just doesn’t mesh with the humanitarian stereotype. You know, the one of a Westerner who has assimilated perfectly to their adopted homeland. S/he lives in a mud hut, happily without electricity, eating street food, and cheerfully taking public transportation. They speak the language, get all the formalities correct, never point their feet where they shouldn’t. As such, they are able to do really effective cool stuff. They hand out blankets to AIDs orphans, mobilize community health programs, and rehabilitate boreholes with a toothpick and a smile.

I will never be one of these people.

I used to feel so guilty about this. Sure, I’ve eaten street food and murdered “thank you” in eight languages, but I can never quite move from “clumsy outsider” to “effective local”. I like roadside samosas as much as the next person, but that doesn’t make me Indian. I can admire, adopt even, certain things out of respect and even, enjoyment. I can slow down when I talk. Share my food. Sit in the driver’s office and get the gossip. But I’ll never be Malawian. The best I can hope for is cultural competence, not fluency.

I’ve gone round the emotional mill on this (sad, angry, frustrated, guilty). The development stereotype tells me that I should be good at all these things - but I’m just not. I have spent the last ten years carrying residual guilt about this until, last week, something caught my eye on a recent post on AidSpeak. J., was expounding on the skills needed to be a good development professional:

The value that foreigners (us) bring to the table is less and less about our knowledge and understanding of the details of local culture (local staff usually know organically in a few seconds those things that take us months or years of study to get right), or our ability to endure harsh conditions (the fact that we might be able to live like refugees for a few days almost never impresses real refugees), and more and more about our ability to engage with the global humanitarian system.

Suddenly, I feel so much better. I've stopped beating myself up over this. 

The truth is, I don’t think these people actually exist the way we think they do. And even if they did, there’s an awful lot of tedium that you don’t hear about in the run up to becoming that effective. Never once do you hear about cleaning data sets or editing quarterly reports. No one ever spends hours waiting for the lights to turn back on, or the government official to show up or fixing crashed computers.   But those things need to be done.

This misconception has to change. We have to start being honest about what development work looks like. And sometimes, it's boring.

Our lead farmers and local staff know Chichewa and how to castrate a goat much better than I do. But I do know how to jump the hoops of procurement and the industry terms (allowable and allocable anybody?) to get those darn goats in the first place. I can practically quote 22 CFR 226 in my sleep. The thing is, I never valued these things as “skills” because that’s not what I thought a “good” development practitioner did. The mundane is always overlooked, undervalued.

That’s not to say understanding local context is unimportant for expats, or examining the intricacies of the global humanitarian system are impossible for locals. I’m just saying: Let’s each play to our comparative advantage. My comparative advantage will never be goat vaccinations and chatting away in Lao/Chichewa/Hausa. It is in understanding and following a donor system, their regulations, and smoothing the way for smart, creative local staff who understand their culture and their context to do their job.

My friend was right, it's not my job to do my job. It's to pave the way for someone else. That realization adds so much value, so much relief, it almost makes the paperwork...palatable.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Grit and Resiliency

This week I came across the podcast, Mission Creep. While still new (and not as slickly produced as say, NPR) Mission Creep is refreshing to listen to, as it brings mid-level aid professionals together to discuss “fresh and frank” development issues. I appreciated the non-Amero-centric views and diverse newspaper and website references (who loves the Guardian? I do).

In their January 2015 podcast, they discussed a recent article about grit. Specifically, how (and if?) grit is a good way to measure a successful development professional.

As they were discussing grit, it reminded me of a talk I listened to last year by Angela Lee Duckworth (link to a short video version here). Sure enough, they bring her up later on in the episode.

According to Ms. Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for very long term goals, […] having stamina, […] sticking with your future day in day out […] and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”  

Everyone knows people in their lives who have grit, whether or not you call it that. They are the ones who stick with something long after it seemed prudent to stop. The ones who work harder than anyone else, hustle faster, show up earlier, stay longer, practice more.

My high school best friend has grit: she farms with her dad, owns her own business and fosters eleven puppies in the middle of winter when they were literally thrown away by someone else. When we played volleyball in high school, she hustled after every stray ball, even into the bleachers, even as her elbows and knees bled. I’ve never known someone to work as hard as she does.

The article suggests that the concept of grit is better than resiliency to evaluate if a person will be a successful manager of development projects. Resiliency, woefully over-used yet still an industry favorite, basically means ‘the ability to bounce back after setbacks’ or ‘rolling with the punches’. Did half your staff just quit? Did you indicators just double? Did your donor reduce funding? Did the lights just go off?

The hosts were quick to define grit and resiliency at odds with one another. On the one hand, grit equalled ‘pushing through’ and ‘not adapting’. On the other, resiliency was a how one changed, or rolled with it. The problem is, these things are not mutually exclusive. You have to have grit to stay in the dark while you figure out an alternative way to get the lights back on.  You have to have grit to attend yet another meeting that has been co-opted by the grandstanding government official to eventually meet the right person who can push your project forward. You have to have grit to tell someone they are not getting any more grant funding unless they can show you where the previous funds went even if you have that money burning a hole in your budget and HQ keeps yammering on about NICRA.

Granted, it’s only a thirty minute podcast, but I felt like their framing of these two concepts was off. Grit doesn’t mean be a jerk, it just means “Do the hard things.” That doesn’t mean you’re not changed by them. It doesn’t mean you don’t roll with the punches. It doesn’t mean you don’t cry internally (and sometimes externally, alone, in your office, at 8:05 am). It simply means that you show up, time and time again, and again, even when stuff gets hard. Grit is what keeps you there, while Resiliency asks "What's Next?"

Does grit equal inflexibility? Inadaptability? I don’t think so. I think grit and resiliency are closer cousins than academics would have us believe. It’s easier to gravitate towards the term grit because it’s colloquial; we can all identify. If Ms. Duckworth had been talking about resiliency, I would’ve never remembered her podcast or identified my best friend in her description.

Do I have use grit all the time? No way. In fact, I think that’s a pretty good way to burn out. Same with being resilient – even the most flexible things can break. I recently came across a great quote by Nelson Mandela: “Quitting is leading, too”. As someone who doesn’t thinks she’s had much grit lately, I love this. Both quitting and hanging tight have their moments; it’s only the timing of when and how that we have to perfect. 

Grit and resiliency are both tools we need to survive or successful at, well, anything. Jobs. Earthquakes. Marriages. Children. Just the way we sometimes need to be supple and forgiving, thankful and proud, fun-loving and hard-nosed. I love the idea of grit, I love the idea of resiliency. Do we really need to pick?

What do you think?