Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Kinshasa fearing Baghdad

I am not sure the extent to which Congo makes it into the mainstream media these days. However, I do know that in the next few months a spotlight will be on it from certain news sources, as it will be holding elections in June.

Stories referring to the Congo usually include phrases like “the forgotten crisis” and add for good measure that the situation risks “destabilizing the region.” The second statement is very true, but I don’t think this region has been terribly stable for the last few decades. Perhaps the word “again” should be added in parentheses. In the history of the Congo no leader has ever been able to secure the eastern portion, or The East, is it as often labeled, with capital letters, as though Eastern Congo were a separate country (which in many ways it is). Supporting armed movements, playing groups against each other, preventing local officials from having too much power…various tactics have been used by leaders maintain (or acquire) a grip on this region.

So what happens now that people can vote? Check out this New York Times article on the elections. I love the irony of the introduction:

“One of the angry young men marching through the streets here in the Congolese capital the other day carried a handwritten sign that summed up this country's worst fears. ‘Tshisekedi,’ it said, ‘or Iraq’ ” (Tshisekedi is an opposition politician who’s so into opposing things that he’s even opposed the elections – trying unsuccessfully to get his party to boycott the earlier referendum on the constitution).

In a country that has had dozens of rebel movements, eight foreign armies fighting out their own conflicts on Congolese soil, tens of thousands of women raped, and 1,200 people dying per day in 2003 as a result of the five-year conflict that still hasn’t gone away - I really think the Iraqis have more to fear from a Congo-type situation than vice-versa.

So what does “or Iraq?” mean when the journalist says that it “sums up this country’s worst fears?” That they will have civil-war style violence? Already happened and continues in some forms. That they will be invaded by a foreign army? Precisely what happened in 1998 and 1999. That groups will dissolve into sectarian violence? Check out Katanga, Ituri and the Kivus – all provinces have violence fissuring on ethnic lines.

I am more impressed in the element of globalization that would lead a protestor in Kinshasa to put Iraq on his placard than the journalist’s assessment of the deep meaning on this statement.

This does not mean I am not concerned about the fate of the Congo following the elections. I just think that we need not look any farther than the Congo's history to express our fears.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Crazy muzungus on wheels

Last night I was driving 20km/hr (12mph) on the main road. While those jeep commercials make four-wheel-driving look like soooooo much fun, when you have to bump and jump every hole and ravine, you pray for pavement after day 1. The context of this story - It was night and the road was quite slippery from the downpour that had happened that afternoon. I was scanning for the turnoff where a friend lives. A motorcycle was a behind me a bit.

I noticed a baby goat in the road and slammed on the brakes. I looked in my rearview mirror and the motorcyclist pulled up unsteadily next to me. He threw down his bike and was not very happy. In a similar situation in the U.S. I would have had three thoughts: "did I cause an accident/was it my fault/is the other person okay?" Here I thought "no/no/yes" mouthed that there was a goat in the road and gave him a "give me a break" look. Seriously, if this guy fell because of me he's not a very good driver. Plus, he didn't fall, because he pulled up next to me to express his discontentment. I'm a bit tired of having absolutely no room for error because I'm a muzungu (white person). My once friend splashed mud on a guy on a motorcycle with her truck as they were passing in the street and he demanded she buy him new clothes!

I turned onto the dirt road where my friend lived. The motorcycle followed me, not that I was too worried about this guy, as the car was locked and I had my cellphone to call in troops in the unlikely event I needed help. The road has a bit of a tricky uphill, and a young man and woman moved to the side as my truck struggled to go up. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out, since I kept sliding back. I tried a few times. I think the motorcycle tried to follow up once and then got the heck out of my why as I slid back towards it. This guy probably became convinced that I was actually trying to kill him, because he left. I popped out of the truck, smiled at the couple, asked if there was crazy guy on a bike around (I think the look they gave me was "nope, but there's a crazy white girl in a truck!"), and locked the wheels so I could engage the four-wheel drive. Two attempts later I made it up the hill to my friends house.

I know what you're thinking: "was the baby goat okay? Did the little guy make it?"

Indeed he did.

Friday, March 24, 2006

One year in Congo

Monday was my one year anniversary in the Congo. I feel like avideo montage should be playing in my head to some cheesy song (like that 80s rock song with the chorus "I catch some rays down in Africa"). I picture clips of me riding in the landcruiser or in a helicopter and chatting with a local village chief. It would probably be the kind of clip that would make me want to be an aid worker if I weren't already one. Then I could have a nice sad song playing and you'd see a more realistic version - eating cold beans and rice, throwing water on my kerosene stove when I tried to use it to heat up my cold beans and rice, having my laptop battery die right as I was getting to climax of a movie, and that great look on my face when I found out the spare parts needed to repair our generator were not available in Congo. I'd like to reflect on some of the special moments and the ones that pushed me over the edge.

March 2005 - I arrive. My first impression on the road into Kinshasa is a huge church with a tin roof, shaped like a barn. Lightenly reflected off the roof as we drove by in the rain. I was listening to Arcade Fire on my ipod.

May 2005 - I breakdown and start crying at my friend Rashid's house after finding out that I would not be on the flight manifest for the flight the next day to Kinshasa (I didn't know that I had to fax a UN office my travel approval. It had been a bad week, and this was the last straw). Rashid's a pretty strong guy and nearly flung me across the room when he patted me on the back, but he handled the situation quite well. Luckily I had the good fortune of having the breakdown in front of a guy who worked for the UN office that handled the flight manifests (he happened to be stopping by). This guy was my neighbor and a colleague and I had always wondered how to get into his good graces. Apparently appearing nice but emotional unstable does the trick - my name was on the manifest the next day.

August 2005 - I wake up at 5:30am in a village. No one else is up, the sky is just getting light, and the village is completely silent. A rare thing in Congo.

August 2005 - My friends who are colonels in the Indian army hold back my hair as I throw-up at their hospital. They take turns keeping watch in the room and make me a special rice and lentil dish that is gentle on the stomach.

October 2005 - I fly in a small cessna plane over Maniema and see dozens of separate plumes of smoke from the fires clearing bush. Lightning strikes far off. The plane shakes. My friend Emmet and I exchange "should we be worried" glances. He smiles and I am no longer tense about the plane.

December 2005 - I sit on the arm of an oversized chair in Ngili airport in Kinshasa, after paying my first and only bribe in the congo to get into the VIP room. I look around, wondering where everyone is going and how they ended up in the Congo.

March 2006 - I chat with friends at the South African base; like so many Friday nights before. Someone snaps this photo. This small group is South African, Uruguayan, Peruvian, Italian, American, Russian, Swiss, German and Dutch.

Now off to that base for another Friday night in Kindu...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

"The Business of Giving"

Today’s been a lazy Sunday. Sitting on my porch over-looking Kindu’s main road, wearing my straw cowboy hat and tanktop, reading the Economist. If only I had a margarita. Sounds a bit like a jungle paradise but I stay confined to my porch because I’d rather not engage with Kindu. I just want a break from the Congo today. But Congo is hard to ignore – the keyboard equivalent of karaoke is going on a few doors down and Kindu’s few motorcycles and trucks seem to be set on buzzing past my apartment at full speed.

When I saw the Economist on my friend’s couch yesterday it was like the light of heaven shining down on a holy artifact. Seriously, the sunlight was aimed straight at it and was being reflected. A little holy grail of semi-current political info. I do keep up with news on the internet but I miss newspapers and magazines. One of the disadvantages of being in the middle of the Congo is not being able to participate in discussions on the bigger picture of development and humanitarian assistance – I spend most of my time focusing on the day to day management of assistance. One article got my brain back in analysis mode.

This issue (February 25- March 3) has a large section on "The Business of Giving." It’s about the increase in philanthropy and the business-like approaches of funding organizations and projects tackling poverty and other modern-day problems. The gist of the article is that new philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are taking some new spins on philanthropy in order to try to get the maximum impact out of their work. I was glued to the article.

What I find most interesting are numerous implications on how non-profits can learn from the for-profit enterprises (i.e. if we are so smart to make millions why not apply or skills the world’s problems?). The article discusses different approaches – pairing non-profits with for-profits in certain ventures, social entrepreneurship (applying business practices for social ends), venture philanthropists (couldn’t find an exact definition, but basically similar to venture capitalists, but targeting and supporting upstart social enterprises), corporate philanthropy (philanthropic activities by corporations) and expanding the non-profit enterprises of management consultants.

I couldn’t help but feel that the article started with the assumption that non-profits are at best inefficient. Take the following statements:

“The social sectors do not have rational capital markets to channel resources to those who delivery the best results.” (quote from Jim Collins, management guru).

“Both governments and non-profits have traditionally been run inefficiently.”

My personal favorite (regarding gearing MBA grads to non-profits):
“A bright young person can have more of an impact on any non-profit in his first five years than on Goldman Sachs, which is full of bright young people. In their first year they could make ten suggestions that would improve the non-profit operations because they have been trained in practical business ways of thinking.” (quote from Mr. Schramm of he Kauffman Foundation).

Ouch. So, in a nutshell, non-profits don’t have bright young people and we have no business sense. Why didn’t he just add that we’re also unattractive and without charm, just to take another dig? Only ten suggestions? Sounds like with all their practical business sense they could show us the light on at least a hundred things! And perhaps on our personal lives as well! Mold us in your image!

Alright, enough teasing of the stiff business types by the misguided non-profit NGO worker (who, by the way, does have a masters degree, speaks French fluently, and can name the capitals of all fifty states). I believe that the desire of the newly superrich to increase their actions in working against poverty is exciting, though I am more skeptical of the corporate action (more on this in a bit). Action and debate promotes innovation – and that seems like we can expect some. But I have some concerns as well.

Why do non-profits exist? Usually to address problems that are not being in their eyes properly handled by a government. Why do governments (and not the private sector) provide social welfare systems? Because the supply and demand nature of economies is not geared towards the provision of certain public goods, such as universal healthcare and roads, and poorer people would be excluded from accessing quality services and goods in an unregulated market approach. This makes one wonder about the appropriateness of the business-oriented approach, as private market generally leads to the need for non-profits! However, this debate in more about what private enterprises and like-minded foundations can add, rather than one on the privatization of social assistance.

One question I have is whether “venture social capital,” “social investing” and for-profit models for non-profit enterprises could encourage innovation by supporting activities that might be too far out for the normal donors, do these same models risk focusing more on financial sustainability than impact?

I think this question is particularly important because often the bigger then need the higher the cost – at least in terms of vulnerable populations. For instance, getting health access to families that already live in areas with some road infrastructure is much cheaper than targeting areas only accessibly by plane, but the needs in the isolated areas will be higher precisely because they are isolated (less livelihood opportunities, economic activity). A business-oriented cost-recovery scheme would therefore be more likely to succeed in the first case than the second. If the results are to be measured more in terms of social impact than financial (which ain’t easy), arguments can still be made that the overall impacts will be higher in area that have a lower cost per beneficiary as more people could be served. In both scenarios the groups with the higher needs will be less likely to be targeted. I would be interested to know if the ventures being supported in developing countries by this “new giving” are mainly geared towards the poor (but not poorest) and middle class. If it is, is this necessary a bad thing? Let’s keep in mind that the majority of development and humanitarian assistance comes from governments and international institutions. If other donors address the needs of the more vulnerable groups and tend to ignore the needs of the middle class and borderline poor, than the combination of public assistance and new philanthropy is quite in harmony.

What worries me more are the measures of success. In business, success = profit. In one of the above quotes, the concern was to put resources with those who deliver the “best” results. However, focusing narrowly on the achievement of a certain objective risks removing the problem from the context. How do you compare a program that can supply 50,000 families with access to malaria drugs but by-passes or minimizes the role of local government structures with one that uses the same money to reach 20,000 families through government sponsored centers, which builds the capacity of the local government? MBA boys, break out those spreadsheets and share your eternal wisdom.

Finally, there was also a section on corporate philanthropy. The article states that “corporate philanthropy is also becoming more important in developing countries, where firms may feel the need to support local communities by contributing through their foundations to healthcare, education and so on.” It cites the example of how Nestlé invests in “milk production systems” in developing countries to “ensure a reliable supply.” Aha. I see. Nestle just wants to help. The article failed to mention that Nestle has promoted breast milk substitutes in developing countries, which is a big no-no. In addition to being against sound health advice to promote the well-being of children in countries where living to the age of five is not a given, even Neslon Mandela has refused donations by Nestle for his charity. And they are just trying to “promote supply.” When poor families water-down powdered milk, children are malnourished. Do we really have to learn that mistake again and then give Nestle a gold star for cloaking corporate irresponsibility with philanthropy?

Let’s keep in mind that the aid industry is already often tied to business interests, and that this partnership is often to our detriment. For instance, the U.S. government provides the bulk of its assistance in food aid in order to cater to American farmers, even though this is extremely costly and minimum standards in food assistance stipulate that food should be procured locally or regionally if the market can support this effectively. Efforts to end this practice have also met significant resistance from shipping companies, who make millions in the transport.

The bottom-line: A private enterprise approach to solving the problems facing the world is not new. However, the attention given to it by the rich and powerful “new philanthropists” could have an incredible impact on world poverty and their desire to use business-like approaches could allow non-profits and other actors to expand market-oriented activities and increase their effectiveness. But rich guys, I beg you, just as everyone is in a rush to tell NGOs how to run like a business, bring NGO staff aboard at your foundations, if you haven’t already. It’s taken decades of learning the hard way to get as good as we are, even if that’s not good enough for you. Viewing global poverty through the eyes of a businessman has its limits and its only in recognizing those limits that this partnership can work. I’ll be leaving the Congo by August – have your people talk to mine.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Pass Go, Pay $200

I would love to make a Congolese version of the game "Monopoly." In the U.S.A you can find Monopoly versions geared towards specific cities and sports team. Why not countries? For the Congo version, if you got into jail you could bribe yourself out. Passing go you'd probably pay $200 for a visa.

In Monopoly I used to go for the Railroads. This would be an interesting property in the Congolese version. You could buy Lubumbashi, Kindu, Ubundu and Kisangani. But would you make any money? Let's use problems currently facing the SNCC (Congolese Rail Company - owned by the state). I'll be an NGO player who lands on your space (shall I be the boot? The little dog? How about a miniature land cruiser?).

First, you charge me for the wagons I need to rent from you ($27,000 for eight wagons). Not bad for you. Then I must compete with the military (represented by the cannon), who's also landed on your space, and wants to ship rations. The military takes priority but the general then uses the wagons to ship his own building materials to his home town. Then you keep my money and tell me that the wagons aren't available. I stay on the space for a couple of weeks and I do get four wagons, three of which get stuck along the way when the engine breaks down. Six weeks later I am still on your space, you still have my money, and my personal bank is diminishing because I'm paying a hotel rent all the while. Meanwhile, your space has also been visited by many small vendors (represented by the top hat) who start protesting since their merchandise has been in your warehouses for six months and they are going out of business. You have already spent the rent that they paid without delivering their items.

So now you have several irritated players, $27,000, and a general who will probably invite you to his housewarming party (the downside is that it might be broken up by a bunch of angry soldiers that have not received their rations and have been preying on the local population in the meantime).

Who wins? Because the train delays are increasing the price of basic goods like salt, cement, and soap in Kindu, putting people out of business, and delaying humanitarian assistance, it's clear who is losing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Driving Down and Up a Hill in Kindu

My truck rumbles down the hill
An upside down wave of dirt and pebble
Three merchant stands cluster at the bottom
Like the nights before

The stands are shrines with candles
To the cigarette gods
To the candy goddesses
Watched over by women
Worshipped by children

I drive slowly by
Leaving no offering
And up the crest of the wave
To find another blessing

Friday, March 10, 2006

Pagne Princess

If I weren't so white, I'd almost look Congolese (pictured with my colleague Martin, who does road rehabilitation work).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

International Women's Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. On Monday my colleagues (all of whom but one are men) asked me if I would be marching in the parade.

Me- “What parade?”

Them – “The women’s day one.”

Me – “Tomorrow's women’s day? And a parade?”

Them- “Yes. You HAVE to march. You are our (fill in the blank of my organization) woman!”

At this point they stepped into action. First, I needed to buy the pagne (brightly printed cotton material) that our partner organization was wearing. It’s essential that we all have matching outfits. So we grabbed one a guy who knew the correct pagne went to the shop where the women had bought their material. Mission 1 accomplished. Of course it’s not what I would have chosen (stripes AND polka dots, with blue, red, yellow, white and black. Oh my). We dropped this guy back at the office and I continued with a male staff who works for me as a field supervisor. We went to the tailor, who was busy with many matching pagnes, but agreed to step into action to make mine. My first rule – absolutely no puffy sleeves. Some outfits here have puffy sleeves that would even put a 1980s prom dress to shame. I just said “something simple, pointed to a sketch, and he got working.” I stopped by three hours later, still with my colleague, who insisted on seeing the mission through. I sat for thirty minutes as they finished the dress. I rarely spend time in town, since being a white person means just being stared at, and there’s really not many places to go. So I liked just sitting in this little shop, which was pretty much a shack with no glass on the windows. A little girl sat next to me and we talked a bit. I explained that I worked in town and she told me about school. I tried the dress on. The guys thought it was nice but it needed a inch or two taken in, which they promptly did. When I put it back on they were quite happy and very impressed with both my appearance and their work.

Pagne - $4.00
Tailor - $3.60
Total - $7.60
Me wearing a Congolese outfit- Priceless

So yesterday was the actual parade. I was invited by the organizers and got to march with the first group of prestigious women (wives of leaders. No matter than I have no husband). The I sat back in the pavilion as the other groups passed. After three hours, they were still going. MONUC women. Cleaning women. Business women. Women from local associations (they are MANY. Who knew?). Women from every church known to man. Basically, thousands of women who all did a little dance in their matching pagnes as they marched by. By hour 4.5, my colleague and I realized we needed to escape. This thing was going to keep on going till nightfall. So I pretended to take a phone call and snuck out of the pavilion. Five minutes later he left, and walked the motorcycle to the road, where we met up and fled. Sitting side-saddle on a motorcycle is quite a balancing act!

When I explained that this day wasn't really celebrated in the states, my colleagues were aghast. It was like saying we don't celebrate Christmas. I'm not sure how I will break the news about Parent's Day and Teacher's Day (which also have parades).

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My man Congo uses me for my money

My friend Emmet and I exchange care packages. He actually lives in a worse place than Kindu – he is based in the no-cell-reception and not-a-bar-in-site (as-if-they-have-beer) town of Lubutu 150 miles north of me. I sent him some New Yorkers and a Vanity Fair via their logistics department. Can you imagine that these magazines did a two-day motorcycle journey through the jungle? Perhaps I should write the editors. By plane he sent me his Six Feet Under DVDs. Bless him. So today he was on a plane that made a half-hour stopover in Kindu. I drove to the airport and sat outside until the small Cessna plane landed.

Emmet looks like he just stumbled out of the jungle, even though he’d been in Goma all week. Unshaven and ruffled hair. We hugged and I gave him his latest care package of magazines and CD I burned. I also said hello to the Airserv pilot, who I’ve flown with a few times. Congo is a very small world for a large country.

As I drove out of the airport parking lot I noticed a bar/gate that was across the road. Very new. In fact, it hadn’t been down on my way in. After waiting a few minutes for the ever so friendly guy standing next to the gate to clear some motorcycles coming from the other side, this guy lowered the bar back down so I could not drive through. Then he came up to my window and told me that I had to pay the parking fee.

A bit of history about the Congo. One way to earn money – if you have any official or unofficial amount of authority – is to create some sort of barrier and harass people for money that cross it. You can call it a “tax” or “fee” or call it nothing at all. Most give some sort of receipt, which apparently validates the action. At the airport in Kinshasa there are three barriers that are small pieces of rope, each with soldiers. This rope could be cut it’s so thin. But yet our protocol person pays them off a few hundred francs so we can pass.

So now this man stood next to my car with a ticket book and told me I owed 200 francs (50 cents) to the RVA (airline authorities). Now, if I felt that this tax were really going to be used to improve the airport and aviation safety, I would pay. Nevermind that any plane ticket I purchase for civilian airlines includes $40 of taxes. But this money will just go into their pockets. They cannot tax UN vehicles and I told him that unless he showed me a mandate from the governor saying that this tax exists and that humanitarian agencies must pay, I was not paying. When he wouldn’t lift the gate I stopped my car and told him I would be walking back to town. He said I couldn’t leave the car there, so I told him he should open the gate. He eventually did.

He had said that the governor was not the only one who could levy taxes, that the RVA could. I doubt it’s true, but it sums up the mentality here – we can find a way to get money from you. The police invent fake documents you could not have, the immigration people ask with a completely straight face for a $5 entry fee to Kindu, and the health department says you owe them $7 when you leave. And they really hate that us NGOs will fight tooth and nail to not pay – we have the money, we are here to help, they have receipts for us….what’s our problem?

In Kindu I would estimate that 85% of vehicles belong to the UN, 10% to NGOs and 5% to Congolese. If MONUC cannot be taxed, this means that this fee hits NGOs above all others, which really makes me angry. I feel like working towards development in this country is like trying to make a bad relationship work. I want it to work, but my man Congo is just using me for my money.

I am happy that people like my poems.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Mountain goats in Kindu

Mountain goats in Kindu
Even with no mountains
They seek a view from above
A dirt hill will do

Eternal optimists
Jumping over trash
Nibbling on cans

Fate will not be kind to you
But I respect your instinct
To see the world differently
And believe in a better view