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The accountability of aid

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kids in nicaragua

I came across an article in USA Today titled: “Audits: Afghan aid lacks accountability”
After seven years of work in Afghanistan, the U.S. government’s premier development agency continues to pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private contractors that frequently fail to demonstrate results, according to aid workers, former diplomats and audits by the agency’s [Ed: USAID] inspector general.

President Obama said last week he was “committed to refocusing attention and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He named special envoy Richard Holbrooke to oversee aid and diplomacy in those countries. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she wants the U.S. Agency for International Development to assume development tasks ceded to the Pentagon.

Yet USAID’s multibillion-dollar Afghanistan reconstruction effort continues to struggle. Of six different audits conducted in the last year by the agency’s inspector general, only one found a program working largely as it was supposed to. (Full)

The article lists a summary of the different projects in USAID’s $7.9 billion spending in Afghanistan since 2002 and links to the audit reports.

Apart from the fact this is rather bad news for USAID, and the beneficiaries – the people of Afghanistan-, it begs to question “what can be done to make aid more efficient”?

To me, the aid organisations function in an “aid market economy”, with the same principles governing a market economy: reputation, marketing, reporting, performance, effectiveness, cost efficiency… Not -like the commercial market- with the goal to maximize profits, but the maximize aid efficiency.

You could apply the same principles from a commercial market to the “aid market”: demand and supply. The demand being “aid organisations requesting funding” and supply being “the world’s capacity to give”.

As, the supply is limited to “the world’s ability to ‘give’ “, say x billion USD per year, each development and aid organisation is competing for those funds, which are much more limited than the need.

What if we could instigate a bit more of the “market economy” dynamics to this equation? What if, just as a commercial company has to publish their net results at the end of the fiscal year, and has to prove its efficiency in its market to its stake holders, what if we institutionalize this better, and more transparently to the “aid business”?

What if we push more to have aid organisations concentrate on net returns: both short term and long term impacts of their programs? What if donors would push more for NGO’s, UN organisations, IO’s to have their operations surveyed by external auditors, and to have the reports made public (like this one from USAID)?

Would this not only ensure more efficiency of aid? Would this also not help donors assess where their ‘aid funds’ are better invested? And in the end, increase the net benefit to the stakeholders: the beneficiaries.

Otherwise the world can spend yet another century of aid. Ineffective aid.

Interested in aid and accountability: Check “Keeping a critical eye on aid & the UN” in the “Links: Aid Resources” header in the side column.
Picture courtesy Sabrina Quezada (WFP)

Written by Peter

February 8th, 2009 at 7:33 am

Posted in Soapbox

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As an Aidworker, What Right Do We Have to Be Privileged?

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In quite a few of the short stories I published, and in those written by Enrico or Cyprien, we tried to draw a picture of how it is to live in the ‘bush’. In what we call ‘the deep field’. In the remote places of Africa or Asia.

Frida, working for a human rights organisation in Ghor, ‘the deep field’ of Afghanistan, struggles in a recent post trying to find a balance between finding healthy food, without depleting the scarce resources on the local market or flying in food, and trying to keep body and mind healthy. Or should we really eat what those we serve eat…

Comes with the ethical question ‘what make us, the aid workers, different from those we are trying to help?’ What right do we have to be more privileged? A feeling and a struggle – I must admit – has been pushed more and more on the background of my mind since I started to work from our Headquarters in Rome, even though I wrote about it at the end of my short story about working with the refugees in Goma.

I guess, the answer is: we are more privileged than those we serve. And as long as we realize that fact, and that we continue to be grateful for this privilege, the only thing we can do is to try serving those we help even better.

PS: Frida also has a photo blog with absolutely astonishing pictures of Afghanistan. Have look!

Picture courtesy Debbi Morello

Written by Peter

November 12th, 2007 at 8:55 am

Posted in Ranting

Tagged with , ,

Ham Radio, Anyone?

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November 2001. Somewhere on the road between Bagram and Kabul.

Bombed bridge and a tank stuck in the river on the road from Bagram to KabulI am not a happy camper. And that is an understatement. Before we left, I emphasized them to keep a watch for us on our monitor frequency. And now, I call them, and … nothing, nada, ziltch. The sun is already set behind the mountain tops. Even though the sky still has a hint of a dark-blue afterglow, it is already dark. And when I say dark, I mean pitch dark. There is not a single light. The headlights of the trucks in our convoy beam into a void as they negotiate twists and turns of this bombed road. They light up nothing but emptiness. And bomb craters. And little flags marked ‘Mines’. But for the rest, I can not describe it in any other way but “Void-ness”. Absolute empty-ness. There is nothing in this part of the world. There is nothing that grows. There are no houses. No-one lives here. There is only light brown dirt. Dirt and bits and pieces of mangled war-toys. A rusted tank, half buried in the sand. Or a rotor blade from a helicopter sticking from a pile of rubble. But for the rest, dirt. I can not believe this part of the world has been a battleground for the past twenty years. The last fierce battle was only four days ago. The Northern Alliance meets the Taliban. One-nil. Taliban lost and evacuated Kabul. And we moved in with the relief convoy.

Offloading the C130 earlier that day.I curse, check another frequency they sometimes use, but still nothing. The radio room is not answering. It is Ramadan, and this time of the day, the radio operators in Kabul, twenty kilometers away, are probably gone praying, or are already at the Iftar, breaking their fast. We just flew in a C130 cargo plane full of food, and I went with a convoy to pick it up from Bagram airport, few hours truck-drive from Kabul. We can’t use Kabul airport yet, as a one ton unexploded bomb sticks out of its runway. And we don’t have any deminers in yet. Nobody is allowed to come into Kabul, except twenty expatriate aid workers. I am one of them. And the only one on this road. The only one outside the Kabul safe haven. I must be crazy to do this. At any time, I expect to see the flare of an RPG coming straight at us, as rumours say there are still rogue Taliban roaming in this area. We desperately need to get hold of “someone” in Kabul to inform them this convoy is on the move, and that “someone” needs to monitor us, just in case something would go wrong.

“What to do? What to do? How on earth can I get hold of Kabul.. Hmm let’s see.” I dial another frequency on the HF radio in the car. No UN frequency, but a ham radio call frequency this time. One push on the auto-tune button and in a few seconds, the radio beeps and displays: “14.195.0 – Antenna Tuned”.
I push the button on the microphone and ask “Frequency in use?” Not a beep. I wonder if this radio is receiving or transmitting at all. Maybe that is why the radio room did not copy me. Even though all worked well before we left.
- “Frequency in use?”. Nothing again. Hmm.. Ok, well… let’s try.
- “CQ 20, CQ 20, YA5T/m YA5T/m YA5T/m , CQ 20 and by.”, I launch my call. “YA5T is my callsign in Afghanistan. With the prefix “YA”, the hams will know what country I am transmitting from.
And the world explodes on this tiny radio. Dozens of hams answer my call. From Europe, North America, Asia. Shivers run down my spine. I can not believe this. Here I am sitting in a car, driving on what once was a road, with probably dozens of Taliban waiting to take a shot at me, in the middle of bloody nowhere. And still, with this small piece of hardware, I have the world talking to me… You have no idea how this feels. YOU HAVE NO IDEA…!

It takes me one minute to get ‘ON4WW’-Mark, my friend in crime on frequency. He is at home in Belgium, I am in a car in Afghanistan, but his radio signal booms in. I pass him the satellite phone number of the control centre in Kabul –just in case something would happen- and he remains on standby for the next two hours until we safely reach Kabul.

Even though in the middle of nowhere, we were not alone. I had hundreds listening in. From all over the world. Weird stuff, hey, ham radio? How do you explain that to outsiders? How do you explain not only what ham radio is, but also what it meant to you, in your life? How it changed the course of my life in many ways? Last year, I started to write down some of these stories in my eBook.

Ham radio. A sharp bend on the road of my life.

ON6TT at AH1A - Howland Island 1993 expeditionAs I wrote down these stories, I started to realize – it does sound rather melodramatic, but it is true to state – that “ham radio has changed my life”. If no ham radio, I would not have done the Clipperton expedition in 1992, I would not have experienced the adrenaline kick that operating from a remote Pacific island gave me. I would not have done the expedition to Howland the year after. Then I would not have met Paul, F6EXV. Paul as co-operator then, and as one of my ham contest partners at John-ON4UN’s home. He would not have received the telephone call –during that contest- offering him a job at the UN in Congo. He would not have explained me what that work was all about, which raised my interest.

Less than year and one expedition (Peter I island in the Antarctic) later, I flew to Angola, for the Red Cross, on my first humanitarian mission. My job had nothing related to my education – I am a graphical engineer – nor with my professional experience – I was an IT manager in my last ‘normal’ job-, but I was to install radios. I did work which was solely based on my experience as ham operator. In the end, there is no difference between going on an expedition, fiddling around with generators, debugging antennas and raising masts, if it was on Peter I island, or in the middle of Africa. Well, true, they did not shoot at us on Peter I… But for the rest, there was no difference.
Angola, where I operated as ham with the calls D2TT and D3T later on, was my first mission in the humanitarian world, to be followed by hundreds of missions, to over a hundred countries. Never kept count how many. I did keep track how many countries I operated from. 85 so far…

ON6TT as 5X1T in Uganda 1996-1999Over the past 14 years, there were many exciting and memorable moments. Many are explained in stories on my website, and often have a mix of an exotic location, work and ham radio. Being the first to transmit ham TV signals from Zaire (now DRC), during the midst of the Kisangani refugee crisis. And a few months later to be the first on ham TV from the Vatican City. Or the 60,000 radio contacts I logged from our home in Kampala as “5X1T”, in between power cuts, baby sitting, bombings and evacuations. All the friends I made when on mission, and hooking up with people I have spoken with hundreds of times, but never met. I met them while on mission, and they welcomed me in their homes. Be it in El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, South Africa, Tajikistan or dozens more)… And even more so, they often gave me a head start for my work, providing me with much needed connections to the local PTT officials or trustworthy local telecom repair shops where I could find that long-sought-for cavity filter…

There is not one single memory that stands out. They are all different in their own way. But if there was one time where I felt *really* lucky I was a ham radio operator, it was that one night, in the midst of nowhere, in Afghanistan, just a few weeks after 9/11 !

Peter, ON6TT

This is an edit from an article I wrote for the 2007 yearbook of the Northern Californian DX Foundation (NCDXF). Check out more ham radio related stories in my eBook.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

November 1st, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Posted in Stories

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Lost Connection

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Dubai airport at night

Dubai International Airport – October 7, 2001.
I step out of the plane and look at my watch. 10 pm. Two hours to shop in the Dubai Tax Free before boarding my connecting flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.
I follow the stream of arriving passengers moving along on the first floor of the airport, overlooking the shopping area. I look at the vast crowd below. A dense mix of every possible Dubai Duty free shopping arenationality, religion and ethnicity in the world, expressed through a myriad of dress codes. From formal western suites, the traditional Arab dishdashahs, women in mini skirts mixed with those fully veiled. Rough Afghani chupans, expensive Indian silk sari’s, Berber djellabas, Australian safari shorts, Sudanese turbans, American baseball caps and Arab hijabs. This crowd seems to represent the world within one space. But the crowd is not strolling along from one shop to another in its usual way. The people are talking in groups, some with raised voices and expressive hand gestures, and others whisper. There is no laughing, nor joy but a nervousness makes the tension in the air so thick one could cut it with a knife. You do not have to be a clairvoyant to feel something is wrong.

Hundreds of people are lining up at the transit counters, below large displays listing numerous cancelled and delayed flights. The atmosphere is grim. Utter grim. I grab hold of someone in an Emirates Airlines uniform and ask her what is going on. She answers: “Have you not heard? The US started bombing Afghanistan a few hours ago. They closed the airspace above Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and all Gulf countries. No civil plane will be flying anymore for a while!”.
For a moment, I feel like the ground is pulled away from beneath my feet. “The US started bombing Afghanistan… This, we have feared since 9/11, a month ago. Retaliation. The beginning of the turmoil in the region, which will last for years. What will happen with Pakistan? How will the government react, how will the people react?”, thoughts flash through my mind as the lady explains the airline has booked hotel rooms, and buses are waiting outside.

I act like a robot: I walk through immigration, pick up my bags, and walk outside. The heat, humidity and mere mass of people crowded at the airport exit cuts off my breath. I get onto the bus and let myself fall into a free seat. I look at the crowd, the stuck traffic,…
- “Not flying tonight, are you?”, a voice says. I wake up from my reverie and look at the guy next to me. American accent.
- “No, apparently not!”, I mumble.
- “Harry”, he says as he holds out his hand.
- “Peter”, I answer, “where were you supposed to fly to?”
- “Oh, I was supposed to fly to Uganda”, he says, “my wife works there.”
- “Oh, really”, I answer, “I worked there too, left two years ago”. I try to make conversation, killing the time waiting for the bus to leave..
- “Really? You work for the UN?”
- “Yes, I do, for WFP”.
- “Oh, my wife works in the same building.. Cathy Ashcroft, maybe you know her!”. It turns out Harry is the husband of Cathy I know since years, the same Cathy I helped setting up the OCHA office in Kampala. We engage into a vivid conversation of Kampala, life in Africa, relief work and of course come back to the subject of the US bombing campaign.

After checking into the hotel, Harry and I walk to the night club, the only place we can still get a drink. In the mean time, it is already 1 am. A few men and a couple form the meagre audience, spread over a dozen tables. A small live band is playing without much enthusiasm. We take a seat in the back, and order a drink. I really really need a drink.
US bombing campaignI tell Harry about how we feared for the retaliation, how we feared how the whole region was going to react. No matter how much everyone hated the Taliban, it was still an attack on a sovereign country. A Muslim country. Would countries in the region now choose sides? Be forced to choose sides? Above all, it would mean that masses of people would be killed. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands would start moving within the country, trying to find refuge. It could possibly cause an exodus into all countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran,… Working for a front-line humanitarian organisation, I know what this would mean for us: we would go and provide aid, close to the line of fire. I think of all our national staff who is still in Afghanistan.
All of a sudden the band changes beat and a belly dancer starts her act. There is something wrong with this picture… A war has started tonight. A big one. And here we are in a dark bar, watching a belly dancer…

Tomahawk missile launched from a war shipI find no joy, pay for the drinks, say good-bye to Harry, and walk outside. Sitting on a bench near the hotel entrance, I lit a cigarette. I close my eyes, and imagine the infernos of fire, explosions, shrapnel in the black night around Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All places I have visited in Afghanistan. I can see families trying to seek refuge in their homes. I can see their fear not knowing what is going on, how long it would last, and what this would mean for them, and their livelihood. I can smell their fear even where I was sitting.
I look up. The night sky is clear. I imagine the Tomahawks launched from war ships close by. I imagine war planes rushing overhead, ten miles up in the sky. The pilots looking down at Dubai, this city of light and splendour, as they bank left and turn the direction of Afghanistan.

I was blocked in Dubai for three days. Spent the whole time in my hotel room, on email and telephone, coordinating with my team in Islamabad and with my counter parts in Rome. After three days, the air space was re-opened. I got onto the first plane that flew from Dubai to Islamabad. People were so anxious to get back home, they started a fight while boarding.
One month later, I landed in Kabul. As the Taliban retreated, they suffered quite some losses. People took the turbans from the bodies and threw them up in the trees. The turbans unruffled and for months long strips of shiny turban cloth were weaved in between the branches, floating in the wind.

It made me think of the start of the war and the belly dancer. The same contrast I found in dead bodies and their turbans floating in the wind, dangling from a tree. There is nothing poetic about the horrors of war. I understood what Marlon Brando meant in “Apocalypse Now”.

Pictures courtesy (bombing), CNN (Tomahawk), (Duty free zone)

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

October 23rd, 2007 at 11:08 am

The Atlantic, Chagcharan and Eva Cassidy

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I dropped Lana at the railway station this morning, came back home, took a cup of coffee, and sat in front of the computer. Got some inspiration at sunrise again. Wanted to write a piece about ‘how to become an aidworker’, and about something in Afghanistan.

The iPod played some random music and stumbled upon Eva Cassidy. In a flash, everything around me stopped, and the music pulled me back four months when we were racing across the Atlantic delivering a sailing yacht, the Persuader Too, from the UK to the British Virgin Islands.

Eva Cassidy. About the only music both Pete, my watch mate, and I liked. Most of the other stuff I played on the boat -I have a weird music taste, I agree-, Pete did not digg. And vice versa… But Eva Cassidy, we did agree upon.

So often, when we had the sunrise watch, we became close friends with Eva. In thoughts… Her music playing through the speakers on deck. A nice stiff breeze filling our sails. The pitch dark night disappearing and the sun climbing up through the orange-red striped clouds, lifting the mystic veil of the night, and displaying an ocean of emptiness. A total void, filled with clouds, wind and water. And a yacht smack in the middle of this infinite splendor.
The stories of this Antarctic crossing, you find here. They are displayed in reverse order, so you might have to read them from the bottom up. It is strange, now that I re-read them, it seems the stories go from very ‘business like’ through a stage of happy-madness, to an almost mystical mood. That is what eight weeks on a boat does to you..
Four months ago it was. Seems a life time ago.

Anyways, here is the story about Afghanistan I wanted to share with you:
Often we put up our radio-boosters (VHF repeaters for the techneuts amongst you) in remote places. We pay local people to guard them, otherwise the equipment disappears as fast as we can put them up. These guys in Chagcharan (Afghanistan) took their job a bit too serious. We did not really mean they had to deploy an anti-aircraft gun to guard the equipment. :-)

Afghanistan picture: Aramais Alojants. Picture Persuader Too arriving in St.Lucia: Tim Wright

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Written by Peter

March 25th, 2007 at 3:50 pm