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Small talk is the only way

14 Jun

International aid is overwhelming. It’s just so… big.

There are all those big countries – Africa, Asia – which look even bigger compared with the little Northern Irish golf-course town of Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, where the G8 summit will take place next week.

There are all those big-word problems – starvation, malnutrition, disease.

And there are the big, big, BIG issues in the way of solving them – the big costs, the big local power-wielders and the big C – corruption – that is stopping that aid from taking effect.

When the G8 summit meets next week, it will be looking at the big picture. But at the same time, international governments and, in particular, the aid agencies campaigning around those big issues, need to be able to take a step back and focus on the small – small communities, small projects, small incentives and – perhaps controversially – small counter-incentives too.

Small-scale farming in Uganda (Wikipedia)

Small-scale farming in Uganda (Wikipedia)

This was the message from the Overseas Development Institute, which released its Unblocking Results report last week.

Unusually, the report looked at how international aid agencies can actually help tackle poor management and corruption, rather than focusing on the obstacles they create.

It took several success stories as its starting point from Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Uganda, covering development projects in water provision, health, pay and attendance and government policy. Details are on the ODI website, where you can also watch the Q&A and talks that went alongside the data release. The crucial link between their success was that they were all local.

And the main message was: don’t go blundering in.

A lot of aid agencies,  from Farm Africa‘s smallholder plot builds to Send a Cow (no prizes for guessing what they do), already do this “small, local” stuff.

But the crux is that these projects need to be sustainable in the long-term – and not just so they carry on when the agencies move out.

It goes for the planning too. Local people understand the benefits these projects will bring to their community. When they are involved in building the projects themselves, they have more of a stake in the whole process. It’s part of establishing business and control. And in an environment where ‘land-grabbing’ by big foreign investors is rife and destructive, it is especially important to make village farmers are part of the economy as well.

But, as the report pointed out, that there’s still the tendency for ‘external actors’ to try and give advice to local people or administrators. Not only does this come across as patronising; external actors often don’t know what’s best because, on their own, they don’t understand the cultural background that can be specific to a certain village. A health worker programme in Sierra Leone, for example, worked particularly well because it had local officials directly providing specific services, goods and improvements. But it wasn’t only that – the officials were also involved in the programme from the start. The aid agency came in almost at their request – and they were given the task of carrying it through, ensuring concrete results came out of it, and keeping it permanent.

By contrast, a budget support programme, also in Sierra Leone, was mostly built by an external aid agency, which designed the ways of punishing corruption or indiscretion among officials. That programme dealt with the direct problems it was faced with when it was set up. It isn’t proving nearly as successful as tackling new problems.

Of course, there’s always that Catch-22 question of how far you have to work with corrupt officials to get results.

But, as emerged when I spoke to Heidi Tavakoli, research fellow from the centre for aid and public expenditure, the “can’t beat ’em so join ’em” maxim can be very effective and tackle the corruption too.

Discussing “non-financial incentives”, she described how, in parts Africa, poorly-performing officials are ridiculed at large, well-attended, official meetings. A bit unorthodox in the West – but, she said, it proved highly effective in very reputation-based societies.

Again, this comes down to the small talk. Reputations, local solutions – but (like one of those official name ‘n’ shame meetings) placed in wider forums for review so that projects don’t stagnate. So one eye is always on results.

Aid Agencies also need to take the G8 as a call to review their own policies. Every aid agency needs to focus on establishing solid roots in local communities so they can identify opportunities when they come up, rather than trying to force a pre-set agenda. This is how they will make a lasting impact – even if both ends and means have to be reviewed in the process.

The money is needed, certainly, and hopefully the County Fermanagh summit will provide.

But this is also the time to make sure that money works.

I am gonna miss Grandpa Wen

9 Nov

Sweeter than a Werther’s Original: Grandpa Wen

More than a year ago, I stepped into the lobby of the China Daily newspaper in Beijing for my first day of work as a totally unqualified, unprepared, un-China-savvy sub-ed.

My boss’s introductory tour began not with the fourth floor office of 21st Century, the kids’ paper I would be working on, nor with the canteen, nor even with the toilets. It began with a slow, methodical walk around a lobby that was proudly decked out with glossy pictures from the recent official visit of premier Wen Jiabao.

“He is very popular,” my boss said. “Everyone in China likes him, and he is famous because has a very good attitude toward foreigners. He is a very good man. We were very proud to receive him here.”

I nodded sagely. My Western-born conviction told me she was spouting propaganda, and that really she felt nothing for this stuffed shirt politico.

I was wrong. Chinese people love Wen Jiabao. I grew to love him too – in an vague, affectionate, thank-God-he’s-not-as-bad-as-the-others way.

Wen Jiabao may be a backseater in terms of real power to the great President Hu Jintao , but he is a hell of a lot more of a people person. Not for nothing is he known as “Grandpa Wen”. He’s the one the party sends to cuddle earthquake victims. He has called for education and healthcare reforms (albeit not always successfully). He even went to visit the Tian’anmen Square students back in 1989 – a move he probably only just survived by sucking up to Deng Xiaoping like a very swift limpet and u-turning to support the introduction of martial law.

He’s also sort of quite nice-ish to foreigners. He has appeared on CNN several times to tell America that yes, China needs to get a bit more democratic, and actually China might think about working with the West. OK, so these weren’t wild, all-embracingly nice statements, you understand, but they were about as nice as any Chinese public figure can afford.

Wen has just been in the headlines – aside from those dealing with today’s party changeover – because he has been “forced” or “compelled” to launch an internal review into his family’s expenses after an expose in the New York Times. Western commentators screamed of the power of the media and the Internet forcing politicians to be more transparent. But if you think Hu Jintao or any of the rest of the Party glitterati would launch anything based on a New York Times rumour, think again.

Certainly Xi Jinping, China’s soon-to-be-crowned President, wouldn’t want to go there, coming as he does from one of the most privileged backgrounds you can imagine a Chinese person having. While most you meet in China will (if you gently encourage the subject, very, VERY gently) tell you tales of the hideous things they or their families endured during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Xi was the son of Mao’s propaganda minister – and Zhou Enlai’s later vice premier – Xi Zhongxun. His father was briefly expelled during a purge, but survived and was reinstated. Xi Jinping climbed those familial ties to reach his position. Jewel-encrusted skeletons in that cupboard? Almost certainly.

Wen we say goodbye (barely a pun, I know), who will be taking Grandpa’s place?

Li Keqiang. Definitely a downgrade on Wen.

I know, he’s got a good rep with the US – or so the Wikileaks tell us that American officials find him “engaging and well-informed on a wide range of issues” and displaying a “good sense of humor and appeared relaxed and confident throughout”. He comes from a poor(ish) background in Anhui province, wants to introduce internal reform, and made a stab at the international imagey thing by writing a column in the Financial Times that called for “Western thinking and Oriental vision”.

But it was a squeak on a soapbox compared with Wen’s CNN stage. Li is deadly, deadly dull.

There is no grandaddy image surrounding Li in China – quite the opposite, in fact. He is known as “Bad Luck” Li and “Three Fires” Li because of the series of natural disasters that hit Henan province while he was provincial governor – incidents that weren’t entirely his fault, but that certainly didn’t add to his charisma.

Chinese people love to give their bosses oddly affectionate names – “Uncle Zhou”, for example, for Zhou Enlai, or of course “Father” Mao Zedong. But I can’t imagine them embracing Li like a grandpa.

As second fiddle to the president, the best the premier can do in China is have a very, very pleasing public face. So pleasing that you want to cover your entire lobby with its cosily grinning mugshot, and that you’d take a Werther’s Original from its hand and sit on its knee.

It is with a sniffle of sadness that I say farewell to Grandpa.

What the West could learn from China… The Desk Nap

7 Nov

Catching some 子s

We all know what the result will be tomorrow morning.

Obama – Romney – it doesn’t matter who wins. By this time tomorrow, all that excitement will have been blacked out by our sheer, complete and utter exhaustion.

Black circles under the eyes, the dregs of the third red bull tinkling softly in its can by your elbow, and a fortress of empty coffee cups around the keyboard… Even now, as we proudly declare our ultra-politically-minded determination to “wait for the result”, that little voice is squeaking “You’ll regret it in the morning”. It’s the same voice that squeaked last week when downed a WKD, when we said “yes” to the pub at 10pm on Tuesday night, when we opened a bottle of wine because “I hate Mondays”. It’s the voice that comes back the next morning to throb an endless, headachey refrain of “I told you so”.

In the course of my wannabe journo career, I’ve sat in the seat of many a person on maternity leave in many a news org. Not one of these news orgs had the foresight to provide a nap room. In the summer, it wasn’t so bad. I would seek out parks and lawns on which, tramp-like, I could curl up during my lunch break and desperately seize my 40 winks while risking rape. In the winter, however, I just had to suffer. One newspaper had me phoning around old writers asking for contributions to a retirement tribute for one of their major columnists. The first person I called asked me what the retiring columnist’s name was. I couldn’t remember. Now that’s what happens when you’re tired.

Thank God my first real job (with business cards and everything!) was in China.

In China, caffeine drips are out and catnaps are in – or should I say, desknaps.

If you didn’t manage to catch enough Zs during your hour-and-a-half lunchbreak, then obviously you need more. Desknap time.

Just pop your head on the desk, shut those peepers and get the remainder of your beauty sleep. Some come prepared, bringing a hot water bottle to use as a cushion. Others go home-style with a jumper for some pillowage. At a pinch, just cross your arms and bury your face in that cosy elbow corner.

You’re unlikely to be disturbed unless it’s a real emergency. Unspoken office etiquette states that, like a sleepwalker, a napper should only be woken if they or others are in danger. Headlines, captions, deadlines – all but the most pressing can wait.

This kind of behaviour cuts no mustard in the UK. The last thing you want to do is actually look tired in a UK newsroom. Harassed, overworked, disillusioned yes, but not genuinely tired. Why, that would be almost as bad as looking as if you weren’t thrilled to be reheadlining the latest goss about Tulisa and K-Patz, or letting on that you don’t actually get Twitter.

If I could create a corner of China right here, right now, ready for me tomorrow morning in my post-election hangover state, it would not be a sweeping panorama from the Great Wall or a quaint corner of crumbling hutong.

It would be my desk – my own dust-covered, paper-scattered, bane-of-the-health-and-safety woman desk in China Daily. Specifically with my head on said desk, napping soundly.

Nighty night.