I walk back to my office after a meeting.
“Tibeb has been trying to call you,” Teme tells me. She’s one of my Monitoring and Evaluation officers and is running a mission about two days south of the capital, checking on an emergency food program. “She is wanting to stay in the field to complete her work until the 31st. But the driver has only been authorized to be out until the 29th.”
Teme explains that when the request was put to fleet management, a mistake was made on the driver request form and the earlier date entered. So I guess there’s some issue with fleet management wanting the vehicle and driver back. It wouldn’t be the first time that there are hiccups between what my field staff want, and getting the resources from the shared services guys.
I go down the two flights of stairs to have a chat to Girma, the fleet manager. I’ve never seen anyone so consistently smiley as Girma, and he greets me warmly. Although we’ve had issues in mobilizing vehicles at times, I know he’s dedicated to finding fixes and he has always been reasonable when I’ve discussed with him.
“The problem,” he tells me, “Is that on the form, she only asked for the driver until the 29th. So now she wants the driver until the 31st. But the driver only took out per diem until the 29th, not the 31st, so he won’t stay longer.”
I frown. “So have him stay out, and he can be reimbursed for the two extra days.”
The per diem rate clocks in at a little under ten bucks a day for that location. I’m confident that between them, the team are going to ensure that the driver doesn’t starve.
“I know. I said that to finance. But they say it’s against policy. It creates all kinds of problems. They say if he comes back and tries to claim per diem after the fact that he can’t be reimbursed.”
I raise an eyebrow. Creates all kinds of problems? We’re an organization that measures its in-country budget in multiples of ten million dollars annually. I don’t see how $17 constitutes all kinds of problems.
“He’s out doing work,” I say. “Of course we’re going to reimburse him. There’s no question about that. If finance are going to push the matter I’ll pay the per diem out of my own pocket.”
Girma grins his habitual smile. “I know. But finance.”
Girma and I walk down the hallway to finance. He shows me to the desk of the particular finance officer responsible for this edict. He starts to re-hash the conversation the to of them had earlier. I don’t let him get all the way through.
“We will reimburse him,” I say to the finance officer, directly, in a voice that indicates I’m not asking for his permission.
He doesn’t put up any real resistance. “Well, you’ll need to sign his acquittal form.”
“Will you be around next week to sign it?”
And that’s quite literally all it took.
It’s troubleshooting little things like this (as well as much bigger things) that fills time out here. It’s not difficult. But in an organizational culture where the drive for compliance and the tyranny of petty systems takes precednence over ensuring our project work goes ahead, it’s a constant tussle. Without my intervention (and in a society like this where rank trumps protocol, all I really need to do is show up and give my verbal instruction), a systems-compliant finance officer would have cut short the work being done by my field-team actually engaging at the community level and trying to improve the quality of the work we do. By simply standing at his desk and saying that I’d approve an exception to policy- what ridiculous policy I’m excepting I’m not entirely clear- the problem is solved.
This little story- which took place this morning- is a microcosm for many of the challenges we face trying to ensure our field operations keep rolling. Without constant- constant– attention, the procedural requirements, paperwork and red-tape rapidly grind activities to a halt. In many ways, I have no particular skillset that isn’t greatly outweighed by the experience and ability of my field teams, in terms of actually providing assistance to the communities we work with. I see my main role here as making sure that the systems work to support my staff, not get in their way. And then I get out of their way as well.
This compliance culture is nobody’s fault, per se. It’s a culture common to many INGOs and, I don’t doubt, a plethora of other organizations as well. In fact, I understand that government offices generally have it much worse. And to be honest, I’m lucky enough to be working in an organization where I have a Country Director who backs me up, so I can be confident of stepping into a situation like this one (or, more importantly, one where we’re trying to push through high-level organizational change to improve the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and impact of our field operations on a much larger scale), and when I tell staff to move the red tape out of the way, I know it’ll happen.
Sometimes after some negotiation…
It is, of course, a fine balance. On the one hand, administrative systems were designed to increase transparency and limit corruption. Driven first by donors, it is now increasingly pushed by the risk-averse inertia of organizations themselves, who are terrified of being publically caught out with inadequate systemic controls, fearful of the loss of donor funding that would presumably follow. Large government donors, with increasing layers of demands, don’t make this any easier either. Sadly, what we end up with is a wag-the-dog scenario where we end up putting so much emphasis on the controls that it becomes unwieldy to operate.
Aid organizations have a responsibility to seek a balance- ensuring appropriate accountability while maximising the speed and quality of field work. Donors, too, need to recognize that the more demands they place on implementing agencies- heavy reporting and fiscal requirements and micromanagement of tasks and activities- the more this can be detrimental to the communities we all exist to serve.
My heart is in operations. Helping stuff happen. Which is why I love this job. I get to push things out of the way, try to ensure a reasonable measure of accountability, but free up my teams to go do what they’re supposed to do and deliver our programs on the ground.
Of course, it’s also why I hate this industry sometimes. Because I watch, first hand, as administrative procedures delay funding and operations, occupy time and effort, and ultimately bog down our work until it becomes less efficient. And communities don’t get the services they’re owed.
Today, though, I’m just pleased I won’t be seeing Tibeb back until after the weekend.