Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't Bring the Power to the People?

Decentralization is a key part of Mozambique’s strategy to reduce poverty…To improve governance and accountability, the government should empower communities as local agents of change.

Sounds good. I found this digging through one of many (insert sarcastic tone) enormously fascinating World Bank papers while researching for my TechnoServe paper. As an American and staunch believer in democracy, I love to hear this kind of stuff. I mean, if you get past the cult of personality, what do you think the average Cuban would have said about whether to overthrow Castro back in the day? What would a regular Zimbabwaen say about Mugabe and the power he wields from his office in Harre? Let’s spread the power out, bring it closer to the people. Empowerment, right?

Wrong. Maybe. I’ll admit, these are just a few pieces of anecdotal evidence, but when my American friend, who will remain unnamed but we’ll call Ben, told me what he experienced in a government planning session, I was quite shocked, and it got me thinking.

Ben, who works for the Ministry of Development & Planning, went to Xai Xai (pronounced “shy shy”) to help with the three year budgetary planning for 2010 – 2012. Mind you, Xai Xai is in the bordering province to the capital Maputo AND we’re already in the new year AND this is the provincial not district government, so one would think the officials had already done some prep work and Ben was just coming along to finish the job. One would think, and one would be wrong. When I asked him how Xai Xai was, he basically said something to the extent of “That place is f****ed for the next 100 years, or at least as long as I’m alive.” He sadly related the provincial government to his sister’s high school. She went to a mediocre high school in Omaha, and he surmised that the middle 50% of her class, not even the top quarter, would do a better job than the people he met with there. When Ben tried working with them in Excel to figure out how they got certain numbers, they pulled out their cell phone calculators.

Not only had they not really done anything, but as Ben explained, they “didn’t budget for anything that would provide any public good.” It was all for things for the office. Either they wanted AC or new computers – things that would ‘help them do their job’. At one point he saw they had budgeted 1,800,000 meticais (or $60,000) for a new office vehicle. He brought up the fact that this sum would buy a Mercedes SUV, but seemed to be the only crazy one in the room.

Sitting around the pool one weekend at Clube Naval, this development topic came up, and I haven’t heard people rip into local government quite like these experienced development workers did. When I was doing interviews in Nampula, I talked with the District Administrator, who was happy to report that with the new decentralization in the past two years, they had been given $300,000 to use for community projects. Only later did I learn from a local that these ‘community projects’ become homes and other pet projects for the higher ups in the district government., rather than engines for job creation.

This last point, to me, is compelling. Personally, I have always envisioned corruption on the grand scale, stuff like embezzlement, Swiss banks, and the prime minister. But it seems it might be more widespread on the local level, where oversight is thin. In local government, as Ben explained, things like building a house for the provincial doctor are legitimate expenses. Houses, cars, trips - all fair game. Jobs for friends happen all the time.

But beyond the corruption question, what if local governments simply aren’t ready for decentralization? I’m not espousing Communism, but maybe top-down planning has had something to do with China’s success. Their local governments may be inept, the country knows it, and the guys at the top are quite sharp. Ben admitted he was twiddling his thumbs in Maputo working with federal government; he said he was embarrassed to be taking another Mozambiquean’s job. There were competent people around him, unlike at the local level.

Sure enough, the World Bank report admitted, "Weaknesses in capacity—within both the state and civil society at local levels—threaten to undermine reform’s potential benefits." So you need to build up capacity. Training is good, but it only goes so far. Maybe the decentralization thinking goes that at some point you just have to accept that you’re going to have some rough early years, but in the end you’ve got to learn by doing. When the citizens see who is in power and how things have changed for better or worse for the local populace, will they connect the dots and demand more competent leaders? Let’s hope so. Decentralization is happening regardless.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"I like to spend some time in Mozambique"

Bob Dylan put it well - I'm having a good time here. I'm past my planned two months in the country. The posts have been slow coming lately because I've been putting in some sleepless hours trying to finish my poultry paper. Pretty soon I think I'm going to start sweating feathers. Fortunately, I've taken a few breaks and been able to take in Mozambique. A few of the highlights over the past 10 days or so:

Weekend at the beach
I like the beach, but as I live on one I don't go crazy over it like some people do. Still, Mozambique's beaches are some of the best in Africa, from what I hear. I went to one of the crappier ones, but that's a relative term. The water was crystal clear and 20-foot waves were breaking right at the beach, which made for some fun jumping into them and getting spit out like a rag doll. Most everyone else didn't think so. We met some crazy South African guys who lived there, and basically said, "There's about a 90% chance you'll get stung by a jellyfish." The truth feels like burning. A few cold beers solved that problem.

There was about 25 of us there in a few beach houses. Other than body surfing and jellyfish, the weekend was filled with barbecuing, passing out on the beach, reading, a couple parties, beach football, passing out on the beach, a crazy game of charades (see my flatmate Carlos getting it), passing out on the beach, etc. And ole' Bobby D was right, "There's lots of pretty girls in Mozambique." But he failed to mention that they're all prostitutes. On the first night, a couple guys and I went to a club, and by the luck of the draw, the three girls I danced with turned out to be there for something other than a twirl, dip and drink. After dancing with the first, my friend from Amsterdam, who I won't name here because he works for int'l aid organization, turned to me, "Uh Rob, you know they're hookers, right?" "Oh yea, I know." Riiight.

Not your average safari
This past Saturday two other TechnoServe guys, Steve and Mike, and I hired our TechnoServe driver to take us to Kruger National Park on the border of South Africa, arguably the best animal playland in southern Africa. We were so tired from a cocktail party/fund raiser the night before that most of us were falling asleep (fortunately not the driver). The animals kept us going - from impala, giraffe, wildebest, warthog, monkeys, zebra, buffalo, and so many impala that we eventually didn't even stop for pictures. We saw an impala hanging in a tree, but not the leopard that others saw drag it up there and eat some, saving the rest for later. Apparently you're not supposed to lean out the window like Steve and I were doing to snap some killer pics of a heard of elephants crossing the road. Some Safari Nazi lady started yelling at us and honking her horn from behind us. I think she scared the elephants more than we did.

It wasn't really how I imagined a safari. I always thought we would be in a rugged jeep with some crazy local guy wearing a hard bucket hat and all decked out in gear, a gun to his side. We'd be speeding through the wilderness, splashing through water with mud splattering on our vehicle while the driver yelled something intense at us and tribal music blared in the background. Instead, we were in the company truck, cruising on sealed roads (sometimes dirt), picking up a local radio station that was playing a "Best of America" mix. It was all over the map. Four consecutive songs might be "Tiny Dancer", Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind", "Hit Me Baby One More Time", and "Dark Side of the Moon". The lions, unfortunately, were hiding that day.

Super Bowl and the sunrise - the perfect pair
Like any American worth his salt, I found a way to watch the Super Bowl. The kickoff, though, turned out to by 1 am our time. Steve, Mike, another TechnoServe gal, and couple Peace Core volunteers got together around 11 for a 7-hour battle against sleep. It was great getting to watch football after all the soccer and cricket I've seen the past months - although we got the international broadcast, which meant we didn't get the commercials and the broadcasters gave definitions for everything. Quote: "A touchback allows you to take the ball to the 20-yard line." But then again, I guess John Madden calling the game wouldn't be much different. In the end, the team we were behind came out on top, and just as the game was finishing we watched the sun come up. I don't think everyone else in Maputo had been watching - the only streets more silent than Maputo's were probably Indianapolis's. By 6:00 am I was back home and getting to bed.

Now back to chicken...