Friday, 9 June 2017

Joining International Alert as Country Manager for Liberia Part 2

Peace building is a completely new "technical sector" for me in terms of my actual experience in the Aid Establishment. So, joining the Liberia office for International Alert has been given me a very unique opportunity to learn about peace building. In the industry sense of it. 

I started my first work day in town. International Alert's national Programme Officer met me at NATC along with an Economics for Peace expert from International Alert's head office. There was a meeting scheduled with one of the companies that International Alert Liberia is engaged with in downtown Monrovia.

It was ironic to be in a meeting with a company representing an NGO instead of an IT services company, something which I have been doing since 2009.  During the meeting, I was really a quiet participant, observing how my colleagues interacted with the company's top manager. 

Coincidentally, many of NATC's past and current clients were in the extractive industry and at least one is a plantation. Some of these companies pulled out of Liberia such as BHP Billiton and Putu Iron Ore Mining Inc. I managed to get some lucrative supply and service contracts with such big companies. I learned a little bit about how companies operate, the sheer expertise and highly skilled  planning and projection that's required and, what challenges and risks companies operate with. I had the chance to visit the camps, meet geologists, learn about the social corporate responsibility teams, learn about environmental studies companies had to undertake and so on. There was also political challenges such as being called to meet with government officials regularly for regular paperwork or to respond to news of conflicts with communities or other allegations. Because I had befriended often times almost the whole management, I would hear of problems the company would have because there were pressures to recruit people from the area but often times the skilled labour from areas outside of Monrovia was even poorer than from Monrovia. I also remember hearing about the limitations of the clinic that was set up by the company and, how it couldn't serve everyone in the company.

I spent more time with 2 iron ore mining companies so my knowledge regarding this extraction is better than challenges/operations of palm oil plantations (I have one palm oil plantation client). I understood that these companies initially go through an exploration phase where highly detailed analysis and projections are made before any extraction and processing even takes place. The Agreements are quite complex and, even though there are hefty fees to be paid, a lot of under the table hand greasing also has to keep things going. While one of these companies may have not been so sincere about environmental protection, one of them seemed to walk the talk when it came to community and environmental protection. All in all, I got a sense that these companies had to tread quite carefully, maintain relationships and manage their reputations.

Despite such close encounters with companies and positive impressions, I found International Alert's model of engagement with the extractive industry something new to understand. I was told that International Alert does not do the 'blaming and shaming' type of advocacy and, rather tries to work with all parties to a conflict.

I had a lengthy and interesting chat with the expert from London who explained that International Alert believes there will always be conflict and, it is only be engaging all parties to it that peaceful outcomes can be envisioned and produced. This is Alert's  notion of peace building. So this entails providing conflict-sensitivity training to companies; promoting dialogues between the companies and "communities"; and even providing consultancies to companies. Where is the government's role in this whole process? I was told that the government is also included in the whole work but often times governments don't ensure consultation and protection of "communities" through the whole process.

The first few days and weeks have been quite interesting in terms of learning International Alert's approach and work. In Liberia, they've been operating since the mid 90s.

My induction at the London office was quite a treat. I was able to visit London after about 7 years. What a long time! Not only that, I went back with Kavita and, was able to stay at my brother Tariq's place and spend some good time with my sister Saira and Tariq.

During the induction, I was able to meet all the department heads and, many other colleagues as well. It was quite a packed 3-4 days at the office in Clapham. My sister and brother took care of Kavita during the day while I was at the office. One day she didn't want to go with Saira so I had to bring Kavita with me to the International Alert head office. Poor thing was so well behaved and quiet for the whole morning. She stayed in the recreation room and, then eventually I brought her to the Africa office where she was entertained by the communications officer while I was in a meeting with my boss's boss (my boss is the West Africa manager while his boss is the Africa manager). I could hear that Kavita was demanding that the communications officer put on "Frozen" for her. I kept apologising but the Africa manager was quite kind and did not mind, even when Kavita popped her head into the meeting room.

It struck me through the induction that the intellectual cream, the experts, the technical experts, the policy makers, the fund raisers are all based in a head office while the Country Offices, such as ours in Liberia, house a different set of folks. Not many of them have been around that long and, are implementing projects that haven't been designed by them. I am not quite sure how this model benefits the Country Office.

I was not so crazy about the required security training which was 4 nights away at a training facility an hour outside of Oxford. I dragged my sister with me so Kavita could be close to me.

It's been about 4 months and, it's been quite a busy time. When I joined, I found myself with 2 reporting deadlines for donors. It was quite an overwhelming task to put together a report with the team without having been there at all. I also had to go up to London. I have not even had the time to go visit any of the projects in the "field." I have tried to network as much as I can to get a sense of what's going on in Monrovia and "map out actors."

It's quite interesting to be in this world again. I am giving myself prep talks to be patient with the organisation, with the NGO world and to really learn what are the socio-economic and political issues that "civil society" is currently grappling with. 

No comments:

Post a Comment