It is almost the end of the year and I have written my cynical end of the year post and I thought that is that for this year. However, I have just read this fantastic book (Wisdom of Whores – Elizabeth Pisani) and it has brought back all sorts of memories and I can’t help but write. The book is about the AIDS and the AIDS industry. It details through the personal experiences of Elizabeth the trials and travails of an ‘international AIDS consultant’ as she goes around different countries trying to make sense of the problem and initatives to address (or circumvent) the core issue. But this post is not about the book which, by the way, is absolutely fantastic. I have rarely written about my time in the international aid industry. At that time I convinced myself that I was not going to write about work and since then I have told myself that it is not important. Now it has been more than 3 years since I left it and I think I am ready to break my self-imposed non disclosure agreement.

I spent about 8 years in the international aid industry in India looking after money, budgets, procurement, grants, contracts. I used to work for US based NGOs also known as the Beltway Bandits who used to set up shop in country to implement projects and deliver whatever they had planned to the donor (usually USAID). The projects were in energy efficiency, clean technology¬† (not as sexy then as it is now), energy regulatory reform, sharing electricity in south asia, women’s legal rights, bird flu (in Indonesia), nutrition and private sector partnerships (P2P!). I was the bean counter usually reporting to senior bean counter. My job was to ensure that the US tax payer money was well accounted for and that we were staying within the regulations of our donor.I was young, reasonably well paid and I thought I was playing my role in making the world a better place. Since then I have had the opportunity to reflect upon from what I learnt from my bean counting years.

There are a lot of beans to count ! My first reaction at any project budget and at the beginning of a project was usually that we are going to do so little for so much. But I was thinking field and grassroots and not head office. I was not thinking American salaries, american suppliers, the CEO’s office charging time on all its projects, the expensive consultants, the 5 star hotels, business class flights.

I was not thinking that most of the money is spent either on startup or shut down. So if you are a 3 year project with a $5m budget then you spent about $2m in the 6 months of startup and the 6months of shut down. Why ? Its simple silly. The beginning of the project is when the client needs work plans, budgets, that is when you bring out all your shiny crockery (expensive consultants)¬† to impress the client, you take over half the floor of the best 5 star hotel that money can buy, you also set your burn rate (the rate at which you spend money) at a suitably impressive rate so the client doesn’t even dream that you have too much money and too little work. You also hire the country director, his/her palatial house, moving allowance, pay 3 years rent in advance for an expensive office space, buy air conditioners and cars. Phew! You would think that the project was about giving money to the most expensive contractors in town.

The project end is the final 6 months where all real work stops and then it is a working backwards exercise of how do we spend the remaining $1m in 6 months. After all we did swear to the client in the last budget meeting that we will spend the last cent so please don’t take that money from us. It is all ‘committed’ after all. Committed for what ? Expensive reports, documenting, taking the office down and everyone ‘s last chance to get their billing on the project while the client is more interested in the next stage of the project, last chance for one last trip to India, for more airmiles and last chance for all the greedy contractors to sell stuff that no one really needs.

But for me all this would have been useful if the work we had been doing was of any benefit. Could we have done something else, or something more with the same amount of money? Was there too much emphasis on counting the beans rather than what beans do we use to begin with. Did South asia really need an energy sharing project which didn’t include Pakistan (it was under American sanctions), did 30-40 middling bureaucrats really need to travel every month from one exotic hotel to another to listen to some trainer talking about how it works in the US when all they really cared about were the per diems and the cocktail reception. What did all that achieve. Few hundred units of trade ? From my personal career point of view – I am not complaining. I got to travel to places I had never imagined i would go, I got to stay in places which I still can’t afford and I got bean counting experience which will hold me in good stead.

Because I was running the numbers it was easy for me to see how much of the project money was being spent in India and how much was being spent on American contracts, consultants, vendors etc. In one project, I counted 70% of the money was spent in the US, in another about 50% and that too because the project manager (an expat) was quite keen to spend as much money as he could in the field. Some years down the line the Indian government started to insist that the country director should be an Indian so the project does not have to pay for expensive salaries, international schooling for kids, cars, bungalows etc and so more money can be spent on ‘program activities’. In another project, I had a big argument with the project manager because I insisted that I will not bend the procurement in a particular direction. As in all arguments, the head office/expat has the right of way.

But my most memorable time has been spent translating sub grant agreements to a bunch of wide-eyed NGOs. This was usually in the middle of nowhere (by that I mean far away from a luxury hotel), all of us squatting on the floor and me taking these grassroot workers through the fine points of American legalese. It was a simultaneous act of translation and simplification.¬† One point on which we all laughed about loudly was about them not supporting ‘legalisation of prostitution’. This was under the Bush government which was itself under faith-based organisations and legalisation of prostitution was not on and so it was deemed that all organisations accepting US money will sign up to it. Another funny certification was the anti-terrorism legislation !

Like Elizabeth Pisani says in her book – we were all whores.