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.

Some years ago when I was offered my current job , I decided to ask my boss to be about my bonus. I have never asked that question before from a potential employer but this time it was the first question i asked. I think it was partly because my head was full of tips from job hunting sites on how to negotiate a better pay package and partly because I was now going to work in the ‘City’ and if there was anywhere I was going to get a bonus it was here. So I asked and the response I got was it would probably not be enough to buy a yacht but enough to rent one ! So with fantasies of me on a yacht within kissing distance of sun kissed beaches I signed up to my job. I also looked up the web for yacht rental rates and they cost quite a bit for a day. So I joined, I worked hard for a year ( i think !) and when the time came for my bonus the amount was not even enough to rent the yacht chef forget about the yacht. I almost went to my boss and asked him to find me a yacht to rent for that sum of money. But now when I look back, it was all a good laugh, and I patiently wait for a yet to be built yacht which I can rent with my bonus.

This year I’ve just been told that bonus will also disappear. As much as I love my employer, I wonder how do I now motivate myself to get out of bed and go to work. Especially since the main reason for not giving the bonus is not lack of money or my performance, but public perception. How do I motivate myself to go do the extra bit. The oft quoted thing that I should be lucky to have a job in the current climate doesn’t work for me one bit. No matter how deep the recession there will always be more people employed than unemployed and I would be rather unlucky to be unemployed for too long. Should I take sadistic comfort in the fact that my more illustrious contemporaries in the City are also not going to get any bonus at all and theirs is a much higher fall. If I can’t take comfort on their high bonuses, how can I in their zero bonuses. I am in no way a beneficiary to their will.

I have mixed feelings when I see headlines around banks giving big bonuses to their staff. At one level I feel bad for them because this has been part of their culture for many years if not decades. This is why they are in this business, for the compensation and not because they love banking. To tell them suddenly to give up something they feel is their inherent right , is like telling a tiger to go off meat. At another level, I sort of associate with the politicians trying to stop the banks from giving bonuses because those bonuses may be undeserved and that cash could be put to better use.  To add to this is my personal gripe against them, that it is because of them my little bonus has also vanished.

On the positive side, yacht rentals are coming down.

I think I have most things in life figured out in my head and yet there is one thing that has escpaed my figurings ! Everyday morning when I make my way to work I see these armies of men and women dressed smartly make their way to work. I haven’t quite figured out what makes these people wake up everyday morning and do this day after day , year after year. Come hell or high water, summer of winter, cold or cough , these guys are there everyday. There is no let up. I am part of this crowd as a co-worker and an observer. I know why I do this everyday but I wonder what are the reasons that drive the other folks.

Having said that, I have come to the conclusion that people like me are an HR nightmare. On the face of it I am the sort of person who HR love. Smart, intelligent, above average , willing to work for average salaries because I believe in the ’cause’. I come out brilliantly in all the HR personality tests. I am in this person who is on the fast track to the top. It takes a while for them to figure out that all this is only drama. I work so I can pay my bills and I try to adapt the path of lease resistance. I have also figured out that the guy who senior to me is probably not there because he is much smarter than me, but because he is willing to put the hard work and let everything else take a backseat. I don’t envy him or his position and the pay scales will have to be considerably rejiged for me to even think about going for that position.

So what does HR do with a person like me ? I see through all their fads and their typical diagrams where everything connects with everything else and the world is a wonderful place where the company, employee look after each interests and as a result of which both grow. Rather the employee grows old and the company grows richer.

And yet there are bills to pay, places to see and things to do. My job helps me do all that and the least I can do is show up everyday morning, well dressed and still wondering whats the point of it all.