Another bloody blog entry

Here’s a little fairy story about a fictional college in a country on the African continent.

Once upon a time there was a college that taught secretarial studies to about 50 students. One day some new managers took over and they extended the college to offer Information Technology as well. At around the same time and while the management were negotiating with the University who accredits the IT courses, it was suggested that they could also off an on-line Networking programme. This, however required that the college be connected to the Internet.

Now this college was located in a small village somewhere away from the dim lights and muddy roads of the nearest city. The local telephone exchang was clockwork and couldn’t be used to get a reliabel dial-up Internet connection that the students could use to take their on-line exams. So the networking company talked to a rich donor organisation from a wealthy continent far away, and arranged a deal wherby the donor would pay the monthly charges for the the college to be connected to the Internet using some magic called VSAT Satellite connection. This turns out to be an expensive solution. The monthly charge for a the connection was approximately 100 times the charge that an individual would pay for broadband in the wealthy country where the donors live. So the plan was that the donors would collaborate with the college and help them to make that Internet connection sustainable locally so that eventually they could stop paying that monthly charge.

The donor organisation had a contract with an IT company and, since it was their way, they got the contractor to set up the VSAT and to pay the bills rather than doing it themselves. Men from the contractor company and also from the donor organisation came to visit the college and they saw the satellite dish and they said that it was good.

Some cynical people said that the donor organisation was happy to pay the contractor because both of them, together with the ISP, were from the same country on that wealthy continent far away and that the whole thing was making good business for the contractor. Some thought the contrator wouldn’t be interested in helping to make the Internet connection sustainable because it might mean the end of their contract with the aid agency. But others told the cynics to shut their gobs and be thankful that the college was connected and that the on-line programme could go ahead.

After a few years and a few abortive attemts to come up with a plan to make the Internet sustainable at the college, all went quiet. What had happened was that the men who had set everything up at the donor organisation and the conractor had both moved on to other jobs doing good work in other needy places. Then, one August morning a telephone call came from the College’s Internet Service Provider saying that the monthly account charges had not been paid for two months and so the Internet would be cut off in fifteen minutes. The college management pleaded for extra time as they normally communicated with the contractor and the donor via email and if they were cut off it would take even longer to sort things out. Then they emailed the man from the contractor (the email bounced because he had moved on) and the man from the donor organisation (who replied even though he was now located in another far-away place doing otherimporant work). The local offices of the donor were unable to do anything and said that they had to talk to the man who had set things up (even though he had been replaced by a new man) because the original man held “The Institutional Memory” of the project.

So, at this point the college had acquired a debt of two months Internet charges to the ISP and they had students enrolled in the on-line course, who had paid a fee to be registered, and who needed to be on line to take their exams. Messages came from the donor saying that their contract with the contractor had terminated and so that contractor was unable to pay the monthly charges, and they they hoped the college wouldn’t mind being without their Internet connection for some time.

Fortunately, the man who had been involved originally **did** hold the institutional memory of the project and he still had the power within the donor organisation to sort things out: getting a contract with someone and freeing funds to pay the debt and, at least, a few moremonths Internet charges for the college — though not necessarily fast enough to keep the ISP from switching off the connection in the meantime.

And the reason for sharing this make-believe story here is to invite your comments and thoughts on the issue; to show just how fragile these arrangements could be. Despite the mighty power and wealth of the donor organisation, its effectiveness in its projects is dependent on the individuals and their memories, of visits and smiles and handshakes. And good intentions **might** still hide selfish motives, and, though fortunately it didn’t happen in this case, the ‘aid’ that the college was receiving could easily have turned into a large debt to their ISP had the donor not been able to sort things out.

This whole aid business is a tricky subject and holds many complexities. Huge budgets for foreign aid are spent, in part, on expensive contracts with local companies. Once budgets are in place and everyone involved is receiving their negotiated bennefit, noone really has a motive to inervene and make things more sustainable. And sooner or later, the budget will be spent, sometimes leaving unused equipment for the birds to nest in, or maybe even worse: additional debts for those who were formerly being helped.


  1. natty Says:

    I could probably drag the Iraq war and "reconstruction" into this debate very easily, but I think it would give me a rotten headache. Besides, about to be busy bouncing between feet dodging hurricanes again. Florida’s about to get hit TWICE, including Miami. Going to be a long ass season.

  2. Mark Says:

    Anybody care to speculate why Eritrea has just asked USAID to cease operations in that country?

  3. natty Says:

    Hold that thought on the florida getting hit twice thing. Have to go pack to evacuate now.


  4. natty Says:

    I can’t believe it. It may actually hit us this time.

  5. Chris Says:

    Well, you said it – SUSTAINABILITY. Which ain’t ever gonna happen when you rely on invisible people in other continents to pay your over-inflated bills, is it?

    I have another browser window open right now looking at this:…

  6. natty Says:

    I’m not a religious person, but please think good thoughts for everyone left in New Orleans tomorrow. Most likely they’ll all die. We left and went to South Carolina yesterday at noon, and so many people I knew didn’t know what was going on. Katrina’s a five now, and one of the worst hurricanes that has ever been recorded. This will be worse than the Christmas tsunami.

    I’m kinda sorry I didn’t get to show you New Orleans. We’re going to stay in South Carolina for now until we figure out what to do and where to go since we’re pretty much homeless starting tomorrow. We’re still trying to figure out which of our friends have made it out, we may never know for sure. Maybe we’ll go out west for a fresh start if we can pull enough money together.

    I’ve managed not to cry yet, though I’ve come close a few times.

  7. natty Says:

    It looks like New Orleans got "spared" by about 30 miles. Devestating damage to many sections of New Orleans, and floodwaters are rising, but not the bibilical floods. The French Quarter is looking good on TV, but we’re looking at a few pictures getting out of Uptown and Jefferson where we live and we think our house might be under 8 feet of water. Lake View is under a lot of water. The levees failed in the Ninth Ward and they’re under 10 feet of water, very very poverty stricken area of town so there are still a lot of people down there. They had about 10,000 hunkered down in the Superdome (our professional football team stadium) and the roof peeled off in a lot of sections. All the highrises downtown have had ALL of the windows on the East side blown out. They say we’ll be out of electricity for at least a month. Don’t know what kind of damage has been done to all the bridges into town. Lots of flooding on I-10. Toby and I think we might be able to get back in about three weeks to see how much damage there is to our place. Sounds like it might be a lot.

  8. Mark Says:

    Natty, I’m glad youre safe at least. I have been in Kitui at the weekend without Internet but the people I was staying with have a TV. One of them has family in New Orleans and she’s calling home today. I saw the pictures of destruction and flooding. Its good to hear your voice here and I hope you can make the very best of the difficult choices you have had to make and those that I suspect you have still to meet.

    Chris, I dont know what happened to your comment, its happened before but mostly to you. Still Im inclined to blame my blog. We’re moving to WordPress shortly I hope that’ll fix it. Meanwhile if you can mail me the text of your comment, icluding those URLS, I ‘ll fix it here so we can all read it. I, for one, would like to hear what you have to say.

  9. natty Says:

    The levees have broken in places and the doomsday flooding is happening now, just slowly. Water is rising a foot an hour. We think we’ve probably lost everything. A handful of the bellydancers are unaccounted for or missing (one of the directors went to her sister’s house in Biloxi, Mississippi, which was flattened). The water that’s spreading is full of sewage, gasoline, chemicals, red fire ants, gators, debris. It’s starting to fill up the French Quarter, the last little highest dry spot inside the levee system. We were a very tropical area and already had problems with malaria, west nile virus, rabies, all that is about to explode along with cholera. There are bodies floating in every section of New Orleans. They’re trying to get the survivors out now, but there are still hundreds of people trapped on attics or roofs or in trees, and every bridge and road into the city is either destroyed or underwater, except maybe the crescent city connection. It looks ok, but they’re not sure yet. They’re saying we can’t come back for weeks, maybe months, and it will take years to rebuild at this point. Catastrophic damage and flooding is spread from west of New Orleans all the way to Mobile, Alabama over 200 miles away. The worst damage is in Slidell, Louisiana; Gulfport, Mississippi; Bay St. Louis, MIssissippi and Placqamines Parrish southeast of New Orleans, but the damage is so bad and extensive, nobody can even get to it yet. They’re saying the Gulf of Mexico has taken Placquamines right out to sea, like there was never even land there.

    This is the worst disaster to ever hit the United States. Please consider donating to charities to help benefit the survivors. It’s really bad, Mark.

  10. natty Says:

    They couldn’t plug the levees. By tomorrow the entire metro area will be under 15 feet of water.

    It finally hit me I can’t go back to live there anymore. I might be able to go back in a few months to see if there’s anything to salvage, but then it’s back out to start somewhere else. Toby and I have both finally been crying and holding each other. New Orleans is gone. The French Quarter is gone. All that history and culture is gone. I can’t get my head wrapped around it.

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