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.

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