21 October 2006

Field Based Training #2, Day 1

I went on my second field based training last week. It was week 8 of 12 of training, and it serves as a milestone in the training process. It is the final component of general training, and the last activity used to measure our abilities, interests, and needs in a site. During week 9, you are assigned a site and begin preparation specifically for the work you will be doing for the next two years. This field based training was focused on showing us various typs of volunteer sites. We visited sites of a volunteer working for a massive cooperative as well as one working for an international NGO. These were two sample sites that are similar to what some of us will be seeing.
On Monday, we had were assigned an activity similar to what we will do early in our site: learn about your area and various services. I went to an institution known as Intecap, or Instituto Tecnico de Capacitacion y Productividad (easy enough to translate). It is a public-private partnership that offers low-cost training for anything from becoming a hairstylist to how to implement best agricultural practices in your radish fields to starting your own business. It was a well-funded looking place that appears to provide really useful classes to those wise enough to know how to request and organize a group. While it maintains economic attainability it caters to groups involved in development and community groups instead of unorganized farmers. Granted, most farming populations are not an easy market to convince to do anything, it helps to remember that clientele aren't nonprofit groups and development workers such as Peace Corps volunteers, it is farmers. Often, such agencies provide useful information but rely on various development groups to refer people in need.
I may as well use this as a springboard to talk about two subjects: Government contracts and Patchwork development.
Public-private partnerships, a shiny new term that often refers to specific types of government contracts, have become very popular both in the States and Guatemala for difficult subjects such as tourism, social services, capacitations, and even education (read charter schools) . The justification often used for such partnerships is that governmental offices often prove inefficient in managing components of the economy that hold a high economic potential.
For example, if a city may pour tax dollars into a tourism board, but there truly isn't any motivation for anyone to accomplish anything at the tourist board except enough to avoid getting fired. If the tourism board could take a cut in profits from, say, promotions of local events, however, you could hire 'salesmen' motivated to improve the economy. Oh, but that's asking for corruption to be openly lining public servants' pockets with private dollars. What if we could have both at once? What if instead of paying a department, we 'subsidized' a private company. Sometimes these sort-of governmental agencies happen by government agencies contracting already successful companies. Sometimes they do it in a manner that only reminds me of exocytosis.
In a pragmatic sense, however, it usually happens in a way that is unlike how we like to think government contracts occur. For many government contracts (public servants please correct me), there are regulations that the govenment has to publicly announce it is seeking contracts, such as in the classified ads that nobody reads. They usually get a few estimates from various companies, and they are required to contract the lowest bidder. Granted, there are various ways to beat this system: usually you are comparing apples to oranges because different groups offer slightly different products, such as timetables or minor details, allowing boards to select whom they want on other bases. For thing such as major as private-public partnerships, however, there is rarely more than one agency capable of handling the capacity the government needs. For tourist boards, it may be an agency spawned out of the government and the Chamber of Commerce.
Two examples of this: In New Orleans, the education system is essentially being contracted out. However, to prevent any yahoo starting a charter school, only organizations that have being providing charter schools for five years may open charter schools. That eliminates all but two organizations in New Orleans but sets up a welcome mad for national companies such as Edison Schools. Edison Schools' capacity for taking a lion's share of the protfit in New Orleans is strong, despite the fact that they may not truly be the best fit. A more infamous example is the no-bid contracts given after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Halliburton was given an enormous contract (if I recall the initial contract alone was $40 billion) for a number of various services, from transport to oil well reparation to security. It is worth mentioning that Halliburton, I have read, has more security employees in Iraq than the United States has troops. Now, many people feel very indignant of the President's friends receiving billions of taxpayer dollars, but the reality, as it has been explained to me, was that no other company truly had the capacity to handle a contract of that size.
While this is mostly the result of a competitive market, considered a cornerstone to democracy, it serves as a penalty to those working competitively. Moreover, it is to be remembered that many markets (military, aircraft, construction) heavily rely on government contracts as a large components of the industry, and companies often seek to cater their company only to government contracts. With the government giving out single large contracts, instead of many smaller contracts, they are setting themselves up to create monopolies within industries by simply handing companies a share of the market. Monopolies can be borne out of this that dominate a private market, but, more likely and equally damaging is that they build monopolies of subsectors of the market -- for example, once a company grows its capacity twofold because of one enormous government contract, the government will return over and over to that company because it holds the capacity, and, with its newfound capacity, it can then beat out smaller companies for government contracts. That also means it can inflate its prices to just below the cost of its initial capacity investment and still get the contract. Hence government waste without even using government employees.The solution: many small government countracts instead of few big ones. If a company truly is the best fit, it will win all the contracts. If, however, it isn't, a more competitive market will prevail. Many logistical contacts in Iraq have followed just this context, and now many companies do the work initially done only by Halliburton.
I have to stop myself on the subject, because this only refers to certain public-private partnerships. The ideal and the modus operendi of many of such partnerships are very effective, transparent, and fair.
Patchwork Development
Like any business, nothing is more powerful than word of mouth. Often, development work is the same way. In the past, much development work has been criticized because it throws money or work into a project or community without getting to know the people, companies, or region. This has resulted in many strides in learning about exactly where money is going, a lot of paperwork, and an aversion of the unknown in people whose job it is to determine where money/labor/capital goes. People who determine where the money (or Volunteer) goes rely on informants they have known for years to tell them of useful projects in their area. Often NGO workers rely also on hearing from good 'leads' from other NGO workers. This system of word of mouth is based on trust and, usually, someone's intimate knowledge of good ideas in a handful of communities. It is undoubted that this set up has avoided many unknown projects where aid could go to projects not helpful or be sifted out by corruption, but it has created a system where often a few communities are well maintained and become dependent on aid, or become inundated with aid in a short period of time, while other communities don't even show up on the radar of anyone in the world of development. Due to lack of centralization of NGO work, a lot more small-scale, and more effective projects occur now than, say, fifteen years ago when development was defined by massive loans by the World Bank to corrupt governments. However, this lack of centralization has created an envirnoment where there is no systematic plan for development of many areas.
The solution; UNDP, the United Nations Development Program. This organization organized the Millenium Development Goals, as well as many other highly detailed plans for dozens of countries throughout the world. These programs are usually very well researched and well thought out. However, they don't have buy-in by many groups, including many NGOs and, when it disagrees, the United States government. The UNDP, like much of the UN, it succeeded in pumping out dozens of well thought out reports that nobody will ever read. If you work in development, however, you should read some of the Millenium Development Goals for the country you work in. If not to follow it, to learn from it. I will admit, however, I haven't yet read Guatemala's.

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