On the road…again!

Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek

 

Poor Communication, Poor Coordination

 

The petulant side of the Footloose Forester once again emerged in a dream of days gone by.  In the vein of a story teller, he realized that by stringing together enough examples of past episodes that took place during his working career, the reader would catch on that there was something amiss, and not just the petulant musings of a disgruntled employee.

Let’s just blame it on poor communication, leading to poor coordination regarding the job(s) at hand.  But there is a point to be made, even if the Footloose Forester has to reveal his petulant side that was demanding to emerge from his dream.  A hit-or-miss communication system within the Agency for International Development was literally at one end of the production stream; and effective program/project action was at the other end.  Coordination was in the middle; and whether it was good, bad or indifferent; smooth project management was held hostage to effective communication.

In his recent dream with petulant overtones, the first case of poor communication that emerged was about natural resource management activities in Ethiopia.  The Footloose Forester was invited to participate in drafting an environmental management strategy in Ethiopia, as the Regional Natural Resources/Policy Advisor stationed in Nairobi, Kenya. Our office was known as REDSO, the Regional Economic Development Services Office; and it served 22 countries in East and Southern Africa.  Ethiopia was one of our clients.

Thus, when a cable came in to the REDSO office asking whether the Footloose Forester would accept an assignment to work on an environmental management strategy in Ethiopia during such-and-such dates, he promptly responded.  In the formalized response to a formal request, he acknowledged the specific dates of the pending action and his acquiescence to the specifics of the proposed tasks.  His reply to the Ethiopia office was also transmitted by cable. FAX transmissions were also in vogue, but intraoffice communiques were generally referred to as cables.  A copy of the cable that was sent then went into his briefcase, for future reference.  So far, so good…the first two-way communication had been made.  But when he showed up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on the day proposed, ready to participate for the 10-14 days of project activity as suggested, the first thing he got was a rude greeting.  “Pellek, what the hell are you doing here?”  The coordination phase was already off to a bad start. 

The Footloose Forester must confess that he was inwardly amused when he reached into his briefcase and came out with copies of the cables requesting his participation; and the one with his carefully worded response.  It was one of those moments in life that he remembers standing there in the office of the USAID Project Manager and telling her that he was there on time, on that specific Wednesday on which he was requested.  The Project Manager didn’t want to look him in the eye and acknowledge the truth.

 

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Map of the worldwide underwater cable system

If the Footloose Forester sometimes irritated the clients who asked for his consulting services within USAID, it might be because he came prepared with the paperwork that was expected to be relevant in getting a dialogue underway, starting with the cables pursuant to work assignments. That automatically limited their wiggle room.

All cables were issued through the US Embassy and all cables had the typed, sanctioned signature of the American Secretary of State. That was the authorization for us to be in Ethiopia or any other country when our mission was USAID related. If project coordination sometimes suffered, often it was because both parties were not on the same page when it came to cable communications.

An appropriate segue about poor communication leading to problems with coordination was even more dramatic in an assignment to Namibia. The Footloose Forester was looking forward to visiting Namibia for the first time early in the 1990s because it was among the most recently independent counties in the world.  He was hoping to see the process of transitioning from one government (South Africa) to a new nation with newly elected leaders with their own ideas about governing.

He was properly invited (by cable) to come and explore the prospects of starting one or two projects with wildlife conservation and natural resources management as their main themes. Project Proposals were the avenues that led to identifying operational projects at some later date, pending approval and funding in Washington.  Proprosal writing seemed to be in the offing.

The two projects that emerged from the process were a source of enormous satisfaction to the Footloose Forester who was delighted to be involved from the very beginning, at the concept stage.  The petulant bruising about the Namibia experience, nevertheless; also came out of the same dream that harbored the Ethiopia experience. As regards Namibia, it was all about getting started, not about anything untoward later on.  The recollection goes something like this:

The Footloose Forester knew through the grapevine at the REDSO office that Namibia would soon need to establish a working portfolio of international development projects.  His supervisor mentioned that the USAID Director in Namibia was thinking about both wildlife management and natural resource conservation. The Footloose Forester eagerly awaited the cable inviting him to participate at the ground level in Namibia.

When the brief but explicit cable regarding the work assignment came, the Footloose Forester replied with acquiescence regarding the starting date and proposed period of work.  This time, the communication phase did function in a timely manner. But Namibia soon said that they had a conflict on those dates (the dates they themselves had proposed), and then proposed alternate dates. The Footloose Forester adjusted his own work calendar accordingly and penciled in the new dates.  His return cable agreed to the new time schedule.  Except Namibia then sent another cable and again suggested a different date.  Footloose Forester agreed, by cable, to the new schedule.  Then Namibia wanted another change, and another time period...and then another.  Footloose again agreed. To bring this bizarre episode to a conclusion, it is absolutely true that the Footloose Forester changed his work schedule five (5) times before he was off to Namibia.  Coordination with other clients in other countries was starting to crack.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. When he arrived, the Footloose Forester noted some sense of consternation on the part of the USAID Director who said that he was not prepared to entertain a mutual work schedule at that moment.  Having copies of all five back-and-forth cables in his briefcase didn’t win the Footloose Forester any sympathy from the Director.  But it was relatively easy to begin and continue his assignment alone because the Footloose Forester was used to bureaucrats who thought that their presence alone was vital to each and every phase, and later found out that the consultant they invited in was capable of operating on his own.

If this rendition of what happened in Namibia seems like a petulant approach to the facts and sounds self-serving, there is one more segment that will serve as the kicker. Sometime after the Footloose Forester was well underway into his field and writing assignment in Namibia, someone from the US Embassy there came up to him and said that he had just read the cable (the final cable) of acknowledgement and acceptance that the Footloose Forester had sent from Kenya. Except that the month of the five-time rescheduled trip cable to Namibia was not even the same month in which someone in the US Embassy first read the cable.  They first read the cable in the month after he arrived.      

Keeping records and having them handy, as needed, is fundamental; especially in the world of USAID.  There are far too many bureaucrats who lose sight of what they ask their consultants to do.  And too many, in my humble opinion, don’t want to appear as unprepared; or as unaware as they really are. Directors and Project Managers want to show everyone that they are in charge; and appear as being fully informed and aware, even when they are not.  The next example is from the Dominican Republic, but was part of the same petulant dream of the Footloose Forester.

When he was Senior Forestry Advisor in the Agroforestry Outreach Project in Haiti, the Footloose Forester was requested to visit the USAID office in neighboring Dominican Republic and access technical references and other pertinent documents that might be relevant to agroforestry programs in the region. It was a sensible course of action, since both countries engaged in some similar agroforestry activities but did not have very strong communications regarding our very similar developmental issues. His supervisor in Haiti therefore sent a cable to the Dominican Republic requesting that Footloose Forester be allowed to spend some time at the USAID library in Santa Domingo pursuant to searching out associated project literature.

Things were quiet in the small USAID office in Santa Domingo where the library was located. When he arrived, only a Dominican secretary was there, but the Footloose Forester introduced himself and stated that his mission included an extended visit to the library.  She said that the Director was not available but that if I had travel orders and a cable of introduction had already been sent, it seemed OK for me to work in the library.

A few hours later, enter the USAID Director who immediately wanted to know who I was, what I was doing there and who allowed me to use the library.  But without waiting for an answer, he quite inauspiciously said that he should send me back to Haiti.  Once again, the bemused Footloose Forester who has a tendency to remember such displays of misguided authority, replied that he would be happy to pack his things and go back to Haiti.  But before he did, the Director should read the cable authorizing the Footloose Forester to be there; and then explain to my supervisor why I did not complete the assignment for which I had been sent. Of course he had not read the cable.  Poor communication, poor coordination!