Sunday, June 26, 2011

Scientific Expedition to study glaciers on Mir Samir Afghanistan - 1965

Yesterday I got this message from Howard Horsely about going to Afghanistan as a young man.

"I was the youngest member of a scientific expedition to study the glaciers on Mir Samir in 1965. Such glaciers provide almost all the water to sustain most of the agriculture in Afghanistan. We climbed a number of neighbouring peaks and while we were there a Japanese team mounted a successful ascent of Mir Samir."

Howard Horsley
I found this very interesting article about Howard in the New Statesman.
Aid to Africa: who's counting?

Rosie Waterhouse

Published 12 September 2005

Howard Horsley is an idealist, committed to overseas aid. Over the years he has worked as a volunteer, a paid teacher and a VSO field officer in Africa. Then, in 1999, at the age of 54 and with a successful career as a headteacher in England behind him, he applied for a job with the Department for International Development (DfID). "I was thrilled by the expansion of the overseas aid programme under the newly elected Labour government and keen to make my expertise available," he recalls.

In May that year he took up a post managing the education field office (EFO) in Ghana, administering a British aid programme worth £50m over five years. He liked Accra, the capital, and made plans for his wife to join him, but within a few weeks he began to notice things at work that he didn't like. As months passed, he grew more and more concerned about what he describes as "lax financial controls, unchecked powers of patronage and the potential for mismanagement and corruption". He reported these concerns to DfID in London in e-mails, memos and telephone conversations. Yet, instead of seeing them investigated, Horsley was summarily sacked and denied a reference.

It was a personal calamity. For the past five years, this former head of a tough Grimsby comprehensive, who has a glowing Ofsted report on his record, has been unable to find work. With the vigorous support of the MP Austin Mitchell, who describes his treatment as "monstrous", Horsley has fought to have his case reviewed and his complaints investigated. Now he has decided to tell his story.

It is a story that raises important questions about DfID's control over aid spending - at a time when the G8 summit has just agreed to double aid to Africa by 2010, and when our government is assuring us that our aid money is not seeping away through corruption and poor management. And, while the government insists it has done nothing wrong, uncertainty remains about its past procedures and about the fate of no less than £18m in aid. More worrying still, it is now clear that Horsley was not the first British aid official in Accra to raise doubts about financial control.

At the time he went to Accra, Britain's policy for distributing aid had shifted from big projects to local programmes administered through the Ghana Education Service, with staff at the British education field office working alongside officials in the Ghanaian education ministry. Horsley soon heard complaints from other aid agencies, and from the Ghanaian minister and his officials, about the way money was spent and contracts awarded without adequate accounting or monitoring by DfID. Incidents included a request to authorise spending of £32,000 on office furniture, when the furniture had already been bought; the failure of DfID to provide the Ghanaian education minister with a full statement of how education aid was being spent, and the potential use of aid as, in Horsley's words, "a means of dispensing personal favours".

The most mysterious incident came after Horsley was told by the Ghanaian deputy education minister in August 1999 that Clare Short, the then secretary of state for international development, had pledged an extra £18m in aid. When none of this money turned up, Horsley made inquiries with the Ghanaian accountant general - who, he says, confirmed in September 1999 that it had been received by the government.

The money, however, did not find its way into the usual education aid channels, so Horsley, alarmed about the fate of such a sum and about the other problems he had found, wrote to London requesting a formal, independent investigation of the conduct of DfID affairs in Ghana.

Soon afterwards, on a working trip to northern Ghana, he caught typhoid and returned to Britain to recuperate. On his recovery he was called to a meeting at DfID headquarters on 6 January 2000. He thought this was to discuss the investigation he had requested and also to complete his midterm performance review, but he arrived to find that it was a disciplinary hearing. It didn't last long. Blamed for a breakdown in communication and a lack of coherence in the presentation of policy, he was sacked with immediate effect.

Horsley strenuously denied the charges and received strong support from international colleagues, but, when he returned to Ghana to assemble evidence for his appeal, he found that his filing cabinets had been emptied and his computer files professionally wiped. DfID then withdrew his formal right of appeal and threatened him with the Official Secrets Act if he spoke out.

Claiming protection as a whistle-blower under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, Horsley sought to have his dismissal investigated first by DfID itself and then at an employment tribunal. The tribunal said it had no jurisdiction because he had not been employed for long enough and had not lodged his Public Interest Disclosure Act claim soon enough. The civil service commissioners brushed him off, too, saying they could not investigate as DfID claimed he was employed on contract, not as a civil servant.

The case has outraged Austin Mitchell, who raised it in the House of Commons and has written to Hilary Benn, the current Secretary of State of International Development, asking for an independent inquiry. Mitchell told the New Statesman: "As a result of his attempt to blow the whistle on financial inadequacies and possible maladministration, this man has been out of a job for nearly six years and that's a monstrous way for DfID to behave. They made Howard a sacrificial victim. He was an embarrassment in raising these concerns. The proper procedure should have been to investigate complaints and tighten up procedures. They didn't do that."

One body that has investigated DfID aid to Ghana is the National Audit Office (NAO), which reported in a letter to Mitchell: "At no point . . . has any evidence emerged to suggest that financial impropriety or mismanagement occurred within DfID." But the letter added that "investigations revealed areas where the department might usefully tighten up its procedures and controls, which they are doing".

As for the mysterious £18m, the audit office initially said that DfID claimed no such amount had been paid to Ghana in 1999. Then, in May 2003, the NAO admitted that £18m had been paid, in 2000, as "budgetary support". It explained: "It follows that for payments of budgetary support it is not possible directly to answer the questions 'What was it for?' or 'How was it spent?', except to say that it added to the resources available to the government of Ghana." This is a remarkable admission: put bluntly, it means that neither DfID nor the NAO could say what became of £18m of British taxpayers' money.

Since that investigation, the NAO has tightened up accounting procedures for aid spending in general and for "budgetary support" in particular. Howard Horsley is entitled to some credit for this, though he has had no thanks for his efforts.

DfID maintains that any weaknesses in its financial procedures have been addressed and that Horsley's dismissal was "wholly related to his performance, which did not meet the requirements of the job". It says: "All parties across Whitehall have been satisfied that DfID acted correctly in relation to Mr Horsley's dismissal and found no evidence of financial impropriety."

Horsley authorised DfID to release documents to the New Statesman to clarify the grounds for dismissal. He says they prove that DfID never carried out the investigation he requested weeks before his dismissal and also that it ignored its own disciplinary procedures in sacking him.

But the story does not end there, for, in the course of his campaign, Horsley discovered he was not alone in raising concerns about aid to Ghana. His predecessor there had raised similar doubts about an "absence of checks and balances". Howard Tyers, who now works at Westminster University, has confirmed to the New Statesman that in his time at the Accra EFO he made "a number of complaints" about payments for an expensive office and also for Land Cruisers of an unnecessarily high specification, purchased without the usual tendering process.

Worryingly, after these complaints Tyers's tenure in Ghana also ended strangely. His contract ended in March 1999, but he asked for a three-month extension because he had to remain resident in Ghana, as his daughter was completing her A-levels. This request was rejected in London, and it was only after an appeal by the Ghanaian education ministry that he was allowed to stay. However, he was sidelined to a research project and denied access to the EFO. And, like Horsley, he found his computer files wiped.

The experiences of Horsley and his predecessor raise questions that should worry anyone who cares about aid. Does DfID respond properly to concerns about financial management? Does it ensure that new aid is spent wisely, with transparency and adequate financial controls? DfID says yes, but unless whistle-blowers are encouraged and protected, how can we be sure?

How does Horsley feel? "Angry that DfID has still held no one accountable for what was going on in Ghana; that no one has been held accountable for my entirely unjustified dismissal; that there has been no hearing, anywhere, on the merits of my case. And appalled that DfID can demand good governance in other countries and still fail to meet the most basic standards of good governance in its own internal practices." He is angry, too, at the waste of years of his career. Despite the emotional and financial costs, he remains determined not to let the matter drop.

Transparency International, which campaigns against corruption in aid and trade, would not comment on the case, but its executive director, Chandrashekhar Krishnan, was clear about one thing: "Any development organisation should have a policy of encouraging whistle-blowers and of ensuring that, if someone has suspicions to report, there is a mechanism to allow that person to express those concerns in a way which will not attract recriminations." The Horsley case does not seem to match that standard and it will deter, not encourage, future whistle-blowers.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Meaningless Language and Lessons Learned.

There are many disaster practicioners out there who have been through thick and thin, and are totally committed to Lesson's Learned. But who is charged with following through on Lessons Learned? Do we have Ministers of Lessons Learned?  Do we have Permanent Secretaries of Lessons Learned? Do international organistions have people in charge of Lessons Learned?

My former colleague Michael Stone, an authority on Afghanistan, Cantral Asia and,  a man who knows disaster relief and recovery. Here is a lecture he gave recently.


1. What I am about to say comes from directing emergency operations with the United Nations, Red Cross and NGOs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, former Yugoslavia, Georgia and Iraq. Also, I have chaired a number of coordination bodies, and reviewed emergency programmes in many parts of the world.

2. In this brief presentation, I want to introduce 5 areas of serious common error in needs assessments. Remember, if we get it wrong, people can die – in extreme cases, we may even kill them. I will then provide solutions for these errors, developed from my own experience, and conclude with something I am working on now which needs to be incorporated in all needs assessments.

3. The most serious errors:

A. Meaningless Language.

B. Failure to Distinguish Means from Ends.

C. Observation Altering Reality.

D. Lessons Not Learned.

E. Coordination Failure.


a. If I could receive a euro for every report I’ve read, every appeal document, and especially every evaluation, I would be rich. English is my first language, and I’m good at it, but document after document contains phrases, indeed whole paragraphs, which are meaningless. Oh yes, there is great pressure on me to pretend I understand, otherwise I may give the impression I am thick. But no, so often the phrases and paragraphs are meaningless.

COLUMN 1       COLUMN 2                   COLUMN 3

The above words are taken from recent reports. Moving right to left, in any combination, they give the appearance of sense, but are meaningless e.g. “responsive logistical alliance”, “functional empowering capacity building”, “strategic visionary benchmark”. They can even be reversed e.g. “benchmark empowering functional”

Meaningless language itself encourages illogical or impractical thinking. The following chart, informally called the Mother of All Charts, relates to the new US surge in Afghanistan. The chart was prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff by a leading international firm of management consultants.

The chart is mind-bogglingly awesome in its complexity and utter uselessness, and demonstrates admirably the problem of meaningless language encouraging illogical and impractical thinking.

 a. The problem, it seems to me, is that some of us don’t
Know what we are talking about. We think we do, but we don’t. The consequence can be formidable for the vulnerable in emergencies e.g. the failure of internationals to provide enough helicopters for the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir is partly the result of unintelligible needs assessments.

b. Language is important. For example, in recent years we have tended to talk of beneficiaries, rather than the most vulnerable. The two are not necessarily the same. A food distribution in an emergency, reported as reaching all beneficiaries, may have targeted millionaires!


a. In our world, we are here for one thing, to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, often in an emergency. That is the end. The means are the funds from donors, the structured organisation we may be part of, the tents, the medicines, the food and the vehicles for their delivery. But how often are the two confused! Some reports, some evaluations, and more seriously TORs, make no mention whatsoever of the most vulnerable.

b. This happens in development too. Recently I reviewed a counter narcotics programme for which $800m had been pledged. Initially, people said they were too busy to see us, but they had to, we reported directly to the donors. Yes, they were busy. About 300 were involved in various ways, working six days a week, firing
endless e mails at each other, meeting all hours of the day. But after two years, only $2m had been spent,
and most of this wasted. The mushroom project, for example, most unsuitable anyway, yielded a crop costing $27,000 a kilo! The end – to encourage farmers to turn away from the poppy – had been forgotten. The means dominated everything.


A. Here I would like to introduce my own adaptation of the Heisenberg Principle. Heisenberg, a father of Quantum Mechanics, made a disturbing discovery in the 1920s. That by looking at something, you alter its behaviour. His analogy was an atom under a microscope, the objective being to see the path of electrons around the nucleus. When you turn light on the slide to see the atom, the photons from the light knock the electrons into different orbits. Hence, his law that the act of observation alters what is seen.

B. We see this in so many ways in relation to needs assessments:

1. The Questionnaire, with the leading questions, encouraging one answer more than another.

2. The interviewer arriving at a destroyed village in a chauffer driven land cruiser, so obviously rich, powerful, foreign – it is all too likely the vulnerable people will provide the answer they think you want to hear.

3. The fact Finding Mission, so often a mix of relevant and irrelevant organisations for the situation, who strive for a consensus which signifies nothing. A UN response to an emergency I reviewed took three months to assemble 23 senior people from 10 different agencies. The recommendations came far too late for action, and were wrong anyway – they were based on a distorted timetable arranged by a Minister.

You know the sort of thing – with most funds going to a particular organisation for orphans, which just so happens to be run by the Minister’s brother.

In all these instances, and many others, the observer is altering reality, indeed creating a false reality. So many needs assessments are based on false realities as the act of observation altered what was seen.


A. No, they are not. I have seen this time and time again as a Consultant reviewing programmes, in particular on behalf of donors. The reasons are threefold.

1. Most organisations have no mechanism at an appropriate level for considering Report recommendations.

2. On the rare occasions when they do exist, there is no system for implementation of recommendations agreed. Some people don’t even make the distinction between agreement and implementation. To paraphrase Cervantes “It is a far cry from agreement to implementation”.

A third problem, arises from the meaningless language

I have already mentioned. Most recommendations are meaningless themselves. Like a bar of wet soap which
slips out of your hand. You know the sort of thing: “It is recommended steps are taken towards increasing
advocacy, enhancing synergy, promoting empowerment…” The list goes on. You can do absolutely nothing at all, and no one can prove you haven’t implemented such recommendations.

3. The general failure to learn and implement lessons results in the humanitarian and development world being littered by a repetition of mistakes. The wrong food in an emergency, the wrong medicines, clothes for the wrong season – or projects which destroy livelihoods e.g over supply of boats and nylon fishing nets. In a review I did on the tsunami, the mantra from so many beneficiaries was“First tsunami, then the foreigners”.

For those like me with some grey hair it is so frustrating to see the wheel continuously being reinvented, with the same mistakes being made that we made twenty years ago. A common definition of insanity is repeating the same, and expecting a different result.


1. We talk about it a lot. To outsiders, it looks as if it is happening. Generally, it is not. For two years I chaired the UN NGO coordination body for Afghanistan. So it seems to me, I know what I am talking about!

2. There are 2 key realities preventing real coordination:
a. Factually, the term itself implies some authority external to the organisation. From UN Agencies to the smallest of NGOs, each has its own constitution, its own sovereignty, an independent board to which most ultimately report. They cannot be told what to do by others.

b. Egos. Often, they are enormous. We have all met directors of operations, large and small, who are in love with power, and seek only their own glory. Shakespeare called this “the insolence of office”. They have to be the first into some emergency, they dominate coordination meetings if they attend them at all - often it is some junior. They claim in their reports to provide everything that is needed to all those in need e.g. I once led a major evaluation into the international response to the Kosovo crisis. Kosovo has a population of 2m. Adding reports of key players together, who mostly claimed comprehensive support to all beneficiaries, there had to be a population of about 22 million.

c. Real coordination, and the synergy which follows for the most vulnerable, is far more rare than is presented. Where it does happen, it usually comes down to the sociability, the friendliness and the hearts of key individuals.


1. I have spent some time on the problems of needs evaluation for two reasons:

a. It’s no use coordinating and integrating emergency assessments of different organisations if they are wrong.

b. The solutions are contained within the problems I have outlined.

2. Briefly:

a. With regard to unclear language: Let us be simple and clear. I know this is more difficult than being complex and long winded, but let us never speak or write an unclear sentence again, especially if we don’t understand it ourselves. Remember the old Chinese saying: “The less matter there is, the more substance there will be”.

b. With regard to means becoming more important than ends. Let us always keep in mind that we are here to identify and help the most vulnerable. So often, organisations work from their head offices to the most
vulnerable. They should work backwards, from the most vulnerable to the head office. Begin with the end
in mind. I always try to remember, that the most senior person in any humanitarian organisation is employed by the poorest, the most vulnerable people on earth. In a perfect world, their jobs would not exist. No one is
more important than the most vulnerable.

In an emergency, the whole point of our work is to meet a vulnerable person’s request. This may be
typified as “I need X goods in this quantity now” and “I will need X + Y + possibly z in this quantity for this
period”. Remember the words of the philosopher Diderot: “It is not enough to do good. Good must be
done well”.

c. In relation to our observation altering reality. Be conscious of the Heisenberg Principle in all we do. Watch those questionnaires to ensure each question is entirely objective, culturally sensitive and retains human dignity. Park your land cruisers on the edge of the village, walk in, be informal, go individually, listen – they know what they need far better than we do.

d. With regard to lessons not being learned. Let us not continue the mistake identified by the writer G.B. Shaw “Man learns from history that he learns nothing from history” For emergency needs assessments, appoint staff who have experience of running operations themselves, and who are capable of producing, with speed, clear and practical recommendations. Appoint consultants for evaluations with the same qualities. In relation to evaluations, take them seriously.

Establish a standing committee at director level for consideration of all evaluation recommendations. Clearly accept, perhaps with modification, or reject specific recommendations. Task mangers to implement recommendations with instructions to report to the standing committee on specific progress in three month’s time.

e. With regard to coordination, appreciate that agencies, organisations, NGOS have their own sovereignties. Get rid of the word coordination. Use cooperation instead. You will find this word emphasises the voluntary nature of working together, and works so much better.

In relation to egos. Remember Dostoyevsky’s immortal words: “Everybody is responsible to everyone for everything”. Appoint directors and mangers who are friendly, open, intelligent and with hearts. Those who realise they are there to help the most vulnerable and not themselves – who understand the enormous synergy, increasing significantly the impact of all we do, which arises from cooperation.


1. I would like to conclude with a few words on something I am currently working on. It attempts to correct a serious failure in emergency needs assessments. I call it the Compound Crisis.

2. We respond usually to emergencies on an individual basis, as if they are one off. We are mistaken. Very often one disaster causes another, the second and third disasters often being more devastating than the first. Mathematics best illustrates the power of compounding.


 If offered a million Euros now, or one Euro which doubles every day for only a month, most of us would choose the former. We are wrong. One Euro doubling for a month is worth far, far more than Euro one million. The figure amounts to over one billion!

3. I saw the impact of compounding most recently in Tajikistan where I was UN Emergency Coordinator. An unprecedented cold winter with record snow falls caused a food and heating emergency. This was followed, in the spring, by a second emergency, sizeable floods and landslides. By the time summer came, agricultural output was at its lowest because of substantial seed destruction and high livestock mortality in winter. Unprecedented low rainfalls then encouraged an explosion of locusts. Record high locust storms destroyed record low agricultural production.

4. It is the poor who are hit by disaster, not the rich. With the compound effect of one disaster leading to another, the same people are being hit each time. It is like being a boxer, winning one fight, and then another opponent enters the ring – you survive, but then another and another enters the ring. The ability to survive each disaster diminishes. In the end, many will die.

5. As donations for humanitarian assistance are nearly always linked to newsworthy visibility, a Compound Crisis will be unnoticed internationally, and receive little or no funding. Yet, it may be compared to a silent tsunami. In the context of global warming, the Compound Crisis will need to receive significant attention.

Thank you.

Michael Stone