Monday, October 25, 2021

Write off pale, aged males 45 and older at your peril!

Text by Barry Greville-Eyres


Reflections, based on recent international and in-Australia job search efforts spanning several months, are shared. Harsh realities, within the context of a staccato COVID-19 pandemic recovery, impacting upon Official Development Assistance (ODA) – international development and humanitarian aid are listed. Cash-strapped nations have reduced aid-spend; project pipelines have narrowed, and delivery delays are commonplace; in the face of the Afghan debacle there is, hopefully, a collective conscience and re-think on issues of policy, aid effectiveness, conditionality, accountability, localization; and a resurgence of nationalization has seen most countries reasserting their own agendas (in their national interest) and hiring nationals first within a reduced funding and job market.

The parochial domestic job market, COVID-cloistered, has been shaken and stirred by a blockade on incoming skilled migrant labour and a corresponding outflow or brain drain. Early reports were of a shortage of 500,000 skilled labour to a more recent estimate or call for an ‘explosive, country-wide post-World War II-style immigration surge’ that could bring in 2 million people over five years to rebuild the faltering economy and address crippling labour shortages. Fortress Australia stands resolute, and we all wait, with bated breath, to see how the stately dominoes will tumble post-lockdown in the newest scramble and surge.  The pale, male and stale (PMS) stereotype along with the prevailing human resources management preoccupation of Gender, Equality, Diversity and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) are touched upon. It is against this backdrop that observations, trends and considerations – solutions are thrown into the mix.   

Trending: Talent Acquisition 

Donotreply and automated responses generated by talent acquisition specialists and their sophisticated recruitment - careers software are previewed below.

After careful consideration, we advise that on this occasion, your application has been unsuccessful. We have decided to progress with other candidates more closely suited to our requirements at this time.

At G&&&&&, we seek candidates who can genuinely add value to our business.

We assessed that the breadth of your skills and experience were not at the same level as those of the shortlisted candidates.

Your resume will be maintained in our database for future positions, and if a strong match is found between your skills, experience and requirements of a position a member of the resourcing team will be in touch with you. We encourage you to spend a few minutes periodically to ensure that your information is up to date.

Some compelling questions for consideration.

 What does this generic, robotic jargon mean? Should it be taken at face value?

Is there more conspiratorial – subliminal messaging therein?  Could it be that embedded in these codified and nuanced phrases are measures of woke-Manship, and in vogue GEDSI parlance with promising intent yet less applied knowledge and experience on how to make this happen?

Or could it be the folly of job markets where perhaps supply outstrips demand and recruiters are phishing in deep, yet opaque talent pools to try and draw out whoppers as opposed to minnows - candidates that can genuinely add value? 

This seems to contradict current and anticipated labour market shortages (domestic and international) flagged above? Even in the face of almost Australia-wide lockdowns and job seeker/keeper economic stimuli, the flood of job advertisements and re-advertisement continue unabated.  Speculative, shots in the dark or displacement activity? 

In relation to the issues of PMS and GEDSI, this is a case of déjà vu since its was a lived reality (as a senior public servant, management consultant, scholar, development practitioner) I contended with daily in the post-Apartheid South Africa (1996-2005). Only then, in my role as Deputy Director: HR Training and Development - Office of the Premier, I was the sole white male albeit much younger. Best described at the time as:

‘Experienced, firsthand, workplace social re-engineering/accelerated transformation initiatives and the implications thereof. Attempts include Apartheid – racism and reverse racism; gender mainstreaming, Peter Principle; Imposter Syndrome (elaborated on further) affirmative action; black economic empowerment (BEE) preferential procurement; and other guises, overt or covert, of redress laid bare, often, as blatant discrimination.’

Then, as now, there are many 'lips to be serviced' but the absence of a clear, pragmatic, and coherent ‘how’ to do this in a measured, common sense and sustainable way. Jerky knees! 

Peter Principle - notes that employees, in a typical corporate structure, tend to advance to 'a level of respective incompetence' - personnel are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) in one job does not necessarily translate to another. Indiscriminate accelerated development and promotion, often within historically marginalized groups, often compounds workplace incompetence with negative consequences of mainstream organizational resistance and dissatisfaction. Some beneficiaries thrive in this context but others wilt under this immense pressure and scrutiny to perform and live up to unrealistic expectations. Job-hopping often results in order to stay ahead of the in-competence curve and as upward mobility is increasingly and artificially sweetened

Imposter Syndrome - nagging and persistent emotions of inadequacy despite demonstrable markers of achievement. Imposters suffer from 'chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external verification of their competence.'

As with the Peter Principle and the Imposter Syndrome, the Pale, Male and Stale (PMS) stereotype and caricature has occupied the HR and organizational development space for decades. It is often attributed to Nasa administrator Daniel Goldin who, in 1992, criticised the lack of diversity in the space agency. More recently, as GEDSI strategies gather implementation momentum, the dominant view is that they - PMS should stand aside, and no longer be seen and heard. 

Toss in a healthy dose of ageism as well and a further layer is added to an already complex conundrum. Whilst acknowledging we cannot maintain the workplace status quo – auto-repeating ‘same old same,’ there are countless experiences and lessons out there to learn from. Ever tried excluding your age as a ‘mandatory field’ and having your online application stopped in its tracks or perhaps fudging it (the algorithm) only then to be thwarted, at the final click, by the requirement to make an honest, accurate and truthful disclosure of private information. Strange is it not, that you can fudge or decline from disclosing 'voluntary information' related to your race - ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, disability status, special accommodation(s) etc.

Making sense of non-sense

Although an enduring challenge, fittingly described as the 'disconnect' between executive, senior management and human resource units, this is clearly exacerbated by the recent pandemic with the unprecedented pace and complexity of change. With the former exec-cadre not always 'understanding or investing’ in the optional extras - contemporary transformative agendas/roles including (People, Culture, Community, Social Performance, Environment, Engagement, Leadership and Learning, Learning and Development, Policing of Pronouns, Wellbeing and Wellness - Mental Health). Arguably, their perspective is more about the bottom line and short term survival and less about equity and sustainability? What ever happened seasoned General Managers? The perennial, organizational development, argument of generalist versus specialist is perhaps entirely a different topic of conversation for another time.

Have executives – senior managers (PMS) dropped some balls?

In addition to keeping all these balls in the air, human resource units are required to fathom out a response to the omni-present COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of making remote work successful/combating alienation.  

Having said this, there are several reasons not to write off the PMS pariah generation just yet. 

6 Reasons not to write off, pale males aged 45 onwards

  • Provide an organizational steady, stable ‘homeostasis’ state. Cohesive – adhesive glue.   
  • Often constitute the institutional memory and the tacit – experiential (intangible - personal wisdom, experience, insight, and intuition) knowledge base of organizations spanning several years. This includes catastrophic events such as mergers and acquisitions; global financial and other crises i.e. lived change which infuses the institution and staff with confidence, resilience, resolve, patience and expert knowledge.
  • Can prove to be invaluable allies and catalysts for change - the quiet and sensibility in the storm of transformational change. The caveat is to build change programs (GEDSI etc) with and around them not as a stand alone event but as a creative, dynamic and inclusive collaboration. There needs to be a collective acknowledgement, within organizations, that they are on an enduring change trajectory for more frequent, more momentous, more variable, more opportunistic change where adaptive management becomes the default response.    
  •  They can, generally, hustle and hack it – once again the resilience theme!
  • Many are also at the career point where they've made their respective mark(s), and perhaps, have reflected upon work and life, personal and organizational legacies with hopefully a corresponding receptiveness to change, add value and give others a fair go. 
  • Tacit knowledge - wisdom, experience, insight, and intuition is the traditional mainstay of most societies and cultures. It is indispensable - it means and counts for something adding gravitas and respect.   

Conversely, aged pale males can also serve as gatekeepers, highly resistant to change and as active saboteurs retarding progressive transformation. If anything else, these mutterings are a veiled threat - a rocket up the Khyber Pass to stale males that the 'age of entitlement' is over, and that their games need considerable lifting if they wish to remain a force in the workplace.   

What do you identify, most, with?

Mediocrity or Excellence?

Level playing fields at all – what cost?

I identify with pale males aged 45 years and older - less so with the derogatory 'stale' moniker. With life-long learning behind and ahead I'm still able to make a contribution in an empowering, energetic and enabling fashion. I embrace change and challenge and shy away from neither. I also accept that there are four (4) or more sides to every argument.

They say age is but a number (and a state of mind), so according to my calculations I still have another highly productive and professional 15 years to early retirement. Having reached my prime, the very  best years are clearly ahead of me. I identify with creative collaborations between HR, senior management, and other organizational units, spearheaded by a credible manager, who leads transformation as a strategic and social imperative. I can relate to the young, restless, impatient, and ambitious as I’ve young adult offspring  of my own. However, we all need to bide and do our time, there is no quick-fix or substitute for experience. Journeys and destinations are inseparable - they are part of the same continuum!

Post Script: I celebrate my 59th birthday in the month of November and whereas celebratory greetings will not be amiss, I’d far prefer a few promising job prospects AND OR concrete offers.    

General Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. Sentiments reflected are solely those of the blogger and do not represent those of people, institutions and organizations that the blogger may or may not be associated with in his personal and professional capacities. This includes previous, current and any future employers. Expressed views and opinions are not intended to malign anyone. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) through Walkabout

Text and Pictures by Barry Greville-Eyres

There is no substitute for 'Walkabout' particularly in the official development assistance context  

Ironically, the term walkabout is recognized in technical and business management parlance as MBWA or management by walking around. It was popularized in the ‘80s and involves managers meandering about in an unstructured manner, arbitrarily through the workplace, to check with employees/beneficiaries, equipment, or on the status of continuing work. An Antipodean variation on the theme is the journey of discovery or rite of passage during which adolescent males, in Australian Aboriginal culture, live in the wilderness for a period up to six months. This enables them to make the spiritual and traditional transition into adulthood. This socio-cultural practice is entrenched, in various guises, in many traditional and even contemporary societies (including African) marking an important learning and developmental milestone in someone’s life. One could argue that the ‘generalized practice’ is second nature but has been lost or severely eroded over time by external influences including urbanization and globalization. Sense-around or the three L’s of Listening, Looking and Learning are at the core of the walkabout experience.

CLA (USAID) and capacity development (primarily UNDP and other UN agencies, DFID-UKAID, AusAID-AustralianAID), often used interchangeably in the official development assistance (ODA) context, is the process (of knowledge, skill, experience and attribute acquisition) through which individuals, organizations and societies obtain, strengthen and maintain the competences to set and achieve their own, time-bound development objectives.

The walkabout management (and learning) model is a simple one, and in workplaces where employees are within proximity to each other it can be extraordinarily effective especially nowadays where there is an over-reliance on information and communication technologies. Pundits argue that its destined for a comeback as it trumps verbose, impersonal emails meticulously prepared from behind closed doors; smashes the glass cubicle-siloed work space and mentality and more importantly, is handy for building rapport and cohesion among team members.

A key disadvantage that MBWA has however is the limit posed on it by geography. In the case of decentralized offices and or a regional sphere of operations, its becomes particularly challenging and conscious decisions and active practices need to be put in place to promote this orientation.

This article intends validating, based on a career of practice, the notional concept of ‘walkabout’ yet also argues how integral it is not only to good development per se but also highly effective CLA/CD. There is no substitute for hands-on management and it’s also widely accepted that intensive and participatory engagement promotes home-grown and often, spontaneous development solutions. An attempt is made to locate CLA through Walkabout on a continuum citing some of the more and less typical development responses, largely dictated by prevailing contextual factors. 

A fair depiction of Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Pic. Courtesy of U.S. Mission Uganda 

Gated and Grounded in Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCAS)

As a development practitioner, most of my recent work has been in FCAS (including South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Iraq) where walking around and as a natural extension CLA and CD, is exceedingly difficult and often nearly impossible. Typically, staff are sequestered is secure compounds, as a matter of necessity, and seldom have direct access to development assistance partners – whether government counterparts, CBOs/NGOs, other stakeholders and beneficiaries. Occasional and hard-earned engagement is at great risk with parties having to run a gauntlet, of high drama, on either side of the wire. Personal safety aside, national counterparts are often reluctant to venture into secure, international compounds because of the grave danger en route, general inconvenience and occasional disrespect meted out on them by local and foreign guard forces. Conversely, some practitioners welcome ‘getting out of the wire’ as a rare opportunity to see things as they really are. Most err on the side of caution and prefer not to venture out at all even with all the security arrangements in place. All are reminded by security details that individuals are, ultimately, ‘responsible’ for their personal security and therefore exercise this ‘call’ accordingly.

Under these circumstances, proximity is greatly reduced as is the ability to walkabout. Therefore, working relationships are fleeting and national staff/counterparts ‘exist’ side-by-side in two distinct, yet totally altered realities. Rapport, trust, face-time, nurturing ‘holistic development’ through on-the-job mentoring and coaching which are all vital social capital ingredients tend to be in short supply. Frequent rest and recuperation (R&R) cycles and sporadic terror incidents add to the climate of chaos and surrealness. Exceptions do exist and its not uncommon to develop incredible bonds of friendship and mutual understanding under the most trying circumstances.

Barbed wire, T-walls, barricades and birds .......

Personal Tip: My mission was, within reason, to spend as much contact time as possible with national colleagues and government counterparts. I facilitated access to our secured compounds and ‘personalized’ the entire experience by receiving and seeing them off at the gate. Transport was always arranged, and pickups/drop-offs were timely and where necessary, I would shield them from awkward moments with guard forces. Refreshments at the local restaurant or coffee shop was a MUST DO and an ordinarily dull meeting was turned into, what I hoped, an outing and pleasant occasion. Conversely, what cemented working relations and won healthy respect in short time, was the willingness to venture out of the protected expat-bubble and visit government counterparts at their workplaces. 
A typical development response in FCAS is to install a system of intermediate national staff, almost always seasoned practitioners and advisors, to serve as an extension of their international colleagues. Local advisors become the eyes, ears – sensory, atmospheric and contextual receptors for the project, implementer and donor. This model, used as a primary vehicle for CLA and CD, has worked well but the international practitioner cadre bears an important responsibility in making it work seamlessly and effectively. 

Local Trainers were Trained through (ToTs) and then sent out into ministries and departments as dedicated points of contact and to deliver on project mandates. Language was invariably always a problem and most projects had an excellent team of in-house translators to support the process of developing and transferring knowledge, skills and attitudes. Whereas most local advisors were trained professionals (engineers, doctors and lawyers) many lacked the ‘soft developmental skills and experience’ to take on the role as practitioner consultant. This is where the role of the international practitioner became so critical and ‘mismatches’ were not uncommon, where former city managers, lawyers and other professionals were thrust into development work with little or no context-specific experience.  Nevertheless, this yielded ‘mixed’ and interesting results.

Comment: The ‘process’ of understanding a dynamic local context, through and with intermediate advisors, and then jointly developing appropriate responses is central to a sustainable CLA/CD journey. Enough time must be allowed to continuously review both ‘process’ and ‘content’ issues as therein lies learning, adaptive management and fundamental change. Each country and unique context have its ‘natural rhythm’ and heart beat that should and cannot be hurried along easily.

A decade or more later there is a critical mass of experienced, local capacity in place, weaned off from their international parentages that can continue this important work with the ‘lightest touch’ of support and supervision. This remains an enduring legacy of the helter-skelter development work done in the new (3rd) millennium and which addresses, in part, sustainability issues raised by many cynics. Some recent Afghan insights - specially from southern Afghanistan (Helmand Province) are shared here at

Comment: Challenges posed by language and the absence of professional translation are sometimes taken for granted – this can be disastrous for a project and its implementation if not remedied swiftly.

Comment: Another, often, taken for granted dimension in FCASs is the impact of unresolved conflict/trauma on a society and more specifically on CLA/CD. Experiences from Timor-Leste are shared here. This realization and the deeply associated complexities are a true product of walkabout – venturing out of Dili and spending time in the countryside with Timorese – both East and West. 

A 'twist' on Walkabout

How to Entrench Support and How Not To

Embed, notwithstanding its strong militaristic connotations, is probably the more commonly used term to take the walkabout concept to its absolute, ‘ideal’ extreme. In general terms, CLA/CD often works best if you physically co-locate oneself directly with your local project colleagues and or government counterparts. This is permissible outside of FCAS situations and where one would want to optimize contact/face-time. Typically, when commencing on a new project, as a senior expat practitioner, one is reverently and ceremoniously ushered to a plush office secluded from project machinations and hullabaloo.

Personal Tip: Immediately ditch the lofty and prized project ‘unreal estate’ in favor of co-locating yourself in a ‘general office’ arrangement where you share with middle-level colleagues/counterparts particularly general and personal assistants/secretaries. In quick order, one will have your finger on the ‘true’ project pulse and open yourself to the trust, respect and cultural uniqueness of national staff. You will also have so much more fun in a communal office arrangement with never-ending learning.

If your role is to provide strategic and institutional strengthening support to the leadership of a government agency, then the ideal approach is to ‘embed’ yourself in proximity to the leadership – specifically in the office of responsive and interested counterpart(s). Common leadership and project tendencies are to often establish a ‘separate’ project office which makes reasonable sense but does little to directly promote integration and CLA/CD. Project offices are always better resourced and reinforces a ‘we-them’ orientation posing physical as well as psycho-social barriers. Being fully ‘embedded’ does not negate the need to actively engage in ‘walk and talk about practice.’

Comment: Advocate high visibility/walkabout – spend time on the move practicing the 3 Ls - across the organization’s rank and file. Drivers, guards – security personnel, secretaries, cleaning – and auxiliary support staff ALL have incredible insights to share and as part of a project team also have a vested interest in the project – specifically its plans, progress and success.

Walking the Talk

Platitudes and lip service, especially on the part of program/project leadership, are not enough. A quick scan of development assistance websites and associated job posts confirms that CLA/CD remain a topical and central andragogical theme throughout the industry. It’s the understanding thereof and actual ‘doing’ that can prove to be challenging and somewhat confronting. As an adopted approach it should be ‘practiced’ across project rank and file – in a wholly integrated and systemic manner. ALL become ‘learners’ and ‘educators’ and no one is exempt from ‘internalizing and living out’ this dynamic dualism.  Institutional arrangements are critical to underpin this ‘learning orientation’ that should seek to:  

·        Acknowledge and reward innovation and excellence;
·        Support the taking of informed decisions and calculated risks;
·        Design/implement plans and M&E frameworks that are flexible and agile;
·        Consider ever-changing contexts and incorporate them appropriately;
·        Create time, space and opportunities for ongoing dialogue and discussion on progress and learning (both analytical and critical) through after action reviews, focus group feedback, reflection – stock taking and other periodic sessions;
·        Locate the leadership and management cadre in such a position to ACTIVELY lead the process but equally, to empower project staff through functional delegations;
·        Promote sound, open and participatory management practices avoiding excessive centralization and micromanagement;
·        Install an informal system of gurus or champions to support the orientation;
·        Pivot learning (guide, support and direct) around a strategic and dedicated learning position with an important caveat - a shared-communal learning responsibility rather than of one individual in that position; 

Discoveries and rare pleasures when going 'walkabout' - meeting and making new friends because you put yourself out there.

Regional Programs – Harder and with Greater Complexity

CLA, through Walkabout, in a regional project context is challenging, illusive and often a moving target. Multiple countries mean an exponential amplification of learning with a plethora of learners and educators; convergent but often, divergent contexts/positions; governments; regional entities; interested and affected parties. It also implies some understanding of and consensus around:

With whom do we want to learn? (greater focus for impact)
What do we want to learn about? (urgent and important issues)
How best to learn within a given regional context? (an appreciation of learning styles, methodologies and tools)

Further insights are provided below.

Lingua francas, colonial legacies, multi-culturalism and tribalism 
Action research indicates that people’s perceptions of and responses to social change (practicing collaboration, learning and adaptation in project-based contexts) are likely to be situation specific and grounded in location-based histories, social networks, cultural norms and institutional arrangements (Paschen and Ison, 2014). They also involve a variety of stakeholders at all societal levels. This implies, firstly, bridging this important ‘socio-cultural divide’ that is often taken for granted. This can only be done by ‘old-fashioned’ communication and engagement (talking the talk). Failure to do this can and does pose barriers to learning and collaboration.  To encourage a better and greater socio-cultural appreciation of the varied perspectives that exist across a transdisciplinary knowledge network, stakeholders should also cross-learn about the perspectives of fellow stakeholders in their specific context or in this case, geographic region. A departure point is to learn about each other’s cultures and histories; existing knowledge, skills and attitudes; and prevailing realities. An off-the-shelf solution from elsewhere or a totally different development paradigm that is re-engineered or retrofitted is problematic and bound to fail. Cross-learning and contextual appreciation presupposes the time, openness, willingness and opportunities to do so to the mutual benefit of all significant parties. Even if these fundamental foundations are in place, practitioners need to remain sensitive and hyper-vigilant as there is ‘so much more’ lost in translation than language and literal meaning.

Geo-political context, regional power and economic blocs
Most regional ‘governing’ blocs or communities are put in place to fast-track economic growth, social progress, sustainable development and cultural advancement. A common scenario may be multiple but decentralized governing blocs operating out of different locations in a vast geographic region, with diverse but equally overlapping mandates where the minnow(s) is ultimately subordinate to one supra-bloc. A complex operating environment fraught with power dynamics, pecking orders and countless protocols. A typical project or development response is to embed bodies within the blocs with less of an emphasis on roles, responsibilities and professional competencies. Regional walkabout or travel can be demanding, circuitous and time consuming but nevertheless critical. Under these circumstances teamwork becomes more important than ever.

Knowledge capture and dissemination
As discussed under the heading Walking the Talk, the design and implementation approach should be precise and unequivocal. Teams and all members therein ‘learn by doing’ and it should be a requirement that all play an active role in this regard.   

Concluding thoughts

CLA, whether planned/formalized and or purely opportunistic/spontaneous, is more often intuitive and about sensing and feeling one’s way through situations. Some people are blessed with this orientation and inner learning voice – others are not. Organizations and projects are certainly not – more reason for leaders and management to critically consider whether ‘business as usual’ is really an option – or perhaps not. Its only through walkabout and experience that one can begin to build a ‘learning repertoire’ and then affect some measure of change.

In my experience, the smallest is enough:

‘I'm happy to inform you that as of this week, I'm now the XXXX Officer. This wouldn't have been possible without all the effort you put into making sure that the project recognized my efforts. I can't appreciate your persistence, support, and guidance over the past year enough. Thank you so much………’

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Legacies, Badlands and Rough Diamonds

 Untold, development assistance, anecdotes from Lashkar Gah - Helmand Province:  Southern Afghanistan

Disputed territory, towns, borders and key installations in southern Afghanistan Courtesy of the Independent newspaper 
In anticipation of the draw down by International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and subsequent closure of Camps Bastion (British) and Leatherneck (American) in 2014, core development partners were adamant that gains, however small, should be both protected and sustained in partnership with the incumbent Afghan Provincial Government. The Helmand Provincial and Reconstruction Team (PRT), initially located in Lashkar Gah and then subsequently at Bastion, was funded by the troika of British, Danish and Estonia governments closed down well in advance of the military scale down. Collectively, they turned towards the last man standing in the form of the enduring UN agencies, specifically the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as part of a potential exit strategy.
An exploratory Mission in 2013 saw an integrated UNDP and DANIDA – Danish International Development Agency  team visit Camp Bastion, the Lashkar Gah-based PRT  and the Provincial Governor’s office with the express purpose of designing a ‘stop-gap’ transition from purely civil–military relations (Civ-Mil or CMR) to civilian-development relations. Much of the initial design and subsequent roll-out was carried out under the sage guidance of Renaud Meyer, UNDP Afghanistan Deputy Country Director together with a multidisciplinary programme team.

Design team members, representing UNDP and DANIDA, on arrival in Lashkar Gah in 2013
At the pinnacle of Afghan-ISAF Civ-Mil relations, researchers from the Overseas Development Institute argued that 'the belief that development and reconstruction activities are central to security'...'was a central component of western involvement' and that this has been 'highly contentious among aid agencies, perhaps nowhere more so than Afghanistan.' Their April 2013 paper concluded with the following key lessons learned: 
  • Stabilisation (peace and security) approaches are likely to continue to present challenges to the aid community’s ability to act according to humanitarian principles in fragile and conflict affected states (FCAS), and post-conflict environments. Experiences in Afghanistan highlight significant tension, if not outright conflict, between stabilisation and internationally recognised guidelines and principles governing civil–military collaboration.
  • Civil–military engagement was noticeably more effective when it was entrenched in International Humanitarian Law and logical reasoning, as with advocacy focused on reducing or 'doing no-harm' to civilians.
  • Aid agencies need to invest more in capacity and training for engaging in civil–military dialogue and, together with donors, seek to generate more objective evidence on the impact of stabilisation approaches.
Signs of those Times - Senior Provincial Government officials - Helmand
Lashkar Gah - location of the PRT - a variable 'oasis' tendered by Helmandi's with green fingers 
Shoring up previous gains in the province was driven primarily by broad-based ‘legacy motivations’ - the immense human and material resource sacrifices and contributions made by ISAF and international community spanning well over a decade. The combined Civ-Mil machinery and mechanisms were highly impressive even though offensive operations in the province had largely ceased and been replaced (2013/14) by direct support to the Afghan National Army (ANA).

 It’s important to note that both US and British forces sustained the highest ever loses in one province, Helmand, of Afghanistan. Combat operations in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of British 456 servicemen and women, with coalition losses in excess of 3,000 personnel, many in Helmand Province, dating back to initial deployments in October 2001. Furthermore, Camp Bastion cost £50m to fully build in 2006 and £300m to destroy it again eight years later. The total cost to British taxpayers of setting up and running the camp was £20billion. Contributions from the American war chest, to their own Camp Leatherneck and shared infrastructure at Bastion, are bound to be equally staggering.
Between 2005 & October 2014 it was the logistics hub for ISAF operations. It was capable of accommodating over 32,000 people. Built by the British Army it was the largest overseas military camp built since WW2.   

According to SIGAR’s 34th quarterly report – January 2017 (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) since 2002 the US Congress has appropriated more than $117 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. It is the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in US history and the tab will continue to run at approximately $5 billion per year up to including 2020. Even though more than half of these reconstruction dollars have gone toward building, equipping, training, and sustaining the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), they remain largely ineffectual at securing all of Afghanistan and have lost significant territory to a mixed insurgency. As at August 2016, it was reported that only 63% of the country’s districts were under Afghan government control or sway -  an effective reduction from the 72% as of November 2015.

“Afghanistan is far from perfect, and it will take sustained engagement and effort in the years ahead to protect the progress we’ve made. We have invested significant blood and treasure in Afghanistan’s future, and we must continue to support the Afghan people as they work to build a secure and peaceful future in the months and years ahead.”

        Secretary John Kerry

Often described as the Badlands of Afghanistan, Helmand province is roughly half the area of England. The area is largely uninhabitable consisting of hostile mountainous and desert areas interspaced with fertile river valleys and flood plains where agriculture is the mainstay socio-economic activity. It's estimated that of the total land area of Afghanistan only 12% is suitable for agriculture. Prior to the arrival of ISAF, three main groups consisting of tribal warlords, Taliban leaders and drug traffickers mostly held sway throughout the province with any form of governance (provincial or district) acquiescing and or playing second fiddle to the trio.
The imaginary, shifting and porous border with Pakistan in the south has also perpetuated this state of apparent ‘lawlessness’ over countless decades. Arguably, this situation does not quite fit our contemporary and Western definitions of democracy, sovereignty and good governance but this has been the ‘law’ of this geopolitical region for centuries – even when carved up into neat, convenient parcels of land. Suffice to say the border dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the form of the imposed and highly divisive Durand Line, remains as highly contested as ever. In the words of Hamid Karzai, former President of Afghanistan, ‘A line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers.
The famous Kajaki Dam with its earthen wall & other works - centre of the then Helmand River Valley Authority and now Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) Afghanistan's local electricity utility (1950 - to date). Pic: David Goldman AP
Another key ‘legacy’ consideration is a war of different sorts – that against opium production although both proved to be inextricably linked. Eighty to ninety percent of the world’s non-pharmaceutical-grade opium is produced in Afghanistan and Helmand has long been the centre of this. Early on in the Afghan campaign the UK army was sent to the province with the aim of stopping this illegal trade. Between 2002 and 2013 the amount of land given over to opium production rose from just under 75,000 hectares to 209,000 hectares – more than enough to exceed global demand.
The cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs also puts the entire U.S. investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. Although the United States has committed more than $8.5 billion to counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, farmers are growing more opium than ever with gains all but reversed including poppy eradication which has fallen at the wayside almost completely. 
 “Drugs have direct links with corruption, terrorism and development. Without tackling [the] drug problem and illicit economy, in general, it will not be possible to solve other problems facing Afghanistan.”

        Andrey Avetisyan, Regional Representative of the United
        Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 


Bost Airport - Lashkar Gah upgraded by USAID in 2008 & probably now the only remaining functional airstrip in Helmand Province. In 2014 it was a tenuous lifeline to infrequent return UN flights to Kabul

A downstream view of the Kajaki Dam - it's conceivable that more has been sacrificed for this key installation than any other in recent times Pic David Goldman AP

Sangin, a former Taliban stronghold central to the extremist group’s opium trade, was the scene of fierce fighting during the Afghan campaign, with more than 100 British troops dying in and around the town between 2006 and 2010. In a December 2, 2016 press briefing, General Nicholson reported the ANDSF repelled eight Taliban attempts to seize key cities during 2016—three times in Kunduz; twice in Lashkar Gar, Helmand; twice in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan; and Farah City. On October 6, 2016 the ANDSF held steadfast against four simultaneous attacks on different cities. More than 2,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed fighting in Helmand in 2016 and there are reports of a large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts. Insurgency efforts generally ebb and flow according to a timeless timetable - once determined by seasonal offensives (especially spring and summer) but now thrown awry by changing weather patterns, bravado and the whims of regional commanders. However, there is an age old argument in Afghanistan that there is one key element that any insurgency - especially the Taliban has at it's disposal and that is TIME.      

The launch of the UNDP Helmand Provincial office in 2014
It’s against this backdrop that ‘two expendable Aussies’ found themselves at the centre of this pioneering Civ-Mil transition and UN Afghanistan Regionalization Strategy – displaced to the ‘Badlands’ of southern Afghanistan. Ironically, they were ‘hosted’ in the secured Governor’s compound - the legacy of a previous US-Afghan misadventure often referred to as Little America. The fascinating account of the Helmand River Valley Irrigation Scheme (1948 – 1978) is captured in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book entitled Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. Implemented primarily by the Helmand Valley Authority, the collaborative effort between US-Afghan Governments entailed utilization of American engineering and construction expertise to bring the Helmand region and greater southern Afghanistan irrigation, hydroelectric power and modern roads to transport its latent agricultural potential to markets. Incorporating the construction of the Kajaki Dam and an elaborate irrigation canal network, the entire intervention followed 'classic development' approaches until rudely interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1979.

A legacy of Little America - the Helmand River Valley Authority currently part of the Governor's compound with original country club - recreational facilities in a state of disrepair
A sanger - ANA observation post on the banks of the Helmand River guarding the approaches to the Governor's compound & the town of Lashkar Gah.  

Kevin (affectionately dubbed 007 as part of his ‘man of mystery’ mantle; after his namesake and former Aussie PM Kevin Rudd and by ‘association’ therefore lumped in with a string of other highly flamboyant and reputable Kevs) was responsible for setting up and running regional operations within the provincial capital. Once safely ensconced in our postage stamp-sized compound, within the Governor’s bigger compound, Kev warmed to his many managerial tasks but more specifically to his role of Keeper the UN-Inn.   Over several months he hosted visiting delegations from within the broader UN agency family and within no time, flying the UNDP flag, the office became a critical central point of contact (POC) and staging point for ready and direct access to Governor Naaem Baloch and his staff; conducting rapid assessments, feasibility studies and programme/project evaluations spanning critical ad hoc needs and sectors including humanitarian assistance – emergency shelter and feeding; health - disease surveillance and immunization programmes.
Larger than life Kevin 007 - UN-Inn Keeper,  
Helmand Regional Manager and Chief Horticulturalist and Groundskeeper


A portrait of character and commitment - key members of staff
Displacement of civilian populations, from rural districts, was on the rise as the Taliban began to flex their muscles and reclaim the province as their own. Continued implementation of existing programme and project activities was also supported via relevant Afghan national staff that ‘managed’ their portfolios in collaboration with provincial government counterparts and other stakeholders. The UN-Inn was generally a hive of activity generating much interest from our compound neighbours which often included VIPs, Governor Naeem Baloch himself and other high value targets that frequented the Governor’s guesthouse.   

The former Helmand Provincial Governor Naeem Baloch, colourful and controversial, flanked by the 'two expendables.' The picture background proves to be equally revealing.


The Blogger and Rafeeque who later replaced Kevin as the UNDP Regional Manager: Helmand (lower left) entertaining VIPs at the UN-Inn

My strategic support role was to coordinate and ‘tie’ the component parts of Regionalization Strategy and Civ-Mil transition together providing measures of coherence, consistency and continuity.  Remnants of the Civ-Mil establishment (post-draw down) moved to Kandahar and one of my important tasks was to ‘triangulate’, between the strategic centres of Kandahar and Kabul in developing and supporting Lashkar Gah at the periphery. This triangulation entailed ongoing liaison and information sharing with key partners including: UK-AID DFID, DANIDA, USAID, US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) - US/UK civilian-military in southern Afghanistan. This aspect of my role was particularly satisfying and insightful, providing fascinating ‘snapshots’ of the exceedingly turbulent region past, present and, perhaps, future.
All in the UN Agency Family - Laurance from WHO enjoys UNDP Afghanistan hospitality at the Lashkar Gah UN Inn.   
The UNDP Helmand Provincial Team at their work stations - UN Inn - Governor's compound Lashkar Gah 

Without any template or prior experience as such, this was not only ground-breaking but ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ type stuff. Civ-Mil relations exposure, with occasional visits to Camps Bastion and Leatherneck, and close collaboration with FCO were notable assignment highlights. An equally important ‘in-house’ task was to promote aid effectiveness and harmonization across the suite of UNDP programs and projects operating in Helmand province and southern Afghanistan. This included diverse projects and thematic areas such as democratic/local governance; gender equity; justice and human rights and small infrastructure projects.

Yet another US-Afghan 'Little America' legacy - the immaculate gardens adjoining the Governor's guesthouse and home overlooking the Helmand River

General layout of our compound - the main building left was a traditional Helmandi house & containerized accommodation was provided for our Ghurkha protection force & local Afghan staff 

Throughout our assignment, staff security considerations were key to UNDP Kabul and Kevin had at his disposal a respectable dozen  or more personnel consisting of a specifically contracted and specialized Ghurkha force protection unit and our own UNDP national security advisors and drivers. Local Afghan National Police secured our immediate compound gate and perimeter and in spite of occasional security incidents in the town, we were 'reassured' by senior provincial government counterparts that the Governor's compound was strictly 'off limits' as a strategic target, protected by a seemingly 'unwritten truce' and or 'invisible' hand. This was rather bizarre as it was common practice, by the Taliban insurgency country-wide, to target government installations especially the seats of provincial/district power. Since the bulk of our Afghan staff were 'imported', due to transfers or project staff realignments, from Kabul and Mazar this posed a direct personal threat to them. The likelihood that local townsfolk would immediately identify them as outsiders was considered relatively high. As a matter of necessity 'imports' were housed in our compound and only occasionally ventured out to mix freely with the local populace. Our handful of local Helmandi staff also kept a low profile, often working from the safety of their homes and constantly changing their pattern of work visits to the Governor's compound.

A rare outing to the range with our Ghurkha, Afghan National Police and Army protection units 

A unique feature of these imposed security arrangements is that as an office of diverse UNDP colleagues we soon became a very close and cohesive team. As expatriate staff Kevin and I were 'immersed' in a 'total Afghan' - specifically Helmandi cultural experience. As a 'captive collective,' work and leisure time blurred seamlessly into one where we all lived the 'local reality' without exception. Our welfare and lives were in the hands of our Afghan colleagues, friends and hosts. Fuelled by an endless cocktail of nicotine and caffeine Kevin kept everything and one in check including esteemed Governor Naeem Baloch. With the 'fruitful era of development assistance' (and all associated material benefits) rapidly on the wane, our Governor was eager to eke out any last support for his office and provincial administration.

Sadly,Kevin moved on after several months and was replaced by Rafeeque seconded from the UNDP Nepal office. Rafeeque was a devote Muslim and a very able and capable replacement - operations hardly skipped a beat. Kevin's departure changed the team dynamic considerably as the team had warmed to his 'no worries mate' - roguish Aussie approach. I missed the copious amounts of excellent 'free' coffee occasionally accompanied by an equally excellent French cognac. Kevin had a way with words and staff that was certainly missed!

Rafeeque (top end of the pic in white) leading one of our countless meal times together which was my personal highlight of the day. The fellowship and camaraderie was exceptional and unsurpassed.

Throughout our time together as the UNDP Helmand Regional team we strictly observed and celebrated both Afghan and Nepalese tradition, custom and significant events including Mawlid al-Nabi, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Dashain led inspirationally by Rafeeque and Ghurkha Commander Rana. In addition to his role as Regional Manager, Rafeeque played a vital spiritual role providing guidance and counsel to many of our young Afghan men that were not resident Helmandi's and therefore found themselves a considerable distance from family and support structures. Commander Rana and his fiercely proud and professional Ghurkhas were also an absolute revelation! I recall many occasions, in the dead of night when thoughts and deep-seated insecurities run amok, being lulled back to a peaceful and untroubled sleep by the rhythmic pacing of our 'guardian Ghurkhas' as they dutifully stood guard over our slumbering household. In retrospect, I often feel that I personally short-changed Commander Rana and his men in the gratitude and praise department, as much as I'd like to believe that was not the case.      

A fusion of Afghan-Nepalese cuisine prepared by Commander Rana and his men - special moments and memories  

Without wishing to comment too much on whether or not we succeeded with our assignment there are many vivid memories, worth sharing, that deserve flight and fantasy including:
  • The sheer contrast between urban Kabul city and rural Lashkar Gah town dwelling specifically air quality and noise pollution;
  • Incredible and unfathomable peace and solitude experienced yet even in the wild and very dangerous southern Afghanistan;
  • An acute awareness of the incredible sacrifices made by so many - past, present and future   
  • Helmand's moderate and more liveable climate;
  • Summer fruits - the world's best pomegranates;
  • Communal living and the sheer pleasure of experiencing true Afghan friendship and hospitality;
  • Cultural appreciation and absolute admiration - for the people of both Afghanistan and Nepal;

Nights were often slow and very long especially when away from home and the simplest pleasures shared within the context of our 'local reality' built incredible friendship bonds

A lesser known fact related to Helmand Province - specifically Lashkar Gah and Bost is the immense historical and archaeological significance of the area. This growing awareness and concerns around degradation or complete destruction of national or potentially World Heritage Sites of Archaeological Significance culminated in the Lashkari Bazaar Cultural Exhibition Initiative (LBCEI). Conceived in collaboration with colleagues from UNESCO and the French Embassy and Cultural Institute (DAFA), the overriding philosophy behind the initiative  was to create a climate of hope and rejuvenation as well as position and put the Province of Helmand and the country generally, back on the international map for lesser known, more hierarchical and aspirational reasons of education, science and culture. The intention was to partner closely with both the national Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA) and the Helmand Provincial Government on the initiative. 

At the centre-piece of purportedly the greatest Empire in the East, the original city of Bost was first occupied by Muslim conquerors around 661 A.D. and went on to prosper as the winter capital of the ruling Ghaznavids from the 11th to mid-12th Century. The city was burned and looted in 1151 by the Ghorids and then completely demolished by Genghis Khan in 1220. By the late 16th Century the city and the region was governed by the Safavid dynasty. It became part of the Afghan Hotaki Empire in 1709. It was invaded by the Afsharid forces in 1738 on their way to Kandahar. By 1747 it became part of the Durrani Empire or modern Afghanistan. The British arrived in or about 1840 during the First Anglo-Afghan War but left a year later in disarray. The city was used by Ayub Khan in the Second Anglo-Afghan War until 1880 when the British helped to return it to Abdur Rahman Khan. It remained peaceful for the next 100 years. The ruins of the Ghaznavid palaces, gardens, mansions and bazaar still stand along the Helmand River, even though the city of Bost and its outlying communities were torched in successive centuries by the Ghorids, Mongols and Timurids respectively. 

The Arch of Bust - on record the best preserved Ghurid-era archaeological remnant dating back to the 12th century south of the inner moat of the Citadel of Bust - Helmand Province 

It was against this backdrop that the partners (French Embassy, DAFA, UNDP, UNESCO) sharing an illustrious albeit relatively short-lived history in Afghanistan felt that it was vitally important, as part of their respective mandates, to jointly profile, generate significant awareness and appreciation of the Lashkari Bazaar’s unique historical, cultural and socio-economic attributes. Historical records, photographs, location maps, and scale models of selective palaces/mansions and the bazaar itself would form the basis for a dynamic and interactive exhibition. The plan was to exhibit in Kabul and Lashkar Gah initially and then take it internationally based on public interest and reviews.   National pride and nation-building were viewed as central to this initiative and other positive, potential spin-offs would include downstream archaeological research and restoration; environment rehabilitation; creation of rural livelihood opportunities and a nursery for cultural tourism.

Unfortunately, the initiative did not proceed beyond conceptualization but the remnants of the Lashkari Bazaar remain, facing increasing deterioration and destruction especially from ongoing scouring and erosion of the river banks and in recent years, actual occupation of the archaeological ruins by Helmandi's displaced by fighting between the ANDSF and Taliban in the outlying districts.

In the broader context of a modern Afghanistan grappling with innumerable challenges this appears to be a rather superfluous  and extravagant initiative but it does connect the present with Afghanistan's incredibly rich past - a truly Afghan legacy well worth celebrating in it's own right!   

During my privileged assignment characterized by a precipitous  learning curve; countless WOW experiences and insights and fiercely intense working relationships I was also able to track - chronologically and developmentally - the passage of recent Afghan history through the Little America initiative in Helmand Province (approximately 1948 to 2017). I sat in on US Army Corps of Engineers briefings where the task and burden of Kajaki Dam operations and maintenance (O&M) including the installation of the third and final turbine (Unit 2) was finally passed from international to local contractors. The Kajaki Dam chapter is all but closed, with a sequel perhaps waiting in the wings, where full responsibility for the key installation is set to be assumed by Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) with effect from April 2017.  



Icing on the cake! With a wicked sense of humour our team would often find a reason to celebrate.   

Towards the end of our assignment there was a marked upsurge in security incidents – the leisurely drive through the town to Bost airport now became a gauntlet run; assassination attempts on senior Provincial Government officials especially ANDSF personnel and suicide bombings of key government infrastructure became the norm – especially within the confines of Lashkar Gah. Most of the surrounding countryside was now under Taliban control and they often brought their fight to the town’s outskirts where pitched, small arms fire fights and battles with the Afghan National Police and Army were audible from the Governor’s compound. The ISAF vacuum had simply been filled!

This was and is still, now years later, 'a sobering and surreal reality' to reflect upon. Whereas the rational for our assignment still holds very true - good development  and the delivery of programme and project activities/services are best performed directly, in closest proximity to communities and in collaboration with sub-national government entities (provincial/district), the rapidly changing context in Afghanistan put paid to a pioneering, best-intentioned initiative that was so captivating and all consuming at the time.