HR Without Borders

Diane S. Bégin, CMC CHRP, is an Ottawa-based consultant and associate of Flaman Management Partners Limited who thrives on projects in the developing world. When we met at the HRPAO conference in February, she spun a mesmerizing tale about practicing her skills in rather difficult circumstances. In the second of a series of articles, she shares some of her experiences facilitating change in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“To the good of the country!” is often heard as workers sit on thick floor cushions after a long day’s work. There is an unwavering sense of optimism, hope, and determination permeating this war-torn city of Kabul, Afghanistan. Perhaps the highly inspirational presence of the mountains of the Hindu Kush is what makes it so; or maybe this is simply one of life’s little secrets that will remain forever unexplained to Westerners.

Kabul is like nowhere I have ever experienced. Progress is enormously challenging and achievements are incredibly fragile. I was told shortly after I arrived in the spring that there were just over 300 non-military Canadians working in Afghanistan on a variety of reconstruction projects. I am one of those consultants. My clients are the senior executives of the Independent Administration Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC). I was asked to help build capacity within the IARCSC so that it can provide government-wide leadership to ministries and central bodies of government on key public sector reforms.

Two critical reforms in the civil service are ongoing: the Priorities Reform and Reconstruction, aimed at identifying core government programs/services, aligning government bodies, and establishing merit-based recruitment; and the Afghanistan Stabilization Program, which focuses on enhancing service delivery capacities in the provinces and districts.

As a contributor to these changes, I am reminded of the birth of my eldest son, whose body, from his very first breath, transformed from blue to pink – beginning at the centre of his tiny, fragile torso, and quickly spreading to his most distant extremities. What a miracle that was. The same fascinating phenomenon is happening in Afghanistan. As the civil service, the leading instrument of government, is replenished, progress pulsates at the centre and moves outward, beyond Kabul.

A typical morning in downtown Kabul – as observed by a temporary resident of the UNICA guest house, no. 2 Flower Street – begins at 4 a.m. with the chanting of the first prayer of the day in the crisp, cool early-morning air. By 5 a.m. the rumbling of the first vehicles begins. You cannot see the traffic because a 12-foot wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the guest house. Homes and guest houses considered “safe” have a driveway capped by a big guarded steel door, which secures each house inside a compound. Women are not allowed to walk outside it unless accompanied by a man – and no one walks outside the compounds at night. The great majority of Afghan women walking on the streets wear burqas, and female international consultants wear scarves.

In the morning rush hour, the narrow streets are clogged with taxis, United Nations vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, all knotting at intersections. From time to time you see men lugging stacks of fresh uncovered nan bread on bicycles and trying navigating the traffic. Rows of coloured cement blocks often replace the centre line to help the odd army tank gain some space. The streets are pocked with war-born speed bumps and potholes, and downtown, waist-high cement gullies line each side. Sometimes these are used as drains or waste disposals; other times, as parking spaces for bicycles.

At first, I couldn’t help but envision what would happen if a tire were to veer in one of those gullies – a likelihood increased by the odd positioning of car steering wheels, which may sit on either side of the dashboard, though everyone drives on the right hand side of the road.

Paradoxically, the harshness of the environment seems to disappear in the backdrop of the majestic snow-capped mountains. Come what may, from each inhalation of thick dusty air, a breath of fresh air is obtained. In the end, that breath of fresh air is all you see, is all that matters. The good nurtures the journey that aims to build a safe and stable future for Afghanistan.

Within the heart of the IARCSC is the human resources practice, which is in its infancy. Several challenges await me; perseverance and careful planning are of the essence. Bringing to this country core human resources programs – the type we mostly take for granted in Canada – is much like writing “fragile” on a package before putting it in the mail. You want to help mitigate the risks, exercise some due diligence and duty of care. No one can predict the journey that lies ahead or the daily weather forecasts that will win the skies. At a minimum, you want to do all you can to produce a successful outcome.

The journey is indeed a difficult one: civil servants are few; they have a distinct culture with limited English and computer skills and little training in modern management practices; human resources systems are outdated, dysfunctional, or non-existent; and government direction, funding, and priorities are uncertain. Merit-based recruitment to hire civil servants in Afghanistan is unheard of. Preparation is a must; practical is the word. Programs are carefully crafted with few clients taking the lead at the centre, followed by diligent decentralization to ministries, and later to government offices outside Kabul. Supporting structures must meet expectations while still being understood.

Overall, a tremendous amount of effort within the Transitional Islamic Government of Afghanistan is invested in building capacity within ministries and other central agencies of government in Kabul empowered to create a strong and capable civil service in the provinces and districts. To participate in the building of systems and enablers of a new government is like playing a few notes in a symphony. It is enormously humbling when one considers the courage and determination held by the Afghan men and women, expected to orchestrate a vision of peace and prosperity for generations to come. As such, my journey was not a mission; it was an honour.

HR Without Borders

Diane S. Bégin, CMC CHRP, is an Ottawa-based consultant and associate of Flaman Management Partners Limited who thrives on projects in the developing world. When we met at the HRPAO conference in February, she spun a mesmerizing tale about practicing her skills in rather difficult circumstances. In the first of a series of articles, she shares some of her experiences facilitating change in Botswana, Africa. In future, she will be sending dispatches from Kabul, Afghanistan, where she headed in early April.

I first set out on my journey as an international HR consultant in nations in special circumstances with a knapsack full of knowledge, gained over 25 years of working in the Canadian public sector. I have always felt infinitely grateful for the knowledge and experiences imparted by my employers, whose leaders inspired me and provided me with invaluable reference points. So far, the fascinating world of building and renovating bureaucracies has taken me to Africa, and soon I’ll be embarking on a new adventure: Kabul, Afghanistan.

Public sector reforms and initiatives in countries in special development circumstances have gained momentum in recent years, resulting in an emerging practice of specialized work for many consultants. According to the UN Development Programme, “special circumstances” refers to countries “faced by chronic natural disasters and environmental crises, as well as those that are either faced with incipient internal armed conflicts or wars.” The development of human resources is particularly critical in such countries, and can become a definite calling for any consultant who plans to practice abroad.

In future articles, I’ll be sharing accounts of my consulting experiences in countries with special development circumstances; particularly as they relate to the formidable challenges encountered in designing and implementing government-wide reforms. These experiences are significant in a Canadian context: relating, for example, to the creation of the new nation-state, Nunavut ; the devolution of services and privatization endeavours at all levels of government; and nascent civil service reforms. Clearly, there is a convergence on the priorities given to establish a high performing public service as a tool for good governance. The focus on challenges in reform design and implementation will be relevant to everyone involved in public service reform.

Botswana Bound: Supporting Civil Service Change

My first experience abroad was in Botswana in the fall of 2002. This small, landlocked country is slightly smaller than Saskatchewan, with a population of 1.5 million.

Although Botswana is one of the more developed countries in Africa, approximately 36 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. To put that into context, the UN estimates that by 2015, the population of Botswana will be 31 percent smaller than it would have been in the absence of AIDS. Life expectancy at birth in 2003 was 32.2 years for men and 32 years for women. This is indeed a crisis of pandemic proportion when you consider that in Ontario, the life expectancy in 1999 was 79.4.

Upon my arrival in Gabarone, the capital city, at 7 a.m. I met with donor agency representatives, who briefed me on the project. As part of the United Nations Development Programme’s decentralization initiative sin Botswana, an urgent need was expressed to explore options associated with the development and implementation of a Performance Based Reward System (PBRS) for all employees across the Botswana Civil Service. The objective of the PBRS was to link the government’s Performance Management System implementation strategy with the performance of individual Public Officers while strengthening the government’s accountability framework.

That same day I acted as a full-time member of the Government of Botswana’s reform team. From my readings of the country’s challenges against AIDS, I knew this disease could pose significant workplace concerns affecting turnover rate, incidences of absenteeism, discrimination, and bereavements. For the government, AIDS certainly could seriously accelerate the loss of human capacity and corporate knowledge.

Undeniably, my first task was to fully understand what drove the reform I was asked to facilitate. A great deal of interaction occurs at this preliminary stage: stories are told, concepts are shared, terminology is clarified, risks are evaluated, resources are discussed, stakeholders are identified, and SMART goals are set – for both the project plan and the government reform. During these conversations, it is critical that efforts be made to distinguish between what the organization needs, what it can afford, and what it wants. Are conciliation of those three elements needed to occur in order to scope the project appropriately and bring about an enduring change across the civil service. For me, that was the most critical and difficult part of the project plan – and it all had to happen within one week.

It is no surprise that this reconciliation between what is needed, what is doable, and what is wanted is a process that continues throughout the life of the project. An increasing knowledge and understanding of the culture, values, and vision imbedded in the fabric of their organizations proved to be the key to sustaining momentum. I marched with my clients and thousands of AIDS activists on December 1, 2002 to commemorate World AIDS Day, and I helped the local human resources professionals elect a new council for their Human Resources Association – all to better understand the people.

In the end, the project design and deliverables reflected a balance of quality and quantity, and carried with them a healthy dose of realism. Exercising sensitivity and mindfulness as a preliminary step to introducing key reforms to governments both provides definition to the scope, and increases its probability for success.

Rolling stones gather no moss. Soon, my work will be taking me to Kabul, Afghanistan, to facilitate another change there. As part of the security, stabilization and reconstruction Program, I will be asked to facilitate the leadership development program and the government-wide training strategy. Stay tuned for my field notes and further adventures in HR.

To read Diane’s second dispatch on working in Botswana, Africa, click here

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