Queen's University IRC

HR Without Borders

Further Adventures in Public Sector Consulting Abroad
Diane S. Bégin
Consultant and Associate of Flaman Management Partners Limited

July 1, 2004

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.

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