Of Interest: OIG Audits, Inspections and Reports – A Window into Contracting Operations of the US State Department

Some of us have quirky habits.  I happen to love etymology and thoroughly enjoy doing research.  As my children can well attest, I drilled into them never really to believe what they read or are told is fact; always verify the information and go to the source, whenever possible.  Even those “experts” in their fields, whether in government or out, make mistakes or may not know their subject matter as well as they think they do.

One of the things I learnt working on U.S. Government programs, whether they be contracts or grants, is that the Offices of the Inspector General (OIG) of the various government agencies put out some interesting reports that have a wealth of information.

I find these audits/reports very useful to understand:

  • what a particular agency’s strengths and weaknesses might be,
  • what the contractor/grantee can do to help the agency overcome its weaknesses,
  • what the competition’s competencies and limitations are.

Even if the audit or report pertains to a certain agency or distinct area of performance or a specific geographical place, many of the issues usually addressed do apply across the board.

For example, the latest OIG audit on contract invoicing review by the Bureau of Narcotics and International Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) actually explains the invoicing process as well as the regulations that apply to invoicing.   Program implementation benefits immensely from having program managers or contracts representatives aware of these resources.

Of course, keeping abreast of all these resources requires an enormous amount of time devoted outside of the regular work day.  However, if you are quirky, like me, it is extremely rewarding!

 

Program Implementation – The Alphabet Soup of M&E: PDIA, HICD, MM, SCBM, etc.

A friend of mine recently commented on Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) processes, which made me ponder as to why they are found baffling by the average person, no matter how many years of experience and education that person may have.

I discovered that many proposal evaluators get confused when reading the proposed M&E section and will acknowledge without compunction that they just could not quite follow what the organization writing the M&E plan was actually proposing.   I have also witnessed intelligent individuals turn glassy eyed at hearing about the M&E work plan’s development, that includes outputs vs. outcomes, inputs vs. indicators, activities vs. results, and the concept of an “iterative adaptation”.

Below I share some of the M&E resources that I found helpful in trying to understand what different donors had in mind when referring to the elusive “monitoring for results” in capacity building projects.  However, I have yet to find answers to my concerns about conflicts of interest and other problems in M&E and program implementation:

  • Who are the evaluators?
    • Evaluating the competition:  There is an inherent conflict of interest when the evaluators are hired to do M&E work on an implementing entity and they themselves are competitors in the contracting/grant implementation world.  This situation places the implementer in a very vulnerable position, as the competitor/evaluator is in the enviable position of learning proprietary information.
    • Evaluating a former employer:
      • When a disgruntled or aggrieved former employee is hired to evaluate the former employer’s work by the donor, who is aware of the complaints and grievances of this former employee, the integrity and the objectivity of the evaluation are in peril.
      • When a former employee is knowingly hired by the donor to evaluate that former employee’s own work, there is an inherent conflict of interest that taints the evaluation from its very beginning.  How unbiased can that former employee be?
  • How does one ensure true transparency in the M&E process?
    • Learning from failure:
      • Will the program implementer that the M&E shows is failing in certain aspects of the project not worry about the potential risk of losing the project to a competitor?
      • Donors face budgetary pressures to work on successful programs.  But M&E points out to what does not work, what needs improvement.  If the M&E plan is done internally, by the implementer itself, there are conflicts between those program experts who want to apply the learned lessons of the M&E -even if it means revising the program, readjusting it, or removing parts of the program that don’t work, and those administrators who mostly pay attention to the bottom line and do not want to see the program shrink at all.  One could argue the same conflicts exist between donor and contractor.  See the tension?
  •  How can you guarantee complete accuracy of the data being entered into a database?

    • Self-assessment via an implementer’s internal M&E process relies on the honesty, good faith, and accuracy of the employees providing the data and those entering the data.  However, when the donor is under immense pressure to produce results, the temptation to churn information that may not be verifiable is real.
    • The same issues above apply to third parties hired by the donor to gather the implementers’ data and produce charts and graphs that make beautiful infographics for future publications.  However, who monitors these third parties, who may be using flawed algorithms or erroneous excel sheet mathematical equations?

So, is M&E really that difficult to understand?  I have my own theory on why Rule of Law/Justice Sector projects are so hard to assess, but this is for another day.  Here is a list of methodologies and other resources for you to decide:

 

Fund for Peace: The Bottom 100

Channel surfing while in the city of Buenos Aires, this commercial on CNN International caught my eye.  It turned out to be what I had suspected:  a commercial about the Bottom 100, a project involving the Fund for Peace.

The Bottom 100 allows one to “[s]ee life at the other end of the world’s rich list… [and] gives a face and voice to the millions in poverty who struggle with nothing.”

(Disclosure:  I am on the fund’s board).

Of Interest: Afghanistan and The Book of Kings or Shahnameh

As I have mentioned many a time, I have a soft spot in my heart for Afghanistan, and the work I was involved with for years opened a window into a fascinating world of beauty and history.  I used to pester colleagues with my “Of Interest” emails, in which I would relate things that made me ponder.  Now, I shall not just ponder, but actually read The Book of Kings:

Samangan is one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.  What I did not know, is that it is also the setting of an epic love story, that comes from the Persian equivalent of the Odyssey and the Ilyad:  The Book of Kings, or Shahnameh.

The story, written in verse around 1,000 years ago by Persian poet Ferdowsi, tells how a mighty warrior, Rustam, makes it all the way to Samangan, seeking his lost horse.  While the guest of the king, Rustam retires to his chambers, after enjoying a sumptuous meal with the king, only to be woken up by the king’s daughter, Tahmineh, who declares her love for the warrior.  That one night of passion, that results in a marriage, yields a son, whom Rustam will only meet in battle many years hence.

The woeful story of Rustam and Tahmineh and their son Sohrab starts like this:

STORY OF SOHRÁB
O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.
Still the vain world abounds in strife and hate,
And sire and son provoke each other’s fate;
And kindred blood by kindred hands is shed,
And vengeance sleeps not—dies not, with the dead.
All nature fades—the garden’s treasures fall,
Young bud, and citron ripe—all perish, all.

And now a tale of sorrow must be told,
A tale of tears, derived from Múbid old,
And thus remembered.—

What a beautiful translation!  It is so true that “All nature fades–the garden’s treasures fall, young bud, and citron ripe–all perish, all.”  

You can find the whole translated epic in Project Gutenberg.  There is also a new illustrated version of the Shahnameh, that has been a labor of love for filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian.

Rustam in Samangan meets the King’s daughter, Tahmineh.

The Atlantic Magazine and CNN have interesting articles explaining the new version of the Shahnameh.

Enjoy!

Justice Sector Support Programs (JSSP) – Legal Systems of the World – Islamic Law

When we talk about the legal systems of the world, there comes to mind Cannon Law (Roman Catholic), Hindu Law, Jewish Law, and Islamic Law (Shariah), to name a few.

In Afghanistan, for example, in the hierarchy of laws, Shariah rules supreme, above the country’s Constitution.  I have never been an “expert” on Islamic Law, but I have found plenty of written resources that have helped me understand the natural tension between the religious law and the secular law.

Here is an interesting compilation of “religious laws in a nutshell” from NYU’s Hauser Global Law School Program.  And here is the Practitioners’ Guide on Islamic Law written by Mr. Hamid Khan for the International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL), which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the Rule of Law.

Justice Sector Support Programs (JSSP) – Legal Systems of the World

It has never ceased to amaze me how many “experts” there are who work in the “justice sector” field, who are woefully unaware as to what the different legal systems are in the international arena.  The problem is that, with JSSP-type programs, not only should the “technical experts” know their subject well, but those who administer the programs (i.e., those involved in the management/operational/business side of the program) need to have an understanding of what the subject matter entails.  It takes a good professional to be willing to understand what the technical side of the project really involves.

As of 2011, the US Department of State relied on the below map to show what the legal systems of the world were.  I always liked the visual simplicity of this map.

Legal Systems of the World

Equally so, the simplicity of the summary of Civil and Common Law systems below helps anyone, lawyer and non-lawyer alike, to understand the significance of the map above.  screenshot_20180126-114224.png

Although a bit old, this State Department guide gives the reader a sense of the scope and breadth of what the US Government has been doing in the JSSP world:  INL Guide to Justice Sector Assistance.   I found this guide quite useful, through the years.