Much of what follows may sound disrespectful to, or even critical of the administrative process. But please do not misinterpret me. If bureaucracy is an unwieldy, complicated leviathan of a tool it is because the material it must fashion (us... me in particular) is very complex, contradictory, frequently selfish and sometimes just plain stupid. So please do not think I am mocking it. What I do find funny is the human condition that made bureaucracy necessary in the first place, and if a boy can't laugh at... well himself basically, then what the hell can he laugh at?
I have almost 15 years experience with the British National Health Service (the world’s fifth largest employer, slightly behind McDonald’s) so I am no stranger to bureaucracy at its most cumbersome. And MSF isn't small-fry either, so I don't know why it surprised me to have such a fine example of the subject so early on in my mission. It was a swelteringly hot afternoon in Biraul (you know you're in trouble when even the locals declare a heat wave), and the team supervisors had gathered for their weekly meeting.
From beneath the layers of perspiration, I became vaguely aware that we had been talking about chairs for some time. One of the supervisors felt his team would benefit from a new office chair, to replace the medieval-looking devices that were currently in use.
"Is there the necessary budget?" asked one.
"What about health and safety aspects?" considered another.
"And what about upkeep and repair costs?" chimed in a third.
Some while had been spent discussing these matters, when yet another interested party pointed out that if one department was getting a new chair, perhaps all of them should get one. In terms of debate, the cat was truly set among the pigeons. With 20 minutes already lost to comfortable office chairs, the rounds of queries and counter-queries began afresh.
Now it might seem strange that office chairs are even on the table, as it were. I myself sometimes send a little cash MSF’s way (yes, my accountant hates me), and long in the past, I had some naive idea that every last penny was being spent directly on medicines or food. It turns out that someone at MSF much cleverer than I has had a bit of a think about this, and arrived at two important conclusions. Firstly, if you are going to provide care, it needs to be of as high a quality as possible – anything short of this would be at best unethical, and at worst downright harmful. Secondly, to deliver quality care, you don’t just blow your budget on antibiotics or therapeutic food and randomly wander around giving it to people who look a bit thin.
To use donors’ money effectively, you need also to invest heavily in human resources, logistics, administration, equipment, support teams, managers, analysts and so forth. Without this investment, the whole system falls apart and little gets done. For those members of staff who spend all day in front of a computer screen, comfortable office chairs are part of this effectiveness, and I for one am very happy that some fraction of my donation is being spent on bottom padding.
Nonetheless, after almost 40 minutes of chair-related discussion (outcome: we need some), I found myself having to suppress a big, childish grin.
Next week, I'll tell you about the second point of order: mangoes as a security threat.
This post was first published in Spanish in 20minutos.es