(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Minister’s Visit

A little over a week ago we hosted a large delegation to visit some of our organization's work. It was the largest of such visits I've had and fortunately all went well. It's a bit nerve-wracking. High-level people require a certain amount of protocol and have the ability to change whatever they want whenever they want. If you have several joining together, you just multiply the risk.

The key figure in this delegation was the Belgian Vice-Prime Minister/Foreign Minister. The Belgians play an important role in this part of the world and this guy is the point person. I'd read about him before his arrival. Even before meeting him I thought he might be interesting. In addition to a remarkable CV of course, he seemed like the kind of guy who speaks his mind. And he is.

Wasn't a great day for my communications guy so photos are a bit weak - US ambassador being briefed by our governance staff
Planning was a bit tricky in that the US ambassador was part of the delegation. Our US government-funded projects were in a different area from where we were going with the Belgians. In the end we created a "pre-visit" with the ambassador prior to joining the other group who was in a separate convoy arriving slightly later.

Security was a big issue. One of the reasons we agreed with the Belgians and Americans on this particular area (we have activities funded by them in other parts of the country) was that it is a volatile rural region surrounding the capital. According to what I've heard from staff, much of the fighting during the civil war took place in this region. Even today it is the least stable part of the country with a high proportion of violent crime and what some are calling "rebel attacks". The government is calling the violence banditry trying to portray itself as an emerging rebellion. Whatever you call it, it's not good and many are living in fear.

Just to be clear, in spite of the menacing look, the fear-inspiring pose and the US flag on his t-shirt, this is NOT a US security officer.
Our focus, then, is to do what we can to support this population and the local government. The theory is if we can generate an impact here, it may play a role in staving off some of the bitterness that's contributing to the violence. And they are definitely a region that can use the help – one of the poorest areas in one of the poorest countries on the planet.

The Belgians came equipped with a solid team of tough-looking guys with suits, earpieces, crumb-catcher beards and eyes darting back and forth behind their shades as they scanned the crowds as we went. They looked pretty bad-ass, I have to say. I felt protected, even more so since I road with the US ambassador in her armored Land Cruiser. That's one sweet vehicle. It weighs a couple tons and drives more like a limo than an SUV but it's well built for its purpose. Her head of security told me a bit about its security features which are quite cool but I'm sure there are a lot of other cool things built into it.

As we entered the villages, it was quite the scene. I'm used to creating a stir pulling into rural villages but this was something these people are unlikely to see for quite some time. In addition to three ambassadors and the Belgian Foreign Minister and their respective security teams, there was a large entourage which included a van full of journalists who travel with the BFM around the globe. On top of that we had our staff vehicles and a number of Burundian government officials and their corresponding security team. More suits and guns than a Godfather movie.

Not a great photo but it does show an atypical day in the village - Belgian ambassador partially in the photo on the left, US ambassador speaking with the BFM left of center; I'm behind him as we follow the security guys.
Overall it went well. There were no major mishaps and my conversations with the BFM and the ambassadors seemed to convey that they were happy to see the work being done. It's one thing to read reports and yet another to see for yourself. In fact the following evening at a reception at the Belgian ambassador's residence, the BFM mentioned his appreciation for the visit. In fact, I got an email from the US ambassador afterwards not only thanking me for the visit but looking to organize another. Very cool, not just for them to see the work that we're doing in the field but also to use these visits to generate further donor interest in the country. As the BFM said, the country is not a "donor darling" and that's not likely to change anytime soon. Tough to get attention when so many countries are in need of similar assistance, particularly ones in this neighborhood.

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