New Friends

We have some new accents at City Hall that do not involve interior decoration.  Stephanie Rose and Jennie McFarlane, local government officials from New Zealand, arrived in Albany last Friday to begin a two-week assignment as “International Fellows.”  Their work will focus on civic engagement with an emphasis on helping us do a better job of connecting with our citizens on the subject of urban renewal.

The International Fellows program is sponsored by the U.S. State Department and administered through the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) as a means of sharing knowledge and building relationships across continents.  Jennie and Stephanie are members of a group of eight fellows from China, Thailand, and New Zealand.  We are privileged to have two thoughtful, experienced public employees consulting with us on problems that are common to governments around the world.

Jennie is an attorney by training, but she handles a more diverse portfolio for New Zealand’s Waipa District Council.  During a presentation to the directors at our most recent staff meeting, we saw pictures of attractive Waipa District communities that share many similarities with Albany.  Economic development, tourism, and infrastructure are some of the issues in Waipa that sound equally familiar here.  Talking Water Gardens is of particular interest to Jennie because her District is in the process of collaborating with a government agency on a similar project.

Stephanie is a strategic planner, and her community in Wanganui is struggling with a wastewater treatment plant that isn’t working.  Some of the problems with their plant are similar to what we have experienced in recent years, although our plant seems to be doing better than Wanganui’s.  Jennie’s hometown is emphasizing its connection to the Wanganui River, a beautiful waterway that offers world-class recreational opportunities.  Just as we are trying to redevelop our waterfront as a commercial and residential center, Wanganui is counting on its river to stimulate community vitality.

I have already gleaned some valuable insights from Stephanie and Jennie; but, more importantly, I have enjoyed our brief friendship.  It’s reassuring to know that across the Pacific Ocean there are people of goodwill taking on challenges, solving problems, and working hard to make their communities better places to live.  Our “Fellows” will be with us for another week, and I hope city employees will take the time to meet them and perhaps share some thoughts.  They are working in the Mayor’s cubicle near my office and will here through next Friday.  I look forward to seeing their final report, although I regret it will signal the end of their stay in Albany. 

Distance is not the barrier it once was to friendship.  I was able to get together with a friend of mine who I met in Beirut in 2008 during my recent trip to Afghanistan.  Thanks to Facebook, I found out that Ayman was working in Dubai at the same time I was passing through on my way to Kabul.  We met for dinner and had a great reunion. 

I am very glad to be home with my family and back to work with my friends at the City.  I am also grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to meet and work with people around the world, like Jennie and Stephanie, who consistently replenish my optimism and faith in a better future.

The Beauty of Afghanistan

I don’t recall the last time I saw a positive article or news report about Afghanistan.  The country has taken a beating over the years from the many conflicts involving Afghans, the Taliban, the former Soviet Union, and the U.S., to name a few.  Signs of war persist in Kabul, where public buildings are heavily fortified and guards armed with automatic weapons seem to be everywhere.

Despite the obvious problems, new construction is taking place throughout Kabul just as spring is renewing the landscape.  I had the chance to visit public gardens last Friday, and it was encouraging to see families enjoying picnics, young people walking together through the park, and all the colors of flowering trees and shrubs.  The backdrop for Kabul is snowcapped mountains that surround the town and are usually clearly visible.

Traveling to Jalalabad a couple of weeks ago required driving through an incredibly scenic river gorge before arriving at the beautiful Nangarhar Valley.  You sometimes have to look past sandbagged military outposts to notice waterfalls, beautiful rock formations, and lush river bottomland.  Spring wildflowers were also blooming, turning hillsides red, yellow, and purple.  Some of the countryside reminded me of Eastern Oregon, and the Mahipar Gorge looked something like Hells Canyon in places.

 

The scenic beauty of this country, although often spectacular, is less important to me than the hospitality and courtesy I’ve been shown by the many Afghan people I’ve met.  Reading U.S. news reports, it would be easy to believe that everyone here wants to kill Americans or at least each other.  I believe most Afghans want to live in peace and look forward to a day when the razor wire and blast walls will disappear.  I drive by Kabul University nearly every day on my way to our office at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock; and it’s good to see students on their way to classes that may help open the way to a better future.

I do not want to give the impression that everything is beautiful and fine in Afghanistan.  I’ve noticed that some people who read my columns latch on to an observation or a phrase out of context in an attempt to promote their own point of view.  Afghanistan has overwhelming challenges; however, it also has great human and natural resources that are already serving as the foundation of a recovery.  I am grateful for the chance to play a small role in that process and look forward to the day when most of the articles about this country will be positive.

The View from Kabul

I have spent the last two weeks working for the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on the Capacity Building and Change Management Program (CBCMP) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL).  As with any national program, part of the challenge is mastering a blizzard of acronyms.

Many of the problems MAIL is wrestling with are common to most organizations, including some that are similar to what we face at the City of Albany.  The primary difference is that MAIL employs nearly 10,000 people spread across the country while we have fewer than 400 located mostly within the city limits.  The capacity building program I’m involved with is providing training on planning, performance measurement, process improvement, and organizational structure, as well as coaching and mentoring of civil service employees.  More than 200 skilled Afghan professionals have been hired to be Change Management Specialists (CMS) by the project to work directly with MAIL civil service employees.

During my first week, I spent time developing some simple handouts to be used in training sessions on performance measurement.  Some of the training material I’ve seen here seems too complex, even for organizations like the City that have invested many years in developing performance measures.  I have also participated in several training sessions where my CBCMP colleagues and I have talked about strategic planning and performance measurement scorecards.  Most of this training has been directed toward the project’s Change Management Specialists, who are then responsible for sharing and helping to implement changes within their departments. 

I was able to visit Jalalabad during my second week and met with our CMSs as well as the director of the provincial Directorate of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL).  Our employees included a CMS with a master’s degree from Purdue University and several well-educated, articulate young professionals.  Not surprisingly, the DAIL director was very complimentary of the CMSs assigned to his directorate.  The evidence of their impact was visible during a tour of a demonstration project where the DAIL is showing local farmers the best practices for raising a variety of crops that included tomatoes, cabbage, strawberries, and flowers.

I’ve had discussions with a number of Afghan employees who feel that most of the world has a wrong impression of their country.  They rightly point out that most people go about their business normally and that episodes of violence are no more frequent here than in many other parts of the world.  I sat next to a young man from Detroit, Michigan, on my flight into Kabul; and he said he felt more secure in Afghanistan than he did at home.  I can’t say that because Albany seems like a very safe place to me and I don’t recall routinely seeing people with automatic weapons scattered throughout the city.  There are real dangers here, but there is also a growing prosperity and a sense of change for the better.

Tomorrow I will be helping with an orientation for new employees, something I do in Albany but will be missing this month.  I’m enjoying the experience here, and I’m learning lessons that I think I can apply at home.  I hope my contributions to the project justify the expense of sending me here and will play a small role in helping to build administrative capacity.