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Interview with Peace Dividend Trust's Scott Gilmore

Graham F. Scott

Verbatim — the transcribed version of Listen to This, This Magazine's podcast.

[Editor’s note: today we launch “Verbatim,” which will be a regular feature where we provide a transcript of our new podcast series, Listen to This. We’ll put these up on the blog shortly after each podcast goes online.]

In the first installation of our new, relaunched podcast series (Oh! And we’re now on iTunes!) Nick Taylor-Vaisey interviewed Scott Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust, a development NGO based in Ottawa and New York, with projects currently underway in Afghanistan, East Timor, and Haiti. PDT promotes a buy-local strategy for international development, helping connect international aid agencies with local suppliers in the countries where they work. By directing funds to local businesses, PDT believes they see faster, more stable economic recovery in post-conflict zones, with lower overhead costs for funders and higher incomes for local businesspeople.

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Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Tell me about Peace Dividend Trust, where it came from, the first moment of its life.

Scott Gilmore: You know, I think this was a baby that was born twice. The first time I was working in East Timor for the UN and was paying $500 a month to a Timorese fellow who had lost everything in the Indonesian fighting and had lost his company and lost his house, and what he had done is basically put a tin roof on the remains of his house, white-washed the walls and charged me $500 to rent the top two floors, because there was no housing there at the time. And one day I saw him hauling into the yard of the house, the burnt-out wreckage of a bus and I thought nothing of it. The next month, right after I gave him my next rent cheque, he had bought tires for it and he had bought a new engine. The next month and after the next rent cheque he was repainting it and in about three months he had a working bus. After about a year an half, he had a fleet of working busses, and had gone from being virtually homeless and jobless with no money, to becoming one of the most successful businessmen in that neighbourhood, employing the most people in that neighbourhood and becoming the seed of recovery in that particular part of town, and it was all because of my rent cheques. So the light bulb went off one day. The international community had arrived, the aid money was going nowhere, (it had not touched the ground), and yet this man had suddenly become a major employer simply on the backs of my rent cheque, and I thought, “Wow, that’s an interesting phenomenon.”

The second moment came when every night after work, myself and some other people that used to work for the UN, would get together for drinks at a grass hut on the beach and complain about our jobs, and complain about how things like the aid money wasn’t arriving, or that the UN jeeps weren’t getting out into the districts because they were missing license plate holders, (even though there were no licenses to put in them), but UN regulations said you had to have a license plate holder so these jeeps sat on the wharf until somebody brought these in from Italy. And we began saying, “there must be a better way to do things”, and one of us suggested that there are a lot of good ideas out here about how to fix peacekeeping and how to improve aid, we should try doing something about it. And that’s where it began about 10 years ago.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Let’s talk a bit about you, let’s go back. You were in East Timor hanging out with some UN associates, how did you get there, what was your route to that route?

Scott Gilmore: It was sheer luck, I had joined the foreign service and was looking for my first posting and Indonesia was falling apart, and I thought, “that would be an interesting place to be.” The government was collapsing, Suharto, the dictator, had resigned, and so I volunteered for it and was sent out to Jakarta. And because I was a low man in the embassy I was given the crap files and one of them was East Timor, because at that time it was a forgotten conflict, there was nobody on the ground, the UN wasn’t there. The only foreigners anywhere near it were nuns and the Red Cross.

So I would go out every couple of months to silently bear witness, to talk to the nuns very furtively, to find out what the latest atrocity was, (or human rights abuse), to record what was actually happening on the ground and report that back up to Ottawa and our permanent mission in New York. It was very depressing and very upsetting, and a very futile exercise as a junior diplomat.

What happened was that, bizarrely, one day, the new Indonesian president just announced he was going to hold a referendum for independence for the Timorese. And suddenly what became a lost cause became the cause celebre. The UN arrived and the donors arrived and the media arrived, and there was only about two or three of us at the time, Western diplomats: somebody for the US embassy, somebody from the Australian embassy and myself, who actually had been paying any attention, who knew any of the Timorese, who could speak the local language, who knew how to get a hold of the guerrillas. So we had very valuable skills for a short period of time and so it wasn’t long going from that to working for the UN because, frankly, there weren’t very many Timorese experts. And even those who had been very, very active on university campuses in Canada and amongst human rights NGOs, who were very big Timor proponents, had no Timor experience, and so we were rare commodities. That’s how I ended up working with the UN.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: So what was your role then, you were the expert in the area?

Scott Gilmore: I had a very strange job. It was a very unique UN mission because it was one of the first times the UN actually ran the country, as opposed to just trying to broker peace or maintain peace. The UN was running everything from the health department to creating the East Timorese defense force and I landed in an office called the National Security Advisory office, where myself and a colleague who I had actually known from grad school, found ourselves sitting across a desk from each other at a very young age, doing things like designing with the defence agency for what East Timor should look like, or with the intelligence agency for what East Timor’s supposed to look like, and actually trying to create these things on behalf of the Timorese.

Pretty preposterous actually, given the fact that as a Canadian diplomat, you are by definition a generalist and what I knew about creating a department of defence or intelligence agency can fit an 8-by-10 piece of paper.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: So then at that point, you started talking to your colleagues and looking at some problems that existed within this project to rebuild Timor —

Scott Gilmore: That’s right. What happened was there were a lot of us in these preposterous positions, people that were in charge of human rights, people that were in charge of procurement, logistics, police, who were all facing the same challenges. We had a very small amount of time to take a war-torn country and put it on its feet. And whether that meant trying to set up food distribution networks, or a police system, or an intelligence agency, we were all facing very similar problems, which were things like: being able to get paperwork to move through the UN, being able to hire the right people in a quick time, being able to move around the country.

These were nuts and bolts problems–logistical problems. We spend so much time in Western universities and elsewhere debating these grand problems like, what is universal human rights? You know, what are the normative features of democratic reform? How does gender empowerment affect the bureaucratic structure of a third world country? But once you get on the ground, none of that really matters. What matters is, how do you get power into your office? How do you find some local staff? How do you train them? How do you get pens? How do you get from the national capital or the provincial capital if there’s no vehicles?

Nobody pays any attention to these really important nuts and bolts things and Peace Dividend Trust was created to try and pay some attention to some of these things and fix some of these things.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: So how long has Peace Dividend Trust been around?

Scott Gilmore: We’re young. The idea started around 1999 or 2000. I quit my day job in 2004, so PDT’s been around for about five or six years. We’ve operated in about 12 different countries so far. We currently have permanent offices in Afghanistan, Haiti, Timor, and we’ve got a project office in the Solomon Islands. And of course, our headquarters is in New York. And in 2010 we will likely be opening an office in Africa.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: What kind of work do you do in these countries? You saw problems when you were in Timor, and you weren’t the only one, so how do you fix these problems?

Scott Gilmore: If you take a lot of the type of work we do, it seems very diverse on the surface. Everything from trying to improve procurement systems, to economic research, to creating wikis for the United Nations. What the common strand is, is that we find and test and implement new ideas for making peace and humanitarian operations work better. So we only do projects that are new projects, in the sense that they’re new ideas.

To give an example, we will never go out and do a microfinance project or build wells in Africa; however, if somebody comes to us and they say, “We have a new idea for building a better well,” or “We think that there’s a better way to manage and target microfinance projects”, then we’ll do that. So we only test new ideas, which is why some people refer to us as a do-tank.

We’ll only do projects that focus on the nuts and bolts; the management, the operations of aid and peacekeeping. We feel this is really the neglected sweet-spot for trying to improve the impact of places like Afghanistan and Haiti. So what do we do? In Afghanistan, we found that the vast majority of the aid money wasn’t actually entering the local economy. Stuff was being bought overseas and flown in, and that was billions and billions of dollars of missed opportunity.

So we put a team of people on the ground whose job it is, is to make it as easy as possible for the laziest procurement officer to buy local, to find an Afghan entrepreneur to provide him with the wheat or water or tires as opposed to finding it in Dubai or Italy. And so far it’s redirected over $370 million of new spending in the Afghan economy. It’s created thousands of jobs, and because of its success, the U.S. government, the British government, NATO and the UN have all changed their procurement policies globally, recognizing one of the fastest and healthiest ways for them to help local economies is to buy local.

In New York, we have a team of people that have been working on this problem that the UN has done 50 peacekeeping missions and they’ve actually never figured out how to do it, they’ve never mapped it out, they’ve never put together a procedural manual on how to launch a peacekeeping mission. So we did that for them. We sat and put our people in their offices in New York and we figured out, okay, what’s a peacekeeping mission supposed to look like? What are you supposed to do in the first ten days? When do you set up your fuel depot? When do you fly in your secretaries? What type of forms are your secretaries supposed to use? And it’s now a pocket-sized baby blue manual called the Mission Start-up Field Guide, which is what every UN manager uses around the world.

So we do very diverse things, but they’re all focused on the nuts and bolts and they’re all new ideas.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Now, it seems like your friends in the West probably love what you do because essentially you make their lives easier, I mean you create a pocket-sized handbook about how to start a peacekeeping mission, but I’m wondering, as helpful as you are to those people on that side, do you find that you are still a foreign voice, you’re still foreign people in foreign lands. What about the local people in Afghanistan and East Timor? How do they react to your presence?

Scott Gilmore: Frankly, they’re more positive, and supportive, and helpful than internationals are. The nationals recognize, whether they’re Afghans or Timorese or Solomon Islanders, that there’s an incredible amount of money being spent on these missions and there’s a lot of foreigners that are being flown in, but that the change on the ground is not as dramatic as everyone expected. You know, they’re not seeing the jobs being created, they’re not seeing roads being improved. And one of the reasons they like PDT and why the local governments and local people are so supportive of PDT is that they recognize that we’re actively trying to change this, that we’re trying to drive money into the local economy, and we’re doing it.

One of the frustrations that I found as a diplomat and now as somebody who’s in the aid industry, is that you pull a random project proposal or project description, from something that’s funded by an international agency in a place like Afghanistan or Somalia and read it, and it will says things like, “This project will seek to support the creation of conditions that will facilitate empowerment of locals to improve this, this, this and this.” But it doesn’t actually do anything. It doesn’t actually say anything. It talks about setting in place processes and holding workshops and this and that, whereas what we’re doing is very simple, we’re pushing money into the economy, we’re making sure Afghan businessmen will get more money and create jobs, and so it’s very tangible, and so they see it.

Compare that to the internationals, they’re not always as supportive because our mere presence implicitly criticizes the aid industry. We’re basically saying that things aren’t working, things are incredibly inefficient. There are so many problems in the way that the international community does its job, whether it’s in Rwanda or Afghanistan, that we’re only having a fraction of the impact we should be having.

When we go to the UN and say, “Listen, we’re going to help you create a Mission Start-up Field Guide,” what we’re also saying implicitly is, “Oh my God, it’s been 50 years of peacekeeping and you still haven’t created a Mission Start-up Field Guide”. So while we’re not that overtly critical, we’re implicitly critical and we don’t get this sort of open-arm support form the internationals anyways.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Is anyone else doing what you’re doing?

Scott Gilmore: No.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: And why is that?

Scott Gilmore: Well, because it’s not sexy. It’s not sexy, for example, with the donors. The donors, frankly, are much more likely to look at supporting a conference on gender empowerment in Afghanistan, or a workshop that supports capacity building for empowering Afghan government officials because that checks off all the boxes. They’re less likely to get behind something that does something as dull as fixing a logistic system or a communication system, or fixing the way that the UN hires, or the way that the donors plan because it’s just not sexy.

So we don’t have any competitors, but that’s changing because we’ve been remarkably successful. In five years, the impact that we’ve had on peacekeeping, the impact that we’ve had on the way aid is spent has been pretty significant, and now in these difficult economic times a lot of agencies, a lot of Canadian NGOs in particular, are really suffering because money is being cut back, whereas with us we’ve doubled every year. We’ve gotten twice as much donor money every year than the year before and so people begin to realize, “wait a second, these guys are attracting attention and they’re doing good work”, and so we’re now seeing some agencies trying to replicate what we’re doing.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: The reason I ask is because there’s no shortage of people who are critical of development in a broad sense, you know, this idea that Western countries are imposing their solutions to other countries’ problems with just a broad stroke, but you don’t do that.

Scott Gilmore: You know, I find in Canada and in New York, every week there is a conference, or seminar, or brown bag lunch being hosted by agencies, you know the usual suspects of Montreal or Ottawa, to talk about these issues. The neo-imperialism of aid trying to impose these evil World Bank policies on these poor unsuspecting aid recipients.

I frankly have no time for them because the vast majority of the people that are attending these conferences are academics who have had no experience on the ground. They’re espousing positions on behalf of Kenyans or Afghans or others without having actually spent too much time in those places, and they’re using theoretical arguments and ridiculous jargon to make these positions. And when you go in the ground you have to dig pretty hard, for example in Kabul, to find an Afghan who says the international community should pull out here, who says it’s worse now than it was before, you have to dig pretty hard. But you can find one or two of them, and the one and two you can find, get flown to Canada, they get put on the talk shows and they get moved around to universities and they stand up at these conferences and, quite frankly, it’s ridiculous.

I can tell you that the Afghans that I know roll their eyes at these arguments because what they’re more concerned about right now is the fact that their girls can now go to school. Or that fact that the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan has dropped, from 2001 to now, so significantly that every year 30,000 babies survive to their first year who wouldn’t have otherwise under the Taliban. That’s more than all the children in Ottawa under the age of five. So it’s very easy for an academic to stand up and say, “Oh, it’s worse now, we’re trying to impose these Western ideals on a culture that doesn’t want them,” but it’s pretty hard to do that when there’s 30,000 kids looking at you.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: I’m wondering about then, what works and what should be avoided because, no matter the social change that has been sparked by the regime change in Afghanistan, there’s still a pretty brutal war going on, and there’s a lot of combat and Canadians know all about it. What about that strategy?

Scott Gilmore: Well listen, Afghanistan’s a mess, there’s no denying it. And the war, I hesitate to comment too explicitly on what Canada’s doing in Afghanistan right now and what’s working and what’s not, but it is a horrible, horrible mess. And in many ways and many places or parts of Afghanistan, things are worse now than they were ten years ago, there’s no denying it.

But here’s the moral dilemma that I face as a Canadian voter, as somebody whose spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, as somebody whose has worked in Afghanistan; it’s that it’s going to be very, very difficult for them to be happy ending in Afghanistan, but if we were to pull out now, whether it’s pull out Canada’s military, or reduce our aid or withdraw our efforts to just urban centres, it will reduce the moral angst that we have to deal with here in Canada, it will make it easier for Canada politicians, but people will be suffering on the ground.

If one were to do the thought experiment to say, ok let’s say, you can’t pass a Canadian campus without seeing all the posters about “Stop Bush’s war, pull out now”, so let’s imagine, let’s just do that thought experiment, let’s pull out. Let’s pull out all the troops, pull out all of the Canadian forces, what’s going to happen?

Well, let’s say we try to keep our aid there. We’ll only be able to keep our aid there for a handful of months. People forget that before September 11th, the Taliban had kicked out every Western aid agency, and in fact in the days before September 11th, they’d even kicked out the last few Doctors Without Borders that were there. So that would happen again because we would also have to accept that the Taliban will be able to push out the fledging Afghan military and Afghan government.

So the aid’s gone now, the military’s gone, what’s going to happen to the Afghan people? Well, there won’t be any clusterbombs, that’s for sure. There won’t be any collateral damage anymore, but you will go back to the beheadings in the markets and in the stadiums, you will go back to things like the typical way (pre-2001) for Afghan prisoners to be executed, which was to put them into a shipping container and do one of two things; leave it in the sun until the people inside it literally cooked to death, or if you were merciful you threw in a couple grenades.

I will never forget in 2002 when I first entered Kabul, there was all of these shipping containers lined along the side of the road that had been blown up from the inside and I couldn’t figure out how they were damaged this way, and that’s what it was from. The Taliban, or the other warlords would push their enemies into these shipping containers, throw in a grenade, and that was the end of it.

So when you do a thought experiment about us pulling out of Afghanistan and just accepting defeat now, it’s a pretty miserable place that you end up with. None of the girls would be going to school, the infant mortality rate would go back up, the women would be pushed out of civil service, and so this is the dilemma I struggle with. Where things are going well, but the international community is not doing a very good job, frankly, but if we throw in the towel the alternative is pretty nasty.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: So does that mean sticking with Afghanistan until it’s helicopters on the roof of the US embassy?

Scott Gilmore: Yeah, see that’s the struggle. You know, if your neighbour’s house is on fire and there’s kids on the upper floor who are screaming for help, how long do you try saving them even when you know that the house is going to burn down? And I don’t know the answer to that. It’s a decision I’m glad I don’t have to make. But it’s a debate that’s not being had in Canada, unfortunately, because both sides are being disingenuous.

On the side of those who are for keeping us in Afghanistan, one of the things that’s frustrating me is they’ve continually changed the reasons why as we get worse and worse at it. Originally we were in Afghanistan to get rid of Al Qaeda, and then we went into Afghanistan to cut poppies and opium, and then it was for women, and then it was for economic development, and then it was for AfPak. And as each reason becomes less and less likely to succeed, they change the reasons, so they skew the debate.

The other side, those that want us to pull out, they skew the debate as well because they talk about well, you know, we could be doing so much more in Sudan, that’s a usual, you know, the Canadian military should pull out of there and we should go back to being peacekeepers in Sudan. Well there are two problems with that. Canada has almost never been a peacekeeping nation. No one’s asking for Canadian peacekeepers anywhere, and surely they’re not asking for them in Sudan. The Sudanese government would never allow Canadian peacekeepers in Sudan. And the situation with Sudan is just as messy and just as complicated, but we don’t know about it because there are very few people reporting on south Sudan and Darfur.

It’s a very poor debate that we’re having in Canada and it’s a very, very difficult moral dilemma, and I’m glad I’ve got a day job that doesn’t force me to resolve either one of them.

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