Biking through Bureaucracy


Today I added to my ever-growing list of job descriptions.  I came here in a role that gave me the flexibility to be useful wherever I could be – as a technical consultant of sorts to a local NGO.  Little did I know what that flexibility would entail!  Within the last two months I’ve jumped from solar power system design to program management, written requirements documents and acted as IT support.  I’m proud to say that after today, I can officially add bicycle courier to the list.

Many of my trials and tribulations thus far have focused on cutting through the unfathomable layers of bureaucracy.  Despite my efforts to find ways around it, I have yet to find a way to easily and efficiently ‘procure’ anything.  In preparation for our pilot program beginning in August, we needed to order computers.  We ordered them in mid-May to make sure we had them on time.  I met with the sales manager for a local cell phone wholesale distributor, who seemed ready to give me 40 cell phones on the spot if we were able to pay for them.  6 weeks later, we are the proud owners of 40 Nokia 2700 Classics.  A number of the clinics we are installing our data entry system in require solar power.  The search for solar power began about 5 months ago.  Only after biking around the city today, delivering paper from here to there, dotting all the “I”s and crossing all the “T”s do I think we have a shot of having solar power available before the end of August.

After a number of failed attempts to issue a proposal and receive vendor bids from start to finish, we opted to purchase, install and maintain the equipment ourselves.  In order to do this, we decided to send a few employees to a solar training school.  We formulated this plan with the school 3 weeks ago, rushing to register for the classes starting July 26th.  Only today, did we finally get written permission to take the training, a full day before the registration cutoff (luckily, there was still space left in the class).  That written permission came in the form of an ‘Order.’  Now, this order is in no way or form a payment.  It is a letter stating the official intention of our NGO to purchase said services.  On issuance of this letter, payment will be made once an invoice is received and processed, but the intention is clear that any products or services should become readily available upon its issuance.  In other words, I promise to pay you at some point in the future, but give me what I want now.  Many times, once we present these letters, the vendors simply say, ‘Sorry, we aren’t going to give you anything until you pay us.’  Back to square one. 

Today I had the joy of running from one of our offices to another, excited to pick up the order that was finally ready.  We have cars and drivers, but I’ve learned that fighting through the bureaucracy to get a car and driver, even if the destination is only 5 minutes away, can be equally as challenging as buying anything.  Hence, the bike. 

Frankly, my wheels are hot.  I’ve got a big cushy seat on a sturdy frame.  The jet-black beast comes fully weather proof with sleek splash-guards on both the front and rear tires.  The single-speed bike cruises along with an easy ‘reverse pedal’ maneuver to break – ala my bike in 3rd grade.  The sturdy kick stand and rack over the rear wheel are essential.  It has nice, wide, curving handle bars, complete with a bell; which is used often and with determination as I cruise along, weaving between pedestrians and roots protruding from the dirt sidewalks (the main roads are way too scary…).  I get plenty of stairs as I ride by – and usually a few laughs.  I think it’s the helmet ‘procured’ locally at a cheap sporting goods store that finishes the look – surely the only helmet in Zambia.

This morning I picked up the Order from the Facilities Officer.  I had to bring it to the Procurement Officer – luckily in the same building – to get the rest of the paperwork.  The Procurement Officer was in a meeting.  I was able to get someone from procurement to find copies of the necessary forms – a phone call to locate the originals hinted that it wasn’t worth the trouble to get them and that I should be glad to have what I did.  I sped over to the vendor on my bike, surely the fastest method to get there for above stated reasons without hailing a taxi.  The vendor kindly accepted our order and issued an invoice.  Smiling, I hopped on my bike, secured my bulbous helmet to my head, and sped back to the Procurement Officer, happily handing him the invoice.  Surely he was stunned by a turn-around time within the hour.  Now, the invoice goes to Accounting / Finance, even though the amount due was written on the Order.  Of course it wouldn’t make any sense to send a check with the order – that would be too easy.  It takes a week or two to write a check after an invoice is received.  That check then needs to be run over to the vendor.  Once things are paid for, then you hope that what you want to buy is actually in stock.  Usually it isn’t.  You can start over again with another vendor, if there is one that sells what you are looking for, or you can return again in a month’s time, if the check is still valid, that is…

And so the cycle goes.



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