30 March, 2011

Corruption from the top down

The reasons for the revolutions that have taken place in recent weeks have been given as either financial or political corruption, food security or, at least in the case of Bahrain, religious reasons.
There are several definitions of corruption in the dictionaries; all varying in terms of the type of corruption yet in all cases there is a dishonest or damaging act. Whatever the form of corruption there will be consequences and when I was in Libya in the mid 1970s I witnessed a ‘minor case of corruption’ and its consequence.
I found myself in Libya in 1975 as the first staff member appointed to the country’s first veterinary school in Tripoli. I had completed a year’s post-doctorate research at Liverpool University after obtaining my Ph.D. and then found myself as a Faili Kurd with nowhere else to go and Tripoli University offered a job opportunity. The veterinary school at that time was an old Italian villa set in citrus orchards on the fringes of the university campus. The Libyan Dean of the new faculty was a Ph.D. holder but a non-veterinarian and initially we each had a room in the villa with two other rooms for administration staff. There were no students at the time and we had to make preparations for the first student intake in two years time. This involved drawing up lists of the equipment that would be required for the provision of preclinical studies and biochemistry, physiology, histology and anatomy laboratories. In addition plans for a prefabricated faculty building had to be developed and there was much to do. After sometime I was joined by an English veterinarian and we both had much to do before we finally gave the Dean our completed lists of equipment. The dean passed on the purchase requests to the university’s purchase department and I put all thought of the lists out of mind as I got on with other preparations for the teaching of students.
One day my colleague and I were startled to hear the sound of breaking branches outside the window of our office and even more surprised to see a huge trailer truck endeavouring to drive into the small courtyard of the villa. As we went outside the customary ‘teaboys’ were all vying to open up the container while I worried as to where we could store the new equipment we had ordered and which the container must be carrying.
Eventually the container was opened and the eager teaboys disappeared inside to emerge with a huge, concrete garden bench! It took 6 men to carry the bench, one of several, and obviously not suitable for laboratory benching. The benches were followed by several exercise bikes and many other things including brightly coloured kitchen storage jars marked ’sugar, tea, coffee, rice etc.’. As more household furnishings emerged my colleague and I just looked at one and other, what had happened to our lists of equipment, but of course we knew, the Dean had changed our equipment orders to obtain furnishings for his home.
 One of the porters came up to me carrying a box in which was a large crystal punch bowl and glasses and asked, ‘Doctor, is this for a laboratory?’ ‘Yes.’ I replied, ’that is test tubes.’
My colleague and I could no longer stand and watch this farce and we went back into our office as more porters arrived with vehicles and the ‘laboratory equipment’ was taken to the Dean’s house.
I was always first in work and last to leave and as I left the villa later that evening I spotted one of the porters putting something into the back of a Peugeot 404 estate, a very popular car in Libya. As I walked past I could see he had a bucket, brush and cleaning towels from the store and as I looked at him he knew was in the wrong. Before I could say anything to him he said, ’Well, you saw the contents of that container this morning.’ He had helped take everything to the Dean’s house.
That was 37 years ago but I remember it as if it was yesterday and the look of defiance on the porter’s face. If those at the top set a bad example those below will follow and I have seen this happen everywhere, even in the UN.

19 March, 2011

The Sultan’s donkey

The Sultan’s donkey
These days the newspapers or television stations feature  articles that I find I am more and more irritated by. These articles are when a Minister  is reported as giving information on a situation and then stating how there will be a drastic, positive improvement in the situation within few months or years. I guess that my reaction comes from my experiences with the UN in Africa and and throughout the Middle East where all too often Ministers promised similar achievements within a certain time and the promise was never fulfilled.
There is a widely used proverb in Europe which is that ‘empty barrels make the most noise. The Scots lay claim to it as do the Swedes and Danes but wherever it originated it is a very true saying that springs to mind in such a situation. These statements are repeatedly made when there is no evidence to give credence to the claim and one wonders if the person making the announcement is just saying what he hopes will happen or that he knows that no one will question a person in his position.   Many, many years ago a relative told me of an old story that can be applied in these cases. The old tale goes as follows:
‘A long time ago there was a sultan who had a donkey that he was very fond of. One day the Sultan announced that he would give a fortune in gold to anyone who could teach his donkey to read and write. If the teacher failed in his task he would lose his head but, if indeed the donkey was taught to read and write, the teacher would become rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Sure enough several people were tempted by the prize and tried to teach the donkey but all failed and were duly beheaded. Then one day another adventurer came to the sultan and told him that he could teach the donkey to read and write. The sultan asked the man if he was sure he could succeed where others had failed and paid the price. “Oh yes,“ said the adventurer, “ I will be able to teach him to read and write. However he is not very clever so it will take me at least 7 years.” So pleased that his donkey would be able to read and write the sultan gave the man 7 years to train it. As the adventurer led the donkey away from the court his friends  came up to him saying “Are you mad? Do you want to die? That animal can never learn to read or write!”
“I know,” said the adventurer, “but 7 years from now things will have changed. Either the donkey will be dead, the sultan could be dead or I will have died! So why worry!”
So perhaps all those who publicly promise such beneficial changes given time have read the story of the sultan’s donkey.

Tripoli 1975

Tripoli 1975
This is a real story I came across it when I was in Libya. For the one who does not know what I was doing in Libya. I went to Libya to help a  none Veterinarian dean to establish the first Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Libya initially I went for six month but I stayed from 1975-1984. I left the country when one of my students becomes the Dean of the Faculty.
 Let go back to my story in first few years in that unfortunate country the only entertainment available for the expatriate was to go to the El-Shaati hotel in Georgin Populi district or the American Quarter. The entertainments menu was Coffee, Tea, Colour Television for President Gathaffi speeches and watching the resident and visitors of the Hotel. I forgot to mention that El Shaati was the favorite place for the Iraqi opposition visiting Libya to receive generous gift from brother Gathaffi. As regular visitor to El-Shaati  to practice my favourat hobby which was to watch people. I noticed a very old man sitting always in the same spot, always alone and there was a folded small praying carpet on the table in front of him, he to disappear for prayer and then come back to sit in the same place with same posture and place his little carper in the same position precisely. I myself was lonely in that country which I ended to be in it because of my circumstances you might say that I was a victim of circumstances and a dictatorship in Iraq.   Some who I noticed that the old man was also a twitchier like me and he was taking notice from the people around him including me. I stated to nod him when I used to pass his place I think he was very happy because at last somebody acknowledge his existence. The nods became Salamu  Alekum he response to my nods and greeting was over whelming and he used to go of his way to greet me. This led me to sit with him for few moments I understood from him that he was a famous Islamic Scholar in some part of South East Asia.
The second time I sat with him I could not control my curiosity at last I did asked him the question which I kept for myself for weeks, the Question was that what he is doing in Libya. He told me that he had students and followers in his country and he is very knowledgeable in some Islamic Feqh ( Islamic Law). One day somebody from the Libyan Embassy visited him and told him that Brother Kaddafi would like to see him as soon as possible and he gave him a first Class ticket to go Tripoli. At last fame in his door step and a president want to listen to his views. He arrived to Tripoli and was received very well and Taken to El Shaati Hotel  which was the best hotel in Libya. They even took his passport to  sort out his short stay with immigration office and promised him the they will be back tomorrow morning to take him to meet the brother, That was six months ago  and since then he sit in the same chair waiting to be taken to see the brother.
Now after 35 years from that saga I started to understand what he was going through.