A short while ago I was given the task of organizing a couple of workshops for some important national and international participants. The topic was an interesting and important one, and these were the second and third workshops in a series of events sponsored by a couple of large international bodies. At some point during the past almost-2-years I had been working with the institute, event-planning had become part of my very flexible job description, along with graphic designing, architecture and planning, language checking, gardener supervising, guest meeting, and a range of other tasks not exactly particular to my public health training and career. Anyway, planning this particular event meant that I was in-charge of (and implemented) basically everything all by myself. I prepared and amended the expected budget about 5 times, prepared the workshop material (because the girl who’s job this was had her cousin’s sad-al-almal and couldn’t do it), designed all the stationary including folders, notepads, posters and invitation cards (including getting them printed which involved hundreds of phone calls and trips to and from the printing house and loitering around Alsoug Al3arabi until after Maghrib), I wrote, edited, designed and published the accompanying newsletter, I booked and managed all finance arrangements for the venue (after driving around and getting quotations from hotels and halls all over the city), I ran the floor on the 3 days of the events including presentations, instructions, group division, passing the microphone around, taking down minutes, guiding people to and from coffee and lunch breaks, taking pictures, and trouble shooting. I managed at the last minute to get some help from a few girls who were kind enough to photocopy agendas and presentations and help put them in the folders, and who assisted with registration on 2 out of the 3 days of the workshop. Another guy from the ministry also helped with the microphone passing around, and also had the important role of bullying the ministry accountant into coughing up the hotel’s cheque that was 2 days late when they threatened to close us down halfway through the workshop because they hadn’t received their payments. This whole planning and implementation process involved uncounted hours of stress, crying, begging, threatening and general drama from my side and was an important factor in convincing me to take the decision of quitting my job.
Anyway, none of this is the point of this post. The point is that the theme of this particular workshop was to create a dialogue between different ministries on health related matters, so as to create a unified agenda and statement about health that everyone has taken part in. The idea is quite advanced, no doubt about it, and each workshop brought together the ministry of health with another ministry to discuss related issues and reach common ground. The first 2 days was with a certain ministry which I will leave unnamed, and discussed some of the most important topics that both facilitate and impede healthcare in Sudan, including the mass migration of doctors and issues of intellectual property. We were excited to have members of this ministry involved because just mere discussion with them brought to the surface important points of view and helped show both sides of the argument, not to mention reaching important agreements that would make everyone’s lives easier.
The workshop started off late because the opening ceremony which included speeches from the ministers and representatives of the organizations was missing one speaker: the minister or undersecretary of the unnamed ministry, who was stuck in traffic. He showed up eventually, gave a 45-second speech which turns out had been prepared by my own boss, because apparently the unnamed ministry’s minister/undersecretary and his employees did not prepare speeches, and left before coffee break. The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, until my own boss along with the undersecretary for health approached me and ask if there was a per diem included in the budget for participants. A per diem is a term that was previously unknown to me until I was introduced to the Sudanese civil service. Apparently, aside from their salaries, people who participate in workshops, course, conferences, committees and other activities receive payment for their participation. I remember when I had first started working I heard about a workshop in disaster management that I was interested in, but was worried that I wouldn’t have the money to apply for it. When I asked how much it cost, people looked at me and laughed. Someone then explained to me that you don’t pay for training in the ministry; you get paid for it. Somewhere along the line the civil service developed the culture of having to bribe employees to do their jobs, to get continuous professional development, and to attempt to expand their horizons. And since employees’ salaries aren’t enough to put food on the table for more than a week, let alone pay for healthcare expenses, children’s clothes, tuition fees, electricity and water bills and other basic necessities, these payments turned into a necessity and are even seen as a basic right that comes with their serving the government. With that understanding, they will not donate their precious time and effort to participate in any activity which does not have such payment attached. And sure enough, halfway through the 1st day of the workshop they aforementioned unnamed ministry representatives asked outright to show them the money or show them the door.Aji yakhwani?!
I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry or just pack up and go home. Having no way of doing either one, I simply stated that no, per diem was not included in the budget since we were already paying more than 250SDG per head for the hall and lunch in one of the fanciest hotels in the Khartoum, among other things. So after discussion and negotiation between themselves, the undersecretary decided to pay the per diems from his own stock of money back at the office, otherwise the entire workshop would collapse. And sure enough, names were taken down, including mine and those working with me, since you can’t pay the guests and not pay the workers. And sure enough, the following week I was seen settling all pending financial and administrative issues (alone) including hauling around almost 20,000 SDG in ‘incentives’ to those listed. And those listed included the undersecretary for the unnamed ministry who was late on the first day and who delivered a 45-second speech that was written for him by the ministry of health, who didn’t even wait for the coffee break, and received 2,000 SDG alone.
And that is one of the many reasons why civil service in this country is nonsense.