Be Awesome

Look, our forefathers died for the "pursuit of happiness," okay? Not for the "sit around and wait of happiness." Now if you want, we can go to the same bar, drink the same beer, talk to the same people every day or you can lick the Liberty Bell. You can grab life by the crack and lick the crap out of it.
--Barney (HIMYM)

Sunday, March 31, 2013


Aceh, believed to be the area of the spread of Islam in Indonesia, it was also home to the Free Aceh Movement striving for independence.  More recently, it became a location of great international interest following the earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in which an estimated 170,000 people perished. 

Following the tsunami of 2004, Aceh received much assistance from the international community, including from USAID.  The largest investment from USAID was the reconstruction of the Aceh road which links the city with many of their natural resource production areas.  Other investments include the Aceh Polytechnic college which was funded jointly by private-public sector partnership with corporations and USAID.  Today, much of the development assistance has ended with efforts going to other areas.

Islam is very widely practiced in Aceh and the province is occasionally heard in the news as the one province in Indonesia which incorporates Sharia law in legal administration.  The area is sometimes mentioned every so often also for discriminatory or extremist laws or regulations being brought up by local administrations.  However, from just my short time there, life appeared similar to any other smaller town in Indonesia.

I had the opportunity to take my first field trip since joining USAID for a short 3 day trip to Banda Aceh as we accompanied an implementing partner in conducting a survey on banking inclusion and credit access for often under served populations in Indonesia.  For this stage of the survey, we went to banks and credit unions (cooperatives) in the area to interview about their lending practices and the clients whom they serve. 

Banda Aceh's Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport
The interviews were an interesting and daunting exercise of my Indonesian language abilities.  Thankfully, I was with some good Indonesian colleagues that helped with debriefings going over the day's interviews to make sure I was able to capture everything that was discussed.  I also had the chance to discuss project implementation with the implementing partner as a sub-grantee to better understand and learn about the challenges in implementation and develop some ideas and things to consider for the future.

Following this trip, I believe I do need to definitely try to make time to get out to the field more often.  I learned much about this particularly part of the project and developed a lot of understanding on the survey's topic which can greatly help in deciding direction for where this project or future projects should target and consider.  I also learned a lot about how current development projects are implemented and have several ideas on different ways things could be done and some of the problems for how things are implemented today.  And finally, it was nice to be able to see for the first time the results of what our development projects are funding beyond the paperwork.

Below, some pictures of the places we were able to visit and sites we were able to see during the evenings.
This ship was originally used for power generation before the tsunami. The ship was dislocated 3 miles (5 km) from the ocean where it now sits.

This is a displaced fishing boat the landed on a house during the tsunami.

This is the largest mosque in Banda Aceh.
The US-Indonesia Aceh road.
Aceh Polytechnic
Aceh Polytechnic was jointly funded.  Large amounts came from Chevron and USAID.

Trying some famous Aceh coffee.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Catching Up: Work and 2-year Anniversary

Things have been busy these days. Work continues, writing and completing my second annual review (2 years now with USAID!), seeing more and more of Indonesia and Jakarta, and more. 

Working in my office, I've been learning and gaining different experiences that will serve as lessons learned and fundamentals for decisions and judgement calls to be made in the future.  This section of the post will be a bit of a stream of conscious on my impressions with work so far.  Working in the Office of Acquisition and Assistance  has been a very interesting experience and I'm really enjoying it.  There are advantages and disadvantages, of course, when comparing to other different assignments one could have, but I think the former greatly outweigh the latter.

Some particular examples of things I've enjoyed so far:

  • Contracting Officers see almost all of the Mission's portfolio of the projects that are being implemented providing a good understanding and knowledge of how everything fits together and what is being accomplished.
  • Great involvement in key decisions about how development projects are implemented.  Take any sort of development challenge in any area (health, democracy/human rights, environment, education, etc) and work in a team to determine a method, partner with whom, role of USAID, how to make sustainable, etc.
  • Continued involvement throughout the life of the project in its implementation and progress towards results.
  • Building a knowledge base and experiences that will be applicable to any project or assignment in the future.  What I mean by this is that many experience/situations and knowledge learned in this position will be applicable in future assignments.  There are an infinite number of "what-if situations" that routinely emerge and these sort of serve as case studies for decision making and problem analysis for others.
Some disadvantages:
  • With large portfolios and seeing so many projects, can never have the depth of involvement and understanding that technical officers will have for a particular project.  Technical Officers will focus much of their attention on just a few projects and naturally be much more involved and know a lot more about that particular subject matter.
  • Less travel and event attendance.  I wasn't sure whether to categorize this as an advantage or disadvantage because it largely depends on life circumstance and preference.  But Technical Officers spend much more time in the field doing site visits, kick-off events, or accompanying visitors when they want to see projects.  This means much more time spent traveling rather being in the office thus allowing one to see much more of the country on the government's dime, but a lot less time being home.  If you're single, this is most likely a great situation but otherwise, perhaps not as desirable. 
  • Less involvement in the strategy of development programming.  In terms of  specifics of a technical area, Contracting Officers may have less to bring forward as we aren't as knowledgeable to the extent on specific areas.  Rather, we involved more in the "how" rather than the "what" in development and international cooperation.
Looking forward to work to come.  Need another 6 months at the Mission before I can become a "real" Contracting Officer which occurs upon being granted a warrant.   What this essentially means is that I will then be able to award contracts or grants on behalf of the US government at that point versus preparing the documentation and the pre-award work for a warranted officer to sign (though going through this process of preparing everything are essential responsibilities and key skills to have!).

In other news, last week noted my second year anniversary since joining USAID and the Foreign Service.  With this anniversary came my second promotion to class 4.  This now means I enter the regular cycle for annual reviews for the future and will compete among other officers at class 4 competitively for future promotions rather than being evaluated for satisfactory performance to class.

Lastly, was able to take my first field visit to Banda Aceh.  More to come on this!
A boat displayed on a house from the 2004 Tsunami in Banda Aceh
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